HARLEM IS NOWHERE
A Journey to the Mecca of Black America
By Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts; Little, Brown; 296 pp.; $24.99
EARLY IN HER FINE DEBUT, Harlem Is Nowhere, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, a young transplant to "the mecca of black America," writes: "A friend of mine describes certain cities as being full--too much has happened there, you cannot move. Paris, he says, is the quintessentially full city." She suspects he'd say the same about Harlem, as would I. And it's easy to admire her determination to make room for herself in this overflowing landscape. Harlem has, after all, "both the physical crowdedness of buildings and people," as well as the far more stifling "crowd of stories and histories" to contend with. She borrows her title from Ralph Ellison's superb 1964 Harper's essay of the same name. Rhodes-Pitts is aiming high.
But one way she creates space for herself is by fading into the background. Like a young Joan Didion, she stands in the corner with her notebook out, jotting down a litany of seemingly useless trivia and tidbits that she will then research in the library and string together when she gets back home. And, as with Didion, the thread keeping these disparate scraps together is her singular voice.
The reader drifts through Harlem, as if in a dream, as Rhodes-Pitts's impressionistic prose weaves together real life, photographs, lists, fiction, and poetry. Even if you know the neighborhood, it is rewarding to return here with her eyes, which are certain to reveal something new, and perhaps something decent, about the place. Unlike Didion--or Ellison--she is never cruel.
Yet this same urge to decency leaves the reader to suspect the whole story isn't being told. Rhodes-Pitts, with her enchanting voice, is a curator of other people's words, thoughts, and images. Perhaps a third of the book is made up of quotes, which she renders in italics and large blocks of text, never in quotation marks, and which blend with her own writing like a mosaic. Most of the time her taste is impeccable, but sometimes her choices can be bewildering and even frustrating. She devotes a mere 12 pages to a discussion of the literary giants James Baldwin and Ellison, and then lavishes 16 pages on the scrapbook collector Alexander Gumby.
This is a shame. Some of her finest writing not only reintroduces us to some of the best writers in all of American literature but, remarkably, shows us something new about them in the process. Her critique...