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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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Block Dance 1937

By Robert Blackburn

The Magpie, January 1938, v. 22, n. 1., p. 66.

Block dances, which had their so-called debut in 1914, have continued on in Harlem through the hectic turbulence of both the post-war boom and the tragic depression. Harlem, in its dominant position as the great metropolis of the Negro, harbors every type, kind, and class of Negro, and sees many fads come and go. But it has come to know that no matter how profound his sorrows, the Harlem Negro will always maintain his interest in block dances. However, let us not be content with idle theorizing; instead come with me to One Hundred Forty-fifth Street and Bradhurst Avenue at 7:30 P.M. early in the summer of 1937.

I walked leisurely down the avenue and gazed at the devastation of the once beautiful Colonial Park which was undergoing repairs. Many blue-coated police kept the street clear of traffic as a few people leaned idly against the sagging wire fence, or rested themselves upon the worn wooden benches. As my eyes traveled upward from the street, I noticed that the windows of the houses overlooking the rich, green verdure of the park were crowded with an expectant audience. Gradually, figures, bedecked in their best finery, appeared from side streets and alleys and began to collect in small groups. One crowd under the brilliant glare of a street lamp was noisily engaged in a heated battle of vulgar slurs and made an unbearable racket with their loud, shrill laughter. Supposing themselves concealed behind a parked vehicle, some youths were avidly consuming a large bottle of wine to stimulate themselves for the strenuous dancing later on. Still the street, some gaudily dressed girls stood idly by (very bored) while the boys argued the particular merits of their respective ball teams. Under the shadows of a heavily foliaged tree, a young couple was ardently and happily absorbed in each other. All this and more greeted my searching eyes during their brief scanning of the crowd that now filled the street jostling and pushing so much that the houses actually seemed to rock.

The orchestra, which I heard but could not see, had begun to play the latest swing tunes to which the youngsters "shagged" about in the most ludicrous manner. I found myself jostled about by all types, from the fastidious Sugar Hillites, to the Lenox Avenue Roughcutters; I saw that the vivid, glaring colors in artistically wild combinations of violent acid greens, rich royal blues, brilliant reds, and vibrant, pulsating yellows enhanced the gay abandon of the scene. Petite, dark heads tossed up and down elusively, while cherry red lips and deep brown eyes seemed to beckon enticingly over the heads of the crowds. Beautiful sepia brown, slim waisted girls pushed and shoved about us laughing and smiling into the faces of their tall escorts in a wild and frenzied attempt to gain access to the floor and now the arena (as I call it) swayed with the writhing masses of softly gliding figures and all that could be heard was the shuffling of many feet as bodies merged into one moving mass.

After a while, the orchestra swung into the wilder and faster rhythms and the waltzers slipped silently to the sidelines to gaze awe-stricken at the carefree Lindy Hoppers. A tall, brown skinned couple, in the center of the melee, fairly raced over the floor, and the girl, superbly built, threw herself about so swiftly that her body was a mere blur among the whirling figures. Slowly, the other dancers halted and created an admiring ring around the couple. With feline grace, they flew over the pavement, their dark eyes flashing and hair flung back. The orchestra played faster and faster until any less agile person would have fallen. The crowd stood transfixed as the dancers performed every conceivable and inconceivable part of the Lindy.

Since all good things must come to an end, the band played more slowly and the other dancers continued, but there was less heart in the crowd now. The evening had spent itself and everyone was exhausted.

Finally I heard the familiar strains of "Home, Sweet Home" coming faintly from the distant bandstand, and the music faded softly away into nothingness as the weary, yet happy, crowd departed for their homes leaving an ugly vacant pavement in their wake.




The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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