This Was Harlem

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Harlem continues to fascinate students of American culture. Contemplating the glitter of the Apollo Theatre, the economic vitality of Seventh Avenue, and the poverty and crime of the back streets, many observers see in the community an emblem of both the promise and the contradictions of American pluralism. In addition to attracting nearly every Afro-American artist and intellectual of the twentieth century, Harlem has commanded the attention of Euro-American artists from Eugene O’Neill and Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow to Orson Welles and Norman Mailer. One of the few places where blacks and whites could meet on roughly equal terms, Harlem, especially during the 1920’s, seemed to promise a true synthesis of Euro-American and Afro-American culture. To some extent, as modern jazz and novels such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) attest, the promise was at least partially fulfilled. Even those suspicious of the appearance of racial harmony frequently envision Harlem as an ideal setting for the development of Afro-American political or cultural unity. Whether advocating the Pan-Africanist philosophy of Marcus Garvey or the democratic socialism of A. Philip Randolph, these thinkers see Harlem as a nearly perfect base for their organizational efforts. Still, tensions and stereotypes continue to frustrate the plans of pluralists and nationalists alike. Combined with the unmistakable decline of Harlem’s importance to the mainstream cultural life of New York City during the past twenty years, these frustrations suggest a haunting failure, an emptiness behind the façade of Afro-American community and Euro-American acceptance.

Jervis Anderson’s cultural history This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait, 1900-1950 provides a large amount of anecdotal material relevant to both the promise and the failure. Tracing Harlem’s development from a largely middle-class or upper-middle-class white residential area into the world’s largest “Negro city,” Anderson maintains an optimistic tone, reflecting the democratic faith shared by many Harlemites as the community rose to prominence. Although Anderson never formally identifies the periods, his book suggests that the history of black Harlem can be divided into four distinct periods: a period of settlement sparked by an overdevelopment of real estate that forced landlords to rent to blacks who had previously congregated on Manhattan’s West Side; a major flowering of cultural and economic activity during the 1920’s, the period commonly labeled the Harlem Renaissance; a period of extreme economic hardship in the 1930’s that threatened, but failed, to destroy the community’s cultural identity; and a lengthy decline traceable to the urban decay that transformed large parts of Harlem into a ghetto and to the success that, ironically, allowed many Harlem-based artists and nightclubs to move downtown. Concentrating on the first three periods, Anderson deftly sketches the people and places responsible for Harlem’s emergence and lasting appeal. Appropriately, Anderson presents well-known writers, politicians, and musicians such as Garvey, Langston Hughes, and Duke Ellington alongside forgotten celebrities such as beautician millionaire A’Lelia Walker, evangelist Father Divine, and nightclub owners Barron and Leroy Wilkins. Rather than limiting his attention to the relatively glamorous worlds of entertainment and politics, however, Anderson grants equal attention to the individuals who helped forge Harlem’s sense of civic identity, figures such as newspaperman Fred R. Moore and minister Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.

Anderson’s book belongs to the problematic category known as “popular history.” A staff writer for The New Yorker, Anderson clearly researched his subject carefully, drawing on memoirs, newspapers, and classic studies of Harlem such as Claude McKay’s Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940), Gilbert Osofsky’s Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto (1966), and James Weldon Johnson’s Black Manhattan (1930). Since much of Anderson’s task consisted of recasting the material available in these sources, Afro-Americanists and cultural historians will learn relatively little from This Was Harlem, especially in their fields of expertise. Literary scholars, for example, will discover several problems, including several minor factual errors. Richard Wright was reared primarily in Mississippi and Arkansas rather than in Memphis as Anderson states; Anderson’s comment that Charles W. Chesnutt wrote exclusively on the problems of the black bourgeoisie overlooks Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman (1899). Frequently, Anderson’s critical judgments—such as his claim that “Hughes was not as inspired a lyricist or as enchanting a singer as either Countee Cullen or Claude McKay”—demand a great deal more support than he provides. Nevertheless, the introductory intent of the book, which was originally published as a series of essays in The New Yorker (a fact that probably accounts for the many repetitive passages that should have been edited out of the book version), to some extent justifies Anderson’s decision to focus on the general outline of life in Harlem rather than to pursue individual issues in depth. At any rate, This Was Harlem is most useful as a source of background information on areas outside the reader’s field of expertise. Anderson’s discussion of bandleader Chick Webb, while covering ground familiar to musicians, provides a good introduction for political scientists who in turn will find relatively little of interest in Anderson’s interpretation of the rise of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

A more serious limitation of This Was Harlem involves Anderson’s failure to engage directly, or even to articulate clearly, the central issues raised by the material he presents. Although he provides numerous emblematic anecdotes concerning the tensions and ambiguities of life in Harlem, he fails to connect these incidents to a central issue or set of issues. Few readers are likely to be content simply to contemplate the rich experiences Anderson recounts without seeking some understanding of their coherence or cultural implications. In fact,...

(The entire section is 2540 words.)