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Making a Promised Land

Harlem in Twentieth-Century Photography and Film

Paula J. Massood

Publication Year: 2013

Making a Promised Land examines the interconnected histories of African American representation, urban life, and citizenship as documented in still and moving images of Harlem over the last century. Paula J. Massood analyzes how photography and film have been used over time to make African American culture visible to itself and to a wider audience and charts the ways in which the “Mecca of the New Negro” became a battleground in the struggle to define American politics, aesthetics, and citizenship. Visual media were first used as tools for uplift and education. With Harlem’s downturn in fortunes through the 1930s, narratives of black urban criminality became common in sociological tracts, photojournalism, and film. These narratives were particularly embodied in the gangster film, which was adapted to include stories of achievement, economic success, and, later in the century, a nostalgic return to the past. Among the films discussed are Fights of Nations (1907), Dark Manhattan (1937), The Cool World (1963), Black Caesar (1974), Malcolm X (1992), and American Gangster (2007). Massood asserts that the history of photography and film in Harlem provides the keys to understanding the neighborhood’s symbolic resonance in African American and American life, especially in light of recent urban redevelopment that has redefined many of its physical and demographic contours.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page

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p. 3-3

Copyright Page

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p. 4-4


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pp. 5-6

Front matter

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pp. 7-8


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pp. ix-10

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pp. xi-xiv

This project began with a simple series of questions: what is film’s status within African American aesthetics, and how might we look to films set in Harlem, the “Mecca of the New Negro,” as an indicator of the cinema’s role in the construction of African American identity? What appeared to be straight-forward questions soon revealed an expansive history of cinema’s relationship...

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Introduction. The Era of the New Negro: African American Politics and Aesthetics in Twentieth-Century Harlem

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pp. 1-19

Negro Harlem is practically a development of the past decade, but the—James Weldon Johnson, “Harlem: The Culture Capital,” 1925 Contemporary discussions of Harlem invariably focus on how it was—and continues to be—an African American space. What this means depends on the speaker, but what is indisputable is that Harlem remains, in Charles ....

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Chapter 1. African American Aesthetics and the City: Picturing the Black Bourgeoisie in New York

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pp. 20-50

The 1907 American Mutoscope and Biograph Company’s short film Fights of Nations includes one of the earliest cinematic depictions of African American life in New York City. Introduced with an intertitle reading, “Sunny Africa, Eighth Avenue, New York,” the film’s presentation of black urbanity features the clientele of a New York City cabaret who drink, cakewalk, and fight. ...

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Chapter 2. Heaven and Hell in Harlem: Urban Aesthetics for a Renaissance People

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pp. 51-87

Two snapshots of Harlem life set the stage for the following discussion of African American politics and poetics during the 1920s and ’30s, a period when large numbers of the African American population moved to northern urban areas around Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and New York City as part of the Great Migration. The first captures a moment on July 28, 1917, when, outraged ...

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Chapter 3. Delinquents in the Making: Harlem's Representational Turn toward "Marketable Shock"

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pp. 88-125

A series of three photographs sets the tone for the following exploration of Harlem in visual and written texts from the 1940s through the early 1960s. The first image is a much-reproduced portrait of three black male youths, standing side-by-side on a Harlem street, wearing top hats and tails. The subjects look directly at the viewer, asserting their agency and offering a multivalent and ...

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Chapter 4. Gangster's Paradise: Drugs and Crime in Harlem, from Blaxploitation to New Jack Cinema

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pp. 126-158

By the time that The Cool World was shown on screens around the world, the assertion that Harlem was a ghetto was familiar to film audiences; the popular press had been broadcasting portraits (still and moving) of inner-city despair, decay, and victimhood since the 1930s. Such images were the product of a number of political, social, economic, and aesthetic factors, including sociological discourses supporting environmental determinism and governmental abandonment ...

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Chapter 5. Echoes of a Renaissance: Harlem's Nostalgic Turn

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pp. 159-191

In the epigraph above, art historian Cheryl Finley draws upon Pierre Nora’s concept of “site[s] of memory (les lieux des memoire)” to make sense of photography’s role in the construction of Harlem’s iconicity. In “Harlem Sites of Memory,” which appears in the Studio Museum’s catalogue for the 2003 Harlemworld: Metropolis as Metaphor show, Finley provides a brief history of Harlem photography in order to argue that “Harlem’s understanding of itself” is ...

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Conclusion. Making and Remaking a Promised Land: Harlem's Continuing Revisions

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pp. 192-198

In her afterword to Harlem on the Verge, a collection of portraits of neighborhood people and places taken between 2000 and 2001, photographer Alice Attie ruminates on the power of the photograph to document a moment in history, the “now” of her subjects’ lives.1 Nevertheless, the images also capture a disappearing Harlem, or what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak describes as a “vanishing ...


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pp. 199-229


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pp. 231-247

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About the Author

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p. 264-264

PAULA J. MASSOOD is a professor of film studies in the Department of Film at the City University of New York and is on the doctoral faculty for the Program in Theatre at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film (2003) and editor of ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780813555898
E-ISBN-10: 0813555892
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813555874
Print-ISBN-10: 0813555884

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2013