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Authors: Caryl Phillips

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Dancing in the Dark

Dancing in the Dark
 

CARYL PHILLIPS

 

SECKER & WARBURG
LONDON

Contents
 

Cover

Title

Copyright

Dedication

Also By Caryl Phillips

Acknowledgments

Prologue

Act One (1873–1903)

Act Two (1903–1911)

Act Three (1911–1922)

Epilogue

This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

Version 1.0

Epub ISBN 9781409002437

www.randomhouse.co.uk

Published by Secker & Warburg 2005

2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1

Copyright © Caryl Phillips 2005

Caryl Phillips has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

First published in Great Britain in 2005 by Secker & Warburg Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V
2SA

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www.randomhouse.co.uk

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ISBN 0436205831

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Printed and bound in Great Britain by Mackays of Chatham plc, Chatham, Kent

Nobody in America knows my real name and,
if I can prevent it, nobody ever will.

 


BERT WILLIAMS

ALSO BY CARYL PHILLIPS

 

The Final Passage
A State of Independence
The European Tribe
Higher Ground
Cambridge
Crossing the River
The Nature of Blood
The Atlantic Sound
A New World Order
A Distant Shore

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
 

I wish to acknowledge the help of the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, which awarded me a Mel and Louis Tukman Fellowship. This enabled me to complete my research for this novel. I have also been dependent upon outstanding work by numerous scholars, in many fields, which has fed my imaginative reconstruction of both individuals and place. However, my biggest debt of gratitude is to Vanessa Garcia, whose helpful suggestions, and thorough research, I grew to value and depend upon.

Prologue
 

 

I
f you walk down Seventh Avenue today he is a man who never existed. On this broad Harlem avenue a torn curtain might stir in response to the tug of a hand. Dark hand, now waving. If you walk down this broad Harlem avenue today it will soon become clear that old-fashioned dignity and civic pride have long fled the scene, and this would have broken his stout heart. Back then he dressed well, he walked tall, and the bright glare from his shoes could pick a man’s eyes clean out of his knobby head. Women watched him pass by, his hardback carriage upright, and they whispered half sentences about him from behind perfumed hand-kerchiefs that they held close to their full lips. But they never eye-balled him, for this was a man who lived way beyond their hips, and it didn’t make no sense to look too interested in such a man. Men watched him too, with their collars turned high, pulling on ash-heavy cigarettes, their broad feet helplessly anchored to the earth, but this was a man who looked neither left nor right as he strode through the streets. Children followed him at a respectable
distance—down as far as the park—and then their young spirits were seized by the grass, and the trees, and the Harlem reservoir, but the neighborhood
man
continued on his way, stepping purposefully toward his daily rendezvous with midtown business. White man’s business. Today, if you walk down this broad Harlem avenue as far as the park, and then continue walking through the park to midtown, he is a man who never existed. He has gone. Back uptown, in his Harlem, a needle-borne pestilence has been visited upon the people. The handsome brownstones have now faded, the streets are unswept, the stores are boarded up, and clumps of weeds search out dull sunlight through broad cracks in the sidewalk. Old-fashioned dignity and civic pride have fled the scene, and this would have broken his stout heart.

In
his
time these wide uptown boulevards, with their agreeably appointed row houses, exuded the quiet civility of an emerging middle-class elegance. The occasional corner boasted a “clean” theater or a bar, but nothing that might alarm the local pastor or disturb the churchgoing population. In
his
time there were no moonlit migrations from downtown, there were no neon signs to bedazzle, no heavily perspiring tuxedoed Negro musicians, and no white men or white women dolled up in fine furs and bright jewels lingering after hours in the hope of an authentic thrill. In
his
time this was a respectable colored world peopled by those who had yet to learn how to grin and bend over for the white man. In this new colored world above the park, this tall, light-skinned man was king, and his subjects were happy to bask in his long ambling shadow.

Proud new twentieth-century world where the four El lines stretched their arms and came right uptown, stitching the great New World city to the suddenly Negro suburb. The Italian baker
and the German brewer and the Irish policeman had no inclination to travel to, or live in, such a far-flung place, and so some forty years after the end of the war that was fought to liberate blistered wrists and ankles, New York City Negroes were finally becoming American citizens with homes of their own. Peering through DuBois’s newly embroidered veil, they saw before them a new century and new possibilities above 110th Street, where a powerful Harlem harmattan was blowing fresh news from Africa. Tan maidens, with peachy bleached skin and recently straightened hair, stepped around tall muscular men fresh off the ships from the Caribbean, who in turn rubbed shoulders with excited southerners who had tilled enough soil for a dozen lifetimes and were overjoyed to have finally arrived in the north. And then, of course, there were the formerly enslaved New Yorkers who could trace their ties with the city back to the entrepreneurial, but mean-spirited, Dutch. Quick everybody, hurry uptown to the barbershops and restaurants and funeral homes that colored men now owned in New York City. Hurry home to Harlem. West Indian Bert Williams’s Harlem. And then, after Bert Williams left, everything changed and Harlem began to sell her smile, and her vitality, and her energy, and automobiles began to clubfoot their way uptown and sit right on down—sometimes they didn’t even have the good sense to turn off their engines—but by then Harlem was better known to the world as a neighborhood that one should visit only under the moon, a place where one might buy a front row seat and witness the clumsy metal hooves of Bojangles stomping poor Africa to death and replacing her with
Showtime
.

And so his world became a famous nighttime venue for people who wished to purchase a thrill and temporarily escape the cage in which they lived their ordered downtown lives. They would
climb into their vehicles and ask to be driven uptown in order that they might go back to the jungle and behold tall and terrific women shaking their hips and dancing with an abandon that was beyond the control of a rational mind. They wished to go back to a place that they imagined they had long ago fled on two legs with a silk scarf tossed casually around their necks. The dark past in their city, coons tight like spoons on brightly lit stages, and champagne flowing like the Hudson at full tide. These were bright new monied times in which society people were encouraged to enjoy the primitive theatrics of those who appeared to be finally understanding that their principal role was now to entertain. Listen. The wail of a trumpet as it screeches crazily toward heaven and then shudders and breaks and falls back to earth, where its lament is replaced by the anxious syncopated tap tap tapping of clumsily shod feet beating out their joyous black misery in a tattoo of sweating servitude. Performative bondage. Yes sir, boss, I will be what you want me to be, and when you climb into your automobile at five o’clock in the morning with Miss Ann on your arm, and a gentle buzzing in your veins, the lights will be turned off, and the shoes will be eased from my burning feet, and the spit shaken out of my instrument, and the tie loosened from my fat neck, and we men will appear where previously only shades lived, and we men will speak to one another in grave low tones, cutting fatigue with relief and anticipating short bouts of loving before the chain of streetlights blink out one after the other and the sun clears the horizon and sleep finally reaches down and smoothes our furrowed American brows, bringing us some kind of peace until the afternoon is new and strong and full again.

Act One
(1873–1903)
 

 

I
t is February 1903 and at present he is impersonating Shylock Homestead in the musical
In Dahomey
, but only after dark. He shambles about as though unsure what to do next, as if a wrong turning has placed him upon this stage and he may as well stay put until somebody offers him the opportunity to withdraw. Every evening Mr. Williams wanders aimlessly, but despite his size there is some elegance to his movement. When the audience raises its collective voice and asks him to reprise a song, Mr. Williams acts as though he is first shocked and then somewhat embarrassed that they should be stirring him out of his befuddled anonymity. Of course, this is all the more comical to his audience for they have never before witnessed a Negro performer affecting such indifference in the face of such overwhelming approval. Back uptown in Harlem, few residents have actually seen him perform, but everybody is fully aware of his stellar reputation. However, there are some Harlemites who have sat upstairs in the balcony and looked down at the senior partner in the Williams
and Walker comedy duo, who are unsure what to make of his foolish blackface antics. These days Mr. Williams seldom looks up at the parcel of dark faces that stare down at him from nigger heaven, but he is always grateful to hear a good number of these colored Americans applauding enthusiastically as
In Dahomey
unfolds.

He stares at the contented white faces in the orchestra stalls knowing that he can hold an audience like nobody else in the city. He knows when to go gently with them, and he carefully observes their mood; he knows not to strain the color line for he respects their violence. At other times, when he can sense something close to warmth, he might push and cajole a little, and try to show them something that they had not thought of before; he might try to introduce them to the notion that music and wit are the colored man’s gift to America, and then impress them with his own unique style of carefree dancing. All the while he listens closely for a single dull note, and should he detect it he will proceed with caution and neither irritate nor provoke. He is keen that at the end of the evening, they should all leave safely and without either party having broken the unwritten contract that exists between the Negro performer and his white audience. If they can achieve this, then it will be possible for them to come together again in good faith. He cares what they think about him, and he understands that one false step and he risks toppling over into the musician’s pit and being replaced by Bob Cole or Ernest Hogan or one of the scores of other colored performers who are keen to usurp him without fully understanding that they
do
have the choice of offering these white faces in the orchestra stalls some artistic drollery and a little repose instead of clownish roughness and loud vulgarity.

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