Shannon King. Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?: Community Politics and Grassroots Activism during the New Negro Era. New York: New York University Press, 2015. 272 pp. $49.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4798-1127-4.
Reviewed by Traci Parker (University of Massachusetts Amherst)
Published on H-Afro-Am (January, 2017)
Commissioned by Richard M. Mares
James Weldon Johnson’s 1925 essay, “Harlem: The Culture Capital,” identifying Harlem as the “capital of the Negro world”--the epicenter of black intellect, culture, and finance--has tremendously informed scholarly conceptualizations of black urban life in that era. Shannon King’s Who’s Harlem Is This, Anyway? Community Politics and Grassroots Activism during the New Negro Era, however, departs from Harlem exceptionalism, joining a growing number of studies that insist that the Negro Renaissance and the New Negro Movement were not exclusive to Harlem. In his book, King appreciates the vibrant intellectual, cultural, and political contributions of black Harlem; but he focuses on everyday life and struggle to persuasively demonstrate that African Americans in Harlem confronted many of the same oppressions and employed similar forms of resistance as their comrades in other black communities. In effect, King presents a study of the black experience in Harlem and simultaneously attends to the ways that Harlem speaks to black community formation more broadly.
Who’s Harlem Is This, Anyway examines the process of community building in Harlem during the first three decades of the twentieth century and situates it within the early black freedom movement. This book argues that black grassroots activism for community rights challenged racial injustices and transformed a once predominately white neighborhood into a thriving black political community. King distinguishes community rights from civil rights. Civil rights, he insists, engages antidiscrimination objectives and programs while community rights “was both a discursive formation and an assembly of political acts, articulating black self-determination as a measure of the black community’s aspiration for racial and neighborhood autonomy” (p. 5).
King convincingly supports his thesis in five meticulously researched chapters, where he is attentive to interracial and intraracial dealings and captures the dynamism of everyday Harlem. Each chapter is arranged thematically. They spotlight grassroots campaigns that aimed to establish secular and religious institutions, secure quality employment in local businesses and end race discrimination in labor unions, improve housing conditions and reduce exorbitant rents, “reclaim economic and cultural autonomy … and reestablish community respectability and safety” (particularly when local businesses in the 1920s catered almost exclusively to “slumming whites” seeking the exoticism and thrills of this black metropolis), and resist police brutality. (p. 123). Undoubtedly the final chapter on police brutality and self-defense will intrigue most readers, given recent assaults on and murders of African Americans by law enforcement officers.
Who’s Harlem Is This, Anyway? establishes that “race consciousness-raising political activity” in Harlem began before the First World War, challenging existing notions that this activity began and gained momentum during and after the war. The book also expands our understanding of black politics in Harlem “beyond the organizational and discursive politics of [Marcus] Garvey, [A. Phillip] Randolph, and other intellectual and artists usually associated with the New Negro Movement” (p. 4). Lastly, Who’s Harlem Is This, Anyway? reveals that early community politics and activism in Harlem “forged a political infrastructure that was foundational for black political and radical activity throughout the 1930s and 1940s and beyond” (p. 5).
This book deserves much praise for these scholarly contributions, as well as the questions it raises regarding Harlem’s positionality to other urban black communities. King begins to do some of this work, most notably in the second chapter, where he distinguishes Harlem’s managerial economy from the industrial economies of Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh and considers how they shaped black employment and labor activism in these cities. However, additional questions remain and promise to stimulate future research: Did black Harlemites influence or were they influenced by other black community rights struggles from 1900 to 1930? How might Harlem’s connections with other urban black communities have informed the early black freedom movement on local and national levels? In short, Who’s Harlem Is This, Anyway? is a valuable addition to the field and a must-read for those interested in the urban black experience, community formation, and northern protest in the twentieth century.
. James Weldon Johnson, “Harlem: The Culture Capital,” in The New Negro: An Interpretation, ed. Alain Locke (New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1925), 301-311.
. Some notable works include Davarian L. Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); Davarian L. Baldwin and Minkah Makalani, eds., Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013); and Nan Elizabeth Woodruff, American Congo (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).
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