I‘ve just read a wonderful historical memoir of growing up in 1950s Harlem by Terry Baker Mulligan, known as Jean when she was little. I knew almost nothing about Harlem except it was a dangerous place. And that is why Terry decided to write her book: most people she met got that big-eyed look when they found out where she was from. She began writing soon after she moved to St. Louis and said it took her 37 years to complete due to life happening.
Sugar Hill: Where the Sun Rose Over Harlem impressed me with all the history Terry put into it. While she did grow up there, she still had to do a lot of research, digging at one point all the way back to when New Haarlem was a Dutch colony. She included old black and white photos of famous buildings along with views important to her memories, which help readers visualize her hometown in that era. She even included an old map, which came in handy as I tried to find my way around the streets mentioned.
While Terry has a matter-of-fact writing style in line with explaining a lot of history, her characters are colorful and memorable: “Besides her weird, high-stepping dromedary walk, Aunt Annette had about as much tact as a camel.” A lot of famous people figured into Harlem life then (Sugar Ray and his pink Cadillac, Thurgood Marshall), and Terry’s relatives were more than life-sized. She had a weekend dad who used to dance with Cab Calloway and who liked to buy his daughter fine dresses. Terry lived with her hard-working, beautiful mother and a cussing Gram, who was “born ornery,” in a melting pot of race and class. She even went to Catholic school when the family was not particularly religious at all. She writes of healing evangelists, gambling “dream books,” American and West Indians, and jive patter, and tells it like it was without mincing words or resorting to political correctness. She writes with love for how things were, even though it’s not always a pretty picture, and sadness at how things have changed.
I asked Terry if any of her relatives got upset reading about themselves because she left all the color in their characters and remarks. She said most from the book were dead now, including her parents, and her younger brother and her friends have loved the book. She did change some names and “blurred identities” to maintain a degree of privacy for some.
Terry had sat with her mother, elder relatives and friends to get many of the stories and had that problem common to many memoir writers: “Anyone my age can tell you how good this older generation was at holding onto secrets and putting the past behind them.” But Terry did a great job ferreting out those stories and mixing them with history, and I recommend anyone wanting to do the same with their memoir read Sugar Hill as an example. And the rest of us can read it for pure enjoyment and learning.