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LITERARY REVIEW August 2011
multitude of meanings.
Growing up in Texas, the only black student in her class at a pr ivate Episcopalian high school, Rhodes-Pitts immersed herself in books by Jean Toomer, Nella Larsen, Claude McKay, Ann Petry and Ralph Ellison. Their fictional protagonists arr ive in Harlem – often from the South, often fleeing some act of violence or persecution – filled with expectation. Sometimes these characters descend into shades of disillusion or despair, much as Harlem itself would sink from a hopeful black Zion into what Ellison in 1948 called ‘the scene and symbol of the Negro’s perpetual alienation in the land of his birth’. For the teenage Rhodes-Pitts, it was only the ‘outward, upward momentum’ of these fictional arrivals that had mattered, a hangover from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s when the neighbourhood was celebrated as the ‘race capital’ of black people the world over. Then, the graceful architecture bequeathed by prosperous white families who fled the migrant influx had marked Harlem out from the ramshackle, dilapidated quarters to which blacks were confined in other American cities. Black artists, writers and professionals congregated from across the country, and bars and jazz clubs catered to wealthy white patrons in pursuit of the exotic. But the Depression of the 1930s ravaged Harlem, and the postwar retur n to prosper ity bypassed the neighbourhood. As employment dried up and more and more migrants were crowded into the area by discriminatory landlords and housing authorities, a new image of Harlem as the archetypal black ghetto emerged.
This new image overlaid that of the vibrant race capital, but did not erase it. Hopes lingered that the black citywithin-a-city would once again become a vanguard of race progress: Harlem had become, for the poet Langston Hughes, a ‘dream deferred’. Rhodes-Pitts borrows her title from Ralph Ellison’s essay of 1948, which lamented that ‘in Harlem the reply to the greeting, “How are you?” is often, “Oh, man, I’m nowhere”’. As she keenly points out, ‘nowhere’ is also the most literal meaning of ‘utopia’, and through all its bleak notoriety Harlem has remained a place of fantasies of rebirth and renewal.
To young whites faced with an impenetrable property market, Harlem once again extends the promise of ‘outward, upward momentum’. Yet developers and estate agents eager for the spoils are unsure whether to consecrate or efface Harlem’s chequered past. Some speak of ‘New Harlem’ or revert to old names such as Mount Morris Park in place of the apparently ominous Marcus Garvey Park. Their ambivalence reproduces in new for ms what Rhodes-Pitts calls the ‘original conundrum’ of this stretch of upper Manhattan, which throughout the twentieth century figured as a barometer of black America’s fortunes. Harlem ‘is the result of bigotry and exclusion. It is also a proving ground of aspirations. It is a place that contracts one’s possibilities, and a place where all things are possible.’ To order this book for £11.99, see LR bookshop on page 12