Harlem Is Nowhere – Ralph Ellison


“To live in Harlem is to dwell in the very bowels of the city; it is to pass a labyrinthine existence among streets that explode monotonously skyward with the spires and crosses of churches and clutter underfoot with garbage and decay. Harlem is a ruin — many of its ordinary aspects (its crimes, its casual violence, its crumbling buildings with littered areaways, ill-smelling halls, and vermin-invaded rooms) are indistinguishable from the distorted images that appear in dreams and, like muggers haunting a lonely hall, quiver in the waking mind with hidden and threatening significance. Yet this is no dream but the reality of well over 400,000 Americans; a reality that for many defines and colors the world. Overcrowded and exploited politically and economically, Harlem is the scene and symbol of the Negro’s perpetual alienation in the land of his birth. But much has been written about the social and economic aspects of Harlem; I am here interested in its psychological character — a character that arises from the impact between urban slum conditions and folk sensibilities. Historically, American Negroes are caught in a vast process of change that has swept them from slavery to the condition of industrial man in a space of time so telescoped (a bare eighty-five years) that it is possible literally for them to step from feudalism into the vortex of industrialism simply by moving across the Mason–Dixon Line. This abruptness of change and the resulting clash of cultural factors within Negro personality account for some of the extreme contrasts found in Harlem. For if Harlem is the scene of the folk Negro’s death agony, it is also the setting of his transcendence. Here it is possible for talented youths to leap through the development of decades in a brief twenty years, while beside them white-haired adults crawl in the feudal darkness of their childhood. Here a former cotton picker develops the sensitive hands of a surgeon, and men whose grandparents still believe in magic prepare optimistically to become atomic scientists. Here the grandchildren of those who possessed no written literature examine their lives through the eyes of Freud and Marx, Kierkegaard and Kafka, Malraux and Sartre. It explains the nature of a world so fluid and shifting that often within the mind the real and the unreal merge, and the marvelous beckons from behind the same sordid reality that denies its existence. …”
Harper’s
W – Shadow and Act, W – Ralph Ellison
Commentary: Robert Penn Warren (1965)
Voice: Running From, and Back To, Ralph Ellison’s Harlem
amazon: Shadow and Act

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