HARLEM — 2004 — It was “Showtime at the Apollo” and every act was on edge. Please the tough audience and you got applause, a chance to go further in the competition. Suck and you got booed off stage. Waiting their turn, Kevin Sylvester and Wilner Baptiste, fresh off a plane from Florida, listened in dismay as act after act drew resounding boos.
CAMBRIDGE, MA, 1952 — In a padded room deep in the bowels of a Harvard lab, the composer steps into silence.
He expects to hear. . . nothing, and for a few moments, he does. But then his own body — the beating of his heart, the rush of his flowing blood — becomes the music.
SOUTH CHICAGO — Like Harlem before it, Chicago had its Black Renaissance. During decades of Depression and war, the neighborhood folks called Bronzeville blossomed with art, literature, and music. Louis Armstrong was blowing his horn. Richard Wright was writing Black Boy and Native Son. Community art centers welcomed young talent. Poetry and prose boosted pride.
YANKEE STADIUM, JULY 4, 1939 — Throughout this cathedral of baseball, patriotic bunting suggests a World Series, but it’s just a routine doubleheader. Until the first game ends and the crowd stirs.
Dignitaries and former player fill the infield. Mayor LaGuardia speaks, then Babe Ruth. But the crowd chants “We want Lou! We want Lou!”
Wiping away tears, Gehrig begins. “For the past two weeks you’ve been reading about a bad break. . .”
GREENSBORO, NC, FEB 1960 — Four black men sat at the all-white lunch counter, refusing to move until served. When Woolworth’s closed, they left, then returned the next day with a dozen friends. Within a week, “sit-ins” started in Atlanta, Nashville, Durham, Raleigh. . . The Movement was galvanized. But one woman knew that freedom meant “more than a hamburger.”
AMERICA 1920s — When the roaring began, not everyone roared along. For every flapper, hundreds were housebound. For every Hemingway hero, thousands were chained to jobs. But in the spring of 1921, a young Princeton student hit the road and took America along for the fun.
BERKELEY, CA — 1903 — Einstein was tinkering with the universe, the Wright Brothers tinkering at Kitty Hawk when a UC physics professor debuted the Barolik. Designed to measure the weight of the earth, the Barolik was big enough to fill a lab. With tubes and springs, pipes and wires, it reminded students of “a dumping ground for outmoded dentists’ furnishings.”
CONCORD, MA — 1842 — Folks in this small town near Boston knew the young slacker Thoreau, all right. Never did a lick of work. Set fire to the woods while cooking chowder. Left teaching because he couldn’t bear to whip students with the customary cane. And what did this good-for-nothing product of Harvard do all day? He walked.
“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through…