Still Life in Harlem: A Memoir


A New York Times Notable Book

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A New York Times Notable Book

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An anguished and eloquent meditation on the soul of black America."-Claude Brown, The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Though Harris (Mississippi Solo) spent two years living in Harlem, this book is more about Harris than Harlem. A middle-class black whom some consider "too soft" to be black, he felt compelled to test his allegiances and identity in New York's most famous black district. He even decided to be unemployed and to "become poor," as if to share local poverty. However, his portrait of Harlema bit of history, a few conversations and observationspresents an ur-ghetto. Harris does acknowledge that "All [in Harlem] is not the clich of poverty," but he dismisses its wealthy and ignores the working class that sustains its churches and civic groups. Harris's book can be affecting, as when he reflects on his fatherwho hoped to create a better world. Ultimately, Harris's reveries do not lead him to any hard political or sociological analysis. Rather, his work ends with stories that show his mixed feelings of obligation, anguish and machismo. He stubbornly faces down a young tough blocking the sidewalk. He decides to help kids in an after-school program. He intervenes when he hears a man harassing a woman. He concludes that "the ghetto lies within" no matter how far he goes. However, his self-dramatizing style diminishes his epiphanies. (Nov.)
Kirkus Reviews
A worthwhile, complex commentary on the author's two-year sojourn in Harlem.

Harris has built a career on being an "insider-outsider" ethnographer, first as a black American in Africa and then in the rural Deep South (Native Stranger, 1992; South of Haunted Dream, 1993). He now follows these with a similar foray into Harlem, an attempt to witness another aspect of the black American experience. The narrative is engaging, well-written, and sometimes insightful, but it stops short of extraordinary because of Harris's own ambiguous role. The book opens with a scene that he returns to again and again: He is standing at his window late in the night, watching intently as a man across the street beats a woman. This scene and others indicate that Harris is an observer who has made a conscious choice to live in Harlem, to not have a telephone, to deplete his funds. He can, as he himself remarks, leave any time—a fact that gives the narrative an almost anthropological aloofness. As time progresses, he does begin to initiate more conversations on the street, to take a vested interest in his surroundings, and in doing so, he finds much still to be celebrated in Harlem: a young mother who spends late nights caring for the neighborhood's children; a native son who, after a successful law career, returns to Harlem to help other youngsters. Harris is changed by these encounters and inspired to refuse hopelessness and, ultimately, offers a writing class at an after-school program.

The book's title becomes something of an unintentional double entendre: As an artist Harris has successfully captured the "still life" of Harlem, a portrait of hopelessness and urban decay. But by the end he has subtly convinced the reader that there is still, in fact, life in Harlem. His own small transformations become his most compelling witness to that stubborn life.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805048520
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/15/1997
  • Edition description: REV
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.02 (w) x 7.54 (h) x 0.79 (d)

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