Harlem Summer by Walter Dean Myers 2007
IQ "Mark, you are a young black man. Sometimes, living here in Harlem, we walk on the sunny side of the street and sometimes we walk on the shady side. I know that because I've been black a whole lot longer than you. Anything you've seen-I've lived. But I also know that you got to be careful on both sides of the street." Daddy pg. 130
It's summer in Harlem in the year 1925. It's hot and exciting. Mark Purvis is sixteen and looking forward to his summer, as long as he doesn't have to work at his uncle's funeral parlor. Mark ends up getting a job working for The Crisis where he meets the "New Negro". He could care less about being a "New Negro", he doesn't even know what that means. He does know that he wants to play his saxophone with Fats Waller. Before Fats hears him play, he offers Mark a chance to earn some quick cash. Except it goes horribly wrong and now gangsters are after Mark and his friends. They want their money or they want Mark and co. dead. It's sure to be an amazing summer.
By now I think most of you know that the Harlem Renaissance is my favorite time period in American history so I was really excited to read this novel. I didn't really have any expectations of the story, I just wanted to get a better idea of what Harlem was like during the 1920s and on that front this book did not disappoint. I could feel the heat rising off the sidewalk and imagine all the nightclubs and aspiring musicians lining up to perform in the clubs. One of the most fascinating things about this book (for me anyway) was the characterization of DuBois. Many of you may know that there was a huge rift between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. Basically Washington wanted Black Americans to focus on being teachers, farmers, etc. He didn't really have a problem with segregation either. DuBois wanted Black Americans to enter politics, business and higher fields of education. He abhorred segregation. Both Washington and DuBois believed in education, they just wanted to sue the power of education differently. Anyway, I'm firmly on DuBois' side but this book portrays him in a mostly unflattering light. Everyone was terrified of him and he's seen as demanding and cold. I thought it was very interesting but I still love him for his ideas and starting The Crisis (one of the main Black newspapers of the time).
The story is funny, Mark tends to exaggerate and he doesn't always realize how grave a situation he's in. I did find it annoying how his luck always seemed to be good. Everything worked out for him, but the book could have been really sad if that wasn't the case. However I didn't mind it too much since I'm not in the mood for sad reads right now. Each chapter has a engaging title that makes you want to keep reading to figure out what it means. My personal favorite was "I Am Taken To Jail Like A Common Thug, Given The Third Degree, But Am Saved By My Reputation As An International Gangster, Bad Man, And The New Breed of Criminal." (pg. 134) The characters aren't as well developed as I would have liked. It very much seems to be written for young readers as an introduction to Harlem during the '20s, Mark meets some of the most famous people of the time. He also visits famous places, reads famous newspaper, etc. I just wish we learned more about the characters, instead they are simply commented upon as they pass by.
Harlem Summer is a lively story about a little known period of American history, the Harlem Renaissance. The fact that it reads like an introduction to the Harlem Renaissance both helps and hurts it. Older readers may roll their eyes at Mark's convenient connections to everyone famous in Harlem, but it's a great way to whet readers appetite for more. I wish the novel was longer so I could have learned more about Queenie (a Black female gangsta), Countee Cullen, Dubois, etc. I also wanted to know more about mark's family, his father is hilarious but his brother Matt remains a shadowy figure. I did like that Mark's mother and father both played a prominent (often amusing) role in his life. Prepare to visit Harlem and meet a character who has the best luck and gets in the wackiest scrapes.
Disclosure: My family bought it with their own money.
*I will be out of town until Saturday July 17. I will have limited computer access so I can reply to your emails and comments. All my posts are scheduled. Have a great week :)