Tavis: Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts is a noted young writer whose debut book has caught the attention of readers and literary critics alike. The book is called “Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America.” Sharifa, first of all, congrats on the first book, and nice to have you on the program.
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts: Thank you, glad to be here.
Tavis: Lot of buzz on this thing already, so I’m glad to have you on. I want to write this down, make sure I got it right. This book borrows its title from a quote from Ralph Ellison back in 1948, and the quote is, “Harlem is the scene and symbol of the Negro’s perpetual alienation in the land of his birth. Harlem is the scene and symbol of the Negro’s perpetual alienation in the land of his birth.” Unpack that quote for me.
Rhodes-Pitts: It was from an essay called “Harlem is Nowhere,” which Ellison wrote in 1948, which was about a free mental health clinic that offered psychiatric care to Blacks. He took the slang of the time, where if you asked someone where they were, they might say, “Oh, man, I’m nowhere,” and used that to kind of describe Harlem as a place that was the scene of – where the life that a Black person lived under white supremacy and inequality led to a kind of psychic break, even for those who were not under care.
So Ellison’s idea was really that Harlem was the place where this drama of Black people not fully being part of the democracy was acted out, and my borrowing of the title is really kind of going inside of it, thinking about Harlem as we know it.
In any corner of the world, someone would have an idea of what that place meant, whether it was for music or politics or poetry, any number of the famous people that came out of those blocks and trying to inhabit this place that’s larger than life. How do you live in a place that has such a large myth?
Tavis: To your point about this large myth – we’ll get to that in just a second – the subtitle of the book is “A Journey to the Mecca of Black America.”
Tavis: Before we get to that myth, what is it about Harlem that allows it to be described by you and others as the mecca of Black America?
Rhodes-Pitts: Well, going back basically a hundred years, Harlem has been the place (unintelligible) Black neighborhood, people like Elaine (unintelligible) describing it as a race capital, a place where the aspirations of Black people could be focused, where they could thrive and where what happened in Harlem would sort of provide a model for what could happen in other places.
It was a place where, whether it was for music or someone who wanted to be a leader or a businessman, a place where you could kind of test your skills, but also for everyday people. The great migration that carried so many out of the South and out of a rural lifestyle into the center of this metropolis was really, for everyday people, just as thrilling and a place where everyday aspirations could kind of be worked out.
Tavis: That’s not to suggest, though, that while – let me back this up. While Harlem is obviously unique unto itself, and we’ll talk more about that uniqueness, that’s not to suggest, though, that there aren’t Harlems around the country in other places.
Rhodes-Pitts: Right, there certainly are. Even during the historical time there were other places that were just as important, whether it was Chicago or D.C., and even in places you wouldn’t necessarily think of as having strong Black communities, like Denver or Seattle or Portland, had neighborhoods that were sometimes referred to as the Harlem of the West.
Now a lot of people would challenge me and say that in 2011, Harlem is not the mecca of Black America. That something like Atlanta is. But no place matches Harlem’s historical weight, and I think that what’s happened there in the past and what’s happening there now still holds a lot of lessons for all places.
Tavis: If, to your point of a moment ago, Sharifa, if Harlem, for sake of argument, has surrendered that title of Black America’s mecca to a place like Atlanta, for the sake of argument, what allowed that to happen?
Rhodes-Pitts: I think Atlanta – I haven’t spent that much time there so I couldn’t really say, but I think when people think of a place where upwardly mobile Black people go, that Atlanta would be kind of higher on the list than Harlem.
The history of Harlem in the last 40 years has certainly been one of divestment in terms of services to the community and real estate, and that’s changed in the last 20 years, when individual people started buying property and community development corporations started operating.
So there’s been a lot of transition, certainly, and a lot of the development was focused at the beginning more on low-income housing and bringing different kinds of opportunities for businesses or retail stores to a neighborhood that had been sort of decimated.
Most recently, a lot of the attention and activity has been going towards market rate housing and the question of how working class people will be housed in Harlem is very much at issue.
Tavis: We’ve done a good job – you’ve done a good job – if walking around that “G” word that I want to get right at, and that is the notion of gentrification. When I asked a moment ago whether there are Harlems around the country, indeed there are, as you pointed out, and this issue of gentrification is one that not just Harlem is wrestling with, but other African American communities, other Black enclaves, are wrestling with that same issue as we speak.
What’s fascinating, I found, in your book, early in the book – as a matter of fact, on page 20 – I’m going to put this quote up on the screen. We talked a moment ago about Ralph Ellison and how the title of the book borrows from Ellison back in 1948.
Tavis: But I want to go back farther than that to 1925, to another great writer named James Weldon Johnson. Johnson had this to say about Harlem back in 1925: “The question naturally arises, are the Negroes going to be able to hold Harlem? If they have been steadily driven northward for the past hundred years and out of less desirable sections, can they hold this choice bit of Manhattan Island?
“It is hardly probable that Negroes will hold Harlem indefinitely, but when they are forced out it will not be for the same reasons that forced them out of former quarters in New York City. The situation is entirely different and without precedent.
“When colored people do leave Harlem, their homes, their churches, their investments and their businesses, it will be because the land has become so valuable they can no longer afford to live on it, but the date of another move northward is very far into the future.”
This is James Weldon Johnson back in 1925 saying then that at some point the Negroes would not be able to hold on to Harlem, and even going deeper than that and to explain why and how if they lost Harlem they would lose it, and I think we call that prescient. I think we call that prophetic.
James Weldon Johnson put his finger on something that is happening as we speak here in 2011. What do you make of that?
Rhodes-Pitts: That’s the reason I included it in the book, is just it’s so dazzling to think of this man 80 years ago, as you said, putting his finger on the situation that we’re now living through. What I find interesting about that quote is who has the power is not necessarily worked out.
He says it’s because the land is too expensive for them to remain, so within that you’re not sure – is he saying that people will decide to sell because they’d rather have the profit, or are people being pushed out because the people that own the land have decided to have the profit.
So I think in contemporary times both things are happening. In the case where some people who are land owners, property owners, some have decided to move on, even in the case of a property that might have been in the family for generations.
In other cases, it’s people who were landowners all this time and sort of were holding on and not developing their property during the tougher times in Harlem’s history and just sort of letting it stand until the market was favorable to them have decided to move.
All of that is affecting everyday people’s lives. Then other questions, like how the city has decided to develop Harlem, some recent re-zonings that went through that will really change the face of the neighborhood.
Tavis: Part of this book, part of your research, I should say, for the text is historical, and part of it is empirical. You lived in Harlem for a number of years, and I’m curious.
I’ve been to Harlem, of course, countless times – I never lived there, though – and it’s always fascinating to me to talk to people who had one idea of what Harlem was. It’s kind of like when I first though Hollywood, before I moved to L.A. 25, 27 years ago, you’d hear Hollywood and you thought one thing.
When I first came to Hollywood, I was like, “This is it?” (Laughs) You drive to Hollywood Boulevard and you’re expecting to see whatever, and you’re like, “This is it?” So what did you make of Harlem before you went there, what’d you make of Harlem after you spent a few years living there?
Rhodes-Pitts: Well, I mention in the book just how my introduction to the neighborhood was through reading the poetry of Langston Hughes and listening to music and sort of love songs about Harlem, so of course I had a semi-romantic view, but I’m not by nature a romantic person, so I’m always going to have my eyes open to what’s actually going on around me.
So I can’t say I was necessarily sort of arrived with this one dazzled-eyed idea of the place and that was changed, but really, moving there was an invitation to sort of go beyond what I’d read and to also use the encounters that I had and the places that I was walking around as a kind of text of themselves.
How could I read that? How was that as important or more important than what was in the books? I would say the most important thing that I couldn’t have known before I arrived was the sort of openness and the way life is lived publicly and in the street in that neighborhood, and really being always welcomed into a conversation, into a chat, in a way that was just so friendly, and that’s not something that I guess I thought about in terms of New York.
I always attribute that to sort of the Southern heritage of a lot of the people who live in Harlem now. Either they were born in the South or their parents were, or grandparents, and I think some of that very vibrant public and community spirit comes from that.
Tavis: Perfect way to close, by asking whether or not your conclusion is that there is hope for Harlem into the future. I ask that because there’s a lot of good stuff going on there. As you reference earlier, the Abyssinian Development Corporation is one of a number that are doing good work down there.
Of course we all know Jeffrey Canada, the Harlem Children’s Zone, so there are a number of good things happening in Harlem. But there are so many challenges still. One in three kids in Harlem has asthma, et cetera, et cetera. We could do this all day long – the crime, et cetera. So is your conclusion one of hope for Harlem?
Rhodes-Pitts: My sense of hope comes from those everyday interactions and the strength of the community really lies in its relationships and that the fabric of the place is defined by who lives there and whether they are allowed to stay. I think the people who hold the memory of this place and the power of what it’s meant for so many generations, and who are continuing to carry that on through the simplest of exchanges, they transmit that force. I think that is what gives me hope.
Tavis: It’s her first text, but a whole lot of folk are talking about it. We’re honored to have her on this program tonight. It’s called “Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America,” by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts. Sharifa, congrats again, and good to have you on the program.
Rhodes-Pitts: Thank you.
Tavis: My pleasure.
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