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02.17.11

The Mythical Harlem

Growing up, Harlem was a dream for author Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts but speaking with Jane Ciabattari she explains how her new book revels in the real neighborhood and not just the myth.

First-time author Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, whose lyrical new book, Harlem Is Nowhere, is named after the postwar Ralph Ellison essay, was raised in Houston, in a tightly knit community of black artists within the city’s vibrant arts community (her mother is a painter and sculptor).   

She first heard of Harlem from her parents, who had taken a trip to New York when she was a toddler. “There's a fuzzy memory of being on a rooftop of a brownstone, which is possibly a memory I concocted in response to being told about our visit to some of my father's college friends in Harlem,” she says. Later, she read about Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer in Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mother's Gardens. “That set me off to the library to discover the lives and works behind those names.”  

At 14, she made herself a reading list of members of the Harlem Renaissance, taking books from her mother's shelves, her high school library, and the public library. In high school, she became interested in the less romantic side of Harlem, as told by memoirist Piri Thomas in Down These Mean Streets and Claude Brown in Manchild in the Promised Land,  James Baldwin's short stories from Going to Meet the Man and the novel Another Country.  

At Harvard she had two majors, African American Studies and Visual and Environmental Studies.  “I arrived the year there had been a lot of buzz about Henry Louis Gates assembling a ‘dream team’ of black intellectuals: Cornel West, Anthony Appiah, William Julius Wilson, among others.  They held weekly colloquia of scholars presenting their work. As a freshman I went every week, soaking it all in.” She also studied with the playwright Adrienne Kennedy, the filmmaker Isaac Julien, and the novelist Jamaica Kincaid. Through her other major she studied filmmaking, spending four years working as an assistant to the documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee, working in 16 mm film and editing by hand.  

Rhodes-Pitts moved to Harlem in 2002, and began to write her first book. She searched for a narrative method that would allow her to handle both history and daily experience. Among her models: Sven Lindqvist’s Exterminate All The Brutes, Richard Rodriguez’s Brown, Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, the work of W.G. Sebald.  

For further inspiration, she re-read many of the Harlem writers whose work had first drawn her to the place--Baldwin, Hurston, Ellison.  

Elements of her interest in documentary film also surface in Harlem Is Nowhere, which includes various found documents (“messages” chalked on the sidewalk, hunches for playing the numbers from a 1944 Harlem dream book) and vintage images, including a number from James VanDerZee and from Aaron Siskind’s Harlem Document.  She writes about early Harlem residents like Alexander Gumby, who in his scrapbooks assembled a mass of information on the history and achievements of black people that she compares to the “mass accumulating within the boundaries of Hurston's Harlem City.”  

And she writes with great warmth about her neighbors, seemed to be protecting her, and instructing her. Which lessons stayed with her?  

“The most important thing that the people who, over the past century made Harlem a place known around the world, have the ability to continue living here.”

“I guess most of all it was the lesson of how to be neighborly. How to be in community. It was not possible to pass in and out of my door without greeting people. And then there's a responsibility and devotion that comes along with that.”

Rhodes-Pitts left Harlem in June 2009, and now lives in New Orleans. “In January 2010 I was expecting to begin researching my second book, in Haiti, when the earthquake happened,” she says. “I stayed with my mother in Texas for a while, then went to New Orleans for a six-week artist residency, and when that was over I decided to stay put. I needed to stay still for awhile.”

During the residency, at the Studio in the Woods, she began work on a project she’s still working on. “The invitation was to create work that was engaged in the endangered landscape of southeastern Louisiana. The location of the residency was right on the Mississippi River. That started me thinking about the 1811 revolts, because the leaders of the uprising were executed and their heads were displayed on pikes all along the Mississippi River levee. The history of black people in America is so connected to the land, though it's not often talked in that way. In my research on 1811, I became really interested in the Maroon colonies of enslaved Africans who escaped into the swamps behind the plantations. This forbidding, unyielding territory that could not (completely) be conquered by the colonists and planters was the place were they could be free, and imagine and plan for the freedom of their families.”

She also is working on another book, part of a trilogy about African Americans and utopia: Harlem, Haiti and the Black Belt of the American South.  

book-cover---harlem-is-nowhere
Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America. By Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts. 304 pages. Little, Brown and Company. $24.99. ()

She lives in the Treme, now made famous by the HBO show, which she says she hasn't seen.  “I actually stayed in the same neighborhood, on the same street, in Spring 2005. It was during an ‘escape from New York’ phase. I decided to go down there, out of curiosity, to spend a month working. It was a brief and powerful introduction to the city before Katrina. Even before the storm, Treme was already experiencing gentrification, and I went to a community forum about the issue at a historic black Catholic church (St.
 Augustine's) across the street from where I lived. I heard the civil rights activist and Treme native Jerome Smith talk about what happens to a community when people move in who don't even do the basic thing like greet a neighbor in the street. He said, ‘It's a death.’”  

How does she visualize the Harlem of the future? “The most important thing that the people who, over the past century made Harlem a place known around the world, have the ability to continue living here. The maintenance of a mythic allure concerns me less. Though the kind of development encouraged by the rezoning of 125th Street has stalled because of the recession, the zoning is now in place if more flush times ever return. The rezoning process showed the city to be particularly indifferent to the needs of low-income Harlem residents versus the desires of the real estate industry. This does not make me terribly optimistic.” Then she adds, “However, just anecdotally, I think of friends who have moved back to Harlem and whose families have roots in the neighborhood going back generations. They've opened businesses, they're creating art, they're carrying a legacy into the future with a sense of service and love, even when it's a struggle.”

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Jane Ciabattari’s work has appeared in Bookforum,The Guardian online, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, among others. She is president of the National Book Critics Circle and author of the short-story collection Stealing the Fire. Recent short stories are online at KGB Bar Lit, Verbsap, Literary Mama and Lost Magazine.