Harlemworld: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America

"From being 'in vogue' during the Renaissance of the 1920s, when this thriving, culturally rich and diverse African-American community was a favorite entertainment spot for white down-towners, to the late 1960s, when its image was that of a strife-torn war zone, Harlem has become the mythological site of American 'blackness.' It is this myth—'Harlemworld'—that Jackson . . . is eager to deconstruct. Neatly and expertly weaving theory with analysis through interviews, Jackson discovers that both identities built around race and class are far less monolithic than even Harlem residents believe. . . . The original and exceptionally perceptive analysis Jackson provides about race and class in U. S. culture will interest anyone trying to think them through."—Publishers Weekly

"'Harlemworld' is a place where race and class are complicated and contradictory, and the social realities portrayed in this book challenge easy and exclusionary social categories."—Library Journal

"Jackson convincingly makes the case that precisely because race and class can be 'done to people,' his behavioural model is 'the only real grounding on which hierarchical notions of race in the United States can ultimately stand.' His combination of carefully chosen and deftly applied evidence and novel methods of analysis makes this difficult to dispute."—Mireille A.L. Djenno, Times Literary Supplement


An excerpt from
Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America
by John L. Jackson

Why Harlem Is Not Manhattan

Standing at the end of a too-long line of customers inside a too-crowded fast food restaurant in northern Manhattan, I listened attentively as Dexter, a twenty-three-year-old black man, argued across the shiny McDonald's countertop with the Dominican cashier who was trying patiently to take his order. Dressed in white, gray, and black fatigues, with neatly coifed dreadlocks down to his shoulders and two-summers-old Air Jordans on his feet, Dexter held up that queue by waving a colorful coupon in the palm of his right hand. Scissored out from an insert in that Sunday's local newspaper, the coupon redeemed a ninety-nine-cent Big Mac in every part of New York City (so read the fine print) "except the borough of Manhattan," where Big Macs, with this very same square of paper, were discounted to $1.39 instead. Well, hearing the cashier, Pam, make that borough-specific distinction several times, Dexter became increasingly annoyed. He crossed and uncrossed his arms with emphatic gestures. He sighed audibly and repeatedly. Squeezing a dollar bill and a dime in his outstretched left hand (the ten cents was "for tax," he declared numerous times), Dexter made his case: "This is Harlem," he stated with electrified finality, "not Manhattan! If they meant Harlem, if they meant Harlem, they should have written Harlem! Harlem is not Manhattan! So, I'm paying $1.10 for my Big Mac."

Once Dexter finished this spiel and dumped his change on the countertop, several other customers in front of cash registers all around him joined the staff in chuckling and shaking their heads incredulously at his argument—an argument that, in its unabridged iteration, took more than ten full minutes to play out. But Dexter didn't mind their smirks. He was adamant, determined, unflinching—even though his half-smirking face clearly indicated that he knew good and well that this Harlem neighborhood was located smack-dab in the middle of Manhattan, an island where Big Macs simply cost forty cents more than they did in any other part of the city. On this particular rainy day, however, Dexter would not and did not leave that crowded McDonald's restaurant until Pam, poised and patient behind her cash register, reluctantly snatched up his dollar and his dime, handing him a Big Mac sandwich to go. He munched heartily on the burger as I jogged out to catch up with his lengthier strides through the wet and slippery parking lot.

I open with this seemingly trivial transaction—a customer haggling over the cost of a specialty hamburger at an iconic fast food joint—because Dexter's geography-warping interpretation of Harlem's relation to the rest of New York City hints at something important about the place. His somewhat "infrapolitical" stand, aimed at saving just a little bit more money on a McDonald's sandwich, highlights the symbolic perimeter that subjectively cordons off the neighborhood he calls home. Dexter's Harlem is geographically situated in Manhattan, but it is not quite bound there. And listening to him argue with Pam about the distinct and separate location of Harlem vis-à-vis Manhattan, of Harlem's irreducibility to its geographical position within the borough, opened my eyes to the first of many knotty issues of place and space that help constitute, ethnographically speaking, Harlem and its endpoints. To do fieldwork in Harlem is to make sense of a place that somehow is and "is not Manhattan" at the same time. Harlemworld: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America seeks to do just that, marshaling ethnographic evidence for a rendition of race and place that draws centrally on popular beliefs about race and class that defy our habit of safely depositing fraught identities into neat, discrete social boxes.

I am not a Harlem native. I grew up across the river in Brooklyn, rarely leaving the southernmost precincts of that borough save for sporadic weekend visits to relatives in the Bronx or in Spanish Harlem, vastly different places from the Canarsie community of my childhood. East Harlem seemed an especially different world, one with an unintelligibly foreign tongue. Long family treks on the L, the #4 and then the #6 trains are my earliest and most tactile memories of how I always ended up in Harlem, a wide-eyed kid, on not-quite-carefree Saturday afternoons following mornings of church worship in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. There was the dark rattle of lightning-fast metal. The hot, steamy, and never-ending subway platforms that reeked of an unholy mixture of grapefruit and urine. All that underground locomotion eventually spit us out into a land of merengue and jazz music at an aunt and uncle's two-bedroom apartment filled with canines scratching paws on front doors as we arrived, of fire-hydrant playgrounds where cousins joined me in scraping flesh from knobby knees on unmercifully concrete playgrounds, and of Grandma's double-decker chocolate cakes topped with ice-cold chocolate icing at the end of a long, hot summer day.

When I was a good deal older, my mother would oblige me sparingly with details of her own childhood in Harlem. As a teenager, newly arrived from the Caribbean island of Barbuda, she was responsible for shoveling coal into a fiery furnace and shuttling filled garbage bags to the curb for the five-story walk-up in which she lived with her aunt, the building's landlady. These are her earliest memories of life in Central Harlem during the turbulent 1950s and 1960s. But my formative years were spent in the county of Kings, which I disclose with all requisite and unjustifiable hubris. And Harlem always felt very, very far away from Jamaica Bay, Seaview Pier, and the Bay View housing project of my youth. But there was also "something else" about Harlem, something that seemed inviting, even familiar. The place was subjectively both near and far. A paradoxical intertwining of nearness with farness, literality with metaphor, familiarity with peculiarity, is at the core of a place like Harlem, a place where fame and infamy stubbornly cloud any attempt at seeing and knowing the actual community itself.

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 sociopolitical 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 overdetermines 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.


Copyright notice: ©2001 Excerpted from pages 1-3, 17-23 of Harlemworld: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America by John L. Jackson, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2001 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of University of Chicago Press.

John L. Jackson
Harlemworld: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America
©2001, 294 pages, 6 halftones, 2 line drawings
Cloth $30.00 ISBN: 0-226-38998-7
Paper $17.00 ISBN: 0-226-38999-5

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