The Caribbean Cultural Center Africa Diaspora Institute, which moved to its latest location on 125th Street in October of 2016, celebrated its new home with the three-part exhibition “Home, Memory, and the Future,” which focused entirely on Harlem. When the Manhattan Sideways team visited in the summer of 2017, the Center was in the midst of the second part of their exhibition: “Harlem and Home in the Global Context.” We were eager to learn more about the project and were fortunate enough to chat with Janet, one of the staffmembers, as we browsed through the art on display.
Janet began our conversation by clarifying that “the Center is not a museum. We don’t collect here.” Instead, there is an ever-changing array of different exhibitions that usually revolve around a theme. Those themes are always under the overarching topic of the African Diaspora, as one of the Center’s core missions is to raise awareness of how the forced dispersal of Africans and their customs affected other cultures. Namely, it demonstrates how different cultures and their respective arts are interrelated due to the common thread of African influence.
This goal has been an essential one for the Center ever since its beginnings in 1976, when its founder, Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, realized that there was a general ignorance in regards to Caribbean, Latin American, and African cultures. Thus, through education and outreach programs, she sought to enlighten others. Equally as significant, she modeled herself and her institution on the concept of being an “artivist,” which involves finding the intersection of social justice and art and understanding how positive social change can be effected through creative mediums.
The Center tries to reach students at a young age with its Teaching Living Cultures initiative, tailored for those in Pre-K through 12th grade, which provides exposure to the various art forms associated with the African Diaspora. It also continues to modernize its methods of connecting with and gaining the interest of the public through a series of apps that better appeal to their young audiences.
The CCCADI also maintains that it is never too late to educate oneself, which is why it offers programs for adults via Community Arts University Without Walls, which offers international exchanges that are open to everyone. By creating a platform for people to go abroad and immerse themselves in foreign customs and art forms, the Center hopes to promote “conscious cultural tourism.” At the time of our visit, Janet told us that the staffmembers were busy preparing for their trip to Puerto Rico, where they planned to visit local artists’ studios and gain a direct understanding of the country’s contemporary art scene. She reiterated that although these exchange programs are open to anyone, they are often used by members of the Latinx community to reconnect with their cultures.
Another important aspect of the organization is the Sacred Traditions project. Janet revealed that the Center is “unofficially known for decolonizing African secret traditions,” meaning that it seeks to dispel negative stigma surrounding certain belief systems. She said that many people hold misconceptions about so-called “fringe” beliefs like santería, voodoo, or gagá, which are often practiced throughout the Caribbean. The CCCADI helps to clear up misconceptions and demystify these sacred traditions in various ways, be it through trips to African nations, symposiums on African and indigenous beliefs, or exhibitions and concerts. The Center also demonstrates how elements of these traditions live on today, highlighting the relevance of learning about past practices and honoring the collective cultural heritage created by the African Diaspora.
“People gravitate towards Harlem, ” said Leon Ellis, the accomplished entrepreneur behind Harlem Underground. Leon Ellis grew up on the island of Jamaica and went to college in Alabama. He would often stay in New York over the summers as he sold Black history books door to door to pay for his education. Upon graduating, he chose to remain in Harlem permanently and embark on a bevy of intriguing business ventures throughout the 1990s, including a gaming store, Emily’s — a restaurant named after his mother — and a barbecue joint named for his father. Today, his clothing shop is surrounded by two newer ventures: Chocolat, a full-service restaurant, and Ganache Cafe, a coffee shop. His projects as a restaurateur aside, Leon felt that he wanted to “spread the word about Harlem all over the world. ” With the neighborhood already a recognizable name, when Leon would travel outside the city dressed in Harlem gear, many people wanted to know where he purchased his clothing. Thus, Harlem Underground began with a mission: “We look to create an image or projection of what Harlem is — its music, its culture, its people. ”The shop hires local designers to create merchandise that revolves around the “raw theme of Harlem NYC. ” To Leon, this is the essence of his success. “Our resources are developed here, and we expend those resources here. We embrace the Harlem community, and we believe it embraces us. ”(Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, after years of operating on 125th Street, Harlem Underground consolidated its locations and now remains open on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. )
Oasis Jimma Juice Bar has moved to 3163 Broadway, New York, NY 10027. As we enjoyed a nutritious quinoa and vegetable bowl and a "Times Square" smoothie, Abdusalam, the owner of Oasis, was kind enough to sit down with the Manhattan Sideways team and share his story. He was born in Ethiopia, “the birthplace of coffee, ” and grew up on his family’s farm. His view of food as essential to health was shaped early on by his parents, as his father had a holistic clinic that used what their farm produced to help the community and provide adequate nutrition. His mother would cook for the visiting patients, and she taught Abdusalam to do the same — even though it was uncommon for boys to learn to cook in Ethiopia. After his father’s passing, Abdusalam left home at 14 and entered the mining industry to make a living. It was quite a change from his upbringing, he confessed, since he went from a farm where food was fresh and readily available to an area where both food and water were scarce. In retrospect, he realized that this is where his troubles with nutrition began, as it was the first in a long string of environments where he had little to no access to healthy foods. Even so, he drew on his mother’s teachings and chose to become the cook for the other miners. He retained this position until the outbreak of war forced him to flee the country and join a refugee camp in Kenya, which suffered from a scarcity of resources. It was during his stay at the camp that he was diagnosed with diabetes, a condition that played a large role in reshaping his understanding of food. Abdusalam faced many trials upon emigrating to the US in 2004. When he arrived in Harlem, he was broke and did not speak any English. Language was not the only new element he had to adapt to: he was astonished by American food. Living in refugee camps and traveling across the Middle East left him malnourished, and he admitted that, “supermarkets looked like heaven to me. ” But the most shocking aspect for him was not the abundance of food, but rather its high fat content and overly processed nature. “I didn’t know food was unsafe. In my country, food is safe, and if we don’t have it, we don’t have it. ” He was struggling to provide for himself and his family by working three jobs, so fast food and other cheap, unhealthy options were the most convenient for him. With time, he developed increasing health complications as a result of his poor diet, heavy workload and diabetes. To combat these, he began researching nutrition and wellness, which eventually led to the decision to eliminate all processed foods from his diet. He quickly saw what a positive impact this made for him and his overall wellbeing. These results motivated Abdusalam to open his first juice store on 125th Street in November 2012, where he could impart his philosophy about food to others. “It’s not about business for me, it’s about sharing my idea that food should be good, affordable, healthy and delicious. ” To aid in this goal, the walls of his shop are covered in facts about food and tips for healthy eating. Since its opening, according to Abdusalam, Oasis Jimma Juice Bar has become one of the top five juice bars in the city. Inspired by this success, in 2017 he opened another location on 139th Street, in his own neighborhood, to continue providing Harlem with access to better options. His passion for his mission was obvious. “People should learn about food — how to eat, how to cook, how to buy, ” he insisted. When we visited during the summer of 2017, Abdusalam told us that he was in the process of opening the Oasis Power House on 139th Street. His plan is for this to function as a “no judgment zone” where people will be encouraged to teach their particular talents and passions to anyone who wants to learn them. He envisions it as a space where those who are seeking meaning and purpose in their lives can find it by sharing what they love with others, be it piano lessons, arts and crafts, writing, or any other skill. Abdusalam hopes to continue giving back to Harlem, his adopted community, by sharing his story and ensuring that others can learn from and be inspired by his life experiences.
Stopping into the firehouses on the side streets of Manhattan has continued to be a true joy for me and the Manhattan Sideways team. There is always an interesting story to be heard and warm, generous people to meet. When we visited the fire station on 125th, we were greeted by an apologetic fireman who told us that their trucks were out responding to a gas leak in the area. He did, however, show us the truck they had on loan, which some of the men were busy cleaning and which he called their Special Operations Command vehicle. We were immediately curious about the truck, and he explained that it is equipped with a dewatering shower unit intended for use after any kind of catastrophe that has potentially contaminated firemen or civilians. This was conceived following 9/11, but we were pleased to learn that in 2017 it had still only been used for training. It has never been needed in the real world. “It’s something we hope we never have to do, ” the fireman confessed.