At the Cotton Club in Harlem, from left, are Elenoe Smith ’06, Shantal Souvenir ’05, and gospel singer Helen Slade. (Elyse Graham ’07)

March 10, 2004: From the Editor

We are preparing this issue in mid-February, halfway into the University’s celebration of Black History Month. This year, a student committee put together a program centered on the arts in the African diaspora – a wide-ranging celebration that includes a presentation of West African drumming, “survival poetry” by a bisexual, biracial woman who was sexually assaulted, and a discussion about African Americans at Princeton. But not all of it has taken place on campus.

“We had a theme of the arts, and so the Harlem Renaissance really stood out to us,” said Ayana Harry ’05, one of two student organizers of the month’s activities. “We wanted to give people a feel for what the neighborhood was really about, to let them see the neighborhood traditions, and to dispel some of the myths about Harlem.” And so one frigid Sunday morning, about 30 Princetonians – a racially mixed group of students, faculty, and staff – boarded a bus and traveled to Harlem for the day. Among the visitors were two Italian graduate students, PAW’s managing editor and her 13-year-old daughter, and a retired principal research physicist from the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, T. K. Chu, who has been interested in black America since he first was a Taiwanese student in the United States and keenly felt the role of outsider.

For many, it was the first visit to a neighborhood they knew only from movies and news accounts. The first stop was the Abyssinian Baptist Church, which was founded by former slaves in 1808 and has served as a religious center, and a center of activism, for black Harlemites ever since. But this Sunday was not for solemnity alone, and after church, the group headed to the Cotton Club, a once white-owned club in the heart of a black community. In the club’s early days, even its name conveyed a plantation environment, where – with few exceptions – white patrons came to enjoy entertainment by black performers. Today, the club is owned by an African American; Harry said the students wanted to visit the Cotton Club to “be part of the history of reclaiming it” for Harlem.

By all accounts, they succeeded. During a brunch of traditional Southern fried chicken, catfish, macaroni and cheese, and more, the group listened to gospel entertainment and quickly became part of the show. Elenoe Smith ’06 and Shantal Souvenir ’05, members of the Princeton University Gospel Ensemble, were sitting near the front when the club’s lead singer announced she was going to sing “Silver and Gold,” a gospel standard. “Oooh, that’s my song,” whispered Elenoe to her friend, and the club singer, hearing this, invited the two students to join her on stage. They started singing background; soon Shantal had the microphone and was singing the lead, loudly and gloriously.

During another hymn, Chu, the physicist, was enjoying the singing – “I discovered that gospel singing was uplifting and fun but it could also be physically demanding,” he said – when the microphone came to him. He took it, and heartily contributed his “amens.”

At that point, a woman sitting nearby observed: “You can’t say Princeton doesn’t have soul.”


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