THIS WAS HARLEM: A Cultural Portrait, 1900-1950 by Jervis Anderson

THIS WAS HARLEM: A Cultural Portrait, 1900-1950

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In about 40 very short, roughly chronological chapters, Anderson offers vignettes and profiles from the history of black Harlem--mostly through quotation, both from vivid primary sources (news, novels, etc.) and from less vivid secondary sources. In the opening decades, the focus is first on black Manhattan life south of Harlem (black bohemia in the Tenderloin, the black elite on 53rd St., the post-minstrel black comedy of Williams & Walker), then shifts--along with a growing number of blacks--to the north: the gradual migration, made possible by the glut of vacant rentals in over-built, mostly white Harlem; the problematic attempt to establish sound black economic base (black customers preferred white establishments); tango teas, ragtime dancing (""'The Negro race is dancing itself to death,' Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., said in 1914""); the beauty business of ""lighteners"" and ""Black-No-More"" products. With World War I, however, the tone darkens somewhat--""for nothing attracts more attention to the contradictions of black American citizenship than the call to military service."" So subsequent chapters touch on Marcus Garvey of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (""impractical"" but ""not a crook""), the lack of black playwrights, and internal tensions in the highly heterogeneous black community--as well as the more predictable Twenties diversions: Prohibition, numbers playing, the evolution of the rent-party, the Cotton Club, and the career of dancer/singer Florence Mills. And, in the Thirties, the Harlem Renaissance takes center-stage, along with social empress A'Lelia Walker--while the Forties section includes brief glimpses of Harlem's first major riot, Father Divine, Joe Louis, the rise of A. C. Powell, Jr., the Savoy, and elite Sugar Hill (as remembered, engagingly, by actress Jane White). Throughout, Anderson arranges his documentary materials efficiently, linking them with clean, fiat prose and few thoughts of his own; and the result is an unshaped, blandly readable series of short-subjects--without the substance of, for instance, David Lewis' When Harlem Was in Vogue, but broadly, if sketchily, informative.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1982
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux