Review: Harlem by Jonathan Gill
By Tim Chamberlain
(note: Jonathan Gill will be on KAZI Book Review on April 10 at 12:30 p.m.)
As one might expect of an extensive history, Jonathan Gill’s Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America is a long journey, but it is one that is well-written and worth taking if you have the time.
Harlem is a diligently researched book as evidenced by the level of detail throughout – the especially curious reader will enjoy the enormous Further Reading section. Gill gives an even-handed account of Harlem’s history, including low-lights and highlights alike, and does not shy away from the harsh realities Harlem has faced. It is this sense of fairness that lends additional credibility to Gill’s book; credibility already supported by the obvious detailed research Gill wants to tell the story of this area he loves, and anything less than the whole picture, warts and all, would not do Harlem justice.
Gill gives ample attention to the Harlem Renaissance which brought the area to the attention of the world for the first time. While this era has been covered by other authors, Gill gives Harlem’s entire history a more thorough examination, telling the complex tale of a once colonial outpost that eventually becomes the heart of black America.
This history of Harlem comes in two parts, with the dividing event being the wave of immigration that began to hit New York City in the late 19th century. The early history is a deft weaving of historical fact and anecdotes which leave the reader with a reasonable idea of what life was like uptown when Harlem was a rural retreat for the rich and white instead of the center of black American culture.
The heart of Gill’s history, however, begins when blacks began arriving in Harlem in larger numbers in the early 20th century. Part of what makes Harlem so interesting is the people it attracts, and Gill introduces us to a cast of hundreds of Harlemites through the years. The stories of this wide variety of musicians, artists, preachers, politicians and criminals give a vibrant and detailed vision of uptown throughout the Renaissance era and beyond.
Readers may find the length, at 450 pages, a bit daunting. However the book is a well-written, insightful, and comprehensive history which gives the reader a strong understanding of the origins, settlement, and development of a fascinating physical and cultural location in America. Harlem leaves no stone unturned in its examination of politics, religion, music, art, theater, business and crime as well as the lives of Harlem’s prominent people. Through this thoroughness Gill provides astonishing insight into the very complex and intriguing history of Harlem.