Harlem: A Poem by Walter Dean Myers

In honor of National Poetry Month and Perfect Picture Book Friday, I’m shining the spotlight on a brilliant Caldecott and Coretta Scott King Award Winner from 1997:

“They took to the road in Waycross, Georgia

Skipped over the tracks in East St. Louis

Took the bus from Holly Springs

Hitched a ride from Gee’s Bend

Took the long way through Memphis

The third deck down from Trinidad

A wrench of heart from Gorree Island 

A wrench of heart from Gorree Island

To a place called Harlem

Harlem was a promise

Of a better life, of a place where a man didn’t

Have to know his place

Simply because he was Black.”


Thus begins a tactile and rhythmic journey through Harlem. This book may have been written twenty years ago, but it feels quite contemporary. Current nonfiction writers are increasingly telling the stories of people, events, or places with similar atmospheric details and poetic language. Walter Dean Myers was far ahead of his time.  

The only thing missing is back matter. The names of people and places are sprinkled throughout, but if you want to know more, you must do the research. If this book were being published in 2017, you can bet the back matter would be rich with details, including a timeline with key events and people as well as author/illustrator notes. 

Although Walter Dean Myers has passed, I would love to see a new edition of this book published, complete with back matter and an illustrator’s note from Christopher Myers, Walter’s son. 

The collage illustrations add so much texture to the poem that I would recommend reading the picture book. However, if you just want to immerse yourself in Myers’ poem, here’s a link to the text of “Harlem” online. 

Title: Harlem

Author: Walter Dean Myers

Illustrator: Christopher Myers

Publisher: Scholastic Press, 1997

Target Audience: Everyone

11 thoughts on “Harlem: A Poem by Walter Dean Myers

  1. Margarita says:

    It’s beautiful, Jilanne! Today, the Harlem I know and love is still a vibrant community, now embracing immigrants mostly from Latin America, many from African countries. Sadly, as gentrification makes its presence felt, the exotic flavors and spices of our immigrant community starts to mute. 😥 xoxoM

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      I think that’s happening in so, so many cities. I know it’s also happening here in San Francisco. Many say that this little city has lost its quirkiness. I think many are struggling to stay. I don’t think cities know how to deal with this issue.

      • Margarita says:

        I agree, Jilanne. My sweet husband and I were talking about just this thing yesterday. Gentrification definitely has pluses and minuses. It’s also racist, in my opinion. I’ve never heard of a humble, predominantly WASP neighborhood being “gentrified” by the influx of affluent, educated people from other races and ethnicities. 😥 xoxoM

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