NEAL CONAN, host:
Growing up in Texas, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts visited the packed tenements and smoky jazz clubs of Harlem with Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston and many others as her guides. After college, she moved to the neighborhood she calls the mecca of black America herself. And now she's written a book that will engage the imaginations of readers to come, and the forces and individuals who created Harlem and infused it with meaning far beyond the confines of Northern Manhattan.
So how did you learn about Harlem? What do you know about it? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts joins us from our studio in New York, at our bureau there. Nice to have you with us today.
Ms. SHARIFA RHODES-PITTS (Author): Thanks for having me. Good afternoon.
CONAN: And do you remember the first time you encountered Harlem, when it first entered your imagination?
Ms. RHODES-PITTS: I have a feeling it was reading an essay in Alice Walker's collection, "In Search of Our Mother's Gardens," where she mentions Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer. And that just - mention would have sent me to the library, trying to figure out who are these writers she spoke of so highly, and what was this place that they wrote about and where they lived.
CONAN: You're a person who seems to have spent a lot of her life in a library.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. RHODES-PITTS: I have. From my earliest days, my mother took us to the library. My father took us to the library. And I was often escaping lunch time to go spend lunch hour in library in middle school and high school. So, yeah.
CONAN: And this place caught your imagination as, I think, probably no other in America.
Ms. RHODES-PITTS: It did. Harlem is unique, I think, in any place in America. If you say the name Harlem anywhere in the world, you could probably get a reaction, even if it was just based on the slightest mention. Whether it was from music or politics or literature, I think a lot of people have associations with this place. So I kind of followed that track from a very young age.
CONAN: Yet the first time you were there, the first several times you were there, you say you were just sort of passing through Harlem on your way to a library.
Ms. RHODES-PITTS: On my way to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which even before I moved to New York, was a place that drew me, where I felt like I could answer any question I had about the whole history of black people around the world. So...
CONAN: And this was a man who developed one of the great collections of - I guess, in the history of literature, not just African-American literature - partly because he learned - he was told as a youth that blacks have no history.
Ms. RHODES-PITTS: Right. Arturo Schomburg grew up in Puerto Rico and was told that black people had no history. And I think his entire collection is based - is a refutation of that. He really dug in every corner he could. He sent his friends around the world to find books that he didn't have access to. And the fruits of that lifelong search are open for everyone now on 135th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem.
CONAN: You spent a lot of time with that collection, looking at the things that he gathered. But he was an extraordinary force and, indeed, working with the library there - including the library in there at the time, before it was the Schomburg collection - and indeed that they felt a mission to make this available to the residents of this neighborhood.
Ms. RHODES-PITTS: Right. There's a wonderful just snippet from that moment when the librarians were collecting anything they could about black history. And that information was so sought after, that the people who came there every day, people who are workers, migrants from the South, they used those pieces so much that some of the most prized pieces of the first collection fell apart.
CONAN: And the idea that this place was available to so many people, and then it mounted an exhibition, which, in a sense, said, if you think there is no history, if black people have no history, come here, look. You will see different.
Ms. RHODES-PITTS: Yeah. That would have - that was the message Arthur Schomburg said was carried to the rest of the world. And I think for the people that lived around those streets, they already knew very well the answer to that. So...
CONAN: And, indeed, this neighborhood had sprung up, as you describe it, as sort of a refuge for black Americans, a place to come where they could be themselves and apart.
Ms. RHODES-PITTS: Right. It was a place that - you know, if one person left from a town down South, they would send a note back and tell them about what was going on and to come up and there were - there was work, and there were places to live that were unlike any place that someone who grew up down South would have known. But the sort of dream and the vision of Harlem was - often collided with the reality once people arrived there, even in the '20s.
CONAN: Yeah. And you talked about, like you say, those people arriving from the South with a bus ticket and a suitcase. Also arriving at the same time, people who had spent time in college, intellectuals and people who were great musicians in all walks of life.
Ms. RHODES-PITTS: Right. From all walks of life, and not only just from the South, but from all around America and all around the African Diaspora, whether it was the Caribbean or Africa itself. Harlem - I think this is part of what made Harlem so fantastically unique, the combination of people from so many different walks of life and so many different places who were all united by a certain current.
CONAN: In the early days of your research, you talked about the difficult task of looking at some of the archival images of Harlem that you saw in the collection.
These are photographs of the neighborhood as it developed, as it grew up, as it prospered, as it changed. And the Harlem that you saw today, I was wondering if you could - there's a passage in your book on page 33, and I was wondering if you could read it to us.
Ms. RHODES-PITTS: Sure. This is from the chapter that talks about all these people arriving, and also my own arrival. And right when I came, there was a sense that everything I'd looked at and everything I'd read about, how did that line up with what I was living and where - the streets I was walking through?
It says, outside the archive, I compared the buildings and the faces I saw on the street to the buildings and faces in the photographs. It was easy to establish which intersection was the setting of a certain parade and easy to know how soot and grime had attached to the facade of a certain church.
But it was not possible, just by looking, to establish a direct connection between the people I saw, motionless in the photographs and coursing to the streets. One could assume a trajectory, the continuity of families across eight or nine decades.
Here we have arrived, the photographs whispered, and here we remain, came the answer from the streets. But I noticed in the contemporary faces some alteration, the consequence of a force not visible within the frame.
CONAN: Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts reading an excerpt from her book "Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America."
We'd like to hear from you, where you learned about Harlem for the first time and what you know about it. 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. And Patricia is on the line with us from San Antonio.
PATRICIA (Caller): I left my cattle ranch with my family in 1947, went to University of California for one year of college, quit college and headed for New York City on a train, stayed in a hotel down on 28th Street. And, one day, I got a job. One day, the fellow that ran the elevator - I was talking about how I wanted to go see Harlem.
And he said, well, I'll take you there. Great, great experience. I'm 84 years old, and I've been back to New York at least 20 times and always kept an eye on Harlem. But what was interesting about it is that they're - the people were like fruit salad. He said, well, you might be the only one white there that - he wasn't - it wasn't true. I mean, there were conversations. They were things that I read about. I went on later in my life, I taught 35 years and got a master's degree in the study of the black male.
CONAN: And why did you go to Harlem? What did you want to see?
PATRICIA: Because I was born curious, and I want to know about everything that I don't know about. And I knew that was a void in my brain. What is Harlem? What's there, what you will experience. I mean, reading is wonderful, but to go and be there and really sit back as an observer - he said to me that maybe these people will just look at me like I wasn't wanted. It was just the opposite. The elevator operator had it all wrong. Everybody asked me a lot of questions. They were very - they were - it was like they were glad I was there.
CONAN: Well, Patricia, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
PATRICIA: Thank you.
CONAN: It was interesting to compare that with your arrival, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, when you came Harlem, and it seemed like there was a period in which the people in the building you lived, in the block where you lived, had a period where - well, it was just nodding acquaintance at first.
Ms. RHODES-PITTS: Well, sure. It is New York, after all.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. RHODES-PITTS: But I think Harlem is unique - well, for me at least, just the sense of the neighborliness and, I think, when I first arrived, I really associated that with the Southern heritage of a lot of people who live in Harlem.
When I breeched that initial sense of distance, it was - I was adopted immediately, and people referred to me - my neighbors referred to me as their daughter, and there was a sense of protection.
CONAN: And your book is about some historical figures like Mr. Schomburg, but also Ms. Bessie(ph) who was one of those people who adopted you.
Ms. RHODES-PITTS: Yeah. These are people who - my everyday life was just entwined with their life. That wasn't about research. It was about living and how I was going to be a part of this community. So, yeah.
CONAN: There's a wonderful line in your book - and forgive me, I forget who said it, but - that I used to live in the world, and now my universe is reduced to six blocks.
Ms. RHODES-PITTS: Yeah. That's a line from Ntozake Shange, from the play "For Colored Girls Who've Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Was Enough." And, again, that would have been one of the stray lines that I picked up as a youth, as a teenager, and sort of stuck in my head.
There was this - I mean, I think that her - that line for her is about the sense of this, again, being drawn to Harlem and then, on some level, feeling like there was some kind of contraction that happened when that character arrived. So...
CONAN: Yet there was a richness in that six blocks that is hard to imagine.
Ms. RHODES-PITTS: Sure. Sure.
CONAN: We're talking with Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts. Her book is "Harlem is Nowhere." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.
Let's go next to - this is Richard, Richard with us from Martha's Vineyard.
RICHARD (Caller): Hi. I'm on the phone now in my truck.
RICHARD: Can you hear me?
CONAN: Yes, we can hear you fine. You're on the phone on the radio.
RICHARD: Hey, I was inspired to call you because, like, you know, when I grew up, we heard of Harlem. It was kind of a it was a scary place then at the time. But when I saw George Gershwin's movie, "Porgy & Bess," and Sportin' Life is trying to entice Bess to go to New York, you know?
(Singing) There's a boat that's leavin' soon for New York.
And he says through one of the lines of the song is...
(singing) An' thru Harlem, we'll go struttin', we'll go a struttin' an' there'll be nuttin' too good for you.
You realize it was the place of glamour before my time. But you can get an image of it, even though it's not specific, by listening to the words of Sportin' Life's song, as he tries to entice Bess to go to Harlem.
CONAN: It's interesting you mentioned that. Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, you write about a lot of those books - boats, who came - which came to New York and brought people from the South, left in the port of Norfolk and came in to New York City...
CONAN: ...and that there was an organization which developed, which particularly was there to greet the young women coming from the South and take them to Harlem and provide them with a place where they could, well, not only find a bed and some refuge, but maybe a way to make a living, as well.
Ms. RHODES-PITTS: Sure. This is one of the gems and gifts of my study, and - which was the history of the White Rose Home. It was actually started - its first home was not in Harlem. It was the East 80s, before black Americans were really centered in Harlem. But as soon as that migration to Harlem started happening, the White Rose Home moved, also. And so in the '20s, they found a home in the West 130s.
And it was a place where - if a young woman arrived from the South completely, you know, unaccustomed to the city ways, she could find a house, a bed, the possibility of employment and training for that employment - usually as domestic worker - but also a library with the classics of black history and literature, music lessons, good company. And so there was this combination of just plain shelter, but also sort of a shelter for the soul. And just yesterday, someone asked me: Does that place does it still exist, you know?
Ms. RHODES-PITTS: This sense that there's just something so wonderful about the mission of these women, who, based on their own experience and their own vulnerability and the parallels they had seen other women fall into, opening up a place where the next generation could be sheltered. And it went on like that for decades.
It really is a story about sort of the sense of responsibility that was - is part of Harlem's history, that it's not just the neighborhood, but that by living there, you're part of the history and - that there's a need to perpetuate, to protect, and to strive for everyone's mutual uplift. And the history of the White Rose Home and the way that young women, young black women were sheltered and uplifted there, it's such an important example of that.
CONAN: Let's go next to Frank, and Frank's calling us from Buffalo.
FRANK (Caller): Hi, wonderful show.
CONAN: Thank you.
FRANK: I know Harlem only from its history as part of the great Harlem Renaissance. I do know that now, the neighborhood of Harlem, it has a less than majority of African-Americans. So I'm wondering how your guest would comment on, you know, Harlem now. Is it still the center of an artistic renaissance in the same way that it was earlier in the 20th century? And if not, where has it moved to?
Ms. RHODES-PITTS: Well, it's an interesting question in many ways. I remember a few weeks ago, someone saying, Harlem, the mecca of black culture. No, that's Atlanta. So many people would argue that Harlem is no longer the center of black culture. But I would argue that the centrality of Harlem to African-American and American life over the past century is unparalleled. And what's happening right now is, you know, just another step in that unfolding. There is a question of - the caller mentioned population. I think...
Ms. RHODES-PITTS: ...there was an article in The New York Times a year ago or so which called into question whether Harlem was a majority African-American anymore. And from my memory, some of the - there were many letters, comments, suggesting that those statistics did not take into account the other populations of African descent that are part of the Harlem community, which is an important part of the experience and culture there, as well.
CONAN: But the question, that it's been gentrified, to some degree. And, in fact, in the book, you argue with yourself about whether you are a gentrifier.
Ms. RHODES-PITTS: Right. I raise that question because it's an obvious question. To not raise it would be dishonest. And for me, when I first arrived and I was aware of, you know, the new cafes or fashion boutiques, the busloads of tourists, I had to situate myself within that contemporary experience, as much as it was more romantic to situate myself within the history of a people who arrived to Harlem from the South. So just as a writer who tries to be honest, I had to ask those questions.
Through living in Harlem and claiming it as a home and being claimed by it, some of those questions are answered. I think my experience that I write about with the rezoning of (unintelligible), with that campaign, was really about how I was forced to become a part of the community by taking a stand with for its future.
CONAN: Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts tells that story and many others in "Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America. Thanks very much for being with us today.
Ms. RHODES-PITTS: Thank you.
CONAN: Tomorrow, Joseph Nye. His new book is called "The Future of Power."
This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.