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.

Rhodes-Pitts Is Not Merely Passing through Town

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.

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