A young writer unfurls the history and mythology of the ‘cultural capital of black America’
In the Ralph Ellison essay from which Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’s book, “Harlem is Nowhere,’’ takes its title, “nowhere’’ is a precursor to madness. Ellison writes: “The phrase ‘I’m nowhere,’ expresses the feeling borne in upon many negroes that they have no stable, recognized place in society. One’s identity drifts in a capricious reality in which even the most commonly held assumptions are questionable.’’
It is this Harlem that Rhodes-Pitts explores, the Harlem in which the instability of common assumptions results in equal parts beauty and chaos. Part memoir, part travelogue, part literary criticism, and part history lesson, “Harlem is Nowhere’’ chronicles Rhodes-Pitts’s life in Harlem, a place she moved to in search of the Harlem she’d read about for so long. By the time Rhodes-Pitts is jokingly dubbed by a friend “Miss Great Migration 2002,’’ Harlem has to compete not only with the mythology of “commonly held assumptions,’’ but with decades of its own mythology.
“Harlem is Nowhere’’ eloquently wades through this mythology, evoking the neighborhood’s historical sense of both danger and promise, or as Rhodes-Pitts puts it, “hyperbolic Harlem, the cultural capital of black America or its epicenter (likening the place to a natural disaster).’’ It is this hyperbolic Harlem that has brought the author herself and many people before her here, but it is this same hyperbolic Harlem that shows up at a Community Board meeting later in the book. By way of explaining a regulation that permits luxury condo developers to trade required affordable housing units for ground floor arts venues, a representative from the city planning department says: “We’ve been told that arts and culture are important up here, so there are going to be restaurants and cultural venues.’’ It is, Rhodes-Pitts’s narrative frequently implies, a slippery slope from the Harlem of dreams to Harlem by force.
Gentrification is a looming presence, from a quote early in the book by James Weldon Johnson — “When colored people do leave Harlem, their homes, their churches, their investments and their businesses, it will be because the land has become so valuable that they can no longer afford to live on it.’’ — to the final chapters, in which encroachment by condo developers and Columbia University threaten the community. Evidence of the ironies and indignities abounds: Adam Clayton Powell’s objection to a city building that is subsequently named after him; a small child’s awareness that the trees being planted on his block are being placed there not for him, but for those who will come after his family leaves. However, the book is not didactic on the subject. The author characterizes her political philosophy, borrowed from Franz Fanon, as “make of me always a man who asks questions,’’ and that philosophy guides this text.
Though a friend assures her that she can’t be, by virtue of being poor and black, part of the gentrification process, Rhodes-Pitts is never quite convinced of it. In a country that so often reductively talks about gentrification in terms of poor blacks and rich whites, as if those are the only two kinds of people who inhabit such areas, it is fascinating to consider the implications of the fact that the first wave of gentrification often looks much like the author — young, educated, black.
At times Rhodes-Pitts’s awareness of the history of exploitation of personal stories in Harlem by scholars and artists intent on finding interesting differences or deviance among residents leads her to protect the subjects of her own work almost too much. She never conducts a formal interview with an elderly neighbor, for fear of making her narrative less organic and authentic; she discovers the identity of a person leaving inspirational messages to the youth of Harlem, but after finding him, protects his identity and back story by not including it in the book. When a neighborhood resident asks her, mockingly, “how long one had to live in Harlem before being allowed to write a book about it,” one gets the sense the question stings because it’s one the author has asked herself.
Much remains sub rosa in Rhodes-Pitts’s Harlem, but that is part of the book’s success. More often than not, the image takes center stage. The strength of this book is in the beauty of its language and the intelligence of its juxtapositions. Rhodes-Pitts’s startlingly lovely descriptions capture Harlem past and present, and focus on lesser known figures, people who might be lost or overlooked in a different kind of work. The approach here is less cinematic and more snapshot — the reader moves, with Rhodes-Pitts, through Harlem, encountering the central figures and images of her present there, and the past she finds in library books.
At times, the snapshot approach can feel too fleeting. A character may disappear sooner than the reader would like, or the analysis of historical and literary material may occasionally feel a bit too quick or superficial, as in a likely unintentionally dismissive line that construes speculation about the sexuality of various Harlem Renaissance figures as merely reflecting an inclination among certain historians to portray these artists as pioneers — that they were out there “first’’ — rather than as part of a genuine desire to study the ways queer Harlem Renaissance figures learned to both conceal and survive.
Ultimately though, Rhodes-Pitts does an excellent job wrangling a century of material concerning Harlem into an original and readable narrative. The reader, invited along on the author’s rewarding and often surprising explorations, is left not with a singular narrative of Harlem or a simple idea of its significance, but rather, the sense that the reader, like the author herself early in her research, “typed the word ‘Harlem’ into the image archive to see what it would yield.’’
Danielle Evans, author of the short-story collection “Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self,’’ can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.