Jonathan Gill, arts critic for the Holland Times and faculty member at the Manhattan School of Music, spent a decade crafting his history of this epicenter of arts and culture in New York City, turning in an original draft that spanned over a million words. Now Gill offers some insights into the making of Harlem, which Kirkus called “an essential text of American history and culture."
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How did you come to launch this ambitious historical review?
When I arrived uptown to study at Columbia, I spent a lot of time walking around, just exploring. I used to see so many mysteriously abandoned buildings and wonder what kinds of secrets they were keeping. And then there were the things I couldn’t find, like the notorious “Niggerati Manor,” where Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston lived in 1926. Reading Henry Roth or Ralph Ellison couldn’t answer those questions. In a sense, it was easy to connect the dots. I couldn’t see the part without wanting to see the whole.
During the past century, Harlem has taken a very specific space in American culture. What more did you want to bring out from its story?
One thing I was interested in was whether, in fact, the whole story was whole—whether there was continuity of character that I could identify throughout Harlem history. What I discovered was that this peripheral place has always been central to the history of the region and later to the country, at first because it had the most fertile lands on the island, and later because it defined itself in opposition to downtown’s crime, epidemics and overcrowding, and even later because of the sheer talent of the musicians, writers, dancers, etc., who simply weren’t allowed to live downtown. The uptown-downtown dynamic turned a tiny, remote village into what I like to call the Soul of the American Century.
There are so many facets to Harlem’s history, from immigration to its Renaissance to the Civil Rights Era. What were the essential questions you wanted to answer?
In addition to simply finding continuities—what I like to think of as the improvised melody that runs through the song that is Harlem—I wanted to be able to define and characterize those continuities. We can all see how both Gershwin and Ellington exemplify Harlem style, but what is it exactly? It seems to have something to do with negotiating the uptown-downtown tension, with the imperatives of existence on the economic and racial margins, with self-conscious risk taking, reinvention and improvisation, with the reckless and restless engagement with both high and low culture—very American, no?
What were some of the most interesting things you learned?
One surprise was that, at least as far as African-American Harlem goes, none of the great heroes of the Harlem Renaissance, with the exception of Fats Waller, were born uptown. The first native-born black Harlemites whose names we recognize come of age in the 1940s—Sonny Rollins, James Baldwin, Bud Powell. So I realized that generations of black Harlemites could be more properly considered as immigrants, and that freed me from looking at their stories as determined solely by race and racism.
What misconceptions about Harlem’s history did you hope to address?
For one, Harlem was absolutely essential not only to the origins of jazz music—albeit in ragtime, rather than Dixieland—but also to the blues. The very first blues record, Perry Bradford and Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” from 1920, was originally called “The Harlem Blues.” The fact is that the blues as we know it was not a rural, folk creation, but a highly commercial phenomenon dreamed up on Striver’s Row by Harry Pace and W.C. Handy.
What do you see as the biggest challenges facing this community today?
I’m not so much worried about the recent economic crisis. If you ask Harlemites who have been there for generations how they’ve been affected, they’ll tell you that things are always bad and always have been. I do worry about longer-term racial and economic changes that are threatening a social fabric that goes back more than a century. Harlem has never stayed the same for long.
What is it about Harlem that captures the popular imagination so effectively?
No matter who you are, anywhere in the world, there’s some Harlem in you. It’s a sad and strange phenomenon, but racial and ethnic segregation uptown bequeathed something wonderful to all of us. If you like the way Michael Jackson dances, credit the skinflints who owned the Apollo Theatre, who instituted Amateur Night as a way of not having to pay performers like James Brown. If you want to find out what American-ness means and where it comes from, you can’t avoid Harlem.
HARLEM: The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America
Grove Press / October / 978-0802119100 / $29.95