Sister Ebony’s face radiates the whole history of Blackness. Her visage reminds one of an African tribal mask wrapped in the sober habit of a Catholic nun. The juxtaposition of cultures, of millennia, is unsettling and profound. The power flowing through her can and has sustained the entire human race. She is the bearer.
Hirschfeld chose this powerfully incongruous figure as the first image of his Harlem portfolio. Sister Ebony witnesses the promenade of Harlemites as they pass before her. She distributes compassion and understanding to the sometimes troubled souls who follow on succeeding pages. Might she also stand as a stern warning at the portal to Harlem about the choices to be made inside this fabled land of the high life?
Here is a woman hardened, no doubt, by life’s prejudices. But she is also a women with the physical and spiritual strength to persevere and prevail, just as Harlem itself has persevered and prevailed. Harlem, as we are reminded on these glorious pages, is justifiably celebrated for its arts—but it is also deeply steeped in spirituality and known for its exuberant liturgy, great charity, and boundless faith.