Perhaps there is a willed destiny that causes certain enlightened people to move to particular locales, as if these individuals know that they have been compelled to write their stories of a specific place. Assiduously they observe their strange new bedfellows, take notes on their mannerisms, recording the thought patterns that arise after a particularly piquant walk, tell fragmented histories whose resolutions dangle like disjointed participles. The legacy of new arrivals writing mythopoetic musings on their adopted cities is nothing new. The resulting texts contribute to the compilation of urban memoirs that reside alongside the more swaggering, confident accounts of natives, spelling out dialect as if to savor the taste on the tongue, uttering incantations of streets, places, local characters, lore.
Two new publications that set out to describe experiences of recent arrivals to New York City make wonderful bookends to the way that literature can incorporate words, storytelling, myth, and history to carve out a sense of identity in and against the city. It’s not a discursive mode that fits us all—that urge to make that special, indelible mark on the city’s overwhelming history of letters. In Harlem is Nowhere Sharifa Rhodes-Pitt, a journalist, chronicles her arrival in New York as a recent college graduate, having been raised as a relatively privileged child of the South. Her memoir shape-shifts, becoming a guidebook, a literary and photographic history, a travelogue, and a sociological study. Open City author Teju Cole, born and raised in Nigeria, chooses the autobiographical novel as his discursive mode, recording the meanderings of Julius, a psychiatrist completing his residency at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. We hear little of his patients as he directs his inquiries to the various, equally compelling characters he meets as he walks meditatively around Morningside Heights and the Financial District.
Both authors depict their real or imagined selves as fluttering in a dream-like state, using the pedestrian-friendly streets of New York and their free (and largely spontaneous) theatrical productions as narrative fodder. Pitt confines herself to Harlem, the better to immerse herself in a place that has mythic significance for all Black Americans. Cole’s protagonist spends his free time perambulating through neighborhoods of the city that conventionally are encoded as spaces of white privilege: Columbia’s campus on the hill is a gated enclave that while geographically a part of Harlem, sets itself apart nominally, architecturally, and ideologically. Like Rhodes-Pitt, Julius drinks in the newness of his surroundings through his feet and his mind, letting the endless dérive create the narrative that shuttles up and down the island and, for a moment, to Belgium, where a chance encounter with Farouq, a Moroccan émigré, reveals a tandem experience of the alienated feeling of blackness amid a white enclave. Here Cole (curiously described in his author’s bio as a “professional historian of Netherlandish art”) gets to flex some intellectual muscle, as he casually invokes Deleuze and Guattari’s smooth and striated spaces and Barthes’s Camera Lucida. Such posturing seems a bit overwrought, as if to remind us of the author’s academic bona fides. However, Julius finds his grounding in his periodic visits to an old mentor and professor of medieval English literature, Dr. Saito, whose waning health comprises a secondary narrative against Julius’ own.
Rhodes-Pitt is more of a historian than a theorist of urban and spatial theory, and her dreamy enthusiasm upon arrival in Harlem is infectious. While Cole is less interested in history prior to the very recent past, the reader of Harlem is Nowhere quickly learns that Rhodes-Pitt had dreamed the myth of Harlem from an early age. She moves to the city—and without hesitation, to this particular storied neighborhood—as if inexorably drawn by a need to complete a set of thoughts about Harlem that had been accumulating in her mind for decades.
Mind you, she is young, but the reverie began early for her and its tenacity never waned. Her narrative of the city is filtered through a pantheon of literary greats: Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, Amiri Baraka, and Arna Bontemps (the title of her book is taken from an Ellison essay written in 1948 but not published until 1964). Her visual glossary is attributed to the photographic greats: notably James VanDerZee and Aaron Siskind. We read about her obsessive chronicling, her note-taking, all of which draws her nearer to the inhabitants of her neighborhood, and them to her. One is tempted to believe that all of her education up to this point was in preparation for the writing of this book, a contribution to a story that defies completion, that exists in a constant state of becoming. The most enchanting passage of the book is a brief discussion of Harlem Dream Books, homegrown publications from mid-century that assigned numerological significance to daily events (e.g. “To meet a cross eyed white woman: 775”). The functional use of these books was to provide luck for the robust numbers racket, but their mysterious symbolism hints at the impenetrable nature of Harlem’s multivalent past.
Despite the rich characterizations woven throughout both books, there is little celebration of the self-deprecation and its counterpart, the flinty braggadocio, that comprises so much of African American humor. These are very sober reads, almost melancholy. They represent attempts to enter into a dialogue long already underway, and read together, one might find a certain surplus—the state of being “not merely black,” as Rhodes-Pitt writes at one point. That superfluity confirms the richness of the city’s existence, and presents yet another opening for new voices to emerge into the ongoing patch-worked conversation that is New York City.