Her Harlem

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, winner of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award, contributor to Transition Magazine and author of Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America, talks about the history and future of Harlem as the center of Black America.

Sharifa will be at the Hue-Man Bookstore and Cafe tonight at 6pm.


Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

Comments [18]

And I would add that this phenomenon is by no means black-and-white only. The pattern of racism obstructing class consciousness has been starkly manifest in the current furor over "illegals" from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.

Feb. 02 2011 08:47 AM

Fafa -- my point is really quite simple.

1. Your forward-looking focus on race is unnecessary and counterproductive, to the extent that the more important and fundamental issue at stake is socioeconomic class and structural inequality.

2. When you (and others who embrace this discourse) focus on race in this manner, you are both obscuring the class divide and reinforcing racial divisions that serve only the interests of elites.

Please ask yourself what your real objective is. Is the goal for people of color to fully replicate the high degree of inequality and wealth stratification that exists within the "white" community in the U.S. and abroad?

I'm not clueless on these issues, and I understand the discourse. Cornel West has had a prominent position on my political theory reading list. That discourse has its place, and it is an important one if we are to properly understand our history and the present-day realities of our society.

But looking forward, my orientation is more pragmatic. We cannot build or sustain an effective mass movement for change by walling ourselves off in ivory towers or behind race-based political agendas. Continuing to do so only divides our numbers and further frustrates progress.

In my view, the most enduring and salient feature of race and racism is, at this point in our history, its continuing role in obstructing the emergence of the broader sort of class consciousness that would be a necessary precondition for cooperation on advancing shared working-class interests.

Feb. 02 2011 08:38 AM
Fafa from Harlemworld


I can't check my email from work, but i wonder if you will take me up on my offer of further discourse. I hope so.

Some more short responses:

- The "pale-ification" comment was not mine, though I can relate to extreme frustration with current events on the ground in Harlem, if that is what's behind it. I would not have used that language, however.

- You acknowledge "greater opportunities in life on account of (your) race", in this day and age. This prompted you to compare your working class opportunity to "non-white" ELITES, instead of non-white working class folks. Enough said. It makes we wonder what we're debating, for this is a manifestation of the fundamental phenomena that I'm criticizing...Perhaps the problem is that you (1) have normalized it and so are not sufficiently outraged or (2) you don't understand the myriad insidious ways it manifests or its many rippple effects...

Now, should these issues be addressed? How, without referencing the racial source?

Feb. 01 2011 04:45 PM

Fafa: I do believe that the particular "discourse of race" you are echoing is, in fact, racially divisive -- not arising ipso facto (i.e., from its essential role in fostering a deeper understanding of historical patterns and current realities), but rather from its unnecessary projection onto our future aspirations and collective ends as a polity.

That is where I get off the racial discourse train. When we take the step of mapping historical grievance and group identities onto our politics -- ostensibly in the name of justice -- I believe we are doing ourselves, our society, and indeed justice itself, a great disservice.

The only way we can ever achieve durable conditions of social justice is by working together. And the type of discourse you are reinforcing here sets us at odds, allowing the deeper conditions of injustice to persist. While our appreciation of past wrongs may be a precondition for progress, our attachment to historical grievances does not sustain us on that path; it only impoverishes our efforts to address that greater challenge.

Though I doubt anyone would ask the same of you, I will offer a few potentially illuminating details on my racial and "intergenerational" background here.

My grandparents were born in Barbados as poor agricultural workers of British ancestry. They immigrated to the U.S. through Ellis Island in the 1920's, living at first, as it happens, in Harlem.

What follows is no rags to riches story. My parents lived in Brooklyn and later in rural Pennsylvania, and they died with nothing (no assets, no savings). I came to New York after college (some five years ago) to try to find a decent job. I live in Harlem in part because it is affordable, and in part because I appreciate the diversity and balance the neighborhood offers.

Have I enjoyed any greater opportunities in life on account of my race? Almost certainly -- though none would stack up particularly well to the types of privilege regularly enjoyed by even non-white elites. My future is deeply uncertain.

And so, no, I don't appreciate being described as part of a "pale-ification" of the place I now call home. Or to have my very existence derided, euphemistically, as somehow being intrinsically representative of a loss of "culture."

I don't appreciate not being able to point out the racially antagonistic content of such expressions (even here, in the "polite" company of NPR listeners) without it being suggested that I am speaking from "sociopolitical and historical ignorance."

In short, these elements of your discourse are hurtful, divisive, and wrong. They arise from the same benighted thread of the human condition that has allowed "out" groups to be degraded, marginalized, and eliminated for centuries (and indeed millenia). By insisting on racialized politics, you are alienating folk who would otherwise be inclined -- if not to be your natural allies -- then at least to listen seriously to what you have to say.

Feb. 01 2011 01:35 PM
Fafa from Harlemworld

my email:

correction:"...WE must have..."

Feb. 01 2011 12:24 PM
Fafa from Harlemworld

John and petehill:

I'm at work and so can't be long on this, but it's welcome discourse, so feel free to email me at my address for a fuller exchange. (It's not my main address but I will check it today and tomorrow for any response.)

Couple of things:

- You characterize discourse of race as racially divisive, ipso facto. It reflects prevailing racial illieracy that inhibits critical discussion that me must have lest we burst. Because I reference a history bound up in race -- not of my choosing -- does not make me racially divisive. In fact, such discourse serves humanity and the apprecation of its diversity.

- John, you make other assumptions with no basis. I.e., I resent the success of others? How do you know? Are you assuming that I'm not successful? Or that I don't consider blacks successful? Or that "escaping" Harlem is the model of success? Etc.

- There seems to be an unawareness here of several social phenomena. I.e.: The intergenerational effects of injustice, trauma, socioeconomic exclusion, etc. / The anatomy of "success" in America, historically. / How race and economics intertwine. Etc.

- Harlem has always attracted blacks from throughout the diaspora, fleeing similar limitations as blacks who migrated from the South -- a way different social reality than current gentrifiers, with way different socioeconomic effects on the community. And they are ALSO checked when they act/ speak in sociopolitical and historical ignornace. Trust me...

Please note: I'll admit to being outraged at these issues. Should I not be? This is more than just a theoretical discussion; in fact, there's a lot on the line. But it shouldn't be mistaken for "antagonism"...

Feb. 01 2011 12:22 PM

And, for the record, I think John is doing the same thing -- and I disagree with him just as vigorously.

Feb. 01 2011 11:37 AM

Fafa and Leah:

I am someone who will stand with you when it comes to pressing for socioeconomic justice along a number of fronts. However, I think you are perpetuating divisive racial antagonisms and alienating potential allies by framing your interests (literally) in terms of black and white.

There is plenty of blame to cast on the past, given our troubled history. But are we ever going to build a brighter future by pressing on with the same tired formula of ethnic politics and racialized grievances?

And what of introspection? Where was the social movement for property ownership and capital accumulation in the depths of the 70's and 80's, when buildings could be purchased for pocket change? Was that only a matter of external oppression?

What of the more recent movements by Atlah ministries & the like which seek to advance precisely the opposite vision -- a return to disinvestment and collapse? How can that mentality be turned around, for the benefit of all?

Finally, a question: What about the large influx of new African immigrants into that "pale" portion of southwest Harlem? Are they, too, part of a troubling trend when they come in and "exploit" relatively low property values, rents, and more accessible commercial opportunities? Are they somehow more acceptable?

Or does their acceptability depend on your assessment of the level of opportunity they enjoyed before coming to New York City?

My point is that we all deserve what opportunity we can make for ourselves, and we should not be judged according to our backgrounds. Our movement within this "free country" should not be proscribed by measures such as redlining. Nor should our arrival in a new locale ever be regarded with concern by self-appointed guardians of racial purity.

The concept of racial entitlement is wrong. It has always been wrong, and it remains offensive no matter which direction it operates.

Feb. 01 2011 11:35 AM
john from office

Fala, people flock to Chinatown, people avoid Harlem.

Dont blame history or the white man for the failures of African Americans. The inability to escape the Harlems of the USA. Other groups, including Africans and blacks from all over the world come here and escape their harlems daily. That is why you resent their success. You have bought into the victim mentality that has held you down for soooo long.

Feb. 01 2011 11:33 AM
Fafa from Harlemworld's like blaming Egyptian rebels for the chaos in the streets and absolving Mubarak. True, the freedom-seekers must resist chaos, but it doesn't absolve Mubarak. There are causes and there are effects...

Feb. 01 2011 11:09 AM
Keira from Manhattan

Harlem may be nowhere, but the site where the Audobon Ballroom stood, where Malcolm X was assassinated, is by general consensus and geographic reality, in Washington Hts. We are always chasing ghosts of the past.

Feb. 01 2011 11:06 AM
Fafa from Harlemworld

John, you see no connection between crime, unsafe neighborhoods and the suppression of free economic activity...

Feb. 01 2011 11:04 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

It's been said that New York changes every 40 years, and this impermanence has been a persistent reality in New York since it was called Nieuw Amsterdam. Myself, I've seen at least three major transformations since 1949. The only thing permanent in New York is change. This can be very unsettling to many who see how their "old neighborhood" has changed, but that's the charm of New York. Always changing, and yet always the same.

Feb. 01 2011 11:02 AM
John from office

Pale: equals safe neighborhood, low crime and economic activity.

Feb. 01 2011 10:59 AM

If "Harlem is Nowhere" -- which is to say it has been lost somewhere along the way -- it was not lost to gentrification.

If it was lost, it was lost to drugs in the 70's and 80's. The progress that has been made in terms of public safety and economic development in recent decades, accelerating in recent years, is something that has made Harlem a safer and better place for all its residents.

Feb. 01 2011 10:59 AM
Leah from Harlem

Please ask your guest about what I call the "pale-ification" of parts of Harlem -- such as South Harlem (north of 110th and south of 116th, mostly from Frederick Douglass and west).

Feb. 01 2011 10:54 AM
John from office

Her Harlem is a fantasy, that does not exist. No group "owns" an area. Places evolve by many forces.

Feb. 01 2011 10:53 AM
Fafa from Harlemworld

Go 'head with yourself, Sharifa. Kudos.
Harlem 101:
Harlem was built for middle-to-upper class whites. Blacks were initially enslaved and segregated in other parts of New York. In anticipation of an influx of residents, via the subway that was under construction, developers overbuilt in Harlem and were left with a glut of un-rentable apts. Under these circumstances, blacks were the best to rent to: As a socio-economically excluded and terrorized group, they were segregated to the worst living conditions and therefore desperate for better digs. Also, for this very reason, they could be charged above-market prices (despite earning below-market wages). Under these terms, developers and black realtors colluded to bring black folk to Harlem, in an often volatile social climate. Once there, blacks continued to be socioeconomically excluded -- they were domestically segregated AND they couldn't work in a Harlem that was (is) not black-owned; local merchants refused to hire blacks. It was under these conditions that Harlem nevertheless became the "black capital of the world" -- a wellspring of black genius, creativity, social movement, and a spiritual home for blacks throughout the worldwide diaspora. But these conditions still inhibited the inter-generational accumulation of black capital. THIS is why Harlem has always had a low rate of home ownership. And it is THIS phenomenon that current gentrifiers are exploiting, in one of the few black historical communities in this country. In leveraging a historical wrong, they may very well end up on the wrong side of history...

Feb. 01 2011 10:49 AM

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