Cover image for Harlem is nowhere : a journey to the Mecca of Black America
Title:
Harlem is nowhere : a journey to the Mecca of Black America
ISBN:
9780316017237
Edition:
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Little, Brown, 2011.
Physical Description:
296 p. : ill., map ; 22 cm.
Contents:
A colony of their own -- Into the city of refuge -- Searching for the underground city -- Harlem dream books -- Messages -- Land is the basis of all independence -- Back to Carolina -- We march because.
Summary:
For a century Harlem has been celebrated as the capital of black America, a thriving center of cultural achievement and political action. At a crucial moment in Harlem's history, as gentrification encroaches, the author untangles the myth and meaning of Harlem's legacy. Examining the epic Harlem of official history and the personal Harlem that begins at her front door, she introduces us to a wide variety of characters, past and present. At the heart of their stories, and her own, is the hope carried over many generations, hope that Harlem would be the ground from which blacks fully entered America's democracy.
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Summary

Summary

"No geographic or racial qualification guarantees a writer her subject...Only interest, knowledge, and love will do that--all of which this book displays in abundance." (Zadie Smith, Harper's)

National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist New York Times Notable Book of the Year Hurston/Wright Legacy Award Finalist One of Slate 's best nonfiction books of the past 25 years
For a century Harlem has been celebrated as the capital of black America, a thriving center of cultural achievement and political action. At a crucial moment in Harlem's history, as gentrification encroaches, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts untangles the myth and meaning of Harlem's legacy. Examining the epic Harlem of official history and the personal Harlem that begins at her front door, Rhodes-Pitts introduces us to a wide variety of characters, past and present. At the heart of their stories, and her own, is the hope carried over many generations, hope that Harlem would be the ground from which blacks fully entered America's democracy.

Rhodes-Pitts is a brilliant new voice who, like other significant chroniclers of places -- Joan Didion on California, or Jamaica Kincaid on Antigua -- captures the very essence of her subject.
"Enchanting...Rhodes-Pitt's Harlem is a place worth fighting for." -- New York Times Book Review


Author Notes

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts's articles have appeared in the New York Times Magazine , New York Times Book Review , The Nation , Boston Globe , Transition , and Times Literary Supplement . She has received a Lannan Foundation fellowship and the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, and was a Fulbright Scholar in 2007. Rhodes-Pitts was born in Texas and educated at Harvard University.


Reviews 6

Publisher's Weekly Review

Rhodes-Pitts, an essayist and recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award, takes as her title a 1948 essay wherein Ralph Ellison describes "nowhere" as the crossroads where personal reality meets the metaphorical meanings attached to people and places. A transplant to Harlem from Texas, Rhodes-Pitts began a personal journey into the iconic neighborhood, poring over Harlem in literature and life, reading its empty lots and street scenes, its billboards and memorials for clues to what it means to inhabit a dream (that fabled sanctuary for Black Americans) and a real place (the all too material neighborhood buckling beneath relentless gentrification). Acutely conscious of the writer's simultaneous role of participant in and recorder of present and past, Rhodes-Pitts weaves a glittering living tapestry of snatches of overheard conversation, sidewalk chalk scribbles, want ads, unspoken social codes, literary analysis, studies of black slang-all if it held together with assurance and erudition. Like Zora Neale Hurston (whose contradictions she nails), she is "tour-guide and interpreter" of a Mecca cherished and feared, a place enduring and threatened that becomes home. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Booklist Review

Harlem is firmly enshrined at the very center of African American culture and has been much celebrated and chronicled since the growing numbers of blacks coming to New York were met with housing discrimination that forced them into the neighborhood in the late 1800s. Rhodes-Pitts compares and contrasts her own experience of moving from Texas to Harlem with accounts from literature of the Harlem Renaissance and other cultural glories and news reports of gentrification. She recalls characters from Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and other writers who struggled to find a place for themselves in Harlem even as she listens in on tour-guide lectures and reads contemporary accounts of the changing real-estate and cultural landscape of Harlem that signify a very different future than the one imagined by the fiction writers. Settling into her own place in Harlem, she offers vivid portraits of the residents, who straddle the past and present of the storied neighborhood, many wondering themselves about their futures and the future of Harlem.--Bush, Vanessa Copyright 2010 Booklist


New York Review of Books Review

ABOUT midway through Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts's slim, enchanting volume we are introduced to rather an odd figure, L. S. Alexander Gumby, proprietor of the Gumby Book Studio and motive force behind a 1920s Harlembased literary salon. The studio and salon both evolved, Rhodes-Pitts explains, out of Gumby's singular passion for scrapbooking - his "impulse to compile, collect and curate the detritus of his reality." Gumby's efforts ultimately produced an apartment's worth of materials about the so-called black experience, culminating, we are told, in a "brilliant and strange production." These words well describe Rhodes-Pitts own achievement in "Harlem Is Nowhere." Her happily disparate text blends the historical and the personal, the exceptional and the ordinary, adroitly communicating the multiplicity of Harlem itself. Like Gumby, Rhodes-Pitts is a transplant to Harlem (in her case, from Texas, via Harvard), and like him she found herself compelled to document her own and others' experiences there. Like Gumby, Rhodes-Pitts is clearly very much enthralled by "something too vast to be contained on paper" and so has chosen the at once arbitrary and exhaustive medium of collage. Her scrapbook of a chronicle communicates the impossibility of the very task it seems to have set for itself: to figure out Harlem, in some measure, to truly understand the parameters of its symbolic value to (black) America. Sensing, however, the wrongheadedness implicit in any attempt at defining Harlem, Rhodes-Pitts works instead at revising received ideas. "I did not understand how this place existed as both haven and ghetto," she writes. "It seemed ... a great paradox. It also revealed something damning about the history I had learned - a flattened version of events where a place is allowed to be only one thing or the other." "Harlem Is Nowhere," Rhodes-Pitts's first book, is in large part the product of the countless hours she spent poring over photographs and news clippings in the bowels of the New York Public Library's Harlem-based research center, or "Mr. Schomburg's labyrinth," as she so aptly calls it. Rhodes-Pitts - and in this, unlike Alexander Gumby - does not favor "the most exceptional and the most beautiful." She makes us privy to obscure interviews, photographs, advertisements and even obituaries. While Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and many other widely celebrated personages make an appearance, Rhodes-Pitts is at least as engaged by Harlem's lesser-known players, like the proto-feminist Victoria Earle Matthews, the African nationalist Carlos A. Cooks and the fashionista-cum-wax-museum-owner Raven Chanticleer - those whose names have not been "immortalized by way of a street sign." Rhodes-Pitts also took the time to go outside and meet her neighbors. From her verbal jousts with "the Chief," a frustratingly single-minded holdover from black power days, to her exchanges with a homeless person and fellow writer, Sister Doris Littlejohn, to her encounters with "the Messenger,"an elusive Harlem celebrity known for the inspirational chalk messages he leaves on the sidewalks flanking Lenox Avenue, Rhodes-Pitts's dealings with the people she befriends are gentle yet without condescension. She introduces us to one eccentric and fascinating individual after the next, allowing us a taste of the "unexpected intimacy" that comes from entering someone's parlor or standing on his street corner. At the same time, she is very careful to reject "the position of tour guide or interpreter." She respects her interlocutors' right to opacity while affirming the importance of their stories. For Rhodes-Pitts, these stories provide vital points of access to the Harlem she is hoping to find. Rhodes-Pitts brings the library into the street, not only looking to history to explain the present, but also and equally relying on contemporary reality to tell Harlem's past. "Outside the archive," she admits, "I compared the buildings and the faces I saw in the street to the buildings and faces in the photographs." The photographs of boarded up buildings and unremarkable intersections she retrieves from the archive, the vacant lots and undeveloped foundations of buildings she takes the time to photograph in her own wanderings - these become charged with the politics of place. The costs of both isolation and gentrification become evident. "Later I understood that these empty fields were indeed the setting of a history, the loathsome history of neglect and destruction stretching back to the beginning of black settlement in Harlem," she tells us. "This is the evidence of an unnatural history - it was not always this way, it came to be that way for a reason." Readers looking for a more straight-forward, comprehensive account of the neighborhood might pick up Jonathan Gill's new book, HARLEM: The Four Hundred Year History From Dutch Village to Capital of Black America (Grove, $29.95). Rhodes-Pills instead provides tangentially related points of entry and departure from which to put together a narrative. She makes much of what she does not remember and leads she has chosen not to pursue. After piecing together scattered bits of information about the life of one of the more outlandish characters she has researched, she is offered the means to contact - to meet even - two of his relatives. But "I decided that I had enough information," she rationalizes. "I might have discovered more of the official story, but it seemed like a trespass. I had not been invited beyond the gate." RHODES-PITTS'S ostensible discretion can feel like a cop-out - a failure of courage, or lack of moxie, even. She is perhaps more comfortable in the library or at 10 or so paces from a deserted building than she is in the private lives of the Harlemites among whom she lives and works. In this reticence, "Harlem Is Nowhere" reveals more than a little bit about Rhodes-Pitts herself. The respectfulness that keeps Rhodes-Pitts standing outside gates or at the edge of conversations has much to do with her uncertainty about belonging to this place and her ambivalence about what it means to be at home. At the very beginning of the book, she acknowledges "the impermanent status of my residence here," and she returns sporadically but consistently to this question of community. In the second chapter she confesses: "I was not known by anyone; they could not verify my background. I was unable, therefore, to truly lay claim to this place where I'd landed. My relationship to it was, for some time, like the effect of a picturesque landscape that hangs as a backdrop in a portrait studio." By Chapter 5 her position has shifted markedly: "A stranger stops to ask if I require directions. I have lingered too long before stepping into an intersection, or I look uncertain as to where I am headed. . . . I shake my head no, insisting I am not lost, or even very far from home." The final scene of "Harlem Is Nowhere" describes Rhodes-Pitts's experience of a minor police injustice. Caught in the crowd at the tail end of the African-American Day parade, she is strong-armed by a bullying cop and forced to move with the crowd, away from the direction of her own apartment. Once out of his sight and reach she turns back, "determined to make my way home." This "is not a metaphor," Rhodes-Pitts makes sure to put on record. But that is, of course, nonsense. This final, literal moment of fighting to get back to her home in Harlem is most certainly a metaphor for the homecoming journeys of all those for whom Harlem was and is the only place to be. Rhodes-Pitts's Harlem is a place worth fighting for. It is a place more endangered than dangerous - a "blank, disavowed" place bursting with the best stories never told. It is anything and everything but nowhere. HARLEM: A Century in Images. 256 pp. Skira Rizzoli/Studio Museum Harlem. $55. Richard Avedon, Dawoud Bey, Helen Levitt, Gordon Parks and Weegee are among more than 50 photographers represented in this chronicle of Harlem as a crossroads of art, culture and politics. Above, "The New Moon Bar" (1977), by Chester Higgins Jr. ONLINE: More photos at nytimes.com/books Kaiama L. Glover teaches Francophone literature at Barnard College. She is the author of "Haiti Unbound: A Spiralist Challenge to the Postcolonial Canon," which was published this month.


Guardian Review

One evening in September 2000 I attended a panel discussion at Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The star speaker was Paul Gilroy, the British academic who had just published a book entitled Against Race. In it he drew attention to an interview given in 1937 by Marcus Garvey that likened - positively - European fascism to black nationalism. Just as provocatively, Gilroy argued that, in light of new research showing how supposedly distinct ethnic groups often came from the same genetic pool, the very concept of "race" was increasingly antiquated. The Schomburg Center prides itself on being the world's leading institution for the documentation and study of people of African descent. Its holdings include rare material by the slave poet Phillis Wheatley, Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture, Malcolm X and Maya Angelou. Unsurprisingly the audience bristled at this limey's apostasies: a pedantic fellow panellist dismissed Gilroy's entire research because he hadn't read a particular chapter in some obscure monograph. A grumpy audience member berated him for talking about black Brazilians instead of black Americans. A local guy next to me complained: "How the hell he can come to our Harlem and tell us race is over?" What is "our Harlem"? At the start of the 20th century, the answer would have been simple: this stretch of northern Manhattan was a honeypot for wealthy and well-to-do white people. Oscar Hammerstein I and William Waldorf Astor had properties there. Real-estate speculators talked up its brownstone townhouses to clerks and small merchants. One neighbourhood journal described it as "the centre of fashion, wealth, culture and intelligence". Yet, within a couple of decades, it had become a magnet for different, hungrier kinds of newcomers - black Americans eager to unshackle themselves from the bonds of the segregationist south. Up they came, up for air. Tens of thousand of them, not just from Georgia and the Carolinas, but from Trinidad and Jamaica too. They were variously portrayed as pilgrims in search of Mecca, actors heading to a theatre, pageant-walkers marching to celebrate the liberation of the colonised soul, participants in a grand experiment designed to help birth the New Negro. Harlem was an idea as much as it was a real place: it was a sanctuary, a race capital, a hope-distributing lighthouse. Here, according to Rudolph Fisher in his 1925 short story "City of Refuge", "black was white". Less exultantly, for Ralph Ellison, it was "the scene and symbol of the Negro's perpetual alienation in the land of his birth". For Langston Hughes, it was a "dream deferred". Claims such as these, produced in poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction, are examples of what Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts calls "the typical obligation of writing about Harlem - offering pronouncements that Harlem is this or Harlem is that". Raised in Texas and an outsider to the area, albeit one who had been reading about and visiting it long before she moved there in 2004, she's alert to the danger of mimicking those authors - usually men - who "emerge from their descent into Harlem with the trophy of a greeting from which to derive a metaphor about all of black existence". In this sense, Harlem Is Nowhere can be read as a liberation narrative that seeks to free its subject from the burdens of over-inscription and representational overload. The book, like many of the figures who roam within it, is an allusive, elusive creature - not quite memoir, fragmented social history, partial documentary. Its commitment to the tentative, its scepticism towards totalising visions, is evident in every beautifully written page. Avoiding tour guides, Rhodes-Pitts is happiest when she's walking around or listening to traffic in her small, lamentably furnished apartment, evoking the neighbourhood through bricolage and delicately diaristic prose. Her voice is closer to Walter Benjamin than it is to the rappers, preachers and street-signifying home boys who have defined its aural identity in recent times. In one of many elegant, penetrating excurses on the visual archive Harlem has generated, she discusses an extraordinary sequence of street facades photographed by Aaron Siskind in the late 1930s. House after house is empty, all the windows boarded up, but there is a compositional beauty here. Siskind, she says, "releases Harlem from the scrutinising grip of the social realist's eye, but the abstractions of his facade studies also tell a story . . . this was a rhythm to which you could not dance." Siskind emerges as one of the most mysteriously compelling figures in Harlem Is Nowhere. Others include Raven Chanticleer, who created the first African-American Wax Museum; James Van Der Zee, whose photographs of dead Harlem residents in their coffins sometimes feature double-exposed images of their corpses together with portraits of them while alive; and Alexander Gumby, a homosexual ex-butler, bibliophile and compiler of "Negroana", lovingly assembled but often-stolen scrapbooks devoted to black public figures. If the title of Rhodes-Pitts's book suggests the erasure of Harlem, it's the existence of these shadowy dreamers, together with the pastors and secretive sidewalk chalk-artists to whom she talks, that allows her to draw out the more utopian connotations of "nowhere". Her Harlem, alive to the quiet yearning of many of its inhabitants, the tiny stabs towards happiness they make in the face of persistent poverty, is a place whose time has yet to come. The future will undoubtedly bring changes. The closing chapters of the book see Rhodes-Pitts involved in local struggles to resist gentrification. In 1994 the Clinton administration designated Harlem an "empowerment zone", and Mayor Giuliani sent 400 officers in riot gear to sweep one of its main throughways clear of street vendors; since then, its demographics have been in flux. In 1990, 672 white people lived in central Harlem; in 2008, there were 13,800. Columbia University has even sought to gobble up real estate to convert into student dormitories. The 21st century is witnessing a great migration in reverse. New York's black population is shrinking for the first time since the civil war, with many Harlemites heading back south to Georgia, Miami and North Carolina. Upscale developers namecheck figures from the Harlem Renaissance to add value to their holdings, but through hip hop the area's status as the spiritual centre of black America has been challenged by the Bronx and LA's South Central. How much longer will "our Harlem" exist? Sukhdev Sandhu's Night Haunts is published by Verso. To order Harlem Is Nowhere for pounds 11.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop - Sukhdev Sandhu Caption: Captions: A neighbourhood in flux . . . drummers in Marcus Garvey Park, Harlem The Schomburg Center prides itself on being the world's leading institution for the documentation and study of people of African descent. Its holdings include rare material by the slave poet Phillis Wheatley, Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture, Malcolm X and Maya Angelou. Unsurprisingly the audience bristled at this limey's apostasies: a pedantic fellow panellist dismissed [Paul Gilroy]'s entire research because he hadn't read a particular chapter in some obscure monograph. A grumpy audience member berated him for talking about black Brazilians instead of black Americans. A local guy next to me complained: "How the hell he can come to our Harlem and tell us race is over?" Up they came, up for air. Tens of thousand of them, not just from Georgia and the Carolinas, but from Trinidad and Jamaica too. They were variously portrayed as pilgrims in search of Mecca, actors heading to a theatre, pageant-walkers marching to celebrate the liberation of the colonised soul, participants in a grand experiment designed to help birth the New Negro. Harlem was an idea as much as it was a real place: it was a sanctuary, a race capital, a hope-distributing lighthouse. Here, according to Rudolph Fisher in his 1925 short story "City of Refuge", "black was white". Less exultantly, for Ralph Ellison, it was "the scene and symbol of the Negro's perpetual alienation in the land of his birth". For Langston Hughes, it was a "dream deferred". Claims such as these, produced in poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction, are examples of what Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts calls "the typical obligation of writing about Harlem - offering pronouncements that Harlem is this or Harlem is that". Raised in Texas and an outsider to the area, albeit one who had been reading about and visiting it long before she moved there in 2004, she's alert to the danger of mimicking those authors - usually men - who "emerge from their descent into Harlem with the trophy of a greeting from which to derive a metaphor about all of black existence". In this sense, Harlem Is Nowhere can be read as a liberation narrative that seeks to free its subject from the burdens of over-inscription and representational overload. - Sukhdev Sandhu.


Kirkus Review

One woman's quest to discover the heart of Harlem.In her debut, Rhodes-Pitts alternates between the personal and the scholarly in an attempt to define the importance of the place, both for African-Americans and the country at large.It is a complicated tale with a "loathsome history of neglect and destruction stretching back to the beginning of black settlement in Harlem and its corollary, white flight." Yet Harlem is more than a neighborhood with racial roots, which the author proves by focusing primarily on its cultural contributions. Rhodes-Pitts relies heavily on Harlem's famed writers to tell its history, yet the words of Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Nella Larsen do little more than create a shoddy patchwork of familiar terrain. The author also explores Harlem through visualsdescriptions of statues, advertisements, signage, even funeral portraitureyet photographs are her staple, particularly the work of James VanDerZee, whose photos depict "provided an antidote to the destitute, shell-shocked image then attached to the neighborhood, forming a new iconography of its best days." For Rhodes-Pitts, these photos served as portals to an earlier time, escorting "the viewer halfway into the interior life of Harlem." Unfortunately, readers may never feel connected to the other half. The author's most successful attempts at a complete view of Harlem are the personal stories from the people themselves, yet even this strategy is employed with varying success. The book's primary shortfall is the author's genre-indecisiveness. Part memoir, part scholarly prose, the result is a peculiar hybrid incapable of fully capitalizing on the merits of either genre. Further, the author's overreliance on quotations leaves little room for her own insights and expertise on the subject.A highly informative though rarely analytical take on one of America's most thriving cultural communities. See Jonathan Gill's upcoming Harlem (2011) for more comprehensive coverage.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Library Journal Review

The author reflects on her own Harlem, as well as the Harlem of its iconic storytellers. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.