A few weeks ago, about thirty people assembled under cloudy skies on a bluff overlooking the St. Joseph River, in downtown St. Joseph, Michigan. Eric McGinnis, a Black teen-ager from Benton Harbor, the next town over, mysteriously drowned in the river thirty years earlier, on May 17, 1991, and the people had gathered to honor his memory. At one point, the names of others who had died in unresolved circumstances in the area—all of them Black individuals, many the victims of street violence, and some of whom were also found in the river—were read aloud; one of the rally’s organizers rang a bell for each name. Afterward, Pastor Duane Seats, who is a city commissioner in Benton Harbor, spoke to the crowd. Benton Harbor and St. Joseph are both small towns, and so it was unsurprising that Seats had attended junior high school with McGinnis. “That was a cold day when they told us Eric had died,” he said. “They’ve been telling me since the seventies, if you go over there”—to St. Joseph—“you might not come back.”
McGinnis’s death and these two towns were the subject of my book “The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America’s Dilemma,” published in 1998. The night that McGinnis disappeared, at the age of sixteen, he had been visiting a teen nightclub in St. Joseph, a town of about eight thousand that sits along the coast of Lake Michigan. St. Joseph has the feel of a resort town: it is predominantly white and prosperous, and boasts one of the most-visited shorelines in the area, Silver Beach. On the other side of the river sits Benton Harbor, with nearly ten thousand residents. It is predominantly Black and economically distressed. The two towns are, without irony, referred to as “the Twin Cities.” I was drawn there many years ago not because they were an anomaly, but rather because they seemed emblematic of how most of us live, separate and deeply unequal.
An hour or so before the vigil, a local TV station had reported that the St. Joseph police had reopened the case into McGinnis’s death. Someone had come forward claiming to have witnessed his last moments. My reporting for the book revealed some details about that night. McGinnis was dating a white girl with whom he had danced at the club. It was a slow night, and McGinnis wandered outside, ultimately entering an unlocked car. He grabbed forty-four dollars from the glove compartment. The car’s owner, a middle-aged white man, came upon him and briefly chased him down State Street, past an off-duty detective with the sheriff’s department who was entering a restaurant. (The detective called the police but didn’t join in the pursuit.) McGinnis soon outran the man, but, five days later, men from the Coast Guard Station St. Joseph discovered McGinnis’s bloated body floating in the river. His death was officially ruled an accidental drowning.
For a number of years, I was obsessed with McGinnis’s death. I read and reread police documents, and interviewed his friends and his family. (Both his parents have since passed away.) I spent hours with the chief detective on the case. I spoke with teens from St. Joseph. I tracked down people who claimed to have seen McGinnis that night. I reviewed the autopsy reports with a renowned forensic pathologist. I even canoed the river to measure its currents. Virtually everyone I spoke to in St. Joseph, the white town, was convinced that McGinnis, knowing that the police might be looking for him, had tried to swim the river to get home or had accidentally fallen in while trying to cross a railroad bridge. Everyone I spoke with in Benton Harbor was convinced that McGinnis had died as a result of foul play, most likely because he had been dating a white girl. It was like a Rashomon of race, where people came to this singular moment with a sense of certainty that had more to do with their personal experiences—with which side of the river they came from—than the facts of the case.
The new development broke a few weeks ago. A man from St. Joseph, who was a contemporary of McGinnis’s, came forward to a local TV anchor, Brian Conybeare, claiming to have witnessed McGinnis’s being chased by a small group of white teens and young men. The name of this witness sounded familiar. When I went back through old e-mails, I discovered that, in 2014, he had reached out to me with the subject line: “Please Help Me!” He wrote, in part, “It seems like it just happened yesterday. It hurts the most when I think of how Eric McGinnis gestured to my friend & I for help as he was being chased. . . . I am tortured on a constant basis by my conscience.” He asked if I could help him find an attorney. I wrote to him to say that, if he thought he could identify the people who had chased Eric, then maybe I could help. I never heard back. But, after the case was reopened, we spoke briefly on the phone. He told me that he has asked for immunity before he will agree to talk to the police. A task force involving detectives from three area departments has been created, and they have begun interviewing or re-interviewing people who may have been present the night that McGinnis disappeared.
Since I was there in the nineteen-nineties, parts of Benton Harbor have undergone a revitalization of sorts. Whirlpool, which maintains its headquarters on the outskirts of town, has established an office complex on West Main Street, and, in 2010, helped build a lakefront golf course that has hosted the Senior P.G.A. Championship. And, adjacent to the course, along the river, is a development of newly constructed homes. In a corner of downtown, an easy walk to the golf course, a handful of old factories and warehouses have been converted into condos, and a vibrant arts community has put in stakes. Richard Hunt, the renowned Chicago sculptor, opened a studio there.
At the Mason Jar, a coffee shop in the arts district, I met Trenton Bowens, a local activist and school-board member, who founded a group called Neighbors Organizing Against Racism. The group, which involves about a hundred people from both sides of the river, gathers to talk about issues of race in the two towns. Bowens, who is thirty-two, wore a Kangol cap and a zippered sweatshirt. He immediately mentioned the development downtown and the golf course. “The question we have to ask, Is it gentrification or revitalization?” he said. “Look around this restaurant. There’s only one other table of Blacks here.” The median household income in Benton Harbor is $21,916. In St. Joseph, it’s $62,374. Bowens offered to drive me around the city’s neighborhoods. We drove down Pavone Street, which was lined by wood-framed homes, many in disrepair, many boarded up. It was here, Bowens reminded me, where, in 2003, a motorcyclist, who was Black, crashed into a building while being chased by police. After his death, residents rioted. Thirteen buildings were set on fire. As the New York Times reported at the time, people were upset by a number of unexplained Black deaths, including that of McGinnis. “It was years of frustration,” Bowens said.
As I write in my book, these two Americas, side-by-side, aren’t an accident of geography. Rather, they’re an exclamation point on the modern-day history of race in the North. In the nineteen-forties and fifties, Black men were recruited from the South, mostly from Arkansas, to work in the local foundries and auto-parts plants. Global competition killed off many of these factories, and then whites, uneasy with their new neighbors, fled to the other side of the river. The newspaper, the Y.M.C.A., the hospital, even the local F.B.I. office soon followed. What felt like the final blow came when half the members of the First Congregational Church of Christ voted to take their prayers and their God to St. Joseph. It’s been the plight of Benton Harbor that most anything of value either leaves or gets snatched up by others.
Two years ago, the state of Michigan announced that it planned to close Benton Harbor’s lone high school, because the school district was eighteen million dollars in debt and its schools were underperforming. Students would be bused to surrounding schools, including St. Joseph High School. The community erupted in protest. “That’s one of the only things Benton Harbor has,” Bowens told me. “We no longer have a hospital, so no one can say they were born in Benton Harbor. You take away the high school, no one can say they graduated from here.” Some believed that the state wanted to take the high school so that it could sell the acreage to private developers; the campus sits atop a hill with a panoramic view of the river. The school board, in an act of defiance, unanimously voted to tell the state to keep its hands off. “No question,” Bowens said, “it was a Black-versus-white thing.”
“Kevin Can F**K Himself” and “Feel Good” Rethink Relationship Comedy
On paper, “Kevin Can F**K Himself,” a new meta-series on AMC, is a tempting stylistic cocktail—one part Jekyll, one part Hyde, garnished with a zesty feminist twist. Onscreen, it’s a bizarro centaur with a horse’s head and a man’s hairy ass: the concept is there, but the assembly is all wrong. Annie Murphy plays Allison McRoberts, a standard-issue sitcom wife living a multi-cam sitcom life in Worcester, Massachusetts, with her dopey slob of a husband, Kevin (Eric Petersen). For ten years of marriage, Allison has tolerated Kevin’s antics, which tend to involve guzzling booze, worshipping the Patriots, and evading all adult responsibility, but she’s finally had enough of the long-suffering shtick. She begins to dream of escape—stabbing Kevin in the jugular with a broken beer mug is one happy fantasy—and, as her thoughts turn dark, so, literally, does the show. The corny music drops out, and the bright studio lights dim to a bruised, greenish tinge, as if the camera had been dropped into olive brine. In sunny sitcom land, a laugh track yuks along to plots that revolve around, say, Kevin’s scheme to prank his killjoy boss at his and Allison’s “anniversa-rager.” In the gloomy grit of drama-ville, we watch as Allison Googles “perfect murder” at the public library and tries to finagle an opioid prescription in the hope that she can induce her husband to shuffle off his mortal coil by accidental overdose.
A dark pastiche of network sitcoms that avenges years of sexist sludge pumped into the American psyche by shows such as “Kevin Can Wait” (the callout is so direct that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the show’s creator, Valerie Armstrong, had been challenged to a duel): what’s not to like? The pastiche itself, for one thing. Playing with two genres, you potentially double the reward, but you also risk winding up with a sitcom drained of comedy and a drama stripped of power, not to mention sense. Far be it from me to suggest that Kevin, a lukewarm can of Bud Light in human form, deserves to live, but why opt for murder when divorce entails considerably less jail time? Allison offers up a jumbled grab bag of justifications for her desperate behavior. The truth is that she’s a pawn, not a character, freed from one set of absurd genre constraints only to become shackled to another.
A sitcom’s breezy rhythm is exacting—one missed beat and the whole thing goes splat. Here, the thud is the point. The show’s first episode opens in the McRobertses’ living room, where Kevin is playing beer pong with his doofus neighbor, Neil (Alex Bonifer), as Kevin’s dad (Brian Howe) and Neil’s bullying sister, Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden, doing a Rosie O’Donnell thing), look on from the couch. When Allison enters, carrying a basket of laundry, she disrupts the fratty equilibrium; “Mom,” as Neil calls her, can’t hang. “Neil, what is our one house rule?” she asks, hoping he’ll apologize for the neg. “Yankees suck!” the group shouts in unison. The laugh track roars; Allison is crushed, and the air is briefly sucked from the scene. A sitcom wife wields her humor as both dagger and shield, doing domestic battle with a wink and a smile. But Allison is turned into another stereotype, the tedious, finger-wagging shrew. “Women is losers,” Janis Joplin sang. Honey, don’t I believe it.
Maybe I’m not the right audience for this show, but who is? “Kevin Can F**K Himself” dissects a product that its target viewers likely already hold in contempt. The baseline of condescension is elevated, in the course of the four forty-five-minute episodes that I watched, by the show’s insistence that these working-class people—Kevin is a cable guy, Allison an employee at a liquor store—are not merely obnoxious and stupid but also bad. Kevin wages a war on the couple’s neighbors, “foreigners” whose favorite football team is Manchester United. Patty brags about getting a mailwoman deported. Presumably, we are meant to recoil in horror, not to pause and wonder at the likelihood of an undocumented person being employed by a federal agency in the first place.
Murphy had a big success playing Alexis Rose, the ditzy sister with a heart of gold on “Schitt’s Creek,” a sitcom as sweet as “Kevin Can F**K Himself” is sour. She was nominated for a slew of Canadian Screen Awards, and won an Emmy in 2020. Still, comic actors often worry about proving their prestige, and it’s understandable that Murphy, who can crack up a room with a raised eyebrow, wanted to test herself with steelier stuff. But serious doesn’t have to mean no fun. Saddled with a bad wig of a Boston accent, her shoulders hunched in a posture of perpetual defeat, Murphy seems lost. This is supposed to be Allison’s show. Why does it feel like the joke is on her?
If you want to laugh without the assistance of a track, I suggest you hop on over to Netflix, where the second season of the underappreciated gem “Feel Good” has just been released. The series, which now totals twelve perfectly paced, gloriously funny half-hour episodes, was co-created and written by the Canadian comedian Mae Martin, who based the story on her own life and plays a version of herself.
Mae, an expat in London, is jittery, wiry, and waxy pale, with the sharp features and big eyes of an anime character and a boyish swoosh of cropped blond hair that makes her look like Peter Pan crossed with a baby chick. She’s thirty but, bundled in her oversized hoodie, could pass for a preteen. A macho Dane Cook type she meets at the comedy club where she does standup pegs her as “some sort of androgynous Muppet,” though she prefers “anemic scarecrow.” Strangers call her “sir,” and her girlfriend, George (Charlotte Ritchie), has Mae saved in her phone as “Corn.” (It’s the hair.) “I don’t really identify as a woman these days,” Mae jokes. How does she identify? “More like an Adam Driver or a Ryan Gosling. I’m still, like, working it out.” That deadpan waggishness is typical of the show’s low-key, anti-doctrinaire approach to the big questions of selfhood. “Feel Good” sends up a familiar brand of generational self-righteousness, but gently, with love.
In the first season, Mae and George meet at one of Mae’s sets. An ecstatic sequence has the couple kissing, screwing, and moving in together at the speed of a stop-motion flower unfurling from bud to bloom. The sex is hot, and often hilarious, but the intensity of the attraction papers over the pair’s compatibility issues. George has never dated a woman before, and her reluctance to come out to her snobby friend group eats at Mae’s confidence. Meanwhile, George learns that Mae is a recovering drug addict; when she was a teen, her parents (Adrian Lukis and a wonderfully imperious Lisa Kudrow) kicked her out of the house, and she wound up on the street, then in jail. Mae grudgingly agrees to join a support group, but, by the end of the season, she has relapsed, and the couple splits up.
The current season opens with Mae back at the rehab, outside Toronto, where she spent time in her youth. She has regressed, in more ways than one. Mae is suspicious of the contemporary tendency to classify feelings with a diagnosis. “I forgot that I’m a Vietnam War vet,” she tells a doctor who suggests that she might have P.T.S.D. But she can’t explain why she sometimes needs to lie under the bed rather than on top of it, or why a ten-year period of her life has been wiped from her memory. The show, closing in on Mae’s past, demands that she reckon not only with the harm that has been done to her but with the more confusing question of her own complicity; two confrontations with sketchy dudes, with very different outcomes, are marbled with ambiguity. (Self-styled good guys are in for a tweaking, too. “Here’s a chapter on the link between the male orgasm and war crimes,” George is told by a male lover, who hands her a book called “Feminist Sexuality” after she confesses to a filthy fantasy involving priests and nuns.) Beneath the surface charms of this clever, entertaining series, Martin wants to show us how difficult it is to be a moral person, and how beautiful it is to try. ♦
The Rise of Black Homeschooling
Advocates of school choice say that it gives low-income parents access to institutions that can better serve their children. Critics say that it lures highly motivated Black families away from traditional public schools and further hobbles underfunded districts. Presidents Clinton and Obama supported charters, but Democrats have largely cooled on them, and progressives such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have proposed curbing their growth. Michigan’s charters, most of which operate as for-profit companies, have consistently performed worse than the state’s traditional public schools. Yet parents continue to choose charters, which receive a large chunk of the more than eight thousand dollars per student that the state would otherwise send to non-charters, but aren’t subject to the same degree of public oversight. About half of Detroit’s students are now enrolled in charters, one of the highest proportions of any U.S. city.
The Walton foundation set up the National Parents Union in January, 2020, with Rodrigues as the founding president. Rodrigues’s oldest son, who has autism and A.D.H.D., was suspended thirty-six times in kindergarten alone; sometimes he was sent to a sensory-deprivation room that Rodrigues thought resembled a cinder-block cell. Eventually, a school representative suggested a charter school. “I didn’t know what a charter school was,” Rodrigues said. “I didn’t know I had any options. I just thought I had to send him to the closest school. I didn’t know there were fights like this in education. All I knew was ‘Oh, my god, are you kidding me—why are you doing this to my kid?’ ”
The National Parents Union was less than three months old when the pandemic closed schools. As well-off families set up private learning pods, Vela Education Fund gave Rodrigues seven hundred thousand dollars to help people with fewer resources, like Bernita, create their own. “There was an article in the New York Times about fancy white people in upstate New York creating these ‘pandemic pods,’ ” Rodrigues said. “But that’s how poor Black and brown folks survive in America—we resource-share. We don’t call them ‘pandemic pods,’ because that’s a bougie new term. For us, we called it ‘going to Abuelita’s house,’ because she watched all the cousins in the family after school, and that’s where you learned a host of skills outside of the normal school setting.”
Last summer, the nonprofit news organization Chalkbeat, which receives Walton funding, co-sponsored a virtual town hall on reopening Michigan’s public schools. Detroit’s superintendent, Nikolai P. Vitti, said that expanding to “non-traditional” options, such as learning pods, would hurt many of the city’s children. He warned that homeschooling, like charter schools, would undermine public education and cost teachers their jobs. Legislators were already drafting bills, he said, to take money away from schools so that children could continue learning in pods after campuses reopened.
“I don’t judge any parent for using the socioeconomic means that they have to create what they believe is the best educational opportunity for their child,” Vitti said. “We all do that, in our way, as parents. But that is the purpose of traditional public education, to try to be the equalizer, to try to create that equal opportunity.”
Bernita had logged on to the discussion from her kitchen. “Parents are not deciding to take their children out because of COVID,” she told Vitti. “Parents are doing pods because education has failed children in this city forever.”
I asked Kija if it bothered her to accept money from the conservative-libertarian Koch family, who have spent vast sums of their fortune advocating for lower taxes, deep cuts to social services, and looser environmental regulations. “I guess the bigger question is, why don’t we have enough resources so that we don’t have to get money from them? It bothers me, yes—but why do they have so much money that they get to fund all of our shit?” she asked. “I shouldn’t have to get resources from the Kochs.”
Kija and Bernita describe themselves as Democrats. Bernita said that, in another era, she “would be a Black Panther with white friends.” She said that she was “at peace” with her decision to take money from the Koch family, because they fund several of the charter schools that Victoria attended, through their Michigan-based building-supply company Guardian Industries. She is not a “poster child” for her conservative backers, she added—the Koch family has no control over what or how she teaches. In a video about Engaged Detroit produced by Vela Education Fund, Bernita states, “If school won’t reinvent education, we have to reinvent it ourselves, and our goal at Engaged Detroit is to make sure families have the tools so that choice is in their hands.”
Vela Education Fund offered Bernita one year of funding, and in April she accepted another twenty-five-thousand-dollar grant, from Guardian Industries, to sustain her group through the next school year. Rodrigues imagines a scenario in which the per-pupil funding that public-school districts normally receive goes straight to a homeschooling parent. “Instead,” she said, “you have systems that are addicted to that money.”
Celine Coggins, the executive director of Grantmakers for Education, a collective of more than three hundred philanthropic organizations, including the Walton Family Foundation, says it’s not clear yet whether funders will continue to invest in homeschooling after the pandemic. Most are in “listening mode,” she said. Andre Perry, an education-policy expert at the centrist Brookings Institution, suspects that conservative-libertarian philanthropists will not prop up homeschooling as they have charters and vouchers, “but they will use this wedge issue to hurt public schools,” he said.
Perry was once the C.E.O. of the Capital One New Beginnings Charter School Network, which launched in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, but he grew skeptical of the school-choice movement. Its funders tend to put their wealth toward alternatives to the public-school system, Perry told me, rather than lobbying state governments to implement more equitable funding models for public schools or to address the over-representation of Black children in special education. “Because of the pandemic, you’ve had organizations saying, Hey, this is an opportunity to again go after public schools,” Perry said. The Vela-funded homeschooling collectives don’t address root causes of educational disparities, he continued: “When people only focus on the escape hatch, it reveals they’re not interested in improving public education.”
Perry went on, “Slapping ‘Parents Union’ on something while you’re constantly trying to underfund public education—that’s not the kind of trade-off that suggests you’re interested in empowering Black people. It’s more of a sign that you’re trying to advance a conservative agenda against public systems.”
Six months into the pandemic, a consensus had emerged that many children, in all kinds of learning environments, were depressed, disengaged, and lonely in the Zoom simulacrum of school. “It’s Time to Admit It: Remote Education Is a Failure,” a headline stated in the Washington Post. “Remote Learning Is a Bad Joke,” The Atlantic declared. For some homeschoolers who rely heavily on online curricula, an all-screens, alone-in-a-room version of school can have a flattening effect even outside of a global health crisis. Kafele Gray, Kija’s son, who is now twenty-one and studying music business at Durham College, in Ontario, liked online homeschooling because it freed him from bullying. After two years, though, he was failing his classes and procrastinating, with assignments piling up. “It got kind of stressful,” he said. “You have to teach yourself and be on yourself.” He especially struggled with math. “When I’m in school, I’m better at math, because I have the teacher there to explain it to me—I’m seeing it broken down. When I was online, I would get it wrong, but I wouldn’t know why.” Still, when Kafele returned to his charter school, in eleventh grade, he’d learned to push himself to figure things out on his own. “School was less challenging” than it had been two years earlier, he told me. “I started getting A’s and B’s again.”
When the fall semester started, Bernita and Victoria tried to replicate the course load Victoria would have undertaken in a normal year. Bernita searched for online chemistry and trigonometry classes, and Victoria decided to take dance at the charter high school she’d attended before the pandemic. Bernita wanted the Engaged Detroit families to learn about Black history, so she signed them up for a six-week virtual course with the Detroit historian Jamal Jordan. Victoria bought pink notebooks and pens and a chalkboard for writing out the weekly schedule, and Bernita set up a desk for her daughter in the den. Though Bernita spent many hours on Zoom for her consulting work, the family ate lunch together most days.
As the semester continued, Victoria faded. She stayed up until seven in the morning and slept until two every afternoon, and she stopped doing chemistry. In October, Bernita told her that she couldn’t go on a planned post-pandemic trip to Los Angeles. Later that week, during her weekly coaching session with Kija, Bernita bragged about disciplining Victoria. Kija asked her to reconsider: teen-agers like sleeping in, and homeschooling allows kids to follow their natural rhythms. Besides, Kija said, Black kids are disciplined more than enough. Rather than punish Victoria, Kija suggested, Bernita should ask her daughter what she wanted to study.
The advice worked: Victoria replaced chemistry with a forensic-science class that met the state science requirements for graduation. She pored over lessons about evidence and crime scenes for hours at a time. By spring, she was waking up early to study for the core classes she needed to pass. One cold, sunny Wednesday, wearing a sweatshirt that read “Look Momma I’m Soaring,” Victoria sat down to puzzle out the trigonometry lessons that had always confused her. She emptied a pail of highlighters onto the table. At her high school, teachers hadn’t let her write in different colors, and she couldn’t make sense of her monochromatic notes. She opened a Khan Academy lesson on side ratios, and as the instructor explained the formulas for finding cosine and tangent Victoria drew triangles, highlighting each side with a different color.
The lesson included a nine-minute video and several practice questions. Every time Victoria attempted to find the cosine of the specified angle, she got the wrong answer. In a regular class, she would have pretended to understand. At home, she paused the video, rewound it, and flipped back through her notes. Eventually, she realized that she didn’t know which side was the hypotenuse. She Googled the word.
“The longest side of a right triangle,” she read. “Oh.”
She tried the formula for sine—opposite over hypotenuse—and this time a green check mark of victory flashed on her screen. Victoria solved for the angle’s tangent, and when she got it right she smiled. “O.K., I’m smart,” she said.
The parents of Engaged Detroit meet on Zoom every other Monday night. One evening in mid-March, Bernita set her laptop on the kitchen table next to a plate of broccoli and mashed potatoes. A dozen squares popped up on her screen, showing kitchens and living rooms from across the city. The parents updated one another on their children’s progress. Two preteens had started a jewelry-making business. An elementary-age boy with a stutter was relieved to be learning at home with his mom. Victoria watched for a minute, then went upstairs to feed her guinea pig, Giselle.
A mother, Jeanetta Riley, recounted how, at the beginning of lockdown, she had discovered that her daughter, Skye, a freshman in high school, was performing two grades behind in math. After she joined Bernita’s group, she found a tutor, and now, using Khan Academy, Skye had caught up to her grade level.
Touring Harlem, Then and Now, with Dawoud Bey
The photographer Dawoud Bey, whose work is currently the subject of a tight and topical retrospective at the Whitney Museum, stood on a Harlem sidewalk the other day and peered into the window of a Wells Fargo branch. Pedestrians streamed around him in both directions. “This is the former location of Lenox Lounge,” Bey said, referring to the blues-and-jazz club that showcased Billie Holiday and Miles Davis. He watched someone use an A.T.M. inside and frowned. “It was a major social and cultural center,” he said. “But you would never know.”
Bey, who was born and raised in New York, was in town from Louisiana, where he is shooting photographs that explore the legacy of plantations; the Sean Kelly Gallery, in Hudson Yards, will show the images in the fall. His day’s itinerary included visits to personal monuments in a Harlem that is vastly different from the one he frequented as a struggling artist almost fifty years ago. “This is where all my formative experiences took place,” he said. He wore a sky-blue blazer, a black button-down, and white jeans.
His second stop was St. John’s Baptist Church, a red brick building on 152nd Street. “This is where my mom and dad met,” he said, and took a seat on the steps. “After service, we’d go across the street and spend some time with the McMillans.” He pointed to a nearby building and wove in and out of vivid narratives: his aunt Louise’s membership in the parish’s women’s group; a dubious dry cleaner whose store may or may not still be around the corner; and a friend of his parents named Jimmy who used to work there.
“Jimmy was always in the back,” Bey said with a laugh. “It didn’t take me long to realize that that’s where the real business was happening! The place was probably a numbers joint.”
As Bey reconstructed his memories, an older man wearing a plaid shirt and a flat cap exited the church. Bey asked him if he knew the McMillans.
The man said “Oh, yeah!” and introduced himself as the Reverend Dr. John L. Scott, a pastor at St. John’s. “I’ve been here forty-eight years now,” he said. Scott ran through the McMillan family tree, recounting their move to North Carolina twenty-five years ago, but then he got distracted by a teen-ager walking by in a shirt that said “A Bathing Ape.” “Hey, man!” Scott shouted. “What that shirt say?” Having snared the boy’s attention, Scott took the opportunity to spell out the benefits of organized religion. The boy gave a polite smile and walked away.
Next, an elderly woman named Delores Lee, who wore a hat adorned with rhinestones, walked up, and Scott urged Bey to share his memories of the McMillans.“Oh, yes, the McMillans,” Lee said, beaming. “They used to have the boys in one room and the girls in the other after Sunday school.”
“That was beautiful,” Bey said, setting off to his next stop. “It’s nice to know some of that history is still alive.” On West 132nd Street, between Powell and Douglass Boulevards, his gait took on a determined quality. He was trying to find a spot where he had photographed someone forty-five years ago, when he was twenty-three. “It was the first image I shot that I actually liked,” he said. On his iPhone, he pulled up the picture, which is titled “A Man in a Bowler Hat,” and he scrutinized the windows of brownstones along the street for a potential match. No luck.
“I used to always try to be in Harlem on Sunday mornings,” he said, taking a breather on a stoop. “Because that’s when people were out. Church service always started around ten-forty-five, so I would try to be out here by ten o’clock.” He described how he’d had to overcome his shyness before he could ask the man in the bowler hat permission to take his photo. Then he took out his iPhone and posed for a photo of himself in front of an apartment building.
The last stop on the tour was the Loew’s Victoria Theatre, on 125th Street. Or, rather, what used to be the Loew’s Victoria. The site is now home to a twenty-eight-story tower containing apartments and a hotel, with room for arts and cultural spaces. In 1976, Bey shot an iconic photograph of a stylish young Black boy posed cockily in front of the theatre’s ornately tiled box office. The grand exterior is now mostly hidden behind a mess of construction tarps and scaffolding. Taking all this in, Bey charged across 125th Street, undeterred by the whoosh of traffic, to get a better view. He shook his head and peered at the neoclassical building front, flanked by Ionic columns, which anchored the new glass tower. “Well, at least they didn’t tear down the façade,” he said. ♦
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