Harlem is renowned as the epicenter of African American culture, a key reference point for blacks who seek to define themselves in relation to a certain version of African American tradition and history. The neighborhood is arguably the most famous in all New York, and home to more than a fifth of the population of Manhattan. But to most, Harlem is still thought of as the quintessential black slum-a symbol of the hard and fast boundaries that separate the rich from the poor in our cities.
With Harlemworld, John L. Jackson Jr. uncovers a Harlem that is far more complex and diverse than its caricature suggests. Many experts believe that black America consists of two geographically distinct populations: a neglected underclass living in hopeless urban poverty, and a more successful suburban middle class of college graduates and thriving professionals. Through extensive fieldwork and interviews with residents of Harlem, Jackson explodes these presumptions. Harlemworld probes the everyday interactions of Harlemites with their black coworkers, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and relatives, and shows how their social networks are often more class stratified and varied than many social analysts believe.
Harlemworld also challenges popular stereotypes of both poor and well-heeled African Americans, showing how residents of Harlem navigate the class-variegated landscapes of their world through the performance of racial typecasts. For the men and women of Harlem, race is something that's not only inherited, but also enacted. The way Harlemites speak, dress, walk, and even stand depends on which social world they wish to occupy. Jackson, then, argues that race in black America is something that African Americans practice-sometimes inadvertently, but more often than not, intentionally.
From being "in vogue" during the Renaissance of the 1920s, when this thriving, culturally rich and diverse African-American community was a favorite entertainment nightspot for white down-towners, to the late 1960s, when its image was that of a strife-torn war zone, Harlem has become the mythological site of American "blackness." It is this myth "Harlemworld" that Jackson, a Columbia-trained sociologist and postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, is eager to deconstruct. Leaving his Columbia University student housing and living on one of Harlem's commercial avenues, Jackson began doing field work and interviewing dozens of residents. For some, Harlem represents an actual return home ("this is where my people are from"); others, like Paul, a middle-class architect who just moved there, view it as a new, and complicated, beginning. Neatly and expertly weaving theory with analysis through these interviews (and while monitoring the increasingly rapid gentrification of the neighborhood), Jackson discovers that both identities built around race and class are far less monolithic than even Harlem residents believe. He also presents astute and often astonishing insights into the images of Harlem promoted in African-American-produced popular culture like rap, hip-hop and films like Hoodlum. While written from an academic perspective, the original and exceptionally perceptive analysis Jackson provides about race and class in U.S. culture will interest anyone trying to think them though. (Dec.) Forecast: While this book never completely transcends its roots as a doctoral thesis, it does read enough like a trade book to be reviewed in newspapers; pundits will take it up either way, and journalslike the New Republic are a lock. University libraries and syllabi will be a steady long-term market. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.