Journal of American Studies (1999), 33:307-322. Cambridge University Press.
Copyright © 1999 Cambridge University Press

"Black Was White": Urbanity, Passing and the Spectacle of Harlem

a1Department of American and Canadian Studies, University of Birmingham, Edgebaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT


Gillis set down his tan cardboard extension case and wiped his black, shining brow. Then slowly, spreadingly, he grinned at what he saw: Negroes at every turn; up and down Lenox Avenue, up and down 135th Street; big lanky Negroes, short, squat Negroes; black ones, brown ones, yellow ones; men standing idle on the curb, women, bundle-laden, trudging reluctantly homeward, children rattle-trapping about the sidewalks; here and there a white face drifting along, but Negroes predominantly, overwhelmingly everywhere. There was assuredly no doubt of his whereabouts. This was Negro Harlem.

This is the first sighting of Harlem for King Solomon Gillis, the protagonist of Rudolph Fisher's story "City of Refuge," published in 1925 in Atlantic Monthly. Gillis has fled the South after killing a white man, and comes to Harlem, "with the aid of a prayer and an automobile" (3) to escape being lynched. His arrival sees him propelled into a carnivorous city of disorienting sounds, speed and subways until, like "Jonah emerging from the whale" (3), he is burped up into a sunny, calm and all-black Harlem. The spectacle of a public space peopled by "Negroes predominantly, overwhelmingly everywhere," seems to hold a utopian promise: "In Harlem, black was white. You had rights that could not be denied you; you had privileges, protected by law. And you had money. Everybody had money[horizontal ellipsis]The land of plenty was more than that now; it was also the city of refuge" (4). However, this vision of plenty and security ultimately proves chimerical for the naïve Southerner who fails to see beyond the surface effects of the urban scene. For Fisher, the turned around, "black is white" world of Harlem involves complex issues of racial agency and identification which are central to the narrative of modernity associated with the experience of migration to the North. In his work - and in that of Bruce Nugent and Nella Larsen, which also form the basis of this article - we find a recurrent focus on the urban scene of Harlem as a space of spectacular and spectacularised desire, and an understanding of racial identity as contingent and performative within this space.

Article Text fn1 I gratefully acknowledge the British Academy/Humanities Research Board Institutional Fellowship Scheme for support of this research work.