Books

'Harlem Is Nowhere': An Ingenious Weaving of History and Experience

It’s clear that Harlem is home for Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, 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.

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.

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