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21 April 2010

Book Review: This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait, 1900-1950

This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait, 1900-1950 by Jervis Anderson

 A wonderfully constructed survey of the people, places and events that made Harlem Harlem from 1900 to 1950. Though it probably only dents the surface of the complexity of the society and its denizens, for a neophyte it is a wonderful book from which to discover why and how Harlem moved into prominence, not only for blacks but, artistically and musically, for much of white society as well. Dichotomies all over this book - like the Cotton Club didn't allow blacks through its doors and light colored blacks segregated themselves from darker skin all the time - highlight the layers and layers of societal constructs that were being challenged, and ignored, by young, dark upstarts. And young, light upstarts. And white people.

Anderson does a remarkable job of making this survey readable and enjoyable. There is very little of his voice (though when it pops up it jabs the reader in the side with a persnickety insistence) but enough personality to make this less of a dry who-begat-whom history and more of a colorful account of a lost world. Anderson uses as many personal accounts of the time to bring the sounds, textures and colors of Harlem to life as he possibly can and though this technique sometimes gives the narrative a stop-start-stop feel, most times it works beautifully.

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