Harlem on our mind

Caryl Phillips, February 2007

At the dawn of the twentieth century, African-American New Yorkers eagerly began to move north to a place where they understood they would be allowed to buy property and think of the district as home. Traditionally they had lived in poor conditions in Greenwich Village, or in the area around the West 30’s, or in the San Juan Hill area of the West 50’s and 60’s. However, in these places they were forever subject to upheavals and evictions, either because of racial tension, or because land was being cleared. After the violent New York City race riot of 1900, it became clear that African-Americans needed a place of safety where they might create a city within a city. Harlem, the area above Central Park from 110th Street northwards, had been built up in the late nineteenth century with handsome brownstone row houses, the hope being that the prosperous white middle classes would want to move uptown and enjoy the cleaner air of northern Manhattan. Unfortunately, the lack of public transport hampered settlement in these six square miles of urban development, and it soon became apparent that there was simply too much housing. By the early twentieth century, realtors were prepared to consider the unthinkable and turn over the housing stock to African-Americans. As they did so, white residents began to rapidly move out.

By the 1920’s, Harlem had become the cultural, social and political heart of African-American life in the United States. All grades of society were represented, and the new coloured world about the park was the Mecca to which African-Americans migrated from all corners of the country. Its iconic status was confirmed by the presence of legendary clubs such as the Cotton Club and Smalls’ Paradise, and the glamourous evidence of the famous Apollo Theatre. Harlem became home to outstanding writers and artists such as James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, and great jazz musicians and dancers, including Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, and Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. Throughout the full-length of the twentieth century, Harlem has continued to exercise a great hold on the imagination of residents and visitors alike, and it has enjoyed its status as the globally-recognized capital of the coloured world.

Charif Benhelima’s ‘Harlem on my mind’ speaks to the both reality and the mythology of Harlem one hundred years after African-American people moved into the neighbourhood. For many, the dream of middle-class prosperity has long faded away, but pride remains strong. One can see fortitude in the faces of the people, in the dramatic images and words on the posters in the streets, in the very manner in which Harlemites continue to hold themselves and challenge the observer with their unflinching gaze. Benhelima plays beautifully with light and oblique angles to fuse this hard reality with the more ethereal magic that the name ‘Harlem’ exercises on his imagination. Harlem disturbs him, but it also attracts him for he looks again and again at the run-down boulevards, at the faces, and the vistas, as though trying to unlock the secret of life in this often bleak section of Manhattan. Harlem is clearly a place which tells us something about the triumph and despair of the American story, and to understand this place is to know something about all of the United States, it enigmatic nature, its fears, and the price to be paid for survival in this often unforgiving nation.

Today’s Harlem is changing again. Its streets are being reclaimed and gentrified. The African-Americans are selling and moving on. In Benhelima’s photographs the residents are crossing streets with no discernible destination in mind. Their feet are tired; their faces are lined with fatigue. We see Harlem from behind fences, as though it is already a place that belongs to another world. The future is uncertain, and the train lines lead bleakly into the distance. Harlem is once again both a place and a dream. However, the dream is now of past glory, of faded celebrity. Twentieth century Harlem enabled African-Americans to take a firm step up onto the American stage and make themselves visible. Harlem’s importance is assured, its achievement beyond scrutiny. But what of the future? Harlem remains on our minds as we begin to wonder where the African-American drama of the twenty-first century will be played out. Charif Benhelima’s remarkable photographs remind us that while we may remain unsure of what this century will bring, we know that Harlem has been important. As he puts it so beautifully in his subtitle – I was, I am. Harlem was, and still is, somebody. Harlem has not yet faded into the narrative of the past. Perhaps soon, but not yet. Harlem remains on our mind.