Harlem as Setting and Symbol

Art in Harlem, (Linda Fletcher: Wikimedia Commons)

Examining Harlem’s long career as “setting and symbol” of African American and Diasporic life and culture, Race Capital?: Harlem as Setting and Symbol is a major contribution to historiographies centered on urban Black people, queer life, urban Black freedom movements, and New York City. It is a foundational text for understanding Harlem’s past, present, and future, and offers less familiar narratives and frameworks on a neighborhood we thought we knew so well. Editors Andrew Fearnley and Daniel Matlin join an existing group of scholars, including Jeffrey Ogbar, The Harlem Renaissance Revisited, Shannon King, Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?, Kevin McGruder, Race and Real Estate, and Farrah Jasmine Griffin, Harlem Nocturne, whose publications explore the “Black Mecca’s” multifaceted socioeconomic, political, and cultural landscapes and how an ethnically diverse Black population contested what historian Jeanne Theoharis identified as Jim Crow North. Distinct from these aforementioned studies, Race Capital advances historiographies centered on Harlem. Collectively, the twelve essays impressively reevaluate twentieth-century scholarly assertions of Harlem as a symbol of Black progress and potential and situates the once known “Black Metropolis” within transnational histories and recent conversations concerning gentrification and racial capitalism. Moreover, Race Capital offers fresh and insightful perspectives on Harlem beyond the heavily studied 1920s and 1930s.

From the 1920s Harlem Renaissance to the 2017 grand opening of Whole Foods, the authors revisit Harlem’s multifaceted histories and interrogate how and why Harlem, as one of many flourishing urban neighborhoods of the early twentieth century, achieved its “exceptional” status. Race Capital is divided into three sections, featuring chapters that uniquely reappraise “the neighborhood’s pertinence and power” while considering the significance of place and locality (7). Section One, “Mythologies” reconsiders how Harlem’s dominant image as an iconic Black neighborhood and symbol of blackness and “capital” was crafted, refashioned, and debated amongst intellectuals, writers, and filmmakers. Four case studies place aesthetics, representational techniques, and the Black press at the center of master tropes of Harlem. Writers, scholars, and ordinary residents imagined the Black enclave as both “capital” and “ghetto.” Examining Harlem’s longstanding special character and identity, Andrew Fearnley argues that the neighborhood’s “key symbolic frameworks were the products of attempts to ground visions of Black life not only in place but also in time” (11). Daniel Matlin moves beyond Harlem’s racial capital motif, showing that the arena’s transformation from famed capital to depraved ghetto was not a linear shift. Both “capital” and ghetto” stood side-by-side, reflecting what writers and 1930s New York City prosecutor Eunice Hunton Carter viewed as a “medley of song and tears.” Harlem’s vibrant canvas was captured in early and mid-twentieth newspaper editorials and cartoons and films. Media platforms reinforced, refashioned, and challenged imageries of racial progress. Clare Corbound’s work on 1930s and 1940s New York Amsterdam News (NYAN) cartoonist E. Simms Campbell suggests that creative illustrations were instrumental in circulating images of a diverse Harlem. Campbell rejected notions of community cohesiveness. His NYAN drawings, entitled Harlem’s Sketches, reflected Black Harlemities’ experiences with race, class, and gender conflicts and rivalries, as well as their achievements and desire for intimacy, joy, and laughter. Focusing on filmmaker and writer Chester Himes’ provocative visual work, Paula J. Massood underscores how Post-World War II film themes of Black sexuality, crime and poverty, and juvenile delinquency ignited longstanding debates about urban representations and aesthetics.

Scholarly response to recent critiques about Harlem exceptionalism is the subject of essays featured in Section Two. Entitled “Models,” Section Two offer several thought-provoking and innovative essays that underscore the significance of Harlem’s location in African American socioeconomic, political, and cultural life, while introducing new historical narratives and analyses about the neighborhood and its people. Headlining the section, Winston James convincingly asserts that Harlem was unlike any other transnational urban city. The “city within a city” was more than a point in the circuit of Black internationalism. The “Negro Metropolis” was a “black contact zone with distinct charactersitics that help to explain its extraordinary political and cultural dynamism, especially during the 1920s” (114). Harlem was primus inter non-pares, giving rise to a vibrant social, political, intellectual, and artistic enclave. Minkah Makalani and Cheryl Wall explore the political and literary worlds of Black women intellectuals and writers while assessing Harlem’s connections to broader political and Diasporic movements. Makalani contends that Harlem was not “the center” of Black radical thought. However, the area’s “particular modes of interaction and interconnection textured its political and social fabric,” making it possible for the radical transnational activism of Communist activists and politically engaged Black women. Cheryl Wall moves beyond the “race capital” term, preferring and adopting James Weldon Johnson’s “culture capital.” Recognizing 1920s African American fiction writers’ imaginative pull and attraction to Harlem, Wall argues that prominent writers, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Rudolph Fisher, interpreted Harlem, despite the realities of race, class, gender, and sexual tensions, as a crucial site for vernacular cultural forms and practices, which was profoundly inspired by Harlem’s population density and its interracial and intra-racial conflicts and possibilities. While Section Two revisits Harlem’s broad significance, scholars Shane White, Brian Purnell, and Dorothea Lobbermann present new histories of Harlem. Calling for further historical research on Harlem, contributors demonstrate the different ways in which Harlem served as a catalyst and unique hub for 1930s illegal gambling rackets, mid-twentieth century Civil Rights and Black Power era activists’ political and organizational mobilization, and queer literature, life, and culture.

Recent scholarly discourse on gentrification, demography, real estate markets, and commerce are highlighted in Race Capital’s final section: “Black No More?.” Contributors Themis Chronopoulous and John L. Jackson, Jr. explore late twentieth and early twentieth-first century transformations in Harlem. Chronopoulous focuses on 1980s Harlem, explaining population changes, the displacement of low-income New Yorkers, and how neighborhood changes impacted education, employment, housing, and city policy. Harlem’s evolving demographics, particularly the significant presence of white residents, middle-class Blacks, and Central Harlem’s rapidly growing Latinx population ignited conversations about Harlem as a Black capital, as well as debates over its present and future. Chronopoulous suggests that gentrification was not merely a result of various ethnic and racial groups migrating to Harlem. But rather “a consequence of New York City’s neoliberal municipal governance and housing policies over several decades which resulted in displacement, replacement, and exclusion” (16). John L. Jackson, Jr. also explores a rapidly evolving Harlem, demonstrating two competing conceptions of “racial capital.” Historically, racial capital was rooted in Black city dwellers’ creation of flourishing autonomous and economic sites within urban spaces. Another impression of racial capital, one articulated by agents of gentrification, is its valuable currency. Employing fashion magazines such as Vogue Italia, Elle Magazine, and GQ, Jackson demonstrates how varying media platforms, particularly national and international publications, crafted “a selective manicured view of Harlem’s racial past to package for consumption, and to sell Harlem’s multiracial present” (17). Mainstream visual representations ushered in a so-called “new Harlem Renaissance.”

Harlem Nocturne author Farrah Jasmine Griffin fittingly concludes Race Capital?, offering an insightful view on Harlem’s past, present, and future. In her afterword, Griffin conjures up historical and contemporary images of well-known soul food eateries, musical and literary legends, and renovated brownstones, as well as that of gritty streets, run-down housing structures, and Black, brown, and non-Black bodies promenading down Lenox Avenue. Even as an evolving neighborhood, Harlem “has maintained its identity because of our ongoing need for it, our need for a place where black humanity and possibility are cherished and nurtured” (285-286). At the same time, the Black enclave’s historic and cultural identities and iconic imageries have become marketable brands and products for consumers that have little-or-no investment or interest in their genealogies. But Griffin is hopeful about Harlem. Her optimism lays in the social, political, and cultural efforts of Harlem’s new stakeholders: a multigenerational group of scholars, educators, political activists, and residents invested in the Harlem’ new day and committed to protecting and preserving its longstanding social, cultural, and educational institutions. They are the stakeholders keeping Harlem’s dynamic history, culture, and legacy alive.

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