Harlem is Nowhere

In an undated, unpublished essay entitled "Adventures of an Unintentional New Yorker," a young Oklahoman named Ralph Ellison recounts his arrival in Harlem in the 1930s. "I learned that almost anything could happen on 125th Street," Ellison writes. Living in Harlem, he maintains, "was an exciting and oppressive experience"—exciting because it offered the comfort of racial familiarity coupled with the illusion of freedom amidst segregation, oppressive because that same comfort and illusion threatened to hold him back from the world beyond. Harlem embodied both limitation and liberation for Ellison, a tension he would later explore in his classic 1952 novel, Invisible Man.

 

Seventy years later, a young Texan named Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts journeyed to a Harlem vastly changed from the one Ellison had come to know. In Harlem is Nowhere, which takes its title from Ellison's 1946 essay of the same name, Rhodes-Pitts offers a stirring exploration of Harlem's geography, actual and imagined. The eight essays that comprise the book each draw from a source of inspiration, be it a photograph of a 1920 Harlem street scene, the fictional characters that people the novels of Harlem Renaissance authors, or the "Dream Books" that match anything your subconscious can conjure with a number ready to wager in Harlem's street corner lottery.

 

With so much attention on the past, one might expect Rhodes-Pitts's tone to be elegiac. But an activist strain in the book compels us inexorably toward the present. Rhodes-Pitts's Harlem of 2011 is another country from Ellison's Harlem of 1936, one in which the shape of Harlem's future—as a black community, as a cultural mecca—is far from promised. "It all comes down to a point that is as simple as it is terrible," Rhodes-Pitts writes near the book's end. "It is a fact that closes in on itself, like the mythical serpent that devours its own tail: This is our land that we don't own." The dual threats of gentrification and cultural amnesia risk eroding a rich history and displacing the generations of black Americans for whom Harlem is home.

 

Channeling Ellison—but also Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and many others, familiar and not—Rhodes-Pitts crafts a compelling narrative voice that is bracingly intimate yet capable of dilating to encompass a chorus of voices and opinions not her own. We come to know Rhodes-Pitts as a bookish young girl, growing up in West Texas, who compiles her own reading list of the work of Harlem Renaissance authors. We later see her as a young woman newly arrived in Harlem, "Miss Great Migration 2002" as one of her friends jokes, or what Ellison might have called an "inside-outsider": increasingly at home in her newfound community, but retaining a certain difference that allows for fresh perspective.

 

This is a book driven by that perspective, one that asks us to share the wonder with which it looks upon the everyday realities of the Harlem community. Its success rests upon Rhodes-Pitts's ability to persuade her reader to join in her journey. Are we willing to sit with her in the reading room of the Schomburg Center as she sifts through yellowing newspaper clippings, a maze of historical detritus? Are we, too, struck with wonder at the motivational credos that an unnamed man, whom she dubs the "Messenger," scrawls in colored chalk on the sidewalk for the betterment of Harlem's youth? Are we moved by the stories of the everyday people she meets, on the street and on the stoop, who have lived most of their lives within the span of four square miles? It is a testament to Rhodes-Pitts's achievement that, more often than not, we are.

 

Unobtrusive but ever-present, Rhodes-Pitts's narration provides an essential unifying element to a book that at times risks coming apart of its own eclecticism. Whatever limitations this work has are in part a consequence, however, of its chosen form. As a collection of loosely connected essays, Harlem is Nowhere allows Rhodes-Pitts to elide certain basic concerns that other genres—the memoir, for instance, or the novel—would have insisted that she confront. Most notably, what's missing is a sense of evolution in the narrative voice, a sense of how the myriad experiences of Harlem have reshaped her perspective, and how they might, in turn, reshape those of her readers. I left the book hungered but undernourished, still in want of the soul-sustenance that Harlem—and I would venture to say Rhodes-Pitts—has in abundance.


Adam Bradley is the author of Ralph Ellison in Progress and the co-editor of Three Days Before the Shooting . . ., the posthumous edition of Ellison's unfinished second novel.

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