Down the Up Staircase tells the story of one Harlem family across three generations, connecting its journey to the historical and social forces that transformed Harlem over the past century. Bruce D. Haynes and Syma Solovitch capture the tides of change that pushed blacks forward through the twentieth century—the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, the early civil rights victories, the Black Power and Black Arts movements—as well as the many forces that ravaged black communities, including Haynes's own. As an authority on race and urban communities, Haynes brings unique sociological insights to the American mobility saga and the tenuous nature of status and success among the black middle class.
In many ways, Haynes's family defied the odds. All four great-grandparents on his father's side owned land in the South as early as 1880. His grandfather, George Edmund Haynes, was the founder of the National Urban League and a protégé of eminent black sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois; his grandmother, Elizabeth Ross Haynes, was a noted children's author of the Harlem Renaissance and a prominent social scientist. Yet these early advances and gains provided little anchor to the succeeding generations. This story is told against the backdrop of a crumbling three-story brownstone in Sugar Hill that once hosted Harlem Renaissance elites and later became an embodiment of the family's rise and demise. Down the Up Staircase is a stirring portrait of this family, each generation walking a tightrope, one misstep from free fall.
This thoughtful and sobering memoir weaves the beauty and tragedy of Haynes's family story into the complex history of Harlem. Haynes (Red Lines, Black Space) employs the book as a record, a way to secure the knowledge of his family's contributions to African-American history. His grandfather, George Edmund Haynes, largely forgotten to history, was a scholar, researcher of the Great Migration, and cofounder of the National Urban League. His grandmother was noted children's book author Elizabeth Ross Haynes. They resided in a resplendent home on Harlem's posh Convent Avenue. Despite these bourgeois roots, the Hayneses' fortunes rose and fell. Haynes lays bare their triumphs and blemishes. The relationship between his mother, Daisy Haynes, a respected program analyst, and father, George Haynes Jr., a parole officer, was replete with deception and infidelity. Over the marriage's course, the two watched their Harlem home decay. Haynes found success, like his grandfather, as a scholar, but tragedy befell his two brothers: Alan was murdered, and George struggled with drug use and mental illness. Like Harlem's story, the memoir is bittersweet, painting a full and complicated picture of black upper-class life over generations.