LIFE ON BANANA KELLY
I was born on April 5, 1937, at a time when my family was living on Morningside Avenue in Harlem. The dominant figure of my youth was a small man, 5 ft. 2 in. tall. In my mind's eye, I am leaning out the window of our apartment, and I spot him coming down the street from the subway station. He wears a coat and tie, and a small fedora is perched on his head. He has a newspaper tucked under his arm. His overcoat is unbuttoned, and it flaps at his sides as he approaches with a brisk, toes-out stride. He is whistling and stops to greet the druggist, the baker, our building super, almost everybody he passes. To some kids on the block he is a faintly comical figure. Not to me. This jaunty, confident little man is Luther Powell, my father.
He emigrated from Jamaica in his early 20s, 17 years before I was born. He never discussed his life in Jamaica, but I do know that he was the second of nine children born to poor folk in Top Hill. He literally came to America on a banana boat, a United Fruit Co. steamer that docked in Philadelphia. He went to work for Ginsburg's (later named the Gaines Co.), manufacturers of women's suits and coats at 500 Seventh Avenue in Manhattan's garment district. He started out working in the stock room, moved up to become a shipping clerk, and eventually became foreman of the shipping department.
Luther Powell never let his race or station affect his sense of self. West Indians like him had come to this country with nothing. Every morning they got on that subway, worked like dogs all day, got home at 8 at night, supported their families and educated their children. If they could do that, how dare anyone think they were less than anybody's equal? That was Pop's attitude.
My mother was the eldest of her generation--of nine children--and came from a slightly more elevated social station in Jamaica. She had a high school education, which my father lacked. ("Him who never finished high school," she would mutter when Pop pulled rank on family matters.) Before emigrating, Mom had worked as a stenographer in a lawyer's office. She was a staunch union supporter, a member of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. My father, the shipping-room foreman, considered himself part of management. Initially, they were both New Deal Democrats. We had that famous wartime photograph of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, with the Capitol and the flag in the background, hanging in the foyer of our apartment for as long as I can remember. My mother remained a die-hard Democrat. But Pop, by 1952, was supporting Dwight Eisenhower.
After early years in Harlem, I grew up largely at 952 Kelly Street in the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx, where my family had moved in 1943, when I was six. In those days, Hunts Point was heavily Jewish mixed with Irish, Polish, Italian, blacks and Hispanics. The block of Kelly Street next to ours was slightly curved, and the neighborhood had been known for years as "Banana Kelly." We never used the word ghetto. Ghettos were somewhere in Europe. We lived in the tenements.