Harlem has served as an incubator both for African-American optimism and for ongoing racial conflict. In her first book, Harlem Is Nowhere, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts writes of a Harlem where legacies of triumph and misfortune in America still duel. The reality, she finds, is somewhere in between.
Growing up in Texas, Rhodes-Pitts visited the packed tenements and smoky jazz clubs of Harlem through books, with Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston and many others as her guides.
She first remembers coming across Harlem in an essay by Alice Walker from her collection, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. "She mentions Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer," Rhodes-Pitts tells NPR's Neal Conan. "That mention would have sent me to the library, trying to figure out who are these writers she spoke of so highly, and what was this place that they wrote about, and where they lived?"
After college, she went to the neighborhood she calls the "mecca of black America," to take in the collection at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
"Even before I moved to New York," she says, it "was a place that drew me, where I felt like I could answer any question I had about the whole history of black people around the world."
Harlem has long been considered a refuge for black Americans, she learned. "It was a place that if one person left from a town down South, they would send a note back and tell them about what was going on, and to come up, and that there was work and places to live that were unlike any place that someone who grew up down South would have known."
But even in the 1920s, "the dream and the vision of Harlem often collided with the reality once people arrived there." And Harlem attracted black Americans from around the country, and from all parts of the African diaspora, including the Caribbean.
"I think this is part of what made Harlem so fantastically unique," Rhodes-Pitts says. "The combination of people from so many different walks of life and so many different places who are all united by a certain current."
One of the unique features Rhodes-Pitts loves is the neighborliness. When she first moved to Harlem, neighbors would just nod. But soon she breached the initial distance, and she was "adopted immediately. And my neighbors referred to me as their daughter, and there was a sense of protection." She credits their warmth toward her to the Southern heritage of a lot of the people who live in Harlem. And soon, her everyday life became entwined with the lives of those on her block.
In her research, Rhodes-Pitts was especially moved by an organization that met young women moving to New York from the South — there to greet them, take them to Harlem and show them the ropes. The White Rose Home, located in Harlem as of the 1920s, provided women with a bed and training for employment.
But women at the White Rose Home also had access to a library with the classics of black history and literature, music lessons and company. "There was this combination of just plain shelter," Rhodes-Pitts says, "but also sort of a shelter for the soul."
"There's just something so wonderful about the mission of these women, who based on their own experience and their own vulnerability and the perils they had seen other women fall into, opening up a place where the next generation could be sheltered," says Rhodes-Pitts.
That sense of responsibility, she says, is part of Harlem's history. "It's not just a neighborhood, but that by living there, you're a part of a history, and that there's a need to perpetuate, to protect, and to strive for everyone's mutual uplift."