Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts: street-smart historian

The young Houston writer's first book, 'Harlem is Nowhere,' teaches us that studying history is truly about living in the present.

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The young Houston writer's first book, 'Harlem is Nowhere,' teaches us that studying history is truly about living in the present.

In an elegant weave of essays titled Harlem is Nowhere, writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts braids vigorous historical and personal observations about New York’s most famous neighborhood and raises big questions about its future as the mecca of black America.

But my first question upon discovering the book was: How does a young writer born and raised in Houston, Texas, find herself so tangled up in all the things Harlem has been and has lost? After all, between the Camp Logan riots and the nearly eviscerated Freedman’s Town (aka the Fourth Ward), there’s plenty of divisive black history to explore back in her hometown.  

But this is one of the few questions this highly intelligent young woman had trouble answering when she visited Seattle last week. 

Thinking it might hold a key, I asked her in a phone interview: How is Houston like Harlem? She replied much more optimistically than I predicted: 

“Houston didn’t always have a strong identifier. That’s changing…it’s becoming a place of opportunity, where you can create something new. Early on, Harlem was identified by a similar magnetic force — something that drew people to it to create.” 

In her book, Rhodes-Pitts captures this spirit by way of a beautiful compendium of field notes that trace her thorough research of the history of Harlem, her readings of novels written by and about Harlem residents — and also her own experiences while living there as a transplant from 2002 to 2008. More than a book about historical preservation or black history, even, I think Harlem is Nowhere is a guide to understanding how oral and architectural history have power to do something far greater than stir up nostalgia.

The book reintroduces us to Harlem heavyweights like Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston and opens our eyes to new players, like the elusive chalk artist she dubs “The Messenger,” or a Rasta who insists on his right to sing in the library. Whether these mini-biographies are a few pages or a few sentences long, the point is that she recognizes a community is made up of a chorus of voices, big and small. And she takes care to hear as many as possible individually.

Places contribute as important characters in the book, too. Rhodes-Pitts teaches us about crucial Harlem businesses, including turn-of-the-century Afro-American Realty Company and the1960s Liberation Bookstore. Empty lots, the Harlem library, and Lenox Avenue are all subjects of insightful meditation. As are more subtle events in her own life: She writes about the painful process of getting involved in community politics. We get careful analysis of graffiti and advertising signage. We learn guerilla strategies for finding an apartment. We learn the different ways you can greet someone on the sidewalk. We learn what is involved in becoming a neighbor in a strange place:

“There seemed to be an unspoken rule — perhaps a universal prudence for any strange girl arriving in any strange place — that I should come to know the women first.”

Though her prose hints at that traditional scholar’s reticence to get emotionally involved, her composition has beautiful rhythm, making the read effortless. And once in awhile we are rewarded with a little bloom that reveals the poet working underneath that serious historian’s cloak: “Your salutation is a sundial that tells the time of day.”

One of the more touching elements of the book is how hard Rhodes-Pitts is on herself. She’s careful not to be a disingenuous tourist or to practice “architectural necrophilia”; she’s self-conscious about being a “gentrifier” and always bereft of a sense of the right to even be in Harlem. She goes out of her way to describe an incident in which she is corrected on her understanding of the history behind Juneteenth. In her own mind, this girl can’t get a break.

But that struggle to belong, and to be better, does not surmount the historical subject. Rather, it’s a helpful mirror that anchors us in the history’s powerful emotional grip on the present day. 

“Those events are still unfolding…the lives of black people in America are still determined by living under slavery and white supremacy,” Rhodes-Pitts says over the phone. “I see the past and present being very tangled up.”

To capture that, she makes a concerted effort not to interrupt her daily commute to investigate things she stumbles upon — as would a reporter. She sticks to her daily itinerary and attempts to let observations and encounters find their way to her life’s routine organically. So instead of tromping right up to a landmark predetermined as important and presenting comprehensive history like a Wikipedia article, she observes people from the corner of her eye as she passes. She lingers in the back of a street tour to learn what the tourists are being told.

We follow her as she rents an apartment without a kitchen, goes antique shopping, goes to the library, buys junk food at the Bodega, and slowly comes to know familiar faces along the way, people who offer the untold stories of old Harlem. She takes notes as she goes. And though her position is always marked as an outsider — never a bonafide resident of Harlem — her organic journey through the neighborhood allows the reader to learn about Harlem from a completely fresh and genuinely informed perspective.

Thanks to Michael Hebb’s excellent curation for the Sorrento Hotel’s Night School series, a lucky few gathered around an “x”-shaped table last week (April 20) to hear Rhodes-Pitts reflect on her book. Not surprisingly, her presence is as elegant in person as it is on the page. 

Though the book is largely about Harlem’s identity as both a place and a myth, Rhodes-Pitts inspires reflection on the subjects of gentrification, economic racism, and overdevelopment at large. At the Sorrento, several people in the room prefaced questions by mentioning other cities they know: Cleveland, Chicago, San Francisco and, of course, Seattle’s Central District.

Harlem, in effect, becomes a microcosm for the stories of countless American neighborhoods that have been gerrymandered by race and thwarted from becoming prosperous communities until the swift and effective eraser of gentrification arrives. 

Through Rhodes-Pitts’ careful and fascinating search and her willingness to let a place show her around (rather than show us around it), she educates our reactive instinct to clamor against gentrification.  

She does not just worship old buildings nor compose a clichéd love letter to the pillars of the Harlem Renaissance. She asks straight ahead: What happened here — and what do we learn if we keep a close eye on what is still happening now? 

In her book, she fashions a compelling and clearheaded reminder that the events of history are not safely Ziplocked and frozen in the past. They are living and breathing around us,  affecting us whether we see them or not.  

And therein lies the answer, I think, to how Houston led Rhodes-Pitts to Harlem.  

“Growing up in a place where the landscape didn’t give you easy clues into the past — that probably formed me as a person that was interested in history,” she told me. In other words, coming from a city that seems to get a thrill from replacing its physical history with strip malls, Rhodes-Pitts has been schooled from birth in the art of seeing the value of things that are not physically there.

While she credits her late Harlem neighbor Minnie Davis with teaching her how to be steet smart — “ must sit and watch, stop and stare” — I think Rhodes-Pitts already knew. She’s just kind enough to write her book in such a way that we have the illusion we are learning at the same ferocious speed as her.


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