On Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, author of Harlem Is Nowhere | Bleader

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

On Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, author of Harlem Is Nowhere

Posted By on 05.09.12 at 02:39 PM

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
  • David Shankbone
  • Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
At the opening of his show "Harlem, U.S.A." last week at the Art Institute, photographer Dawoud Bey appeared in conversation with Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, author of the book Harlem Is Nowhere. They swapped notes on how Harlem had changed—the photos that AIC recently bought, wonderful portraits of neighborhood characters, were all shot in the 1970s, and Rhodes-Pitts's book is about some time she spent there in the aughts. As they flipped through some of Bey's photos, Rhodes-Pitts pointed out that the man in A Man on the Corner of Lenox Ave. & 125th St. could have come from any point in say, a 60-year period—nothing about his look or his clothes places him—but that in the intervening years his surroundings have changed. The building in the background was razed, she said, and the storefront behind Bey's camera is now—what else?—a Starbucks.

Rhodes-Pitts was a compelling speaker, and I'm eager to read Harlem Is Nowhere. An essay that preceded it, "Lenox Terminal," is available online (it was originally printed in Transition), and it's lovely. I don't know if I've read much that I'd describe as "Didionesque," but there's something of Joan Didion in here—in the shifty place of the narrator and in certain professions to the reader (the essay starts, "Most everything I write here is true and happened on or around Lenox Avenue"), and in pacing that's both precise and casual. In "Lenox Terminal" she's just sort of wandering around Harlem talking to people—what Bey did, but with a pen instead of a camera—which sets the work at a contrast with Didion's, which has been accused of being overconcerned with upper-class-white-people issues. Here's a long chunk of what I'm talking about, but you really should read the whole thing:

One Sunday, returning home at dawn, I noticed the uneasy stillness of Lenox without its daytime clamor or wild night cries, an eerie landscape of muted night stragglers and debris. The aftermath of Saturday night on Lenox and Seventh Avenues looked like photographs from the Harlem riots of 1935, 1943, and 1964. But the quiet of the hour is fleeting: the noise swells with the heat of the day. As the night shift lets out, small clusters of people gather before stoops and storefronts. They bring old dinette chairs and milk crates on which to squat, lining the front of boarded-up buildings. Further on down Lenox, I catch snippets of news, witness reunions, accusations, transactions, games. Most scenes I only half-understand; they are just about to begin or just about to end when I pass. But other things reveal themselves with startling clarity. One day my walk down the avenue coincided with the announcement of the daily number, and it was as if I were riding the crest of this wave, landing at each street corner at the same moment as the news. At 133rd, 130th, 127th, and so on, a woman would cry out, a man would pass with a wad of cash. When someone flashed two fingers I knew suddenly that he didn’t mean peace or victory, but two. Two was the number. The uptown stride of several people grew more determined. I imagined they were heading up to my stoop, where the numbers seem to be headquartered, to collect on their good fortune.

It took a whole year before such things were legible to me. So now, when I pass the tour groups on Lenox Avenue, I often think about all the things they cannot see. There is such little interaction between the ambulating packs of tourists and the stationary street corner clusters; the two groups seem to ignore each other cordially according to the terms of an ancient truce between inhabitants of heavily touristed places and the people who pay to visit them. The tourists have not come to see the people along Lenox, not the living ones at least, and as for the natives, perhaps they don’t mind being invisible. I always expect someone to make a rude sign or gesture, but the sense of mutual tolerance prevails. Only once have I seen such a protest: a small index card lying in the street, as if it had been floated down from a window above Seventh Avenue, which read “White people get out of Harlem” on both sides.

A mischievous urge still comes over me every time I pass a group of tourists, squinting with upraised hands to shade their eyes, the better to view whatever detail their guide is describing. His arm outstretched, his finger points at History, always located at a point just above the eye level of the passersby, but below the mutilated facades. The tourists take in the decrepit beauty of the past and the hope for the future, and their eyes glaze over at the present all around them. A man who’d just returned to Harlem from Vienna once told me about the neurotic indignation of the citizens there. It was, he said, a problem of living in the great capital of a fallen civilization—the head of a dragon that has lost its body. Like London, Rome, or Istanbul, he said. When I pass the tourists, craning my neck to hear what is said or scowling at the double-decker buses that turn onto Lenox Avenue on their way to Museum Mile, I should remember what he told me. But I cannot get over the day I left my house on 120th Street to find a minivan unloading a group of Italians who surrounded me with wild gestures and wanted to take my picture in front of the brownstones. It felt like a trespass, a violation, and yet so absurd that I could not help laughing as I walked away from the disappointed group, imagining myself tucked inside some Italian vacation scrapbook, “an authentic Harlem black.”

I reviewed "Harlem, U.S.A." and another show of Bey's, "Picturing People," for the Reader this week.

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