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Harlem on My Mind

By Kathy Y. Wilson · January 3rd, 2002 · Your Negro Tour Guide
Get ready for the NBA: the New Black Aesthetic.

Our grandparents, Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin, bequeathed it to us. They got it from folks like Romare Bearden, Gordon Parks, Josephine Baker, Miles Davis, Paul Robeson, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Duke Ellington, Donny Hathaway and Jelly Roll Morton.

I see the spirit of the NBA in India.Arie, Savion Glover, Common, Mos Def, Bahamadia, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Saul Williams, Carl Hancock Rux and all their imitators and haters.

I live the NBA vicariously through Joe Bailey, Ken Leslie, 144,000, IsWhat?!, Mike Wade, Fat John the Ample Soul Physician, Shelle Clark, Herb Allen, Shawn Smith, Bobbie Corbean, Denise Lee, Brian Joiner and Bug Williams and his Loft Society.

All those beautiful black folks are artists of some ilk. They might not create conventionally via canvas, film or sculpture. Rather, their lives are based on their own truths.

They're not going for the okey-doke, and to them the status quo is rancid. They ain't takin' shit no more, and neither are they talkin' shit anymore. They're Negroes leading and lending. They're not exclusionary but are bathed in self-loving self expression.

Finally, Zora's and James' grandchildren have some place to validate themselves.

Ever been to Harlem? Me neither.

But Harlem is in East Walnut Hills.

I ate, laughed and loved everything about my black ass during and since my sojourn to truth at Simone's. It is -- as owner, brain trust and host Atif Kemaz calls it -- the "black Mullane's." That's for those of you who need benchmarks and comparisons.

But this isn't a restaurant review. It's a lifestyle review.

Atif is as close to James Baldwin as I'll come in my lifetime. He's black, gay and non-traditional in thought, presentation and his life's trajectory. He's on some kind of shameless mission, and he's unapologetic about it. Get with Atif or get out of his way.

Back in the day when I was just realizing my adulthood and simultaneously playing at being myself, I ran into Atif at the Loft Society -- Bug Williams' spooky electric acid test tube spot with all them Jazz hoes in its creamy center. Atif was hawking homemade jewelry and greeting cards in the kitchen next to a pot of greens and platters of homemade cakes.

I'd see him, and I wouldn't see him. When I did, he'd be just back from Israel, Amsterdam, Egypt or Mexico. Until I met Atif, I didn't know Negroes knew we could live like that -- free.

One day in the late '90s, I was hoofing it to my hooptie with fresh laundry from the Family Affair Laundromat on Woodburn Avenue. I was cold crushin' a blue raspberry Slushee when I saw Atif coming out of Salaam East, a little almost-but-not-quite bistro next door to the hair salon that's next door to the Laundromat.

Salaam East? Atif invited me into his unfolding dream/nightmare with its dark walls, mud cloths and postmodern New Black Arts Movement art by Jean-Michel Basquiat's babies. Later he told me these melodramatic tales of inspections, licenses, cash flow, no cash flow and on and on.

Back then, it was open but only privately for meetings, Loft Society gigs and soirées. It was the ultimate cultural dick tease.

Then came an e-mail inviting me to an international Sunday brunch at what's now Simone's.

So when the artist Brian Joiner called wanting to gab about his upcoming projects and just life, I suggested Simone's.

I ate what I saw. The food tasted like the ambiance. There were old black church ladies eating sautéed sweet potatoes, a white couple sharing a sinful desert, a Rastafarian woman with her three kids and a constant flow of similar adventurers.

But this NBA thing ain't rocket science, especially not here and now. It's easy to be a Negro making moves in Cincinnati, because there are so few of us using our powers for good. So we tend to gravitate to one another.

For that reason, non-traditional Negroes need to remain in Cincinnati. When we leave is when the pendulum of power tilts to the other side. That's how we got to this disparity and culturally blighted landscape.

I often get asked when I'm leaving town. I used to ask it of others in the NBA.

Why would I leave? Doesn't mean I won't -- just means I'm in no hurry. The NBA and I have work to do, mainly to accurately document our times.

We're movin' on up like the Jeffersons 'cause we don't want y'all assuming we're all Million Dollar Stepford Negroes like Ross Love or Ken Griffey Jr. We getting down and getting off.

We're rockin' worlds, and tectonic plates are shifting beneath us. And now Simone's is a place to rest our weary heads -- 'cause our souls have grown deep like the rivers. But we swim.



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