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Samantha Belanger

SWC 100
Matt Kelley
Paper 3
August 5, 2009

Crime versus Faith in Harlem

The Sweet Flypaper of Life written by Langston Hughes and Roy Decarava relates to The

Best of Simple by pointing out the more positive elements of Harlem. What they do not point out

though is the crime rate that affects the everyday life of the people that live in Harlem. The

article “3 Ministers Call for War on Crime” from the New York Times shows the relation

between faith and crime in this city. It is clear by the pictures in The Sweet Flypaper of Life that

the people from this city always enjoy the time they have with their neighbors, while believing in

a higher power. One photo in particular, with the words “God: is Holy Jesus” drawn on the wall

of a building in a vacant lot, with a family sitting next to it, represents what is truly important to

the people of Harlem: God.

During the 1940’s and 50’s in Harlem, crime was a major player in how the community

ran, but was overlooked because of the strong role that faith played among the people. “1940

statistics show about 100 murders per year in Harlem,” (Wikipedia, Harlem). Also “between

1953 and 1962, the crime rate among young people increased throughout New York City, but

was consistently 50% higher in Harlem than in New York City as a whole.” (Wikipedia, Harlem).

If we heard these statistics now we wouldn’t be so surprised because it is something we hear

about every day and thus are used to it. In the 40’s, however, this is shocking. One hundred

deaths per year is an incredible amount, and the fact that the rate was fifty percent higher in

Harlem than anywhere else in New York City is overwhelming. This source goes on to say that

drugs became a huge factor in the spread of crime in Harlem. The more drugs that were in
production and sales, the more the crime rate grew. It is fair to say that Harlem was the place to

avoid at this time.

There were people, on the other hand, that were trying to prevent this hectic time from

happening. “Three Protestant ministers in sermons here yesterday morning appealed to church

members to take a forthright stand in opposing crime and other evils in New York City” (“3

Ministers Call for War on Crime”). This article presents the faith that people have in Harlem

even though no person wanted to be associated with the city. The people of Harlem believed that

the city could be saved with help from God. Those outside of Harlem though, thought of it as a

lost cause, not wanting to associate themselves with the city. Ministers are important and

influential to the people of Harlem by bringing love, faith and honor to the people when they do

not have anything else to believe in. They show that there is more meaning to life than selling

drugs and murdering those in your community. Even the policemen are afraid of fighting for

what is right and just. Reverend Herbert T. Miller declares that “‘leadership is lacking among

city officials who are afraid to attack the evils’ and that the city ‘is losing its prestige because of

open violence and disregard of law and order.’” (“3 Ministers Call for War on Crime”). When

things get so bad that even the cops cannot do anything about it because they are scared for their

lives that is when things need to change. The ministers and the people in the church have hope

that they can turn things around and make life bearable again in this city full of hatred. They are

willing to stand up, put a foot down and speak up about what is right and what is wrong. This

shows the love they have for everyone even if they have committed sins in the past. It is

important to them that every person is treated with respect and has an equal chance at life. It is

unfair how they are solely counting on the Christians to make things good again. Rev. Dr.

Chester A. Pennington emphasizes, “You in the congregation are the Church. You are daily

involved in the policies of your city and it is your business to take a Christian attitude towards
them” (“3 Ministers Call for War on Crime”).7 Christianity is a very large and powerful religion,

but is it powerful enough to cut down the crime in a city that knows nothing else? Most like to

think of the world as a good place, a place where you can walk outside take a deep breath of

fresh air, and say “Wow, it is a beautiful day today.” It seems impossible though for people to be

able to do that in Harlem. Putting the weight on the Christian shoulders and saying “Okay, this is

what needs to be done, so do it,” will not accomplish anything.

This article relates to the book The Best of Simple by Langston Hughes because it talks

about Harlem and the faith and crimes that go on in Harlem. In the story “Simple Prays A

Prayer” Jesse B. Semple discusses how he wants to pray a prayer for peace. “I would pray a

don’t-want-to-have-no-more-wars prayer, and it would go like this: … ‘Lord, kindly please, take

the blood off of my hands and off of my brother’s hands and make us shake hands clean and not

be afraid.’” (Hughes 7). This statement shows that Simple believes that by praying to God things

can be fixed. He doesn’t want to have any more wars and he wants everyone to just shake hands

and be equal, which is beautiful. It is clear that with peace in Harlem it would be a better place

for everyone, not just the people that live there.

A picture from The Sweet Flypaper of Life shows a family sitting in a vacant lot with

words in large font behind them that reads, “God: is Holy Jesus”. (Hughes, Decarava 34). This is

an example of the community’s need for God to help them. These powerful words were written

to remind the people of Harlem that God is there for them, watching them. When someone is

thinking about selling drugs on that corner they might look at those words and just walk away

and decide not to do it anymore. Or when someone is down to their last breath and feel like they

cannot fight anymore, they will look up and know that there is someone there to pick them up,

dust them off, and send them on their way again. That is what faith is. That is what allegiance is.

When you are so down and people just keep kicking you, but you think about God and you keep
moving on knowing that tomorrow will be a better day, that is loyalty. There is a group of people

sitting next to the wall on wooden chairs. It is a family, but they are not facing the wall, they are

looking in a different direction. The words are meant to be in the background but they pop out

more than the family does. There is some irony with this though; the words seem to be written as

graffiti. This is ironic because the whole point is to cease the crime and they are trying to do that

by committing a crime. They might feel that the only way to get it across to people that things

where they live are bad is to join them, and show them in their own words.

It may not seem like there is a relation to crime and faith, but in this case there is. You

can see from the book The Best of Simple and the article “3 Ministers Call for War on Crime”

that a lot of people want the crime to stop, and want peace. People in the streets as well as people

in the church want to fight for freedom of Harlem. Freedom from drugs and murder. Nobody

wants there city to be known as the city to stay away from, so they take a stand. Things have

gotten better in Harlem since then and it is because of faith and prayer that these things have

happened. The photograph taken by Decarava in The Sweet Flypaper of Life is a beautiful way

for the people of the city to show others how they truly feel, in a way that everyone can

understand it. Faith and crime are the biggest roles in the city of Harlem and as long as they can

relate to each other there can be peace for everyone.

Works Cited

Decarava, Roy, and Langston Hughes. The Sweet Flypaper of Life. New York: Hill and Wang,
“3 Ministers Call for War on Crime”. New York Times. April 20, 1953.
“Harlem”. Wikipedia.
Hughes, Langston. “Simple Prays A Prayer”. The Best of Simple. 1961. New York: Hill and
Wang, 1992. 6-10.