Today the NYT ran a story reporting Harlem was no longer majority black.
This news is important enough to cover…and particularly interesting given the fact that New York City is no longer majority white. But the reality is that the Harlem we carry in our head? The Harlem viewed as being the capital of black America? It was more of a public relations construction than anything else. Compare the artistic output of the Black Arts Movement–spearheaded in cities like Newark, Chicago, and Detroit–to the Harlem Renaissance and Harlem’s art movement becomes some guys who wrote a couple of poems in comparison. Jazz, the blues, rhythm and blues, rap, hip-hop, techno, house, none of the musics we associate with blacks were birthed in Harlem. Harold Cruse spent the majority of his seminal book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual deconstructing the cultural politics of Harlem as if Harlem could stand in for black America writ large…and his analysis was powerful. But Cruse made a critical mistake positing that Harlem was black America. Harlem was never the cultural site that Chicago or Detroit were. Further, politically it was always underdeveloped, particularly because it lacked the type of union-connected black class that Detroit and Chicago were able to use to great success. (This is the same reason why I have never held much love for Atlanta.) Finally, economically Harlem never had access to the type of wealth that other cities had. The year before Detroit’s Coleman Young was elected mayor, blacks had $25,000 in city contracts. The year AFTER he was elected? $125 MILLION.
Is there anything in Harlem’s history that compares here?
“Losing” Harlem to non-blacks may represent the passing of an age to some. But for me to the extent such a thing matters, we never really “had” Harlem to begin with.