A writer goes uptown
By Thomas Chatterton Williams
March 2, 2011
Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America, by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts; Little, Brown; 296 pp.; $24.99
Early in her fine debut, Harlem Is Nowhere, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, a young transplant to “the mecca of black America,” writes: “A friend of mine describes certain cities as being full—too much has happened there, you cannot move. Paris, he says, is the quintessentially full city.” She suspects he’d say the same about Harlem, as would I. And it’s easy to admire her determination to make room for herself in this overflowing landscape. Harlem has, after all, “both the physical crowdedness of buildings and people,” as well as the far more stifling “crowd of stories and histories” to contend with. She borrows her title from Ralph Ellison’s superb 1964 Harper’s essay of the same name. Rhodes-Pitts is aiming high.
But one way she creates space for herself is by fading into the background. Like a young Joan Didion, she stands in the corner with her notebook out, jotting down a litany of seemingly useless trivia and tidbits that she will then research in the library and string together when she gets back home. And, as with Didion, the thread keeping these disparate scraps together is her singular voice.
The reader drifts through Harlem, as if in a dream, as Rhodes-Pitts’s impressionistic prose weaves together real life, photographs, lists, fiction, and poetry. Even if you know the neighborhood, it is rewarding to return here with her eyes, which are certain to reveal something new, and perhaps something decent, about the place. Unlike Didion—or Ellison—she is never cruel.
Yet this same urge to decency leaves the reader to suspect the whole story isn’t being told. Rhodes-Pitts, with her enchanting voice, is a curator of other people’s words, thoughts, and images. Perhaps a third of the book is made up of quotes, which she renders in italics and large blocks of text, never in quotation marks, and which blend with her own writing like a mosaic. Most of the time her taste is impeccable, but sometimes her choices can be bewildering and even frustrating. She devotes a mere 12 pages to a discussion of the literary giants James Baldwin and Ellison, and then lavishes 16 pages on the scrapbook collector Alexander Gumby.
This is a shame. Some of her finest writing not only reintroduces us to some of the best writers in all of American literature but, remarkably, shows us something new about them in the process. Her critique of Ellison and Baldwin, though brief, is subtle and devastating.
“In 1948,” she writes,
Ralph Ellison heard the street slang Oh, man, I’m nowhere and heard the identity crises, negation and psychic despair provoked by daily life under white supremacy.
In 1961, James Baldwin, writing “Fifth Avenue, Uptown,” perhaps writing from Paris, remembered a different greeting: “How’re you making it?” . . . “Oh, I’m TV-ing it.”
Both greetings, she argues, refer to a state of negation. They are the words of young black men “without prospects,” who were “spending their lives at their mother’s house, watching daytime TV.” But, unlike Ellison and Baldwin, she will not succumb to the urge to let these young men, however numerous, speak for all blacks everywhere:
Perhaps it is just a coincidence that these . . . writers emerge from their descent into Harlem with the trophy of a greeting from which to derive a metaphor about all of black existence. I think it has more to do with the instrument of the writer’s art, a blade that is sometimes destructive and reductive, though it also flashes light. Perhaps those greetings and their interpretations say more about the interpreters than about those who are purported to use them.
Don’t get corrupted.
One wishes there were more such profound insights in the book—and not just directed at the heavyweights who can take their licks. In her overriding urge toward decency and generosity, Rhodes-Pitts makes other curatorial lapses too. No mention of hip-hop music or culture appears anywhere in the book. This alone leaves her otherwise exquisite portrait of Harlem incomplete. How could a writer with such a keen eye and ear have lived in a black section of New York City and not been either seduced or outraged by the most dominant form of black culture today?
She offers very little analysis of the class differences that do more to separate the writer from her subject than her skin color does to join her with it. Gentrification is the elephant in the room, ever lurking in the background and ready to stomp, as one distraught Harlem resident after another, past and present, wonders when the neighborhood will run out of space for people like them. Rhodes-Pitts, who is a Harvard graduate, a Fulbright Scholar, and a recipient of a Rona Jaffe writing award, could do a lot more to make sense of this predicament and not settle merely for describing it—especially since it is precisely blacks like her who are the primary agents of change in Harlem. Instead, she is content to wonder to a friend if she, too, may be a gentrifier. When he says that she’s not because she’s “black and poor,” she replies that she’s not convinced. To be convinced how wrong her friend was, she need only look back at her conversation with an old black nationalist she calls The Chief, who tells her wistfully that, as a young man, though he couldn’t attend, he’d “been hanging out around the University of Chicago . . . mixing with its black intellectuals, trying to become one, too.” Her response is telling: “I told him that my grandfather had been a student there around the same time.”
Still, Harlem Is Nowhere is in many ways a wonderful and admirable book, and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts is a writer worth reading. Her website says that she is writing “a trilogy on African-Americans in utopia,” of which this is presumably the first volume. It will be interesting to see where she goes next.
Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.
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