Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History From Dutch Village to Capital of Black America
Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America
Little, Brown & Co.
Dallas Morning News
13 February 2011
In their new books, Jonathan Gill and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts present Harlem stories full of street-corner philosophers and revolutionaries, civic dreams and dream books.
Gill’s narrative history, Harlem , is a strong primer on the neighborhood’s long, exquisite life. In the 17th century, the Dutch established the village as a barrier against attacks on lower Manhattan by renegade native tribes and British imperialists. The Dutch settlers farmed alongside and traded with area indigenous people and allowed free and enslaved Africans to live among them without restrictions. Harlem was the site of key Revolutionary War battles; George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr made their reputations there.
In the 19th century, as New York’s population swelled, Harlem, still mostly farmland, became a transit hub and destination — rail lines, waterways and roads offered easy movement between downtown and uptown Manhattan, and allowed safe passage to Boston and Albany in less than a week.
In 1898, New York consolidated its boroughs and villages into a single municipality. Harlem, charged by African Americans, and German, Jewish and Italian immigrants, working in factories, shops, and on the docks, had economic, political and cultural power that only lower Manhattan could rival. Harlem’s Jewish families gave us, for example, Richard Rodgers , Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II , the Gershwin and Marx brothers, Henry Miller and Henry Roth.
Black American experience in Harlem is much documented, but Gill offers a refresher, examining how African-Americans, West Indians and Puerto Ricans remade Harlem throughout the 20th century. Though there are no new perspectives on the Harlem renaissance, the civil rights movement, the neighborhood’s decline or its 21st-century gentrification, Gill does put Harlem’s shifts within the context of New York’s broader history.
From the Dutch to David Dinkins (Harlem native and New York’s first black mayor), Harlem has been the city’s main political, economic and ethnic laboratory, always a significant measurement in its ranking as a world capital.
Rhodes-Pitts opens Harlem Is Nowhere ruminating on the cultural and literary legacies of Harlem’s black renaissance. Ostensibly a “journey to the Mecca of Black America,” Rhodes-Pitts’ subtitle misleads slightly: Though she traverses its past and present sociocultural landscape, her travelogue demystifies notions that Harlem is a petrified relic of lost glory or a dangerous wasteland needing revitalization.
Covering Harlem’s writers, architectural history, gentrification and its teachers, activists, historians, collectors and impresarios, Rhodes-Pitts’ formal mélange — it could be read as essay collection, anthropological study, memoir or nonfiction novel — becomes an expression of Harlem’s wondrous complexities.
Peeling back Harlem’s known elements and worn-out stories, she reveals sheaves of under-documented cultural narrative, fine, onionskin layers of Harlem’s history, displaying the complicated evolution of the neighborhood’s traditions and political organizations. Rhodes-Pitts argues that they’ve maintained their relevance because “many of the conditions that attended their founding persist and because many of the original aims have not been achieved.”
Rhodes-Pitts’ borrows her title from Ralph Ellison’s essay, “Harlem Is Nowhere,” about African-Americans’ simultaneous presence in and alienation from American democracy. Like Ellison’s protagonist in Invisible Man, Rhodes-Pitts’ storytelling is finally about her literary, historical and political education. Rhodes-Pitts’ ambivalence — her deeply rooted participation in Harlem life and her distant, reportorial observation and documentation of the Harlem world — is the book’s core. The author-protagonist’s negotiation of these conflicting roles produces the work’s most searing, intelligent passages.
In the final section, “We March Because …”, we find Rhodes-Pitts, dazed in the Harlem maze, grappling as participant and writer. Unlike Ellison’s protagonist, the author refuses to flee or go underground, choosing instead to stay in the fray, fighting and writing for Harlem.