Lift Every Voice: On My Fire Escape

The path leading to Ray Charles began on the fire escape of a rent-controlled apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant. It was here that I discovered Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Little Brown Baby, Shakespeare’s “Et tu, Brute?” and Willard Motley’s Knock on Any Door; scurried down a rabbit hole; and walked on Gwendolyn Brooks’s A Street in Bronzeville. I discovered Francie and her singing-waiter father (like my own father) in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and completed the homework assigned by the nuns of St. Michael Academy in Manhattan.

I wrote poetry on my fire escape. Teenage musings — often silly, banal.

My parents, John and Alice Bell, were avid readers, and our apartment was filled with books — particularly by African Americans.

My mother was a poet whose work was published in Freedomways and Ebony Jr!, and she could also draw beautifully. She eventually retired from the New York State Department of Labor. My father was a singing waiter, a bartender, a vivid storyteller, and a marvelous baritone.

I took for granted that Black people could write books. I never thought of myself as a writer, however. I enjoyed turning pages and crying or laughing or wondering — whatever John Oliver Killens, Zora Neale Hurston, or Countee Cullen wished me to do.

It was on my fire escape that my father, in winter, set out a large bowl for freshly fallen snow and then made snow ice cream for me; my brother, John; and my sisters, Patrellis and Marcia.

On my fire escape, high above the backyard (the escape was later placed on the front of the building at 219 Bainbridge Street), I could read books from the Lewis Avenue Public Library, with its huge fireplace and hearth. I would go back home and climb out onto my fire escape, sit down on my blanket, and swing my skinny legs through the bars.

On my fire escape, I read about Langston Hughes’s “crystal stair” and Richard Wright’s Mississippi. I had a room of my own — high above the yards and close to the trees. Writing poetry, yes. Writing books — not yet!

From the May/June 2019 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: CSK Book Awards at 50. Find more information about ordering copies of the special issue.

Sharon Bell Mathis
Sharon Bell Mathis won the 1974 CSK Author Award for Ray Charles (Crowell).

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