The Harlem Renaissance Was Not A Socio-Economic Movement

Great line from Syreeta McFadden:

I think my biggest problem with 'gentrification' is that it's not always bad. While many people bemoan the loss of black Harlem, I'm not sure what they think they lost. Harlem was never really a solid homeownership neighborhood, as much as say, Bedford-Stuyvesant.  Harlem or the 'idea' of Harlem as a bustling middle class community is fiction. There are certainly pockets: Hamilton Heights, Sugar Hill, Strivers Row, Mount Morris, little enclaves of a middle class, holding on to property while harsher social and economic realities enveloped them. I heard all these stories.  Yet there were other blocks not lined with row houses, but with overcrowded tenements. And other buildings left in disrepair. I don't mean to belittle the historical and cultural significance of Harlem to African-Americans, it was a haven to many as they sought opportunities in the north, the only neighborhood they had heard of when word traveled south that there were jobs in New York City, and black owned businesses that didn't live in fear. However, the Harlem Renaissance was not a socio-economic movement, but a discreet collection of artists who lived in Harlem. We are grateful for their legacy, but they all were not homeowners...

This isn't to say there aren't some valid critiques regarding the policies that come into play when building or rebuilding communities. We're talking about a fifteen to twenty year cycle that brought about changes to a community living in semi-permanent disrepair. Yet if the native population left during a downturn for the sake of securing a higher quality of life, and those who stayed asked for investment to bring people back, who is displacing whom?

Exactly. Either you want a ghetto, or you don't.

Somewhat related, you've probably noticed a certain level of venom from me on these issues. It's there in my post on the Times' Harlem piece, and it's there in my discussion of that White Cities article from awhile back. Truthfully, I'd like it if I could moderate my response. But something about this kind of writing--the sort that treats African-Americans as a number to be plugged into a formula--just sets me off.

It's not merely being treated as an equation, it's the notion that African-Americans are a group who do not act, but are only acted upon. So the fact that there aren't many blacks in Seattle and Portland, must say something pernicious about Seattle and Portland, not something about about wanting be closer to Moms down in Alabama. The fact that Harlem is becoming an increasingly diverse must represent some kind of "loss" for African-Americans, not the desire to have a house with a lawn. The fact that same-sex marriage is on the move, means that black men will somehow find more excuses not to marry.  It's sociology as pornography. It pictures black America as a kind of machine programmed only to move when prompted by A.) racism B.) cultural pathology.


One of the best pieces of research I've seen on black demography came out back in 2004, and looked at the Reversal Great Migration. This a deeply complicated phenomenon involving millions of African-Americans leaving the Northern cities and heading back (in many cases) to the land of their ancestors. Is the expense of living in a city like New York part of the migration? Probably. But so what? White people have to make that same calculus all the time.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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