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It Begins with a Place

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’ first book, Harlem Is Nowhere fuses seemingly disparate elements of history, philosophy, journalism and prose in an attempt to untangle the myth and meaning of Harlem’s legacy. Formally, she never tires of digression, evoking voices from Harlem’s past and present to convey a reality that is multidimensional and complex in its simultaneity, as well as demonstrate the breakdown of community and continuity in contemporary life. At stake is not only the future of Harlem but also its echoes and implications in black creative and political life everywhere.

We caught up with Sharifa at the PASS Studios during a recent visit to Cape Town to talk about the book and its place in her broader projected exploring black utopia.

James Joyce once boasted that were Dublin raised to the ground, it could be rebuilt from scratch with Ulysses as the blueprint. Could the same be said for Harlem is Nowhere? What would a city-within-a-city built on your blueprint look like?

It would be a very idiosyncratic Harlem! Years ago when I was a teenager I did a course where they had us make maps of places, highlighting what drops out just based on personal experience of a place. I think of this book very much like that – a personal map of the places I went or that caught my eye. Many things are left out. I was always sure it wasn’t going to be an encyclopaedic book.

The title refers to Harlem’s multiple realities and histories, but also its mythical status – that imaginary Harlem that hovers over the city. What role does and can that myth play in informing current realities. 

Firstly it’s important to point out that the title is borrowed from Ralph Ellison – so I had him to contend with from the beginning… all of those writers! At first, I found myself at first bumping heads with them and their declarations about Harlem. In 1925 Alain Locke wrote in the The New Negro that Harlem is prophetic, that is had the same roll to play for black American that Dublin did for Ireland or Prague for the new Czechoslovakia. So there was this gauntlet thrown down at the beginning that it had this roll to play. It’s always enacted this self mythologizing.

In terms of how it works out today it’s most evident to me in different setting. On the one hand, going to political meetings and people saying, ‘what happens in Harlem matters everywhere’, which is true but it also overstates the case and doesn’t allow for the specificity of other places and their particular experiences. Harlem looms larger than everything and overshadows everything. The result is that dialogue with other places is closed down. Then there is this sense when you’re on the street and talking to people that Harlem always appears in quotes or block letters. So I found myself always trying to go behind that, to find a real entry point. It’s like trying to go behind the Hollywood sign. Sometimes there’s nothing there. My question is always what do you see when you’re not dealing with a place as a pronouncement.

How did you avoid getting weighed down, consumed by all that myth and history? With the weight of all the history how does one move forward toward new futures?

This is a question that’s been on my mind a lot here in Cape Town – reading, listening to music and sometimes I feel like everything that troubles us has already been accounted for and that we just haven’t managed to put it in motion. That requires an engagement with history. So, yes, I feel the weight. I feel it in the form of prose – which is a very heavy form for me right now. As a prose writer I sometimes felt like I had dragged a whole library on my back. My process was really an immersion – reading, spending time revisiting things I thought I knew already then synthesising it.  I knew from the beginning my challenge would be to make all these different kind of knowledge exist on the same plane – the things I was reading; things I remembered (both correctly and incorrectly); things someone told me in passing; things I picked up from the street. All these things needed to balance out. So that was one very deliberate strategy that I used.

Harlem has been a hotbed of creativity, dissent, innovation – in music, literature, politics, life! What is the relationship between place and creativity for you? What conditions are necessary for a place to become one of emergence?

 I live in New Orleans now and have for about two years now. Along with Harlem, it is, of course, one of the most iconic crucibles of black creativity. The one thing that jumps out for me as a person that’s passing through there, is that continuity is a conduit for creativity. Up until Katrina and the failure of the levees it was a place where many people stayed. The beginnings of jazz were there. There have been huge movements from New Orleans – to California, the rest of the country, the world. But all through that it’s remained a place where people have been rooted. People have a really strong feeling of a direct connection to what happens in that place. So something  that they do on a Sunday is related to something people did on a Sunday a hundred years ago.

But of course creativity can also be determined by flux – a sense of influx or dispersal. Harlem historically was a weird convergence of what was happening at that moment, which can be defined in so many ways – the end of the rural life; urbanisation; the begins of this industrial age; artistically, modernism; politically, nationalism… all these things happen at the same time. On top of that you have people coming from so many different places. Not just from the South but from the Caribbean and Africa, and of course black New Yorkers who had been there for many years.

The book is part of a larger exploration into black utopia – that includes Haiti and the Black Belt South. Utopia has always been a Western concept – from Plato’s Republic to Thomas More’s Utopia. It was one of the founding ideas behind colonialism. How does the idea of a black utopia function in relation to this history? What’s your understanding of black utopia?

For me it goes back to a question of how do you constitute a space that you haven’t chosen to be in. The question of black people in America is a question of building – where are you going to build, how are you going to live – literally, virtually, politically. Recently I’ve been reading Harold Cruse’s The Crisis Of The Negro Intellectual and he’s really great at identifying the blind spots of the black radical movements and moments. He looks at the 1920s as this lost moment when black political and creative culture got usurped by the integrationist mandate and then again in the 1960s, the vision of the nationalism that emerges and the pockets that were rejected and ejected from political and creative life during that period. It becomes almost a decision to yield the ground literally. So, the question is, how do we build? Who lives there? Who pays for it? In the Harlem I encountered today, those questions are all still relevant. Sure, you can declare Harlem as the Mecca, a cultural capital but it means nothing if the money is being controlled by other people. The consistency between where you end up and how you got there is crucial. The situation Harlem is in today as black place that is being like sold off by black people, though of course not exclusively, points to that contradiction. It’s a utopia that is nowhere, that is nothing.

So how do we move from this point? Is it possible to still be utopian?

The third book in the series focuses on the South and the founding of black towns both before the civil war and after the civil war. There are stories of people coming together – sometimes on the same land they had been enslaved on – in mutual protection with a great sense of hope about the possibilities of community. Sure, many of those places failed or don’t exist anymore but I’m interested in that beginning, which is that really lofty and space filled with a mission to live out something that has been promised. So in the next books I hope to trace that ground and make a stronger connection between that point and where we are now. I feel I circled or danced around it in the Harlem book but I want to be more direct about what the lesson from those places is; how they are relevant for us now.

I think black American thought has arrived at a really weird moment with writers of my own generation making really weird declarations about “post blackness”. It’s something I’m really trying to work out. It seems to me that these dispatches from this “post-something world” point to a lack of history, a lack of that continuity where what you do is directly connected to something in the past. So there is this sense of the gap, a rupture, a break that relates to the missed chances, the blind spots that Cruse talks about. My generation seems to be suffering from a claim that there is nothing left to fight for. I just don’t see that. Maybe I’m being a throw-back but I see lots to fight for. We are still living in such heavy times; black people in America are facing such heavy times. It’s such an old idea but that sense that we are all connected, that we share a history is imperative to care about the future.

Harlem, Haiti, the Black Belt South… why aren’t any African cities included in the project? Is it possible to explore black utopia without Africa? What role does Africa play in the project? How is it present?

For me it was about working within the limitation of history, living within the boundaries that were marked off. So Africa is completely present in the book and in other ways it isn’t. One of the things that dropped off my map of Harlem is West 116th Street which is called Little Senegal. It’s full of West Africans and immigrants most of them Muslim and French speaking. It wasn’t a part of my everyday life – I walked there, sure and I often ate there but the stories in book are all from my everyday life and it just never entered in that way. Rather it enters peripherally – people I saw, things I saw that I didn’t necessarily understand.

Ironically after I finished the book I took up a three month residency in Paris and after I returned I visited a store to buy this African incense that I fell in love with in Paris and I starting speaking to the shop owner in French and suddenly a door that was previously closed, because I didn’t know the language, opened up. So the book is also about my limitation. It’s about how someone slips into my life and I slip into there’s. I didn’t have an experience which is such an important part of contemporary Harlem. So Africa is there and it isn’t. It’s there in its absence – like a dare!

It’s impossible to think Harlem without thinking music. What role did music play in the book – in its content but also its rhythm, its sound?

Music is a touchy issue because I didn’t write about music in the book and I wanted to. I’ve always rejected the narrative in black American culture and social life that music is the pinnacle. It always makes me very angry, people always saying things like, ‘the thing we should all be aspiring to is a John Coltrane solo.’ That always felt like a cop out for me. And an insult to me as a writer – that I shouldn’t even try, should just give up in advance because the only thing that articulates this thing is music. But now being here, with all these records, listening to all this music, I’ve started to wonder if maybe I’m wrong about all that….

You’ve been spending some time in Cape Town – a city that truly is “nowhere” – apart from Africa yet not really a part of Europe. A city composed of multiple cities-within-the-city. What has your experience of Kaapstad been?

I’ve seen so little of it so it’s hard to say anything, but one thing that jumps out at me is that it’s a place where history is written on bodies. It’s a place where you always think about history because you’re continually wondering: how did you get here? What the hell are you doing here? Where do you come from? That important to me because I don’t write about race I write about history. But if you talk about history you have to talk about what happened and if you can talk about it maybe you’ll want to do something about it instead of just saying, oh, its a question of identity. That’s been on my mind a lot in this place.

Will we ever reach a point where Harlem is everywhere?

I’ve always thought the implied inverse of the title is Harlem is Everywhere and certainly the contemporary question of gentrification – which is an over-used, not very useful word – but questions of displacement, of over-development, of poor people being pushed out of cities is everywhere! That’s why I always come back to the question of land, physical space not being negligible. Where you live is always going to be important. The things you do in a place – eating, sleeping, living, loving and the things that grow of that… it begins with a place.

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