Tropical Harlem

Photograph of 9204 Bridge Lane, lightning.
Fig. 1. Photograph of 9204 Bridge Lane, lightning. July 18, 2006. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Sitting in my apartment, in parks, and on my roof, I have tried to keep track of the ebb and flow of the seasons in the relentless monotony of a socially distanced New York. Keeping track has been made all the more difficult by the seasonal monotony that my research asks of me—working on a dissertation about literary representations of the tropics has me fixated on heat even when I do not feel it.

Watching the summer's violent thunderstorms through my apartment windows, I found myself shocked by how forceful, how tropical, how reminiscent of my childhood in Ghana these downpours were. Although I had been trying to write about how the notion of temperate climates was as ideological as it was meteorological, I wondered how a climate this fickle, whose fluctuations had been heightened by the blurring together of time in the pandemic, could really be considered anything resembling moderate.

The ferocity of the lightning that accompanied the storms was beautiful, sublime even. Yet, watching for weeks as rain came sleeting down, as the sky appeared to be seized by some deep existential shrug, I couldn't help but wonder whether this tempestuousness was only literal, rather than a metaphor for the seasons that lay ahead. In July and August, with infection rates down, and nary a tourist in sight, my Harlem neighborhood took on what I can only describe as a sort of harrowed glee. Amidst the pictures of neighborhood fixtures who had succumbed to the virus, the curbside candles with the occasional glass of libation, the neighborhood came alive again: the fire hydrants gushed water onto the streets almost incessantly, quenching nobody but the occasional round of playing children and the parched asphalt. The roses entered their muddied summer bloom, what looked to be a regular house plant sprouted a lonely bud that blossomed into the fragrant white flag of a peace lily, a symbol of the times.

My dissertation, which examines the connections between empire and discourses of climate in the tropics, uses readings of novels by Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, Alejo Carpentier, Pepetela, and Emmanuel Dongala to argue that empire and climate are slippery and mutually constitutive terms, and work through the puzzles that remain for our understandings and representations of the tropics in the aftermath of empire. In what had felt like a fit of inspiration, I gave it the working title of “The Hostile Tropics.” Stuck as I was by what seemed to be a never-ending loop of revisions on my second chapter, it had started to feel as though that my dissertation was directing my way some of the hostility I had (cheekily) tasked it with interrogating. As I strained to imagine the American tropics from my writing desk, it was difficult to miss the fecundity of life around me, made all the more beautiful by the grief surrounding it; the proximity of life and death, of decay and fecundity, was especially pronounced to me as I tried to chisel out a sense of peace, and sculpt a dissertation chapter.

To wrap one's mind around the American tropics this past summer was also to embrace the tempests, the freak weather and rampant destruction of the hurricanes that circled over the Atlantic as a political one came ashore. When a white teenager took a gun to Kenosha and killed two racial justice protestors in what was already a season of upheaval, I wondered if the whole country was suffering from the acquittal of reason that Montesquieu pinned on hot climates. My metaphors jumbled and then escaped me: was this a hurricane or a season of unbearable heat?


Presently, it has been so unseasonably warm that my only tether to the fact that it’s November has been the presidential election. After a week of startlingly frigid rains, the weather in Manhattan is veritably tropical. For what must be the fourth or fifth time, I return to my chapter on the American tropics with a determination indexed by my yellow legal pad and a trial version of Scrivener. To assure myself that distribution is imminent, I have taken to itemizing: the arguments each section makes; the number of revision tasks awaiting me in the document as a whole; the number of days remaining until my self-appointed deadline. Enumerating what’s going on in an unruly document has given me a new sense of the possible. The feasibility of my deadline is questionable, but it provides sorely needed momentum in a pandemic reality that has long since lapsed into mind-numbing monotony.

It has always struck me as ironic that I, a person with what is at best an antagonistic relationship to hot weather, spend the bulk of my professional time reading, thinking, and writing about hot places. The process of scholarship imitating life alternates between being funny or plainly jarring. Over the summer, as I read old medical tracts attributing the sluggishness, and sometime irrationality, of Europeans in the tropics in the summer heat, I find myself overcome with similar exhaustion and irritation. Which parts of that could I blame on discourse; which parts could I blame on the actual ninety-degree weather? For years I have taken to jokingly describing myself, and my general aversion to hot weather, as post-tropical—a predicament hastened along by the fact that I was born and raised where the equator and the Greenwich meridian collide. This post-tropical condition has always found me escaping New York in the summer, spurred by a mixture of a graduate student’s finances and a hankering after somewhere cooler to ride out the heat. And yet, as the first summer I had spent rooted in my Harlem home came to an end, I found myself wistful, longing for 9 p.m. sunsets as the days grew shorter. Perhaps, tropical Harlem has finally put an end to my post-tropical condition—for which, I’m sure, my dissertation will thank it.