Review by Minister of information JR
One of the most interesting books I have read this year is “Harlem Godfather: The Rap on my Husband Ellsworth ‘Bumpy’ Johnson” by Mayme Johnson and Karen Quinones Miller. Most of this book is set in Harlem, New York, in the ‘40s and ‘50s. I finished this page-turner in a few days while flying back and forth across the country, and it had me not wanting to go to sleep just to see what would happen next.
I enjoyed this book because it made a legendary mythical figure like Bumpy real and put this complex individual in the political context of history. The book features engagements with Jewish gangster Dutch Schultz and Italian Mafia boss Lucky Luciano, as well as with Harlem numbers boss Madame Queen Stephanie St. Clair, just like in the movie “Hoodlum.”
It also includes stories and reflections about Billie Holiday, Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik Shabazz), famous tap dancer and movie star Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, famous boxer Sugar Ray Robinson and more. It is a book about Harlem’s Black underworld during this period, with gangsters beating, shooting and killing.
It also shows Bumpy in a more personal light, alongside his wife and his children. It includes pressure, love, hate and betrayal. It brings to life the illegal Black lottery known as “the numbers” and the gamblers and hustlers that played and maintained it and other games and ran the streets.
Just to give you a taste of the action in the book, “I went with Bumpy to a Georgia Skin Game at the Theresa Hotel. Skin was Bojangles’ favorite card game just like it was Bumpy’s. It was about 4:30 a.m., and Bojangles was by this time drunk, and mad because he’d lost all his money. ‘I know y’all niggers been cheating me,’ a drunken Bojangles said. ‘And I’ma kill all y’all motherfuckers up in here right now if you don’t give me back my money.’ Then he pulled a pearl-handled gun and shot a couple of bullets into the ceiling.” I would say more but I would rather you read the book.
In another part of the book, “Bumpy had started an affair with Helen Lawrenson, the white editor of Vanity Fair, and was taking her to dinner at the Alhambra Bar and Theatre on 126th Street and Seventh Avenue when Bumpy spotted Rollins. He pulled out a knife and jumped on Rollins, and the two men rolled around on the floor for a few moments before Bumpy stood up and straightened his tie. Rollins remained on the floor, his face and body badly gashed, and one of his eyeballs hanging from the socket by ligaments. Bumpy calmly stepped over the man, picked up a menu and said he suddenly had a taste for spaghetti and meatballs.”
One of my favorite parts in the book is when it describes Bumpy as being a race conscious man in jail and in the streets, even in the face of the Italian Mafia and mob boss Lucky Luciano and Jewish gangster Dutch Schultz. It also talks about Bumpy being bitter with Malcolm X after his assassination because he offered Malcolm protection for free and Malcolm turned it down.
We often hear about the Harlem Renaissance, but we rarely hear about Harlem’s ghetto heroes and sheroes and the lives they lived. Maybe after such Black biographical books as this one and Lil’ D’s “Weight,” our young people will stop trying to emulate white thugs and come to see that no matter where we as Black people come from or what we strive for, we always have to fight this corrupt system as our main adversary.