Home > Black History, KAZI Interview > Review: Harlem by Jonathan Gill

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.

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  1. April 10, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    I have been reading the book for three weeks, your wording in your review
    could not be more apt. One it is a journey, two it is diligently written
    wit a great appendix at the end.

    I found a couple things that took awhile to get used to. One of them
    was his length of sentences. He packs a lot of information in a sentence
    and often I was having to reread.

    I also had to reread back portions when I started up again to refresh my
    memory of what I had read the previous day.
    It is an amazingly well-written book which I have already shared with friend
    one has already checked it out of the library.

    This was my first introduction to Harlem but I learned so much that
    my head of full of information.

    Two more difficult things, one all the street names which I did not
    know and the map on the front and back cover is way too small to read
    the names. I am going to try to enlarge it and go back and read parts
    again.

    It has been something not everyone is going to stay with, the length and
    the vast amount of information is probably the reason but I’m an
    American history minor and I just was truly fascinated by the book and
    am glad I pursued it to the end.

    If you could let the author know about this email I would appreciate it,
    many people appreciate his hard work

  2. dmpizarro
    June 2, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    I really enjoyed this book.
    What a find!
    Moves fast and the mini-scetches of people are fun and interesting.
    I agree with everything written in the other comment. This book made me want to look up a current map, which I did and reread several parts before I returned it to my library.

  3. Don Ross
    September 5, 2013 at 10:59 pm

    I saw Jonthan Gill on the April 13th cspann program. I was disappointed in only one thing. When he discuss the race riots after in the early 1900s. He fail to mention the worse of them all. The 1921 Tulsa race riot. Jame Weldon Johnson Called it the worse act of war since the Civil War: To follow is from a paper I am writing
    James Weldon Johnson, the executive secretary of the NAACP and the author of the Negro National Anthem, from his New York City post called the outbreak in Tulsa “the worse of its kind that has happened in this country.” He said the riot was ignited because Tulsa blacks “are probably the most prosperous and cultured body of Negroes people in the in the country.”
    Don Ross, Tulsa, Ok

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