African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Rudolph Fisher, "Vestiges: Harlem Sketches" (Fiction: 1925)


Harlem Sketches




EZEKIEL TAYLOR, preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ, walked slowly along One Hundred and Thirty-third Street, conspicuously alien. He was little and old and bent. A short, bushy white beard framed his shiny black face and his tieless celluloid collar. A long, greasy, green-black Prince Albert, with lapels frayed and buttons worn through to their metal hung loosely from his shoulders. His trousers were big and baggy and limp, yet not enough so to hide the dejected bend of his knees.

A little boy noted the beard and gibed, “Hey, Santa Claus! ’Tain’t Chris’tmas yet!” And the little boy’s playmates chorused, “Haw, haw! Lookit the colored Santa Claus!”

“For of such is the kingdom of heaven,” mused Ezekiel Taylor. No. The kingdom of Harlem. Children turned into mockers. Satan in the hearts of infants. Harlem—city of the devil—outpost of hell.

Darkness settled, like the gloom in the old preacher’s heart; darkness an hour late, for these sinners even tinkered with God’s time, substituting their “daylight-saving.” Wicked, yes. But sad too, as though they were desperately warding off the inescapable night of sorrow in which they must suffer for their sins. Harlem. What a field! What numberless souls to save!—These very taunting children who knew not even the simplest of the commandments—

But he was old and alone and defeated. The world had called to his best. It had offered money, and they had gone; first the young men whom he had fathered, whom he had brought up from infancy in his little Southern church; then their wives and children, whom they eventually sent for; and finally their parents, loath to leave their shepherd and their dear, decrepit shacks, but dependent and without choice.

“Whyn’t y’ come to New York?” old Deacon Gassoway had insisted. “Martin and Eli and Jim Lee and his fambly’s all up da’ now an’ doin’ fine. We’ll all git together an’ start a chu’ch of our own, an’ you’ll still be pastor an’ it’ll be jes’ same as ’twas hyeh.” Full of that hope, he had come. But where were they? He had captained his little ship till it sank; he had clung to a splint and been tossed ashore; but the shore was cold, gray, hard and rock-strewn.

He had been in barren places before but God had been there too. Was Harlem then past hope? Was the connection between this place and heaven broken, so that the servant of God went hungry while little children ridiculed? Into his mind, like a reply, crept an old familiar hymn, and he found himself humming it softly:

The Lord will provide,

The Lord will provide,

In some way or ’nother,

The Lord will provide.

It may not be in your way,

It may not be in mine,

But yet in His own way

The Lord will provide.

Then suddenly, astonished, he stopped, listening. He had not been singing alone—a chorus of voices somewhere near had caught up his hymn. Its volume was gradually increasing. He looked about for a church. There was none. He covered his deaf ear so that it might not handicap his good one. The song seemed to issue from one of the private houses a little way down the street.

He approached with eager apprehension and stood wonderingly before a long flight of brownstone steps leading to an open entrance. The high first floor of the house, that to which the steps led, was brightly lighted, and the three front windows had their panes covered with colored tissue-paper designed to resemble church windows. Strongly, cheeringly the song came out to the listener:

The Lord will provide,

The Lord will provide,

In some way or ’nother,

The Lord will provide.

Ezekiel Taylor hesitated an incredulous moment, then smiling, he mounted the steps and went in.

The Reverend Shackleton Ealey had been inspired to preach the gospel by the draft laws of 1917. He remained in the profession not out of gratitude to its having kept him out of war, but because he found it a far less precarious mode of living than that devoted to poker, black-jack and dice. He was stocky and flat-faced and yellow, with many black freckles and the eyes of a dogfish. And he was clever enough not to conceal his origin, but to make capital out of his conversion from gambler to preacher and to confine himself to those less enlightened groups that thoroughly believed in the possibility of so sudden and complete a transformation.

The inflow of rural folk from the South was therefore fortune, and Reverend Shackleton Ealey spent hours in Pennsylvania station greeting newly arrived migrants, urging them to visit his meeting-place and promising them the satisfaction of “that old-time religion.” Many had come—and contributed.

This was prayer-meeting night. Reverend Ealey had his seat on a low platform at the distant end of the double room originally designed for a “parlor.” From behind a pulpit-stand improvised out of soap-boxes and covered with calico, he counted his congregation and estimated his profit.

A stranger entered uncertainly, looked about a moment, and took a seat near the door. Reverend Shackleton Ealey appraised him: a little bent-over old man with a bushy white beard and a long Prince Albert coat. Perfect type—fertile soil. He must greet this stranger at the close of the meeting and effusively make him welcome.

But Sister Gassoway was already by the stranger’s side, shaking his hand vigorously and with unmistakable joy; and during the next hymn she came over to old man Gassoway and whispered in his ear, whereupon he jumped up wide-eyed, looked around, and made broadly smiling toward the newcomer. Others turned to see, and many, on seeing, began to whisper excitedly into their neighbor’s ear and turned to see again. The stranger was occasioning altogether too great a stir. Reverend Ealey decided to pray.

His prayer was a masterpiece. It besought of God protection for His people in a strange and wicked land; it called down His damnation upon those dens of iniquity, the dance halls, the theaters, the cabarets; it berated the poker-sharp, the blackjack player, the dice-roller; it denounced the drunkard, the bootlegger, the dope-peddler; and it ended in a sweeping tirade against the wolf-in-sheep’s clothing, whatever his motive might be.

Another hymn and the meeting came to a close.

The stranger was surrounded before Reverend Ealey could reach him. When finally he approached the old preacher with extended hand and hollow-hearted smile, old man Gassoway was saying:

“Yas, suh, Rev’n Taylor, dass jes’ whut we goin’ do. Start makin’ ’rangements tomorrer. Martin an’ Jim Lee’s over to Ebeneezer, but dey doan like it ’tall. Says hit’s too hifalutin for ’em, de way dese Harlem cullud folks wushup; Ain’t got no Holy Ghos’ in ’em, dass whut. Jes’ come in an’ set down an’ git up an’ go out. Never moans, never shouts, never even says ‘amen.’ Most of us is hyeh, an’ we gonna git together an’ start us a ch’ch of our own, wid you f’ pastor, like we said. Yas, suh. Hyeh’s Brother Ealey now. Brother Ealey, dis hyeh’s our old preacher Rev’n Taylor. We was jes’ tellin’ him—”

The Reverend Shackleton Ealey had at last a genuine revelation—that the better-yielding half of his flock was on the wing. An old oath of frustration leaped to his lips—“God—” but he managed to bite it in the middle—“bless you, my brother,” he growled.



It was eleven o’clock at night. Majutah knew that Harry would be waiting on the doorstep downstairs. He knew better than to ring the bell so late—she had warned him. And there was no telephone. Grandmother wouldn’t consent to having a telephone in the flat—she thought it would draw lightning. As if every other flat in the house didn’t have one, as if lightning would strike all the others and leave theirs unharmed! Grandmother was such a nuisance with her old fogeyisms. If if weren’t for her down-home ideas there’d be no trouble getting out now to go to the cabaret with Harry. As it was, Majutah would have to steal down the hall past Grandmother’s room in the hope that she would be asleep.

Majutah looked to her attire. The bright red sandals and scarlet stockings, she fancied, made her feet look smaller and her legs bigger. This was desirable, since her black crepe dress, losing in width what style had added to its length, would not permit her to sit comfortably and cross her knees without occasioning ample display of everything below them. Her vanity-case mirror revealed how exactly the long pendant earrings matched her red coral beads and how perfectly becoming the new close bob was, and assured her for the tenth time that Egyptian rouge made her skin look lighter. She was ready.

Into the narrow hallway she tipped, steadying herself against the walls, and slowly approached the outside door at the end. Grandmother’s room was the last off the hallway. Majutah reached it, slipped successfully past, and started silently to open the door to freedom.


How she hated to be called Jutie! Why couldn’t the meddlesome old thing say Madge like everyone else?


“Wha’ you goin’ dis time o’ night?”

“Just downstairs to mail a letter.”

“You easin’ out mighty quiet, if dat’s all you goin’ do. Come ’eh. Lemme look at you.”

Majutah slipped off her pendants and beads and laid them on the floor. She entered her grandmother’s room, standing where the foot of the bed would hide her gay shoes and stockings. Useless precautions. The shrewd old woman inspected her granddaughter a minute in disapproving silence, then asked:

“Well, wha’s de letter?”

• • • • •

“Hello, Madge,” said Harry. “What held you up? You look mad enough to bite bricks.”

“I am. Grandmother, of course. She’s a pest. Always nosing and meddling. I’m grown, and the money I make supports both of us, and I’m sick of acting like a kid just to please her.”

“How’d you manage?”

“I didn’t manage. I just gave her a piece of my mind and came on out.”

“Mustn’t hurt the old lady’s feelings. It’s just her way of looking out for you.”

“I don’t need any looking out for—or advice either!”

“Excuse me. Which way—Happy’s or Edmonds’?”

“Edmonds’—darn it!”


It was two o’clock in the morning. Majutah’s grandmother closed her Bible and turned down the oil lamp by which she preferred to read it. For a long time she sat thinking of Jutie—and of Harlem, this city of Satan. It was Harlem that had changed Jutie—this great, noisy, heartless, crowded place where you lived under the same roof with a hundred people you never knew; where night was alive and morning dead. It was Harlem—those brazen women with whom Jutie sewed, who swore and shimmied and laughed at the suggestion of going to church. Jutie wore red stockings. Jutie wore dresses that looked like nightgowns. Jutie painted her face and straightened her hair, instead of leaving it as God intended. Jutie—lied—often.

And while Madge laughed at a wanton song, her grandmother knelt by her bed and through the sinful babel of the airshaft, through her own silent tears, prayed to God in heaven for Jutie’s lost soul.



“Too much learnin’ ain’ good f’ nobody. When I was her age I couldn’t write my own name.”

“You can’t write much mo’ ’n that now. Too much learnin’! Whoever heard o’ sich a thing!”

Anna’s father, disregarding experience in arguing with his wife, pressed his point. “Sho they’s sich a thing as too much learnin’! ’At gal’s gittin’ so she don’t b’lieve nuthin’!”

“Hmph! Didn’t she jes’ tell me las’ night she didn’ b’lieve they ever was any Adam an’ Eve?”

“Well, I ain’ so sho they ever was any myself! An’ one thing is certain: If that gal o’ mine wants to keep on studyin’ an’ go up there to that City College an’ learn how to teach school an’ be somebody, I’ll work my fingers to the bone to help her do it! Now!”

“That ain’ what I’m talkin’ ’bout. You ain’ worked no harder ’n I is to help her git this far. Hyeh she is ready to graduate from high school. Think of it—high school! When we come along they didn’ even have no high schools. Fus’ thing y’ know she be so far above us we can’t reach her with a fence-rail. Then you’ll wish you’d a listened to me. What I says is, she done gone far enough.”

“Ain’ no sich thing as far enough when you wants to go farther. ’Tain’ as if it was gonna cost a whole lot. That’s the trouble with you cullud folks now. Git so far an’ stop—set down—through—don’t want no mo’.” Her disgust was boundless. “Y’ got too much cotton field in you, that’s what!”

The father grinned. “They sho’ ain’ no cotton field in yo’ mouth, honey.”

“No, they ain’t. An’ they ain’ no need o’ all this arguin’ either, ’cause all that gal’s got to do is come in hyeh right now an’ put her arms ’roun’ y’ neck, an’ you’d send her to Europe if she wanted to go!”

“Well, all I says is, when dey gits to denyin’ de Bible hit’s time to stop ’em.”

“Well all I says is, if Cousin Sukie an’ vo’ no ’count brother, Jonathan, can send their gal all the way from Athens to them Howard’s an’ pay car-fare an’ boa’d an’ ev’ything, we can send our gal—”

She broke off as a door slammed. There was a rush, a delightful squeal, and both parents were being smothered in a cyclone of embraces by a wildly jubilant daughter.

“Mummy! Daddy! I won it! I won it!”

“What under the sun—?”

“The scholarship, Mummy! The scholarship!”


“Yes, I did! I can go to Columbia! I can go to Teachers College! Isn’t it great?”

Anna’s mother turned triumphantly to her husband; but he was beaming at his daughter.

“You sho’ is yo’ daddy’s chile. Teachers College! Why, that’s wha’ I been wantin’ you to go all along!”



Rare sight in a close-built, top-heavy city—space. A wide open lot, extending along One Hundred and Thirty-eighth Street almost from Lenox to Seventh Avenue; baring the mangy backs of a long row of One Hundred and Thirty-ninth Street houses; disclosing their gaping, gasping windows, their shameless strings of half-laundered rags, which gulp up what little air the windows seek to inhale. Occupying the Lenox Avenue end of the lot, the so-called Garvey tabernacle, wide, low, squat, with its stingy little entrance; occupying the other, the church tent where summer camp meetings are held.

• • • • •

Pete and his buddy, Lucky, left their head-to-head game of coon-can as darkness came on. Time to go out—had to save gas. Pete went to the window and looked down at the tent across the street.

“Looks like the side show of a circus. Ever been in?”

“Not me. Pm a preacher’s son—got enough o’ that stuff when I was a kid and couldn’t protect myself.”

“Ought to be a pretty good show when some o’ them oldtime sisters get happy. Too early for the cabarets; let’s go in a while, just for the hell of it.”

“You sure are hard up for somethin’ to do.”

“Aw, come on. Somethin’ funny’s bound to happen. You might even get religion, you dam’ bootlegger.”

Lucky grinned. “Might meet some o’ my customers, you mean.”

• • • • •

Through the thick, musty heat imprisoned by the canvas shelter a man’s voice rose, leading a spiritual. Other voices chimed eagerly in, some high, clear, sweet; some low, mellow, full,—all swelling, rounding out the refrain till it filled the place, so that it seemed the flimsy walls and roof must soon be torn from their moorings and swept aloft with the song:

Where you running, sinner?

Where you running, I say?

Running from the fire—

You can’t cross here!

The preacher stood waiting for the song to melt away. There was a moment of abysmal silence, into which the thousand blasphemies filtering in from outside dropped unheeded.

The preacher was talking in deep, impressive tones. One old patriarch was already supplementing each statement with a matter-of-fact “amen!” of approval.

The preacher was describing hell. He was enumerating without exception the horrors that befall the damned: maddening thirst for the drunkard; for the gambler, insatiable flame, his own greed devouring his soul. The preacher’s voice no longer talked—it sang; mournfully at first, monotonously up and down, up and down—a chant in minor mode; then more intensely, more excitedly; now fairly strident.

The amens of approval were no longer matter-of-fact, perfunctory. They were quick, spontaneous, escaping the lips of their own accord; they were frequent and loud and began to come from the edges of the assembly instead of just the front rows. The old men cried, “Help him, Lord!” “Preach the word!” “Glory!” taking no apparent heed of the awfulness of the description, and the old women continuously moaned aloud, nodding their bonneted heads, or swaying rhythmically forward and back in their seats.

Suddenly the preacher stopped, leaving the old men and old women still noisy with spiritual momentum. He stood motionless till the last echo of approbation subsided, then repeated the text from which his discourse had taken origin; repeated it in a whisper, lugubrious, hoarse, almost inaudible: “ ‘In—hell—’ ” paused, then without warning, wildly shrieked, “ ‘In hell—’ ” stopped—returned to his hoarse whisper—“ ‘he lifted up his eyes. . . .’ ”

• • • • •

“What the hell you want to leave for?” Pete complained when he and Lucky reached the sidewalk. “That old bird would ’a’ coughed up his gizzard in two more minutes. What’s the idea?”

“Aw hell—I don’t know.—You think that stuff’s funny. You laugh at it. I don’t, that’s all.” Lucky hesitated. The urge to speak outweighed the fear of being ridiculed. “Dam’ ’f I know what it is—maybe because it makes me think of the old folks or somethin’—but—hell—it just sorter—gets me—”

Lucky turned abruptly away and started off. Pete watched him for a moment with a look that should have been astonished, outraged, incredulous—but wasn’t. He overtook him, put an arm about his shoulders, and because he had to say something as they walked on, muttered reassuringly:

“Well—if you ain’t the damndest fool—”

Published in The New Negro: an Interpretation (1925)