Thursday, May 10, 2012

BLACK HERO, BLACK MASK...An excerpt from the famous novel concerning the exploits of The Harlem Shadow

This is an excerpt from the famous novel....BLACK HERO, BLACK MASK...written by Nigel Shaw, the fabled reporter who covered the exploits of The Harlem Shadow during the thirties and forties. This is only the introduction for that book but it gives you a taste of Shaw's beautiful prose style and his admiration for the man he considers the first African American Superhero. The cover art by Rodolfo Buscaglia.

“A Shadow comes to Harlem

By Nigel Shaw, reporter and co-owner of the African American newspaper…The Midnight Sun


It was in 1929 that I first laid my eyes on The Harlem Shadow. He was to be the first of many, righteous and dashing pop culture icons that would be later recognized as superheroes. Historically speaking, though, he holds a special distinction from all others as he was the first African American Super-Hero to get up and do his “thang” in the heart of New York’s Black MeccaHarlem, USA.

At the time I was a struggling hack reporter…I could write and was filled with enough vigor and vitriol to take on the world. I was frustrated with the white man for the excess indignities that had been heaped upon me since my birth as a black man; but I was equally perturbed by the ignorant and lazy masses of my own kind who had either accepted their roles as socially adjusted chimpanzees or worse…turned to vice and became the vile beasts we had always been accused of being.

My first expose for The Sun was about a menacing and influential gang lord nicknamed Bossman. Bossman on the surface was a hungry, young lion who had seen enough blood and killing down south that it sickened him. He came to Harlem during the Great Black Exodus with one thing on his mind…payback. His family had been ravaged by the Klan. His job taken from him by mean spirited whites who still looked at black folks as animals. By the time this dude got to New York City…he had a rage on that wouldn’t quit. He turned his considerable talents towards the numbers game, bootlegging, extortion, murder. I found the plight of the African American male desolate and discouraging…and Bossman would be the first subject of my scathing, urban critiques. He was a product of the hate filled- south and the opportunity laden North. The white man had left nothing for us except the underworld. If that was the case…then Bossman had assumed the role of The Devil and he ruled Harlem with a pistol in one hand and a pitchfork in the other.

The thing that has bothered me over the years when looking back on this episode, is that people have accused me of not understanding the extreme social dynamics that created Bossman. That type of thinking is erroneous…I certainly did understand the physical/psychological/ spiritual boiler plate that was the deep south. Negroes had been put through the mill so many times that we had no sense of identity and we were a race on the run. But The Harlem Renaissance changed all of that. We became AMERICANS during this wonderful, unabashed period of BLACK CONSCIOUSNESS. The Bossman and his ilk were becoming relics…they were jamming up the works for legitimate brothers like myself who wanted Negroes to be taken seriously. My question was…with all of his administrative skills and his vast book of connections…why didn’t Bossman use his influence to uplift Harlem? Why when so many men and women were trying to show the world that Negroes were race of creators and pioneers with a unique and varied vision did Bossman want to throw a wrench in the game?

My expose…entitled “THE GANGS OF HARLEM” was meant to be an alarming and galvanizing call to the citizens of Dark Manhattan. This was to be a battle between the common black man of America and the Machiavellian black mobster. In my opinion, the route of gangster was a dead end for a black man. There would be no way that the City of New York would tolerate mob violence from droves of black gangs. There would be massive bloodshed and the North would be transformed into a killing field not unlike the south. My article was a preemptive strike to squelch the formation of a COLORED MAFIOSO. But make no mistake…this was also a battle for identity. My article was to be the opening salvo in the war for the souls of black folk.

I became the bull’s eye of black underworld aggression. My life and the lives of the Midnight Sun staff were in jeopardy…I should have quit, but my editor and mentor…the incomparable and insufferable, Walt Rhodes…refused. He said that the Midnight Sun’s articles about the escalating gang violence would be like turning on a light in your kitchen and watching the roaches scurry for the shadows. He said let’s leave the lights on…and see how many roaches we can stomp.

It’s funny how turning on the light on the Harlem Underworld wound up casting a shadow that became the bane of all criminals who dared set foot between 110th St and Lexington Ave. This would be my “guardian shadow” for the next twenty years. The vigilante known as The Harlem Shadow would engage Bossman and his court of rogues in some of the most vicious and exciting turf wars ever to be fought in New York City.

The Harlem Shadow was instantly iconic. He was a dashing 6’4. A dark tower of a man swathed in black pinstripes…a domino mask…slouch hat and leather gloves. Sometimes he sported a trench-coat that flapped behind him like dark wings. His eyes were piercing and sinister; or they could be kind and full of humility…he was at once an ominous phantasm and a holy vision of retribution and protection. Square jawed and bow legged…his arms were lean ropes of muscle. His voice…perhaps one of his greatest attributes was that chilling baritone…a melodious, articulate register that seemed to originate from the bowels of some deep cavern.

I was afforded the rare opportunity to watch him in action on several occasions in the early thirties; he moved like the most agile of dancers in a ballet but could throw a punch like Joe Louis in his prime. He haunted the misty thoroughfares and blind alleys of Harlem…the shadows were his domain but he was not afraid to dispense his brand of justice in the daylight either. He was unnaturally skilled in hand to hand combat, it was apparent that he had been instructed in several martial disciplines…which ones I was never certain of but I am told that his primary fighting style was that of  Capoiera. He was also famous for carrying two chrome plated revolvers which he once told me in an interview had the names…Alpha and Omega. He never really explained the significance of those names but I’m pretty sure it meant that if things were serious enough that The Harlem Shadow had to pull some heat on you…it would be the first and last time you ever saw those guns.

By now it is common knowledge that the Harlem Shadow was originally a World War 1 soldier named Linden Somerset. Private First Class Somerset was part of a fabled program that used black infantry as guinea pigs to test certain theories about paranormal potentiality in humans…it was called Prometheus. A council of eight, white superior officers sent Linden Somerset to the Himalayas to study and learn specifically remote viewing, astral projection, teleportation, and telekinesis. They wished to exploit these kinds of abilities in future generations of soldiers and Somerset was to be the example of what one man could achieve with his body and mind in total synchronicity. After becoming an actual and honorary lama, Somerset was warned by the U.S Military that if he did not cease his metaphysical training and return to America for observation…he would be considered an enemy of the state. These threats resulted in an intense manhunt that Somerset says had him on the run through India, Manchuria and finally the Phillipines. Throughout his exotic journeys he would be labeled a fugitive, a monk,  a corsair, and sorcerer by those who witnessed his queer powers.

At the end of his odyssey…somehow, Somerset returned to the states…evading capture by the US government and acquiring a new, legal identity (incognegro as he later referred to it in his autobiography, A Living Shadow). He then joined the masses of Negroes who migrated to Harlem. It is only speculation on my part but…I believe that Somerset was moved by what he’d seen on the other side of the world and what he saw happening in Harlem. This Renaissance he returned to was the grand stage for the appearance of the black man’s latest and greatest innovation…The Negro Superhero…and Somerset with his audacious vines, his mystical powers, black domino mask and slouch hat captured the imaginations of millions and showed the world that we had excellence in us.

The existence of The Harlem Shadow was polarizing. For a long time…white experts and scientists had insisted that Negroes were incapable of manifesting paranormal abilities and simply did not have the genetic make up to support such anomalies. Of course…The Harlem Shadow’s appearance in the black community and his seeming invulnerability was a rallying point for the “Renaissance” He was “our” man… “our” hero. His amazing cache of powers were formidable and awe inspiring to say the least but it was what he stood for that resonated.  His notions of right and wrong, civic duty, education and national pride made him more than just a tough guy looking to bounce hoodlum heads off the pavement…but a man of character…a man of his word…a man of action.

A real life superhero.

There are many other angles from which we can view the exploits of the Harlem Shadow…and maybe those different vantage points will be explored in subsequent volumes of this series…but for now…let me introduce you to the dark and wondrous streets of yesteryear…the time is 1929 and the place is Dark Manhattan…the sun has just slipped out of view and the velvet drapes of night have been drawn closed. There is a slight mist emanating from the manhole covers and the eclectic sounds of brass horns and the revelry of the cabarets fill the air. It’s the age of Jazz and the zoot suit. Herbert Hoover wins the white house in a landslide…and the Great Depression is looming on the horizon.

Lurking out there is the element of crime and its minions. Evil is omnipresent in the big city but like day and night there is also good …and that good takes its form as a  lone avenging shadow…the two gunned patron saint of Negroes…the Prince of Darkness…

The Harlem Shadow.

Never Relent.

Nigel Shaw

October 5



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