280: Outside my Harlem Window

280: Outside my Harlem Window

280: Outside my Harlem Window

Outside my Harlem Window
by Lauren Whitehead

On the brick red stoop of the brownstone next door
is a steady rock black man sellin harps to the neighbors
by blowin a blues riff like it’s nobody’s business.
Except it is: his, to remind us the potential
impromptu music on a Tuesday, on top of Sugar Hill
has to make you wanna wear your church shoes
and creased slacks for no reason other than to give up joy.

This man, with two hands full of harp, havin church
on the stoop of the brownstone next door, is, with his right hand,
blowin this—which he call Black Magic—slow
into a soprano note on the far side of the harp first,
sliding low as he can go, then, catching each and every note
in between and ridin high the riff back again to the peak
which pierce clean, like the call of some sacred steel winged black bird.

Ain’t no fear filled trill on this stoop. Not this Tuesday.
Not this Harlem broke open early like popping into
an August bell pepper with your fingers,
and all the seed and fruit inside of you is exposed now
and yellow or green and red and black, magic
and he is wide nosed, and he is pinky ringed.
He is my grandfather, this man.

Old timin swag and all, grey, leaning over the back
of a barbershop chair saying something of how the sunsets
in the South come in colors you ain’t never seen, like the rural red
on an Alabama backyard, the white peach pink of a cuticle
peeled back to the flesh from pullin cotton from the hull. And
sometimes, he’ll push his left hand out to show you exactly where.

And sometimes he’ll get to jingling the coins in his pocket.
And sometimes he’ll get to leanin on his back leg, poke
his breast out, pull a harp from his chest pocket and get to blowin
like a yellow headed blackbird, all his unrest and scar and laughter
building its own back beat on a blues harp for 3,000 people
at a Tuskegee jubilee. He is 4H, hog raisin, harp blown, handsome.
And somehow you know your granddad is James Cotton,
is Junior Wells, broke and black as Alabama ever and trouble, “man,

y’all don’t even hear me!” he’ll stop to say.
But I do hear you granddad. All the way out here
in Harlem, where the steady rock black man
make a mimic of you, sellin old spice and wisdom,
holding church on a Tuesday, on a stoop
for the other men who gather, double park,
unroll their windows, unfurl for a minute.

Listen: if he didn’t have his other hand full
of wanting, of his wonted work to sell,
he would put both hands on his harp
smile his lips over the harp,
he would lean back like my granddad,
like an old tree, let the wind blow through him
and make a miraculous and joyful noise.

"Outside my Harlem Window" by Lauren Whitehead, collected in BREAKBEAT POETS VOL 2: BLACK GIRL MAGIC , copyright © 2018 Haymarket Books. Used by permission of the poet.