As a new papa, I don’t get around much anymore. Yet even when I was out and about, I didn’t make it across 110th Street too often—even though all I needed to do was take the A train, which would have let me off uptown. If in these first two sentences, I have dishonored the eminent traditions of Ellington, Womack, Strayhorn, O’Day and Eldridge, I apologize. Being a new papa also means being sleep-deprived and slap-happy.
My point, though, is that it’s impossible for any culturally aware person not to have some sort of instant association with Harlem. The Renaissance made it the land of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Duke Ellington; the Reformation brought Malcolm X, Chester Himes, and Superfly to the forefront. Harlem’s indelible spot on the cultural map is matched at least partially by its physical location. Everyone knows where it begins (cue up Womack), even as its northern boundaries are a bit unclear.
Such ingrained mental cartography makes the title of Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’s Harlem is Nowhere all the more alluring. It’s based on a Ralph Ellison essay written in 1948 but not published until 1964, in Harper’s. As Pitts explains, Ellison’s focus was on the secondary status of blacks. Even in the capital of black America, he wrote, “One ‘is’ literally, but one is nowhere; one wanders dazed in a ghetto maze, a ‘displaced person’ of American democracy.” For Rhodes-Pitts, such a predicament seemed an invitation. “In the best of circumstances,” she observes, “that dazed wanderer is also the dreamer, creating a world that hasn’t yet come to be. Utopia, after all, is nowhere.”
Rhodes-Pitts serves up an excellent literary travelogue covering the past and present of this elusive place. She reckons with the gods, including Hughes, Hurston, Ellison, and Baldwin; but she’s sensitive to the ordinary folk around her, people she met over the last decade who go by names such as Ms. Bessie and Ms. Minnie. She invokes the specters of black nationalists and other political radicals, including Marcus Garvey and the lesser-known Carlos Cooks (although why she mentions Malcolm X only in passing seemed a bit puzzling); and Rhodes-Pitts also engages directly in local politics, as she joins the opposition to the 125th Street rezoning. She may not like Baldwin’s writing much, but as a writer-activist not afraid to combine the two identities, she’s working in his tradition.
Like Rebecca Solnit, Rhodes-Pitts knows how to capture a sense of place, delivering a fine mix of the personal and the political, the ethnographic and the historical. Jonathan Gill’s Harlem, by contrast, is simply straightforward history. By design it’s far more comprehensive than Rhodes-Pitts’s work, and while Gill’s writing is crisp, the lack of any personal dimension, or even clear point of view, makes the work less engaging. When covering 400 years, the ordinary folk fall by the wayside.
Reading these two works focused on a unique geographic spot made me think a bit about Brooklyn. Whether presented as somewhere or nowhere, everyone knows the location of Harlem—and thus there’s no need to ever say or write that it’s in Manhattan. But time and again, in books like the two here, and even in local media, something that happened in a specific part of Brooklyn is simply treated as having taken place “in Brooklyn.”
Here are just two quick examples: Gill mentions that W.E.B. DuBois bought Arthur Miller’s “house in Brooklyn”; and in discussing her enthusiasm for their participation in the annual African-American Day Parade, Rhodes-Pitts notes that the Black Cowboys “have a ranch in Brooklyn.” Most of us locals know that there’s a vast difference between Brooklyn Heights and East New York (and technically, the Cowboys’s ranch is in Howard Beach, Queens). But there’s no need to indict these two authors or their editors. Just today (March 2), Jim Dwyer’s “About New York” column in the Times began, “For five years, the principal of P.S. 114 in Brooklyn ran the school into the ground.” Now if any reader immediately knows the exact location of every public school by number, more power to ya. In this case, we don’t learn the specific neighborhood, Canarsie, until the fifth paragraph. That the problem afflicting P.S. 114 could indeed happen anywhere in Brooklyn is beside the point. Tell us where, please.
I say this not simply in order to save people like me from having to head for the Internet every time I hear “___was born/lived /died in Brooklyn” to figure out the location. But like every other Brooklynite, I also know first-hand that there’s a whole lot of difference in a few blocks. For example, I live in Sunset Park (a neighborhood recently wronged by a certain Park Slope author), which has a much different demographic mix than adjacent Borough Park or Bay Ridge. So if one were to say that something happened in any of these three neighborhoods, I’d have an instant frame of reference. As for the also-adjacent Dyker Heights, though, I’d probably have to go a-Googling.
Meanwhile, it’s also the case that many of the borough’s neighborhoods—Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, Williamsburg, Bushwick, et al.—don’t need to be identified as being in Brooklyn, a common practice on WNYC and elsewhere. But I’ll leave that for another day. For now, let me take the D train back up to 125th, and close on a more frightening note raised by the works of Rhodes-Pitts and Gill. As Harlem becomes more and more like everywhere, or at least like the Upper West Side, the city itself will continue to lose its identity.