As the Bx19 bus ambled down the hill on 145th Street in Harlem, many of its somnolent passengers were jolted into consciousness when the driver’s humdrum drone of “Eighth Avenue!” was unexpectedly interrupted by a gruff, “Why didn’t you say ‘Frederick Douglass’? Hmm? Hmm? Why didn’t you say Frederick Douglass?”
The dogged, irate raucousness drew all eyes on a salt and peppered bearded man sitting gingerly on the edge of the row of seats directly behind the driver in the front of the bus. His hand was on the handle of his walking stick. He stuck his chin out, stretching around to look at the side of the driver’s face.
The driver steadfastly kept his eyes on the road but managed to retort, “Because it is my choice!”
The exasperated passenger shook his head in disgust and turned to the rest of the bus, railing passionately, “You just don’t know your history, man. Frederick Douglas struggled to teach himself to read when he was a slave, man. We have to honor him, man. That’s why the avenue was named after him, man. We’re in Harlem! You gotta carry on the history, man. These kids and folks riding the bus just don’t know, man. You just can’t let it go, man.”
As the driver endeavored to remain focused on driving the bus and declined to respond, the man turned to a lady sitting on the opposite side of the aisle. “Hey sister, you know about Harriet Tubman, right?”
The woman averted her eyes as if she did not see him.
The man sighed, took a deep breath. “Lift every voice and sing,” he intoned. “Till earth and heaven ring.”
He looked around.
Nobody joined him, so he got louder and more sonorous. He didn’t sound too bad—a decent baritone in fact. “Sing with the harmonies of liberty! Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us.”
By now he was glaring at anyone who would meet his eye. “Let us march on till victory is won!” He ended the first verse of the African-American anthem defiantly and commenced the second. Closing his eyes, he rocked and swayed.
“Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last.” Again, he subjected the disbelieving onlookers to a stern gaze and proceeded to mete out the third verse.
“God of our weary years, God of our silent tears.” He hissed the Ss and spat out the Ts to emphasize their consonance and alliteration. As his voice ebbed and flowed, his captive audience was silent. “True to our God, true to our native land!”
Triumphantly, he finished singing and restated, “You can’t let the history go!”
Gripping his walking stick, our Lone Black History Warrior stretched and raised himself up and laboriously made his way off the bus.
Renee Iweriebor is a resident of Harlem.