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Harlem is Nowhere
Cover of Harlem is Nowhere
Harlem is Nowhere
A Journey to the Mecca of Black America
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"No geographic or racial qualification guarantees a writer her subject....Only interest, knowledge, and love will do that--all of which this book displays in abundance." (Zadie Smith, Harper's)

A finalist for the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography, and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

For a century Harlem has been celebrated as the capital of black America, a thriving center of cultural achievement and political action. At a crucial moment in Harlem's history, as gentrification encroaches, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts untangles the myth and meaning of Harlem's legacy. Examining the epic Harlem of official history and the personal Harlem that begins at her front door, Rhodes-Pitts introduces us to a wide variety of characters, past and present. At the heart of their stories, and her own, is the hope carried over many generations, hope that Harlem would be the ground from which blacks fully entered America's democracy.

Rhodes-Pitts is a brilliant new voice who, like other significant chroniclers of places-Joan Didion on California, or Jamaica Kincaid on Antigua-captures the very essence of her subject.

"No geographic or racial qualification guarantees a writer her subject....Only interest, knowledge, and love will do that--all of which this book displays in abundance." (Zadie Smith, Harper's)

A finalist for the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography, and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

For a century Harlem has been celebrated as the capital of black America, a thriving center of cultural achievement and political action. At a crucial moment in Harlem's history, as gentrification encroaches, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts untangles the myth and meaning of Harlem's legacy. Examining the epic Harlem of official history and the personal Harlem that begins at her front door, Rhodes-Pitts introduces us to a wide variety of characters, past and present. At the heart of their stories, and her own, is the hope carried over many generations, hope that Harlem would be the ground from which blacks fully entered America's democracy.

Rhodes-Pitts is a brilliant new voice who, like other significant chroniclers of places-Joan Didion on California, or Jamaica Kincaid on Antigua-captures the very essence of her subject.

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Awards-
About the Author-
  • Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts's articles have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, New York Times Book Review, The Nation, Boston Globe, Transition, and Times Literary Supplement. She has received a Lannan Foundation fellowship and the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, and was a Fulbright Scholar in 2007. Rhodes-Pitts was born in Texas and educated at Harvard University.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from November 1, 2010
    Rhodes-Pitts, an essayist and recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award, takes as her title a 1948 essay wherein Ralph Ellison describes "nowhere" as the crossroads where personal reality meets the metaphorical meanings attached to people and places. A transplant to Harlem from Texas, Rhodes-Pitts began a personal journey into the iconic neighborhood, poring over Harlem in literature and life, reading its empty lots and street scenes, its billboards and memorials for clues to what it means to inhabit a dream (that fabled sanctuary for Black Americans) and a real place (the all too material neighborhood buckling beneath relentless gentrification). Acutely conscious of the writer's simultaneous role of participant in and recorder of present and past, Rhodes-Pitts weaves a glittering living tapestry of snatches of overheard conversation, sidewalk chalk scribbles, want ads, unspoken social codes, literary analysis, studies of black slang—all if it held together with assurance and erudition. Like Zora Neale Hurston (whose contradictions she nails), she is "tour-guide and interpreter" of a Mecca cherished and feared, a place enduring and threatened that becomes home.

  • Kirkus

    October 15, 2010

    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.

    (COPYRIGHT (2010) KIRKUS REVIEWS/NIELSEN BUSINESS MEDIA, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)

  • Library Journal

    November 1, 2010

    The author reflects on her own Harlem, as well as the Harlem of its iconic storytellers.

    Copyright 2010 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Ian Buruma, author of Murder in Amsterdam Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts has written a beautiful account of Harlem that tells us as much about the author, her life, her tastes, her politics, and her unique sensibility as it does about this extraordinary part of Manhattan. As a result, Harlem Is Nowhere is much more than a work of urban history; it is a work of literature.
  • Darryl Pinckney, author of Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature, and High Cotton, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts has written a very striking meditation on Harlem as a place and a symbol, and at a time when Harlem is changing profoundly. She is a brilliant addition to the literature on Harlem that reaches back to James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, to Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson. But hers is most definitely a fresh, new voice. There is a certain graceful cool, an unfailing aptness of tone, in her writing. Harlem Is Nowhere tells you things that you didn't know you didn't know about Harlem.
  • Greg Tate, author of Everything but the Burden Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts has crafted a Harlem book that fluently and lyrically assays the geography, mythography, ethnography, and dream books of the fabled Black Mecca. It is also a record of her own insightful wanderings about uptown's still mean, mirthful, romantic, but now highly marketable streets. What Rhodes-Pitts contributes to the Harlem chronicles that others have only vaguely glimpsed is how eloquently, extravagantly, and defiantly the people rooted there take ownership of Harlem storytelling every damn day.
  • Rachel Cohen, author of A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists (winner of the PEN/Jerard Award) In this beautiful and inventive book, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts finds—in a stray photograph, the corridors of a library, a wax museum, or a sidewalk chalk tract—pathways that lead us through and around another Harlem, interior to the ones we have known, and unforgettable. Written in the visionary documentary tradition of James Agee, Walter Benjamin, and Ralph Ellison, Harlem Is Nowhere is a work of great imagination and quiet splendor.
  • Publishers Weekly (starred review) Rhodes-Pitts weaves a glittering living tapestry of snatches of overheard conversation, sidewalk chalk scribbles, want ads, unspoken social codes, literary analysis, studies of black slang-all of it held together with assurance and erudition. Like Zora Neale Hurston (whose contradictions she nails), she is 'tour-guide and interpreter' of a Mecca cherished and feared, a place enduring and threatened that becomes home.
  • Vanessa Bush, Booklist Rhodes-Pitts compares and contrasts her own experience of moving from Texas to Harlem with accounts from literature of the Harlem Renaissance and other cultural glories, and news reports of gentrification....Settling into her own place in Harlem, she offers vivid portraits of the residents, who straddle the past and present of the storied neighbourhood, many wondering themselves about their futures and the future of Harlem.
  • Sean Carman, The Rumpus A tender historical memoir....Throughout her studious love letter to her adopted home, Rhodes-Pitts is singing the Harlem Blues.
  • Ron Wynn, BookPage Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts's enlightening Harlem Is Nowhere takes a new approach in her look at the venerable community. Rather than crafting a detached, straightforward account, Rhodes-Pitts makes it personal...An inspiration memoir.
  • Julia Vitullo-Martin, New York Post Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts give a marvellous tour through decades of iconic writings on Harlem....She commands a deep knowledge of the literature and applies it to individual buildings and streets—a unique and useful contribution. She quotes and intends to live by Alain Locke's 'The New Negro,' which warned, 'History must restore what slavery took away.' This is an admirable sentiment.
  • Joseph P. Williams JR., The Minneapolis Star Tribune An elegant, scholarly writer...Rhodes-Pitts unearths gems from Harlem's rich history, including the White Rose Society, a 1920s benevolent organization for young black girls migrating to the city; Raven Chanticler, a sharecropper's son who became a legendary dance and founder of black history wax museum, and I.S. Alexander Gumby, a turn-of-the-century intel
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Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
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