In Shadow and Act, a collection of nonfiction prose by writer Ralph Ellison, Ellison states in the essay "Harlem Is Nowhere" that "Harlem is the scene and symbol of the Negro's perpetual alienation in the land of his birth.”
Harlem, in New York City, was considered the cultural and political "capital" of African Americans during the 20th century. For instance, the Harlem Renaissance allowed black musical and artistic talents to showcase their work and brought them into the mainstream. The vibrant artistic scenes in Harlem contributed to the overall American culture. Jazz music, theater performances, and literature from Harlem-based artists also influenced non-African American figures. For instance, playwright Eugene O'Neill was inspired to write The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings while collaborating with Harlem actor Paul Robeson.
However, in the essay and throughout much of the book, Ralph Ellison poignantly articulates the differences and intersections between African Americans and the white population. He perceived Harlem not only as a bridge between the two American cultures or part of the general American culture itself, but as a stand-alone insulated urban landscape where African Americans could thrive but also limited themselves.
Ellison also chronicled the mental health of African Americans in Harlem during the time period. He posited that discrimination, economic issues, and social alienation from the greater American society had effects on the mental health of African Americans.
The question of whether Ralph Ellison's observations about Harlem apply to all urban cities cannot be answered generally. Hypothetically, one would have to conduct a survey with every African American in every city of the United States to observe their individual experiences. While some cities, such as Chicago and Detroit, receive media attention for being "scene[s] and symbol[s] of African America's perpetual alienation," there are cities such as Atlanta that have a large middle-class African American population with a booming artistic scene.
In the essay the quote comes from, Ralph Ellison was commenting on the urban conditions in predominantly African American neighborhoods and cities during his time, Harlem in particular. His critique can sometimes be applied to other urban areas, and sometimes it cannot.