Making a Promised Land
Harlem in Twentieth-Century Photography and Film
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
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In Harlem, Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for group expressionand self-determination. It is—or promises at least to be—a race capital....
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This project began with a simple series of questions: what is film’s statuswithin African American aesthetics, and how might we look to films set inHarlem, the “Mecca of the New Negro,” as an indicator of the cinema’s role inthe construction of African American identity? What appeared to be straight-forward questions soon revealed an expansive history of cinema’s relationship...
Introduction. The Era of the New Negro: African American Politics and Aesthetics in Twentieth-Century Harlem
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Negro Harlem is practically a development of the past decade, but the—James Weldon Johnson, “Harlem: The Culture Capital,” 1925Contemporary discussions of Harlem invariably focus on how it was—and continues to be—an African American space. What this means depends on thespeaker, but what is indisputable is that Harlem remains, in Charles S....
Chapter 1. African American Aesthetics and the City: Picturing the Black Bourgeoisie in New York
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They had heard of New York as a place vague and far away, a city that, likeHeaven, to them had existed by faith alone. All the days of their lives theyhad heard of it, and it seemed to them the center of all the glory, all theThe 1907 American Mutoscope and Biograph Company’s short film Fights ofNations includes one of the earliest cinematic depictions of African American...
Chapter 2. Heaven and Hell in Harlem: Urban Aesthetics for a Renaissance People
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We have endeavored for some time to avoid turning over this house tocolored tenants, but as a result of . . . rapid changes in conditions . . . thisTwo snapshots of Harlem life set the stage for the following discussion ofAfrican American politics and poetics during the 1920s and ’30s, a period when large numbers of the African American population moved to northern...
Chapter 3. Delinquents in the Making: Harlem's Representational Turn toward "Marketable Shock"
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All over Harlem, Negro boys and girls are growing into stunted maturity,trying desperately to find a place to stand; and the wonder is not that soA series of three photographs sets the tone for the following exploration ofHarlem in visual and written texts from the 1940s through the early 1960s. Thefirst image is a much-reproduced portrait of three black male youths, standing...
Chapter 4. Gangster's Paradise: Drugs and Crime in Harlem, from Blaxploitation to New Jack Cinema
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This book is about Harlem. Fabulous, “exotic” Harlem. A city within a city,walled in by the enemy and occupied by enemy forces. . . . [This] is not astory of a people hopelessly lost in a quagmire of despair and helpless-ness, but the story of the people fighting back against overwhelmingBy the time that The Cool World was shown on screens around the world, the...
Chapter 5. Echoes of a Renaissance: Harlem's Nostalgic Turn
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Photography, like no other medium of visual communication, has sustainedHarlem as a site of memory in the American, if not global psyche.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...
Conclusion. Making and Remaking a Promised Land: Harlem's Continuing Revisions
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As Harlem confronts the pressures of “development,” it is being forced toredefine itself, and issues of isolation and integration have taken on newIn her afterword to Harlem on the Verge, a collection of portraits of neighborhoodpeople and places taken between 2000 and 2001, photographer Alice Attieruminates on the power of the photograph to document a moment in history,...
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About the Author
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PAULA J. MASSOOD is a professor of film studies in the Department of Filmat the City University of New York and is on the doctoral faculty for the Programin Theatre at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film (2003) and editor of ...
Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2013