One woman's quest to discover the heart of Harlem.
In her debut, Rhodes-Pitts alternates between the personal and the scholarly in an attempt to define the importance of the place, both for African-Americans and the country at large. It is a complicated tale with a “loathsome history of neglect and destruction stretching back to the beginning of black settlement in Harlem and its corollary, white flight.” Yet Harlem is more than a neighborhood with racial roots, which the author proves by focusing primarily on its cultural contributions. Rhodes-Pitts relies heavily on Harlem's famed writers to tell its history, yet the words of Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Nella Larsen do little more than create a shoddy patchwork of familiar terrain. The author also explores Harlem through visuals—descriptions of statues, advertisements, signage, even funeral portraiture—yet photographs are her staple, particularly the work of James VanDerZee, whose photos depict “provided an antidote to the destitute, shell-shocked image then attached to the neighborhood, forming a new iconography of its best days.” For Rhodes-Pitts, these photos served as portals to an earlier time, escorting “the viewer halfway into the interior life of Harlem.” Unfortunately, readers may never feel connected to the other half. The author’s most successful attempts at a complete view of Harlem are the personal stories from the people themselves, yet even this strategy is employed with varying success. The book's primary shortfall is the author's genre-indecisiveness. Part memoir, part scholarly prose, the result is a peculiar hybrid incapable of fully capitalizing on the merits of either genre. Further, the author's overreliance on quotations leaves little room for her own insights and expertise on the subject.
A highly informative though rarely analytical take on one of America’s most thriving cultural communities. See Jonathan Gill’s upcoming Harlem (2011) for more comprehensive coverage.