The black and gold marquee outside the restaurant is synonymous with black soul, black culture, and black achievement. Its matriarch, Sylvia Woods, built the brand from a greasy spoon back when Harlem was flooded with poverty, drugs, and political neglect. Carson, a poor boy from Detroit, turned himself into a renowned pediatric neurosurgeon, and an icon of black accomplishment.
Still, Sylvia’s was as an unlikely campaign stop for Carson’s campaign and its brand of conservative politics, both of which have largely resonated with white evangelicals. Carson did not visit Harlem to raise money; his campaign picked up the check at Sylvia’s. Carson came to bring a message, to talk directly to liberal blacks who tuned out of the debates and coverage, and would never entertain the thought of voting Republican. He came to try to put his shared black experience over his political ideology. By breaking bread and shaking hands in an urban black mecca, he also put his Republican opponents and Democratic candidates on notice that he still holds a place in the heart of the black community.
Inside the banquet hall, black and white photos of stars such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Gordon Parks decked the pumpkin-colored walls. White linens and single red roses dressed the round tables. The sweet smell of soul food magnetized security staff and interns. Carson, 63, dressed in a gray suit and red tie, sat next to Candy, his wife of 40 years, and chatted over bites of fried chicken, collard greens, and three-cheese baked macaroni. He sipped water instead of the signature uptown iced tea. Reverend Vernon Williams, the pastor of Perfect Peace Ministries of Harlem, who works with at risk youth in the neighborhood, offered an opening prayer, thanking God for Carson, his legacy, and the message he was about to deliver.
“So many people have given up on the dream of the United States,” Carson said. And that is what his campaign is about, he said, “bringing hope back, in the right way.”
There was a time when Carson had little hope, he said. Sitting on the “ghetto stairs” of his childhood home in Boston, where he and his mother moved from Detroit after his parents divorced, he realized that they had money for nothing. And, Carson said, he thought: “I will never live to be more than 25.”
“Because that’s what I saw all around me. Death,” he said. Sirens and gunshots. Bloodied bodies splayed on the street. Two of his older cousins had been murdered, Carson said. His mother, Sonya, who grew up in rural Tennessee, cobbled together no more than a third-grade education. She left the house before dawn to go clean other people’s houses. She could never bring herself to rely fully on public assistance, Carson said. So she worked. And she pushed books, like she saw in the children’s rooms of the houses she cleaned, on her two sons: Carson, a then-feeble student, and his older brother Curtis, who is now a mechanical engineer in Georgia.