Quiet as kept, the annual African American Day Parade takes place in Harlem every second Sunday in September attracting nearly a million people every year. From the fire, police, and correction departments to the veterans associations and grand lodges, from the Boys and Girls Scouts to the fraternities and sororities, the step and drill teams, the African American Day Parade brings together a wide array of groups that do not necessarily share the same beliefs but put aside their differences to come together as one.
The parade begins at 111 Street, just north of Central Park, and travels up Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard to 136 Street, marching through the heart of Harlem with pride and dignity. Since the turn of the twentieth century, Harlem has been the mecca for African American, Caribbean, and African peoples in search of a better life. Exemplified by the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, the neighborhood has become world famous as the epicenter of African American culture and pride.
Founded in 1968, the parade was established as an independent organization and does not accept contributions but instead was developed with the concept of volunteerism as a means of bringing the community together to honor the contributions of the many groups that maintain the traditions set forth over a century ago. Continuing in the tradition of the legendary James Van Der Zee, Jamel Shabazz has made it his life’s mission to document the African-American experience of our age, and has dedicated over two decades to photographing the parade.
In the late 80s, Shabazz happened upon the parade by chance. At that time in New York’s history, the city was under siege with the twin plagues of crack and AIDS ravaging the African-American community. The parade stood in sharp contrast to the negative images being recycled by the mainstream media. Shabazz’s work has always stood as a counterpoint, and antidote if you will, to these negative portrayals. Without erasing the harsh realities of the day and age, Shabazz’s work offers a larger context by which to understand black America today.
He observes, “Since first becoming introduced to the work of James Van De Zee back in the early 80s, I realized then as a documentary photographer my higher calling, and that calling was to lend my vision to contribute to the preservation of African American history from my perspective. Being a member of that community I understood how important it was to use my camera to capture images that presented a fair and balance view of African Americans, told by one that fully understood the impact that negative stereotype created due to the oversaturation of images that reflected poverty, despair, and crime.”
He continues, “I want my photographs to show a people who have endure years of struggle, who are still standing despite the constant obstacles that still exist in many of their daily lives. I want my images to the represent the invisible people who are not often seen by people outside of their communities as well as the world communities, they are the numerous civil servants that contribute to keeping New York City in full operation mode, then there are the dedicated father's, intact families, ambitious college students, and countless young people who have beat all odds, and have hopes and dreams to contribute to the larger society.”
As a military veteran and a retired city worker, Shabazz gravitates towards organizations and groups, understanding the dynamics of hierarchy as it asserts itself in large numbers. His ability to act as an independent gives him access to all groups, and it is here, at the African American Day Parade that we reap the reward for his love of the community, enjoying an irrepressible source of positive energies. Harlem is where it’s at, after all.
Shabazz observes, “Since the early 1900s, Harlem has been the Mecca for African Americans and Caribbeans seeking a better life, from W.E.B. DU Bois, Marcus Garvey, Nina Simone, Harry Belafonte, and Langston Hughes. The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement that inspired creativity and pride. For African Americans throughout America, Harlem still serves as a tourist destination for those seeking to embrace a very rich and important history. For the thousands of entertainers that participate in the African American Day Parade, they are well aware that they have to face a Harlem audience, so they dedicated months of rigorous preparation to provide a stellar and memorable performance. These well organized drum lines comes from all over the city, and even as far as Baltimore, Maryland and other east coast cities just to share their incredible talent, for many these performers are the main attraction.”
It is this attraction that pulls hundreds of thousands to perform and attend every year, and it is through the lens of Jamel Shabazz that we may enjoy this moment. As we gaze upon the faces of those who we honor, the everyday people of the world in which we live, we do well to remember that we know just our little corner of the Universe. It is the photographs of Shabazz that bring us face to face with those we might not otherwise know, though they may pass us by as we come and go.