Harlem is Nowhere, By Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
Seldom was a neighbourhood so watchable
Sunday 21 August 2011
In 1948, the African-American writer Ralph Waldo Ellison was commissioned to write a report on a Harlem mental health clinic.
In the words of Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, a Texas-born, 33-year-old "walker, reader and gazer" now living in Harlem, Ellison's report observed that "the general condition of life in Harlem is the source of the specific mental conditions of the clinic's patients ... second-class citizenship among black Americans leads to a general condition that is, or approaches, collective insanity."
Ellison's report later became an essay called Harlem is Nowhere, which is the title that Rhodes-Pitts borrows for her own part-memoir, part-history, part-travelogue, subtitled "A Journey to the Mecca of Black America". Splicing together newspaper clippings, passages of history books, extracts from novels, poetry and first-person accounts, Rhodes-Pitts builds up a vivid and moving love letter to Harlem, from its earliest incarnation as a "Negro colony" to the increasingly gentrified neighbourhood of today.
If you are able to overlook a rather invasive use of italics – which are deployed for everything from quotations from the author's notes to sentences of particular emphasis – and an occasional over-reliance on secondary sources which hampers the flow of the narrative, this book is a smorgasbord of delightful vignettes and poignant evocations of old Harlem.
Rhodes-Pitts is at her best when she curbs her scholastic tone to tell us about the ordinary people on the streets of Harlem, and her encounters with them. There is Julius Bobby Nelson, for instance, who she thought of as "the Mumbler" on account of a speech impediment, but who makes unequivocal statements such as "I live here. I grew up here. I know all of it". And there is her neighbour, Ms Minnie, who constantly scrutinises the narrator's clothing while providing priceless, unprompted reminiscences. ("She will tell me how they used to make soap out of lye and lard in a cauldron in the backyard.")
As a great, sweeping history of Harlem, this book is valuable. As a piece of travel writing, which allows us glimpses into the precious mundane moments that in lesser hands might go unnoticed, it is engaging. But it truly comes alive on account of the personality of the writer herself, the "gazer" on the outside of society who is always happy to share a stoop with the disenfranchised and listen carefully and sensitively to their stories on our behalf.
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