Sunday, April 11, 1999

Still Life In Harlem

by Eddy L. Harris

Harris goes to Harlem to live for a year to write about the experience, and stays for at least two.  This memoir is unlike his others.  His other books concerned the reactions of others to him in odd surroundings (Blackamerican in Africa, black man in the South, black man paddling a canoe down the mighty Mississip’) as much as his reactions to their reactions and his own development.   This book, however, finds Harris in what could or should be his own "place," surrounded by people who on the surface are like him.  Thus, this book is mostly his meditations on the self: why does he or doesn’t he fit in Harlem?  Why did he come here?  What does it mean to fit in Harlem?

When he’s addressing these difficult questions, he is profound; when he describes other Harlemites’ takes on the problems, he is revealing.  But I have a big problem with this book’s writing style.  Harris repeats himself.  He repeats the story of the creation of Harlem as mecca several times.  He repeats minor observations (he didn't work while in Harlem; Harlemites can’t easily move away).  He repeats the metaphor of Harlem as weedy garden.  He repeats what others told him.  Etc.  In sum this is a fairly good book but could use some better organization and paring down.  And then too I would have liked a bit more description of the people and places.  Maybe Harris didn’t want to report Harlem like some exotic oddity, but I would have liked to hear more from the Harlemites. 

three stars

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