[16 September 2011]
Actually, there are two Harlems. There is, of course, the Harlem on the ground: the Manahttan neighborhood of roughly 3,900 square feet and almost a quarter of a million residents, the vast majority of whom are black. This Harlem is home to vexing urban storylines in microcosm, economic re-development and the future of public education, to name just two. It’s also home to an awful lot of poverty, even amidst the refurbished brownstones and middle-to-upper income residents. But mostly, the Harlem on the ground is the one where people live, breathe, eat, drink, struggle, rejoice and wake up the next day to do all over again.
And there’s the Harlem most people conjure when they hear the word, “Harlem”. That’s the one of opulence bathed in sepia, of magnificent churches and showplaces, of blackness’ best and brightest. It’s the Harlem in all those historic photos, spanning back close to a century, of black people living life at its fullest. Those images represented for the world the aspirations of a far-flung nation of millions, for whom Harlem was less a place than a state of mind, a destination less geographic than mythic.
Unlike everyone else except the Native Americans, black Americans descended from slaves (who obviously didn’t emigrate here of their own accord) have no romantic tale to tell of some perilous but hopeful voyage across the waters, no dreams of opportunity our elders pursued by coming to America. But we do have a story of movement nonetheless, of migration instead of immigration. Our forefathers and foremothers also sought the freedom America promised, only they were already here at the time.
So they moved, however and wherever they could: first as slaves secreting away from oppression in the dead of night; then as freed people, leaving behind Southern poverty for Northern potential. There were many destinations: Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, wherever a brighter day beckoned. But no matter where black folks ended up, one place above all others became the symbol of black aspiration, the city on the hill in the black cultural imagination, the Ellis Island of the black creation myth: Harlem, USA. That’s the Harlem most people know, or think they know, or hope to know one day.
No other single place on the map has inspired so much in the way of black literature. It has been this way ever since the ‘20s, when the community of writers, thinkers and free spirits that populated what would be known as the Harlem Renaissance started waxing rhapsodic about the place. Much of that writing, it should be noted, is a breed apart from straightforward reporting that captures the who-what-when of major Harlem events. It was celebratory and grand in tone, the voice of a generation finding both its roots and its wings in the same place, at the same moment. Ever since then, black writers of a literary bent have tended to place themselves up against that now-mythic Harlem, turning to it partly as muse, invariably as mirror.
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts is the latest in that number, seemingly proving that every generation produces seekers trying to define their own relationship to the Harlem of story and legend. Her Harlem Is Nowhere bears the subtitle “A Journey to the Mecca of Black America”, suggesting a pilgrimage she’s hardly the first nor likely the last to make. But as it turns out, there’s more to the tale than Rhodes-Pitts lets on. Her ingenious weaving of history and personal experience has much of the same tone as most other Harlem-based memoirs and travelogues, but where many other writers did their thing on the place and moved on, her road to Harlem has turned out to be a one-way ticket.
Too bad, then, that Rhodes-Pitts never makes it exactly clear why she’s there. “I had come to New York for a visit, with the faintest unresolved notion of making a move” is the most she allows of her own odyssey, aside from references to her childhood in Texas. Neither is she date-specific, which means a lot in a place that has seen such dramatic economic and demographic changes in the last 20 years, although we can surmise (much) later on that she arrived around the spring of 2002.
On the one hand, the absence of autobiographical details is refreshing within the Harlem memoir/travelogue field. Many such books end up being more about the author than the subject, but Rhodes-Pitts keeps the focus squarely on her surroundings and its denizens. But no memoirist/travelogue author is completely neutral, and while she keeps her own biography apart from the story she weaves, there’s a reason she chose to experience Harlem the way she did, a reason she selected the characters she profiled in detail, and a reason she zeroed in on the events she chronicled. That distance doesn’t necessarily detract from the experience of reading her story as literature, but some context would have been useful in connecting the dots.
Give her credit for doing her homework – literally. She seems to have spent a lot of time in Harlem’s libraries, including the venerable Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. One of the most illuminating things about Harlem Is Nowhere is Rhodes-Pitts’ literature survey of the key Harlem books and writers. It’s during this discourse that we discover the book’s title comes from a 1948 essay by Ralph Ellison, set in a Harlem psychiatric clinic.
But after reviewing the attitudes about Harlem (and, therefore, blackness) revealed in the writings of Ellison, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin, Rhodes-Pitts delves into a most unlikely subject: the curious clippings of L.S. Alexander Gumby, whose meticulous scrapbooks captured much of Harlem’s glamour and gaiety during the ‘20s and ‘30s. His collection of rare books did not survive the ravages of climate and avarice while he was hospitalized, but he eventually donated his scrapbooks to Columbia University.
As remarkable as Gumby’s story is, it’s not enough for Rhodes-Pitts to merely tell it (although it’s a fine thing that she did). There’s obviously a reason she juxtaposed it next to the titans of black literature, but the reader is left to puzzle that out alone, or invent one.
So it is also with the everyday people we meet here. No Harlem travelogue worth its salt is complete without a cast of colorful locals, and Rhodes-Pitts has them in abundance. There’s the man who writes chalk messages on sidewalks, exhorting children to do their best. There are neighborhood elders Ms. Minnie, Ms. Barbara and Ms. Bessie, who serve as guardian angels as much as repositories of history and wisdom. And there’s Julius Bobby Nelson, uniquely positioned to tell the story of his block in detail, because he never left it. It’s clear that these people played at least some small role in transmitting some of Harlem’s essence to the author. But while she tells their tales with reverence and artistry, we’ve no sense that there’s anything more to the story than that they were here, the kind of folks you expect to be here in a book like this.
Only toward the end of the book does Rhodes-Pitts depart from the sharing of local color and her research findings to engage Harlem’s current civic life (coincidentally, it’s only then that the book itself takes on any narrative momentum, as opposed to a seemingly unconnected collection of stories and personalities). In the chapter “Land Is the Basis of All Independence” (from a Malcolm X quote), she skillfully mixes history, politics and the voice of the common person in an account of a series of community meetings decrying the proposed rezoning of 125th Street (Harlem’s main commercial thoroughfare) and expansion of Columbia University into a vacant stretch of West Harlem.
Although Rhodes-Pitts captures action and character in detail, and entertainingly brings long-forgotten corners of history into the present tense, she’s no reporter here: we never learn what came of the protests and marches she vividly recounts. (Indeed, no Harlem memoir/travelogue is much good at the nuts and bolts of the locale’s evolution; history buffs and news junkies are advised to consult Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America (Grove, 2011) by Jonathan Gill for a sturdy biography of the place.)
This leads to a central frustration with what is otherwise a masterfully written slice of history and life: Harlem Is Nowhere doesn’t end so much as it stops. Its final scene is the conclusion of an African American Day parade, marked by a skirmish between onlookers and police. Rhodes-Pitts reprints the official complaint she filed with police after the incident, in which she states the event happened “Sunday, September 16”. A quick check of the perpetual calendar shows that the only year since the author moved to Harlem that September 16 fell on a Sunday was 2007. That would place the event five years after Rhodes-Pitts moved to Harlem, yet her book gives no markings of the passage of time, or what being there all that time had meant to or for her.
It’s clear by the end that Harlem is home for her, but at no point does she ever intimate what made it home, or even when it became home and not just fodder for a book.
We expect the voice of a memoir to be a different person at the end of it than the beginning. We expect the voice of a travelogue to arrive at some insight, be it profound or minute, about the destination. Here, neither happens. While Rhodes-Pitts’ choice to not be the central character in her praise song of Harlem is admirable in its avoidance of self-indulgence, her choice to leave herself out of it all but completely, to not share what possessed her to spend so much time poring over documents and listening to people, leaves her readers dazzled by her prose but searching for its point.
In fact, she does have a Harlem story of her own to tell, and you’d never at all guess it from her book. An article on gentrification and blacks posted 22 August 2011 on BlackAmericaWeb.com, “Gentrification Moving More Blacks from Cities”, includes a reference to a quote Rhodes-Pitts gave to the New York alt-paper The Village Voice (the BlackAmericaWeb article doesn’t say which Voice issue the quote ran in), in which she is identified as a member of the Coalition to Save Harlem. In it, she rails against Columbia’s proposed expansion (yes, apparently the same one she discusses in her book), adding that the coalition is seeking concrete assurances than any housing development as part of the expansion will include units affordable to current Harlemites. That’s not the sort of soundbite about a locale one would expect from a memoirist or travel writer.
Now for some more Harlem history: the Coalition to Save Harlem was formed in November 2007, after the time frame of Harlem Is Nowhere. As of this writing, its blog had not been updated since April 2010 and its Facebook page was barely a placeholder, so one could question whether the group is still around, but they made some local headlines during 2007 and 2008. Rhodes-Pitts has been active with the group, helping to organize a 2008 “Hands Across Harlem” protest against a planned commercial rezoning of 125th Street, as reported 7 April 2008 by the New York Observer (“Hands Across 125th Street! Rezoning Foes Plan river-to-River Protest”).
So: Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts moved to Harlem, for whatever reasons. She came to call the place home. She identified with the fabric of life there, so much so that she took a leadership role in an activist demonstration devoted to preserving a certain quality of that fabric. Remember, the book spans five years: this is no mere account of passing through town. It’s clear that Harlem is more than just where she hangs her hat—it’s a place she’s willing to fight for. She is a participant in Harlem’s life, not just an observer of it. In that respect, for all the evocative skill and genuine love for her home on display throughout Harlem Is Nowhere, the more fascinating and valuable story might not be why she came, who she met or what she learned, but why she stayed.