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

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

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

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


Making a Promised Land examines 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 are Fights of Nations (1907), Dark Manhattan (1937), The Cool World (1963), Black Caesar (1974), Malcolm X (1992), and American 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.


Negro Harlem is practically a development of the past decade, but the
story behind it goes back a long way.

—James Weldon Johnson, “Harlem: the Culture Capital,” 1925

Contemporary discussions of Harlem invariably focus on how it was—and continues to 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.” 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 President Bill Clinton and a host of chain stores, such as Old Navy and Starbucks, is a sign of the area’s revitalization and integration into American life. For those less enthusiastic about the changes, the influx of big business threatens to transform the symbolic site of black America into nothing more than a carbon copy of middle—white— America. Though economic in its focus, the roots of the tension between preserving black Harlem and contemporary expansion reside in the area’s iconographic status as an African American place, one maintained through a variety of visual and written texts over the past century.

As suggested by recent anthropological, sociological, and artistic works about the area, Harlem’s reputation as the African American community exerts a fundamental influence over its public reputation. Even in the wake of massive changes—in architecture, in economics, in politics—Harlem appears almost frozen in time, with present-day descriptions and images of the space relying on, perhaps clinging to, what John L. Jackson Jr. has referred to as a “wasness” that “tethers [it] to another time altogether.” For Jackson, “Harlem is famous today almost exclusively because the argument can be made that it… . . .

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