I need you to go to New York with me this weekend.” That is what Ms. Milele said after saying hello. I was at work at the Urban League, looking out my window onto the parking lot. “What?” I said. “I am going to the Harlem Fine Arts Show and I need you to come with me.” It was Super Bowl weekend and I had plans to eat a lot of cheese and watch the game. I also felt like I didn’t have as much get up and go as I had the other times, I accompanied her to the East Coast, but she did say New York.
She knocked down all of my excuses and said she was at dialysis and was getting ready to be able to make the trip and if she could do it at her age, all of my excuses were ridiculous. I called my partner. Wouldn’t he be devastated if I left and didn’t watch the Super Bowl with him? “I would wonder if you were crazy to turn down a trip to New York.” Is what he said. I had never been and this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. So, I said yes.
I packed and prepared and wondered if I was making the right choice. She told me that we would be staying at a YWCA Hostel. I thought that sounded ridiculous for a woman her age to be staying in a bunk bed, but it was her money and I knew she could be frugal when she wanted to be. We flew into New York. When I got off the plane, I was pretty overwhelmed, but we found our way to the taxi stand and headed to our hostel. I had a radio show interview in the car with Henry Sanders Jr. for Madison365 and it was all just surreal. Talking to Henry on the phone, looking up at skyscrapers and the sights and sounds of New York. I felt very lucky.
We pull up to a brownstone in Harlem. It was not the YWCA hostel, it turned out to be a Bed and Breakfast called the Sugar Hill Inn that had a Harlem Renaissance theme. I was excited. We figure out how to access the building and enter the beautiful space. There is no elevator, so Ms. Milele scurries up the stairs to the room. Our rooms are on the very top floor. This is about 4 flights up and she tells me to get the bags. It takes me about a half hour and every ounce of oxygen I have to get them. How was I being out performed by an 82-year-old woman on dialysis?
The rooms were beautiful, and we had a suite with two private rooms and a bathroom. Each room had the names of famous Harlem Renaissance influencers like Dizzy and Lena. We ate and got some sleep. The next morning, we head down to breakfast. The owner is preparing a nice breakfast. Only, he is a white man, Irish from his accent and has the look of an anarchist (her description.) Ms. Milele could not hide her shock and dismay. I am sure if she could have gotten a refund, she would have, but instead she did what she does best. She peppered him with questions, uncovering that his wife was a Black artist and this was their labor of love.
“How do you feel making money off of the history of Black people,” she asks. He wasn’t too happy with the question and I leaned over and said to her when he was in the kitchen: “He is cooking our food. You may want to wait until it’s done.” Their interactions over the days we were there are forever seared in my memory, she was not impressed and she let him know it.
We head out to the location of the Harlem Fine Arts Show at the Historic Riverside Church. As the largest traveling African Diasporic art show in the U.S., the event spans four days. We would see a vast array of Black artists and she would visit every, single, one. The highlight for her was seeing Charlayne Hunter Gault, an award-winning journalist, author, and school desegregation pioneer, speak. The highlight for me was seeing my friend Adem Tesfaye who lived in New York.
It was my last great adventure with Ms. Milele, but worth every moment. She taught me to live each day as if it were my last. I laugh when I think of how much energy she had and how I could barely keep up. She was truly a force of nature. I worked for her off and on since the late 90’s and credit her with putting a camera in my hand and helping me to find my passion. That’s what she did, she helped us to see what we were holding back and she insisted we share those gifts with the world.