Humanities 110

Introduction to the Humanities

Humanities 110—Harlem, New York: City within a City

Margot Minardi Associate Professor of History and Humanities

APRIL 1, 2020

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This lecture was presented by Margot Minardi, associate professor of history and humanities, on April 1, 2020.

The following readings will introduce you to Harlem—not as a space in the literary or artistic imagination but as a living and breathing neighborhood of New York City. The first reading is James Weldon Johnson’s classic essay “The Making of Harlem,” from the 1925 Survey Graphic volume. Johnson (1871–1938) was a composer, diplomat, novelist, educator, and poet, but he is probably best known as a civil rights activist who served as the field secretary and chief operating officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the civil rights organization founded by W.E.B. Du Bois and others in 1909. In “The Making of Harlem,” Johnson traces how Harlem became the center of Black community and consciousness in the early decades of the twentieth century. He later expanded this brief history into a book-length work, Black Manhattan, published in 1930.

The second reading is a set of excerpts from a recent book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, by Saidiya Hartman. Hartman is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University; her work is also within the realm of cultural history. Based on Wayward Lives and her previous scholarly work, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2019; the citation for that award commended her for “tracing the afterlife of slavery in modern American life and rescuing from oblivion stories of sparsely documented lives that have been systematically excluded from historical archives.” Hartman explains the project of her book in the “Note on Method” that you will read first. You then have several chapters in which Hartman traces the fortunes of various Harlem residents of the 1920s, such as the celebrated entertainer Gladys Bentley and a largely unknown young woman named Esther Brown, as they tried to make “beautiful experiments” of their “wayward lives.” This reading illuminates both the challenges and possibilities that Black Harlemites confronted in the era of the Harlem Renaissance; it is also notable for Hartman’s methodologically innovative approach to historical reconstruction and narration.