Harlem is one of the most famous neighborhoods in the world—a historic symbol of both black cultural achievement and of the rigid boundaries separating the rich from the poor. But as this book shows us, Harlem is far more culturally and economically diverse than its caricature suggests: through extensive fieldwork and interviews, John L. Jackson reveals a variety of social networks and class stratifications, and explores how African Americans interpret and perform different class identities in their everyday behavior.
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DOING RACE AND CLASS IN CONTEMPORARY BLACK AMERICA
By JOHN L. JACKSON JR.
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS
Copyright © 2001 University of Chicago
All right reserved.
MAKING HARLEM BLACK: RACE, PLACE, AND HISTORY IN "AFRICAN AMERICANS' AFRICA"
History in a Quotation-Marked-Off Place
Harlem first suggested itself to me as a full-fledged field site in Jamaica, West Indies. It was there that Harlem jumped out at me in all of its imaginative grandeur-and not just through BET broadcasts of hip-hop music videos on local television sets or through cotton T-shirts emblazoned with Harlem's name neatly displayed in local tourist shops or even through the constant invocation of the term ("Yo, Harlem!") as some Islanders' synonym for my own given name. Harlem congealed for me against the heat and sand of the Jamaican coastline because of how often and matter-of-factly many Jamaicans I met there purported to possess knowledge of that not-so-distant place. Some of them had actually been to Harlem. Many constantly wrote and telephoned relatives and friends who were still there. Others had never set foot in Harlem but spoke of its symbolic import for the black diaspora in seemingly heartfelt ways. Over and against my constant protestations (I preferred being associated more with the Brooklyn neighborhood of my childhood than the community where I lived as a graduate student), Harlem represented, even there, outside of a strictly American context, the quintessential black community. And I-as its living, breathing, embodied "Yankee" synecdoche-stood in for the place itself.
Recent anthropological and geographical examinations of contemporary time-space compression predicated on technological advances in communication and transportation have offered useful analyses of the "traveling cultures" that link people in global networks of exchange and conversation. My own decidedly nonsystematic interactions with several Jamaicans during that 1994 spring visit highlighted various socio-political dimensions of an imagined racial community unevenly connecting people across the permeable boundaries of nation-states. Most specifically, I faced several Jamaican men and women asking me to feel empathy for them and their families, newly homeless squatters whose shantytown had been razed that very morning, only moments before my plane touched down. I watched from my perch on the third floor of a two-star resort hotel as several young men I did not know beckoned from across the high cement gate for me to come down ("Come, come, Harlem, come!") and join their spontaneous march, to come down and hear them recount futile attempts at saving their homes from destruction. Critical issues of tourism, transnationalism, and global imperialism intermingled in that instant. I quizzically waved back at these people I did not know, who were invoking the name of the neighborhood where I lived without so much as having been introduced to me beforehand. Immediately identified as an outsider, a recognizable outsider, I slowly made my way out of the resort and into the teeming crowd below. Others could speak more directly to the many vectors of difference and commonality that explain both the initial call ("Come, come, Harlem, come!") and my cautious decision to heed it. Suffice it to say here that after a week running around the island with my informal tour guides, I was struck by the extent to which these people knew Harlem, its history and the meaning it was supposed to hold for an African American on vacation in the Caribbean.
All communities police the symbolic boundaries that surround them. Harlem's symbolic import is such, however, that even those who do not live within its ostensible borders can be heard invoking its social and symbolic significance-that is, more specifically speaking, invoking its racial significance. Harlem is often understood as a decidedly black space, as the home of African American cultural ferment and particularity, the "capital of Black America." In this chapter I examine a bit of Harlem's commonsensical status as racialized social space par excellence. These invocations of Harlem as a black space often assume a hermetically sealed-off social sphere easily vanquishing other potential trajectories of difference: class, gender, and so on. To call Harlem black, to understand it as such, is to join in popular presuppositions of that selfsame blackness as an ontological solution to vexing questions of race-based social interest. The political pundits on CNN or C-Span or any local six o'clock newscast who rhetorically ask, "What would people in Harlem think?" wield that place-name as if it served to signify an obvious racial difference geographied. I want to offer a historical, even ethnohistorical, rendering of Harlem as not just a black space but a blackened one, examining Harlem's axiomatic blackness as a contextually contingent racialization of place. As black as Harlem is imagined to be by those who invoke its name, this blackness requires more than exclusively racial criteria (that is, class differences, gender hierarchies, and ethnic particularities) to shore up its own uncertain spatial boundaries.
Even in Jamaica (or Rotterdam, Paris, London, or just about anywhere else I've had conversations with people about this project), Harlem operates as a kind of "quotation-marked-off place," paradoxically indexing "both absolute authenticity and veracity, on the one hand, and suspected inauthenticity, irony and doubt on the other." Every application of the name supplies, implies, and applies oversaturated and highly charged assumptions about the neighborhood and its inhabitants as either the epitome of racial potentiality or the embodiment of squandered opportunities. The ethnographer Monique Michelle Taylor captures the bifurcated nature of this quotation-marking-off of place in her analysis of Harlem as both "Heaven and Hell" for those who invoke its name, a hypersymbolism that carries much more than lukewarm connotations when summoned to rhetorical duty. According to the New York State Visitor and Convention Bureau, Harlem has the highest name recognition of any neighborhood in the entire state of New York. And this tiny bit of trivia is quite important. The most famous neighborhood in what is arguably the nation's most famous city is Harlem! It is known the world over. But for those who live there, who live with (and benefit from) that notoriety, what does Harlem mean? What does a quotation-marked-off Harlem do? Where and how are its boundaries drawn? What categories and attributes of the place are used to make sense of its bigger-than-life hyperscape?
To begin with, Harlem is a place set apart. It functions as a geographical space evoked for clear-cut racial distinction. Dexter's cartographic removal of Harlem from his mapping of Manhattan in this book's introduction literalizes that very distinction, and pundits and politicos who cite Harlem do so with Dexter's hard-and-fast referent in mind. It is Harlem's well-known and history-laden position as "the black Mecca," the "capital of black America," and "the queen of all black belts" that positions it snugly within the quotation-marked-off domain of stereotyped assumptions, both positive and negative. Moreover, this historic Harlem is important because it provides the constant and overstated symbolic backdrop for the very present Harlem one sees today. Walking through its streets, one sees conspicuous traces of Harlem history rather self-consciously and purposefully paraded before one's very eyes. The names of great Harlemites roll off residents' tongues. Avenues are renamed for significant African Americans of the past. Pictures of Egyptian ankhs and maps of the African continent (of various shapes and sizes-often red, black, and green in color) adorn storefronts, posters, T-shirts, and even the concrete street itself, offering a comfortable grounding for Harlem's assumed blackness, a grounding that anchors racial particularity in a different space and time entirely-across the Atlantic Ocean and in Egyptian antiquity.
Billboards intimating Harlem's central place in the black world mask burned-down and hollowed-out vacant buildings. Storefronts are draped with Kente cloth that flutters majestically in the wind. Framed posters of Roy De Carava's famous photograph of jazzman Charlie "Bird" Parker playing the saxophone-and the "sound" that was "seen" when he did-hide tiny sections of off-white office walls. And one can, in fact, see that very sound everywhere in Harlem. It is the syncopated rhythm of a calculated historicizing that bellows loudly above the present-day place, whose racialized past rests lodged within its very real present. All of New York has such an ever-present history. For that matter, so does every other city in the world. The difference with Harlem, however, what over-determines its standing as Harlemworld, is the canonized, politicized and self-consciously recognized nature of that (usually half-hidden) modern history-as well as its decidedly blackened tint.
The suspecting pedestrian bumps into racialized images of this past at every turn, images that are only there to evoke the past, that serve no other function but to call on history's authority and legitimacy. These historical images are from different time frames and refer to a variety of places and peoples, diverse black history moments that come together in Harlem's uncanny ability to encompass them all, to grasp any reference to blackness in its concrete and steel palms. And Harlem's history seeps through that concrete and steel, oozes from the cracks in local buildings-even necessitates those very cracks. Much of Harlem is famous today almost exclusively because the argument can be made that it (this store, this building, this brownstone) was famous in the past, way back "when Harlem was in vogue." This all was Harlem, a wasness that tethers Harlem to another time altogether. The Cotton Club, the Lenox Lounge, the World Famous Apollo Theater, and other sites stake their notoriety as much on past acclaim and name recognition as on their contemporary realities. The Apollo Theater, for example, replicates Harlem's charm writ small, and its guardians know that, advertise that, construct that: the World Famous Apollo Theater. When one gets there for the first time, however, when one actually beholds that World Famous place, possibly with black letters dangling from a decidedly weathered marquee (some letters missing, all of different and haphazardly combined sizes), one might get the very same underwhelming sensation some feel the first time they slink their way through and around the crowded hallways of the Louvre to glimpse that small, framed painting called the Mona Lisa. "Is that it?" one might ask. "This little picture, this little frame?" The World Famous Apollo Theater is, in some ways, like Harlemworld's Mona Lisa, a Harlemworld offered up to tourists as a kind of lived-in Louvre, a living "colored museum." It is perhaps less masterminded, one might argue, than the work done by 1970s social historians commissioned to re-historicize colonial Williamsburg, but no less museological-and certainly no less contentious. The daily throng of international admirers and passersby snapping pictures in front of that Apollo marquee is itself a roadmap for the reading of contemporary Harlem as an inflatable past overstuffed into the topography of a seemingly deflated present. In a quotation-marked-off place like Harlemworld, the imaginative and symbolic components of its inflated past are just as palpable and meaningful as the physical concreteness of its nineteenth- century brownstones. And indeed those homes are important too. This fetishized connection between Harlem and its past is the first point to stress about a location where notoriety is contingent on what the place used to be, on connections between the present and the once-glorious past. In that light, it is to some of this "history" that I will briefly turn. This particular reflection on Harlem's history is warranted, I believe, by the seminal position granted a certain retelling of Harlem's past within the geographical community itself and within the community of scholars, activists, and politicians who control most terms of the debate on contemporary Harlem. After a brief historical discussion focused on some of the mascrostructural forces that colluded in the creation of Harlem as a black space, a space predominantly occupied by black people, I want to show how contemporary Harlemites use that same history to provide Harlem's blackness with a variety of different shadings.
Race, Class, and a History of Harlem
Manhattan's central business district and industrial hub started out at the southernmost tip of the island, and with the progressive and cumulative prodding of the Industrial Revolution, stretched its arms up and out across New York City. Factories grew and the workforce expanded while the city plodded its way uptown. As quintessentially black as Harlem is imagined to be today, it started out as Nieuw Haarlem in the 1650s, a Dutch settlement that was anything but a black enclave. After the English bought the area from the Dutch and turned greater New Amsterdam into New York, the same industrial advancements that transformed America's economy from agricultural exclusivity to industrial productivity helped spur urban growth throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. New York City's ballooning industrial market pushed, pulled, and gnawed its way up the island, taking a growing city's population with it.
During that period Harlem was a place where people went to get away from the teeming city downtown-that is, if they could afford the relatively long horse and buggy ride away from the factory districts. Of course, if you were a member of the growing proletariat, you probably weren't able to engage in such leisurely excursions. During these early days of American industry, most workers resided, by necessity, close to their factories of employment, in the small industry-based communities that cropped up alongside them. The 1837 New York and Harlem railroad along present-day Park Avenue spurred the construction of small wooden homes throughout the eastern end of Harlem while the Irish were drawn to the western half. A good deal of Harlem was still fairly empty and open, however, often used as a premier location for picnics, retreats, and other recreational activities.
Black Manhattan during this time consisted of smaller strips of neighborhoods (no more than a couple of blocks in length) along the lowest end of the island where present-day City Hall and Wall Street are located. There, blacks "lived and congregated in the hovels along the wharves." Slowly and collectively, black Manhattan moved northward with the rest of a quickly industrializing metropolis. From the start of the 1800s to the end of that century, blacks in Manhattan (from Little Africa and Five Points to Tenderloin and San Juan Hill, all geographical precursors to black Harlem) changed the location and size of their mostly small and segregated portions of the city, moving northward and growing larger with each relocation. These early black enclaves included tried and true black institutions (the black church, free black schools, YMCAs, Masonic lodges) and constituted a northern version of the formal and informal mechanisms of racial separation that had traditionally kept blacks of various classes and status positions connected to the same residential spaces. (Continues...)
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Doing Harlem, Touring Harlemworld
1 Making Harlem Black: Race, Place, and History in "African Americans' Africa"
2 Class Histories and Class Theories in a Raceful Social World
3 Birthdays, Basketball, and Breaking Bread: Negotiating with Class in Contemporary Black America
4 Class(ed) Acts, or Class Is as Class Does
5 White Harlem: Toward the Performative Limits of Blackness
6 Cinematicus Ethnographicus: Race and Class in an Ethnographic Land of Make-Believe
Conclusion: Undoing Harlemworld