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Making a Promised Land

Making a Promised Land: Harlem in Twentieth-Century Photography and Film

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Making a Promised Land
    Book Description:

    Making a Promised Landexamines the interconnected histories of African American representation, urban life, and citizenship as documented in still and moving images of Harlem over the last century. Paula J. Massood analyzes how photography and film have been used over time to make African American culture visible to itself and to a wider audience and charts the ways in which the "Mecca of the New Negro" became a battleground in the struggle to define American politics, aesthetics, and citizenship. Visual media were first used as tools for uplift and education. With Harlem's downturn in fortunes through the 1930s, narratives of black urban criminality became common in sociological tracts, photojournalism, and film. These narratives were particularly embodied in the gangster film, which was adapted to include stories of achievement, economic success, and, later in the century, a nostalgic return to the past. Among the films discussed areFights of Nations(1907),Dark Manhattan(1937),The Cool World(1963),Black Caesar(1974),Malcolm X(1992), andAmerican Gangster(2007). Massood asserts that the history of photography and film in Harlem provides the keys to understanding the neighborhood's symbolic resonance in African American and American life, especially in light of recent urban redevelopment that has redefined many of its physical and demographic contours.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5589-8
    Subjects: Film Studies, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. Introduction: The Era of the New Negro: African American Politics and Aesthetics in Twentieth-Century Harlem
    (pp. 1-19)

    Contemporary discussions of Harlem invariably focus on how it was—andcontinuesto be—an African American space. What this means depends on the speaker, but what is indisputable is that Harlem remains, in Charles S. Johnson’s words, “the Mecca of the Negroes the country over.”¹ Harlem has maintained its legendary status as a black neighborhood over the decades, through multiple economic ups and downs and shifts in African American and American politics. Nevertheless, a wave of economic growth that began in earnest in the late 1990s has challenged this identity. For the development’s supporters, the combined presence of former...

  5. 1 African American Aesthetics and the City: Picturing the Black Bourgeoisie in New York
    (pp. 20-50)

    The 1907 American Mutoscope and Biograph Company’s short filmFights of Nationsincludes one of the earliest cinematic depictions of African American life in New York City. Introduced with an intertitle reading, “Sunny Africa, Eighth Avenue, New York,” the film’s presentation of black urbanity features the clientele of a New York City cabaret who drink, cakewalk, and fight. Despite this, the film is not about Harlem or any other neighborhood in particular; nor is it about African American life more generally. Instead,Fights of Nationsnarrates a story of American origins; it presents a collection of vignettes of international strife...

  6. 2 Heaven and Hell in Harlem: Urban Aesthetics for a Renaissance People
    (pp. 51-87)

    Two snapshots of Harlem life set the stage for the following discussion of African American politics and poetics during the 1920s and ’30s, a period when large numbers of the African American population moved to northern urban areas around Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and New York City as part of the Great Migration. The first captures a moment on July 28, 1917, when, outraged by recent (and ongoing) incidents of lynching and other acts of racial violence in cities like East St. Louis, Missouri, W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson led an estimated ten thousand marchers from Harlem, down...

  7. 3 Delinquents in the Making: Harlemʹs Representational Turn toward “Marketable Shock”
    (pp. 88-125)

    A series of three photographs sets the tone for the following exploration of Harlem in visual and written texts from the 1940s through the early 1960s. The first image is a much-reproduced portrait of three black male youths, standing side-by-side on a Harlem street, wearing top hats and tails. The subjects look directly at the viewer, asserting their agency and offering a multivalent and overdetermined performance of identity. The image is ironic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the formal composition of its subject and the almost insouciant look shared by the young men, all...

  8. 4 Gangsterʹs Paradise: Drugs and Crime in Harlem, from Blaxploitation to New Jack Cinema
    (pp. 126-158)

    By the time thatThe Cool Worldwas shown on screens around the world, the assertion that Harlem was a ghetto was familiar to film audiences; the popular press had been broadcasting portraits (still and moving) of inner-city despair, decay, and victimhood since the 1930s. Such images were the product of a number of political, social, economic, and aesthetic factors, including sociological discourses supporting environmental determinism and governmental abandonment of inner-city areas. Film borrowed from ethnographic and experimental filmmaking in an attempt to match aesthetics with such discourses. The result was a new urban realism that shifted away from Hollywood...

  9. 5 Echoes of a Renaissance: Harlemʹs Nostalgic Turn
    (pp. 159-191)

    In the epigraph above, art historian Cheryl Finley draws upon Pierre Nora’s concept of “site[s] of memory (les lieux des memoire)” to make sense of photography’s role in the construction of Harlem’s iconicity. In “Harlem Sites of Memory,” which appears in the Studio Museum’s catalogue for the 2003Harlemworld: Metropolis as Metaphorshow, Finley provides a brief history of Harlem photography in order to argue that “Harlem’s understanding of itself” is enabled and sustained through the photographic medium. For Finley, photographic “images of the past activate sites of memory thorough an engagement with the temporal spatial aspects oflieux de...

  10. Conclusion: Making and Remaking a Promised Land: Harlemʹs Continuing Revisions
    (pp. 192-198)

    In her afterword toHarlem on the Verge, a collection of portraits of neighborhood people and places taken between 2000 and 2001, photographer Alice Attie ruminates on the power of the photograph to document a moment in history, the “now” of her subjects’ lives.¹ Nevertheless, the images also capture a disappearing Harlem, or what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak describes as a “vanishing present.² Citing Walter Benjamin’s definition of the photographic aura, Attie asserts, “[I]t is by way of the image that the culture’s memory passes through the eye. The photograph becomes the mark of a crisis, a rupture and the beginning...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 199-230)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 231-247)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 248-248)