It was Malcom X who, famously, said, “if this is a country of freedom, let it be a country of freedom; and if it’s not a country of freedom, change it.” While his philosophy of Black Nationalism is still popularly viewed as insurgent, as the saying goes, “one mans terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” For Malcom, the freedom he fought for was made manifest in Harlem.
Malcom’s philosophy was rooted in economic independence; he believed the only way to real equality was by having black businesses and institutions that were completely independent of the ruling white class.
It is well known that his methods were deemed too radical and those of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were implemented and celebrated across the nation as a palatable alternative. However, Harlem became the “Black Metropolis” of X willed into existence.
It was in the early twentieth century that the urbanization movement extended to the black population of the united state. Those who belonged to the “black professional and entrepreneurial elite” migrated from the south to the cities in the north, where they created black communities that spawned their own institutions and establishments. This economic independence and self-sufficiency, as predicted by Malcom X and later endorsed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, allowed black communities to thrive, flourish, and create their own culture “socially independent of the white dominated society.”
Through migration from the south, harlem quickly became a center for black middle class professionals to thrive, making it one of the first and few prosperous predominantly black neighborhoods in the US. By the 1920’s it became, what is popularly considered, the cultural hub for black music, theater, and art. As a center for entertainment they promoted such establishments as the cotton club. As the years progressed, harlem became a enter for civil rights movements. it still remains a thriving neighborhood.
The Harlem Renaissance was a period characterized by cultural development. Many formidable and renown artists sought residence in Harlem. Many are a product of Harlem, creating defining genres of music such as Hip Hop and Jazz. However, after the Great Depression, many jobs left Harlem, leaving the city vulnerable and no longer self sustained. After the first world war, the education institutions based in Harlem performed at a level measured in the bottom 20th percentile of the United States. As poverty grew rampant within the neighborhood, many of its residents left.
By the 1950’s the middle class had left Harlem almost entirely. Unable to fend for itself, Harlem was reformed by the Government. Using a favorite of the US government, gentrification, the remaining inhabitants were almost entirely displaced from their community as they could no longer afford the escalated real-estate prices. What remained of Harlem fell victim to the crack cocaine epidemic introduced by President Reagen. In tandem with its already flourishing opioid crisis, Harlem was unable to recover from this final blow. It is now characterized by its high crime rates, cases of sexual assault, and drug trafficking. However, despite no longer being a model city for black excellence, Harlem remains one of the worlds richest cultural centers in regards to music. Something James Baldwin acknowledges and celebrates in his short story “Sonny’s Blues” where the protagonists brother falls victim to both the opioid crisis in Harlem as well as the jazz movement.
Butler, J.S. (1991) Entrepreneurship and self‐help among black Americans: a reconsideration of race and economics. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.
Drake, S.C. and H.R. Cayton (1962) Black Metropolis: a study of Negro life in a northern city. Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York.
Lieberson, S. (1980) A piece of the pie: blacks and white immigrants since 1880. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
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