Harlem Blues


Between 1915 and 1970, six million African-Americans left the oppression of the Jim Crow South to find freedom in California and the northern states. Most traveled by rail, with those in the Southeast taking the Seaboard Air Line up the East Coast to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York. The most popular destination for southern African-Americans arriving in New York was the crown jewel of Black America: Harlem.

Harlem’s past and present are the principal subjects of Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’ tender historical memoir Harlem Is Nowhere. Rhodes-Pitts describes her life as a Texas native transplanted to Lenox Avenue, but Harlem and its history are her larger subjects. And while she has borrowed her title from Ralph Ellison’s 1948 landmark essay on Harlem’s confounding mixture of opportunity and alienation, a beautiful lament on the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s “Mo Better Blues” might also describe her work. Throughout her studious love letter to her adopted home, Rhodes-Pitt is singing the Harlem Blues.

Ellison’s landmark essay, which Harper’s published in 1964, and which appeared in Ellison’s collection Shadow and Act, was powered by two radical observations. The first concerned the vertiginous and almost incomprehensible nature of Harlem life in the 20th Century. Ellison described a class of refugees swept through a historical vortex that had no precedent. Merely by crossing the Mason-Dixon Line, Harlem’s African-Americans had traveled from slavery to the condition of industrial man, from folk sensibilities to modern urban culture, and from feudalism to freedom. Their transformational journey deposited them in a land of opportunity that was also a kind of modern Hell. Of the residents of Harlem Ellison wrote:

Rejecting the second-class status assigned them, they feel alienated and their whole lives have become a search for answers to the questions: Who am I, What am I, Why am I, and Where? Significantly, in Harlem the reply to the greeting, “How are you?” is very often, “Oh, man, I’m nowhere” — a phrase revealing an attitude so common that it has been reduced to a gesture, a seemingly trivial word.

Ellison’s second critical observation was that, contrary to the conventional wisdom of his day, the anxiety and alienation afflicting urban African-Americans in the North was a product of their condition rather than their character. (Isabel Wilkerson makes the same point in The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.)

In retelling Harlem’s history through her discovery of her adopted home, Rhodes-Pitts seeks a timely return to Ellison’s concerns. Ellison wrote about Harlem in the mid-20th Century but it is now the 21st. We have elected our first African-American president, and we are told we live in a “post-racial” America. Harlem is even gentrifying. Rhodes-Pitts seems to want to know, in the face of all this, how much and in what ways Harlem has changed.

She tackles the question by reframing Ellison’s inquiry. Instead of “Who am I and Why?” her questions are “Where is home?” and “Will I ever get there?” Or, as she asks at one point, “Do the people of Harlem stand with forty years of wilderness stretched out in front of us, or is deliverance close at hand, the Exodus already at our backs?”

Her narrative about Harlem’s history, her own experience, and Harlem in the present day draws the possible responses these questions into a single pointed and incontrovertible observation: “It all comes down to a point that is as simple as it is terrible,” she writes. “It is a fact that closes in on itself, like the mythical serpent that devours its own tail: This is our land that we don’t own.”

In the final chapters of Harlem Is Nowhere, Rhodes-Pitt joins a protest against a development that will, she writes, turn 125th Street into a valley of high-rise luxury apartment buildings; she attends the funeral of a longtime resident of her Lenox Avenue building; and she joins the African American Day parade, an annual celebration whose tragic conclusion will symbolize how far Harlem has, and has not yet, come.

I enjoyed walking at Rhodes-Pitts’ elbow as she discovered Harlem and taught herself its history. I enjoyed listening to her meditations on her life there. She writes as a new arrival to the neighborhood, as a young initiate to Harlem’s ways, which is the perfect narrative station from which to introduce the neighborhood and tell its history. The energy and urgency of the final chapters will sweep you up.

All travelers sing the blues. Ralph Ellison wrote that Harlem’s residents had taken an almost unimaginable journey across a short distance of space and time. As a result of their experience, they had difficulty finding themselves. More than fifty years later, Rhodes-Pitts has written a worthy companion to Ellison’s work. Its final pages find her marching in the African American Day parade, one with her fellow Harlem residents and at peace with who she is, traveling to, searching for, and determined to find her way home.

Sean Carman has contributed to four McSweeney's humor anthologies, and has been a contestant in Literary Death Match, a finalist in NPR's Three-Minute Fiction Contest, and a winner of The New Yorker's weekly Twitter contest. His story "A Hard Rain. A Really, Really Hard Rain" was a runner-up in the Out of the Storm News Bad Writing About the Weather Contest. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works as an environmental lawyer. More from this author →