Feature

Harlem Is Nowhere by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

Rhodes-Pitts brings a “startling” and unique voice to her portrait of Harlem's brilliant past and its transformation by gentrification.

(Little, Brown, $25)

Like many young African-Americans, first-time author Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts “grew up romanticizing Harlem,” said Laura Miller in Salon​.com. Born in Texas and educated at Harvard, Rhodes-Pitts moved to Harlem in 2002 expecting a vibrant, modern version of the storied neighborhood of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. What she found was an area being transformed by gentrification. But it was the dream of Harlem that interested her, because so many people seemed to share it. Her idiosyncratic portrait of the neighborhood’s brilliant past and rapidly vanishing present “meanders flagrantly,” but she’s “one of that rare breed of writer who, on the strength of her hypnotic voice and idiosyncratic thinking, can turn every sentence into a crooked finger, impossible to resist.”

Rhodes-Pitts looks first for answers to her fellow dreamers, both past and present, said Mike Fischer in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Much of the book is spent on “wonderful, fresh readings” of such past seekers of Harlem’s soul as Hughes, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison (from whom she borrows her book’s title). But many of her “best pages” are snapshots of lesser-known figures, including current neighbors. She helps us get to know the late Raven Chanticleer, who in the 1990s operated a wax museum on 115th Street. We also meet L.S. “Gumby” Alexander, a 1920s bookstore owner who was a devoted collector of what he called “Negroana”—photos, news clippings, playbills. Among the contemporary characters we meet is a man who writes chalk messages on Lenox Avenue “exhorting Harlem’s young to respect themselves.”

Rhodes-Pitts’s book never completely “locates its own beating heart,” said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. It jumps from memoir to history to literary criticism, revealing an artist who for now “questions more widely than deeply.” That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be read. Rhodes-Pitts’s voice is “startling” and unique, “one you cock your head at an angle to hear.” It’s that voice that makes Harlem Is Nowhere an “intoxicating” read, one “lighted with the promise of better things to come.”

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