W. Ralph Eubanks
For me, one of the joys of reading is finding a book that leads me to another book, or even several books. Perhaps a passage will remind me of something I read long ago, or maybe the writer's prose will gently guide me to something I intended to read but never did, often absolving my guilt in the process. I found this joy in Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts' Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America. Her references to the great writers of the Harlem Renaissance led me to a number of titles that were already on my personal bookshelf as well as a few that were not.
Most important, Rhodes-Pitts' book led me to rediscover a collection of Ralph Ellison's essays called Shadow and Act, and specifically his essay "Harlem is Nowhere." Rhodes-Pitts uses Ellison's title, and parallels his journey through the neighborhood. Ellison's Harlem, which he studied and documented in 1948, is a place that is both the scene and symbol of black American life. Rhodes-Pitts' syncopated prose and respectful riff on Ellison's essay gives readers a sense of what has changed on the other side of Manhattan's 110th Street — and what has not — in the past 63 years.
Of course, there are many voices you would expect to hear in the pages of Harlem is Nowhere: Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Amiri Baraka, to name a few. As I read, an almost magnetic pull led back to these books and anthologies that dot my bookshelves. But for every character from Harlem's history I thought I knew, Harlem is Nowhere gave me little-known figures that did not turn up in my book collection. In a chapter called "Harlem Dream Books," Rhodes-Pitts tells the story of Alexander Gumby, a fascinating yet tragic man with a profound sense of racial pride. He felt driven to compile, collect and curate the achievements of black Americans into scrapbooks. I had never heard his name before, but he became as important to me as the literary giants whose work I was compelled to reread.
But Rhodes-Pitts' Harlem is Nowhere is not just another book about Harlem's colorful figures, its glory days, or a meditation on the literary boldface names of the Harlem Renaissance and beyond. Rhodes-Pitts also interviews contemporary Harlem residents — the ordinary people she encounters on the street and at community meetings. She analyzes messages left by anonymous scribes who write in chalk on the sidewalks of Lenox Avenue. This keeps her narrative rooted in the present — and kept me from constantly running to my bookshelf.
Still, Harlem's tangled history is always in the background, intoxicating in both its richness and its realities. But by weaving the past and the present together, Rhodes-Pitts reveals, even to those who may have never ventured into Harlem, why it is a place of dreams and why it endures. And most important, she pushes her readers to explore the books and writers that made Harlem such a place of imagination and memory. For a reader like me, it just doesn't get any better.
W. Ralph Eubanks is director of publishing at the Library of Congress.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lena Moses-Schmitt.