"What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
-- from "Harlem" by Langston Hughes
During the 1920s and 1930s, Harlem was the undisputed capital of Black America. It was home to nearly 250,000 Blacks of African and Caribbean descent, including a large educated and affluent middle class. Social and political organizations like the N.A.A.C.P, Urban League and Universal Negro Improvement Association were headquartered in Harlem. The climate nurtured artistic, scholarly and cultural endeavors that became known throughout the world as "The Harlem Renaissance."
No Regrets is Mildred Riley's fitting tribute "in memory of the women and men of the Harlem Renaissance -- those poets, writers, artists, and musicians...whose intense achievements still shine with such fierce brilliance..."
No Regrets, the story of Roy Yates and Maddie Young, begins in Harlem in 1923. Roy and Maddie meet during their high school days at MacAllister-Whitney High School. Maddie is a talented soprano who has dreams of becoming an opera singer. Roy is a track star and pianist who is desperate to prevent spending another summer working in the Connecticut Valley tobacco farms.
Maddie's dreams are deferred after her parents' tragic deaths in a house fire. Her older brother leaves school and ships out on a Liberian freighter to make a life for himself and to provide for Maddie. She is taken in by her classmate and best friend, Sis Hardin, and her mother. While Roy is smitten with Maddie, she only sees him as a friend, a surrogate big brother. Sis has other ideas.
Maddie is still determined to carry out her parents' dream and pursue a classical music career. But Black divas are few and far between. The best known was Sissieretta Jones, who sang at the White House for four presidents and worked with Dvorak.
Her fortunes change when a rich white benefactor hears her sing and decides to sponsor her. Maddie receives a scholarship to study at Juilliard and later leaves Harlem to continue her studies in Paris. As Maddie's ship is about to leave New York for Paris, Roy blurts out to Maddie that he loves her.
After graduation, Roy lands a job at the Chauncey's, a popular Black-owned nightspot, where strangers need a password to get in. Roy begins as a pianist, but his career soars. He becomes a popular orchestra leader, Broadway musician and recording artist. Although his career as a jazz musician has taken off, he's never forgotten Maddie.
But Maddie is in Paris and Sis Hardin isn't. Sis sees Roy as her ticket out of her job in a Seventh Avenue dress factory and into a more prominent social position. She insinuates herself into his life and career, knowing that he will always love Maddie.
No Regrets is a like a wonderful compilation of James Van derZee photographs come to life. Mildred Riley has captured the Harlem of musicians Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway; of writers Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson; and the haunts like the Cotton Club and Smalls' Paradise. Harlemites have rent parties, attend the Abyssinian Baptist Church, go to amateur night at the Apollo Theater and frequent the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library (currently known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture).
The European leg of Mattie's story explores the influence of African-American arts and cuisine through the lives of "Les Americains Noirs," the Black expatriates living in Paris. Black pilots, poets, musicians, singers and African and Caribbean students and scholars appear as secondary characters.
Mildred Riley has written a very simple, straightforward and somewhat predictable romance that has many textures and layers. Riley tells the stories of Maddie and Roy against a backdrop of speakeasies, bootleggers, mobsters and racism without resorting to stereotypes.
You can almost see the Packards, Duesenbergs and Reos drive up to Chauncey's when Tallulah Bankhead, Jimmy Durante and the Gershwin brothers show up. You can almost hear the music and experience the Charleston, Black Bottom and chorus line dancing.
No Regrets is a lyrical treat that captures the essence of Harlem jazz, Chicago blues and the African disaspora. It evokes memories of filmmaker Oscar Micheaux's early race movies. There are many visual images and scenes that readily lend themselves to film.
No Regrets is a late release. Mildred Riley's story of jazz, blues and of love and dreams deferred was scheduled for distribution in the early spring. No Regrets is a welcome slice of African-American history and culture that is definitely worth the wait.