The Langston Hughes Atrium [of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture] is available as a rental facility, so that Hughes’s resting place is also the location for receptions, conferences, and cocktail parties. Once I came up from the reading room to find a reception and conference taking place there. It was attended exclusively by Senegalese and was being conducted in French and Wolof. It seemed to be a conference focusing on business and real estate development in Senegal. I would have ignored it, but one of the many displays crowded into the space caught my eye. It showed the map of a vast city. I recognized its name, Touba. Along the stretch of West 116th Street called Little Senegal there is a shop called Touba Wholesale, whose business involves shipping goods to Africa. It is adjacent to a restaurant that advertises its dual specialties in “Jamaican and Southern Style Cuisine.” Several other African stores on 116th Street share the name Touba; it is also a brand of coffee sold in those same shops. The store windows are filled with shelves bearing cans of Touba coffee stacked in alluring displays, among other dry goods imported to supply homesick West Africans. The picture decorating the package shows a tall minaret rising from the mosque at the city’s center.
Touba is the holy city of the Mourides, a sect of Sufis in West Africa. There is a concentration of Mouride faithful in Harlem’s Little Senegal. Touba means “bliss,” referring to the eternal life afforded the pious. The city’s mosque holds the shrine and burial place of the Mouride saint Cheikh Amadou Bamba. It is now the destination of a pilgrimage so grand that detractors charge it as blasphemous for attempting to compete with Mecca. During the life of the Cheikh the same land was a vast wilderness; it was the place where he launched his teachings on how seekers could keep to the spiritual path by emphasizing work and generosity, along with other teachings that made him an enemy of French imperialism. According to the conference brochures, a massive suburb was being developed in the neighborhood of Touba—un projet de réalisation de 12,000 logements à Touba—presumably allowing those Mourides who are both faithful and well heeled to dwell as near as possible to the resting place of their ascended master.
On another occasion, I visited the library and found that a large gathering was taking place in the auditorium just beyond the Hughes memorial.
It was a public hearing convened by the United Nations special rapporteur on racism, who was then traveling the country to take testimony that he would present in a report to the international body. The hearing went on for hours, with hundreds of people signing up to bear witness to historic and contemporary experiences of injustice, violence, and indignity. These ranged from the treatment of Haitians seeking asylum to inequalities in education and housing, and from the plight of mothers whose children had been taken by a sometimes draconian child welfare system to the difficulties faced by ex-convicts who wished to find work. Some speakers presented their testimony with the cool detachment of academics. Others, relating the more immediate horrors of their daily lives, approached the rapporteur as if he were endowed with the power of direct intervention. The rapporteur listened to them all, and when the hearing was done, he thanked everyone profusely but took great care to mention that his only power was to listen and then to submit a written report to the larger body. He said he hoped the facts would be taken into consideration.
Around the same time, the library hosted an exhibition in its gallery on the art of that Senegalese mystic sect whose saint’s shrine is found at Touba. Their holy men minister with words. If you are in need of guidance or are in ill health, the priest will write out a prayer that is also a prescription. The ink is washed from the wooden board where he writes; you are cured by drinking the water that washed away the words. In other instances, he might write out the remedy on a cloth. You make a shirt from it and wear it till it falls apart, or wrap yourself in it and, while covered in this shroud, are healed as you sleep.
* Thanks to the publishers and Sharifa Rhodes Pitts for granting permission to use the excerpt. Photo Credit: Beatrice De Gea