NEW YORK—It was a humid, sticky Sunday afternoon at Grant National Memorial Park in Harlem; the gap between scheduled events made people feel uncomfortable in the heat; some were frowning, and some were looking restless. Then a girl in a red shirt walked on to the stage and started dancing to Kirk Franklin’s “I Smile.”
Only a few seconds into the song, the atmosphere began to change. People started smiling, laughing, and clapping to the rhythm. Some began to dance, uninhibited alongside the hundreds of people who were on site for the annual A Great Day in Harlem event.
“We’re always fighting with each other and having arguments, but I come around here and see people having a good time,” said George Grantham, 60, a Harlem resident.
To Grantham, the event was more than a celebration of the area’s history and culture. It was a chance for the community to come back together. “There is so much negativity but we can change that with dialogue, like the one people are having today,” he said.
The event kicked off the 38th annual celebration of Harlem, hosted by HARLEM WEEK Inc., a nonprofit organization that promotes Harlem’s African-American, Hispanic, Caribbean, and European history and culture.
“A Great Day in Harlem” is named after the famous black and white photograph of 57 notable jazz musicians together in Harlem, in 1958.
“Music is the equalizer,” said Tina McRae, a Harlem Week board member.
Several renowned musicians such as Alyson Williams, ’80s R&B singer; Ray Chew, “American Idol” music director; and ’80s soul singer Alicia Meyers, gave live performances at Sunday’s event.
“These are people who have strong ties with the community, and they feel good about coming to entertain Harlem,” McRae said.
A number of the song and dances were performed to commemorate the recent deaths of Sylvia Woods, 86, and Hal Jackson, 96.
Woods, known as the “soul food queen,” passed away July 19. She founded the famed Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem. Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered a eulogy at her funeral. “She brought the world to Harlem, and she made sure that the world took Harlem back home with them,” he said.
Jackson was the first African-American radio sports announcer. He passed away in May this year. Jackson played a significant part in creating Harlem Day in 1974.
According to McRae, 4,000 people attended Sunday’s A Great Day in Harlem event.
“Pretty much everyone in the tri-state area came together, it was a golden opportunity to showcase the village, culture, and people of Harlem,” McRae said.
Celebrating Harlem’s rich cultural, musical, and political history proved difficult to squeeze into one day. Harlem Day eventually extended to a week, and now Harlem Week is a monthlong series of dozens of events.
Harlem Week Events
Saturday, Aug. 18, HARLEM WEEK Inc. will host Summer in the City, which is a tribute to the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence, and a commemoration of Bob Marley. The event will be outdoors, with a college Step Show competition, film festival, concerts, and food and art vendors.
A Historic Black College Fair will be held the same day, providing information on financial aid, college admission, and college tours for more than 50 historic black colleges.
Sunday, Aug. 19, four outdoor stages of live entertainment will be the center piece of Harlem Day, on the four blocks on West 135th Street between Fifth and St. Nicholas Avenue in Upper Manhattan.
A Small Business Fair is included in the scheduling from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., on West 135th Street—between Fifth Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard. Small-business experts will give free seminars to attendees interested in starting their own businesses.
A special Nelson Mandela tribute will also be held at the same location from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. This event will also honor South African music legends, Hugh Maskela and Miriam Makeba.
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