St. Louis author wins IPPY award for Harlem memoir
When Terry Mulligan was new to St. Louis, she grew tired of watching her new friends’ eyes grow big when she said she was from Harlem. The Harlem she knew during the 1950s and ‘60s wasn’t full of drug addicts and drunks on doorsteps. She grew up on Sugar Hill, on the top of a cliff overlooking a river 600 feet down. Sugar Hill was full of light and space and beauty. It was where the sun rose over Harlem.
Now, forty years later, Terry (Jean) Baker Mulligan has produced a masterpiece of 1900s Harlem history mixed with culture and personal details of the everyday life of a little girl growing up in the Sugar Hill enclave. “Sugar Hill: Where the Sun Rose Over Harlem” has just won a prestigious 2012 Independent Publishers Book (IPPY) award, taking first place gold in the multicultural nonfiction adult category.
The book reads like a who’s who of Black history (with Fidel Castro thrown in) as figures such as Thurgood Marshall, Reverend Ike and Willie Mays intersected with young Jean’s life. She adds the stories of older relatives and transplanted southern relatives to give a sense of Harlem and African-American history before she was born. Mulligan says one of the men Isabel Wilkerson profiled in “The Warmth of Other Suns” followed the same path north as Mulligan’s Uncle Smitty, even living on the same block.
“Sugar Hill’s” tone is factual, fitting in well with the history, but the characters are so colorful they walk right off the pages. Mulligan can turn a phrase when she wants to, “… if she had said the moon was made of chicken fat, I would have given it some thought,” and her feisty, cussing Gram doesn’t mince words: “Your new friend is poor white trash and she smells.” Black and white photos of family, homes, views, and iconic Harlem buildings of the era give a more visceral sense of history. Mulligan’s father was one of Cab Calloway’s “boys,” and there’s a shot of him dancing at the Cotton Club. A list of footnotes and a proper index finish off this very readable book impressive in its intimate portrayal of life in the ever-changing Harlem.
Terry left Harlem as the drug culture began to take over, but returned this spring to fanfare for her book release, noting, “I’ve never seen so many white people in Harlem.” She says many affluent blacks are returning to their roots there, too, and housing prices are climbing upward. Harlem is re-inventing itself again.