- Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America
Harlem Is Nowhere (2011) is the first, widely reviewed book by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, a beneficiary of awards from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. The book marks the beginning of a planned trilogy on African Americans and utopia, aptly opening with the image of the author inserting a key into a Lenox Avenue apartment building. Rhodes-Pitts offers a highly personalized account of her 2002 migration to Harlem, the “Mecca” of black America, that weaves memoir, cultural history, and social commentary in an engaging hybrid style, exploring diverse sources and materials. She incorporates the works of many authors into her characterization of black New York; for example, she intertwines the story of her own arrival in Harlem with fictional arrivals depicted in the works of Wallace Thurman and Claude McKay.
Rhodes-Pitts expresses a fascination with the capture, preservation, and extension of knowledge, as evidenced by the importance she places on the Schomburg Center’s role in the community of Harlem. The collection of recorded black history is a physical testament to the powerful and continually evolving challenge advanced by Arthur Schomburg: “History must restore what slavery took away” (77). The resonance of this statement for the author explains her identification of the library as not solely a locus of knowledge, but also a place to unravel slavery’s legacy of injustice.
For Rhodes-Pitts, Harlem is a landscape of libraries, bookstores, monuments, museums, waxworks, and scrapbooks. Her research into more obscure artifacts of Harlem history—for example, her investigations into a scrapbooking enterprise in Chapter Four and the life of Raven Chanticleer in Chapter Seven—attests to the significance she places on public record and remembrance. She regards the letters sent home weekly by her neighbor as a lost archive of information and laments that she “could never linger long enough on enough different corners to hear all that everyone had to say” (71). She treats the evidence at her disposal with reverence even when challenging its veracity; accounts of Raven Chanticleer’s life, [End Page 221] for example, were often falsified and in many cases written by Chanticleer himself. Her awareness of the inescapable subjectivity of her role and its limitations may seem like mere methodology, but it allows room for other voices, alternative interpretations—even another Harlem—to exist harmoniously with the one she sets before us.
Harlem is, moreover, represented as a place of stories waiting to be discovered amid archives and through the vibrant legacy of its literature, luring the author into encounters along its avenues (“through the eyes I would be dragged into stories” ). The diversity of these voices is respected. The convention of quotation marks is overlooked in favor of italics to differentiate between the author’s voice and that of another. This technique accelerates the pace of the text and distinguishes between the distinct perspectives of the book’s contributors and sources while emphasizing its intertextuality.
The author introduces Chapter Four with an assignment she received at fifteen, constructed from the opening lines of the well-loved Langston Hughes poem “Theme for English B.” Her burgeoning adolescent interest in the Harlem Renaissance is further evinced by her recollection of the commonplace book in which she sketched from Bruce Davidson’s East 100th Street (1970) and kept the words of her favorite writers, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison among them. She describes these memorial activities as a kind of “apprenticeship” (96), but the inclusion of such anecdotes seems indulgent at times; later in the chapter, she shares a record of her dreams. Yet the author’s embodiment in the text contributes to a greater level of transparency. Thanks to this self-edited view of a young Rhodes-Pitts, we are encouraged to speculate about her agendas and perspectives.
Although she depicts herself as approaching Harlem residents candidly and openly, there is some suggestion of reticence: she...