The following is a guest post by Jayrod P. Garrett.
Matthew Henson and the Ice Temple of Harlem looks American History classes in the eye and tells them, “We can do better.” From the first page, it establishes the time, place, and culture of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. And once you meet Gary Phillips’ rendition of Matthew Henson, you know you are in capable hands for this journey into the depths of American history. An action-adventure novel with just enough science fiction (thanks to Nikola Tesla) that, even though you know it never happened as told, you’ll be invested in the real history that did happen.
This reimagined history offers often more facts to us than a history class does. As a middle-aged Black man, I had never heard of Matthew Henson, who was the first Black man to reach the North Pole. Nor did I realize just how many Black faces from history made a home in New York City. The sheer number of names staggers one when they read over all of them. From Zora Neale Hurston, to Queenie St. Clair, to Langston Hughes each one of them formidable with a history of their own worth reading about. And as I researched each person to check if Phillips did his homework, I found that he did. Careful consideration is given not only to the unapologetic Black nature of the Harlem Renaissance but also to the beautiful culture of the Inuit people. Everything about this book tells you that cultural homework was done to make certain it honored all the cultures that intersected in the creation of this work of historical fiction.
I warn readers this isn’t going to be a comfortable read. The racial discord was clearly visible. The n-word is used to attack Black folks. The tension is always stronger because Henson’s only hope of survival is often the community he serves. The cops, the government, and his enemies all are happy to watch him die. It reminds me how those same entities, now a century later, are still interested in the death of Black bodies. And that our communities are so precious because it is they who will protect us from the forces that would take our lives.
I love the fact that there is no wondering if Matthew Henson is Black. It’s on page one. And he’s cultured in a way that makes it clear he cares about other ways of thought and other cultures. Matthew stands in stark contrast to the world he lives in and how they hardly value the lives of the Black folks (and the Inuit) in the book. Because of the way action is portrayed, I often found myself asking questions like who is Queenie St. Clair? Are Black folks allowed to own guns in the 1920’s? And where is the line between fiction and truth? Finishing the novel is only the beginning of an even longer journey as I discover more about the Harlem Renaissance and the various figures involved. This is a book that is needed today, not only to give us more Black history but to remind us of the problems Black folks face now have been around much longer than the last twenty years. And that ultimately even if we are the hero of the story we need the help of a community to be able to navigate the dangers of our world.