I: Twenty-One


Like the bullfights, I can never put on paper the thrill of that underground ride to Harlem. I had never been in a subway before and it fascinated me—the noise, the speed, the green lights ahead. At every station I kept watching for the sign: 135TH STREET. When I saw it, I held my breath. I came out onto the platform with two heavy bags and looked around. It was still early morning and people were going to work. Hundreds of colored people! I wanted to shake hands with them, speak to them. I hadn’t seen any colored people for so long—that is, any Negro colored people.

I went up the steps and out into the bright September sunlight. Harlem! I stood there, dropped my bags, took a deep breath and felt happy again. I registered at the Y.

When college opened, I did not want to move into the dormitory at Columbia. I really did not want to go to college at all. I didn’t want to do anything but live in Harlem, get a job and work there. But I had passed the entrance examinations and my father had paid my tuition by draft, so I had to go to college. When I went to get my room in the Hartley Hall dormitory on the campus, the lady at the office looked slightly startled and said: “Oh, there must be some mistake! All the rooms were gone long ago.”

I said: “But I reserved mine long ago, and paid the required deposit by mail.”

She said: “You did? Then let me see.”

Of course, she found my reservation, made from Toluca, but she kept looking at me in a puzzled and not very friendly fashion. Then she asked if I were a Mexican. When she discovered I wasn’t, she consulted with several other people, papers fluttered, a telephone call was made, but finally they gave me the admittance slip to the dormitory. Having made my reservation early, I had one of the most convenient rooms in Hartley Hall, on the first floor just off the lobby. But they certainly didn’t seem any too anxious to give it to me because (no doubt) they realized I was colored.

Of course, later I was to run into much of that sort of thing in my grown-up travels in America, that strange astonishment on the part of so many whites that a Negro should expect any of the common courtesies and conveniences that other Americans enjoy.


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