Looking for Harlem: Urban Aesthetics in
African American Literature (Pluto Press, 2000)


The last two decades have witnessed extensive development in the field of African-American literary studies. New theoretical approaches to the study of race and writing have had a profound effect on the canon of African-American letters, greatly expanding the range of texts which are taken to constitute African-American literature. An important consequence of this work has been to pluralise definitions of racial identity and African-American writing, and the analysis of African-American literature and culture - particularly in historically significant periods such as the 1920s - has been substantially revised. At the same time an increasingly influential body of work on the congruence of urban space, race and representation has been fostered by cultural geographers and critical theorists. This text brings these two fields together to analyse African-American urban literature.

Taking the incredible flowering of literary production in the 1920s as its starting point this book argues that the Harlem Renaissance sees the initiation of a critical urban aesthetic which continues throughout the 20th century. Eschewing the usual key figures of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston for the recently republished works of Rudolph Fisher, Nella Larsen, Bruce Nugent and Wallace Thurman, the book concentrates on writers whose primary foci were the streets, subways, hotels and cabarets of Harlem, not the blues nor the oral traditions of the rural South. I argue that the engagement with urban space in these texts critically reconstructs the meanings of racial identity and race writing, and provocatively contests widely held assumptions of the relationship between the urban environment and African-American existence. Focusing on key issues of the material fabric of the city, the relationship between gender, race and sexuality within urban space, the significant class dynamics of urban culture and the crucial importance of consumer culture, this study presents a new urban history of African-American literature, and questions discourses of black identity and authenticity which still limit conceptions of African-American literature.


  • Chapter One: New Negroes, New Spaces

  • Chapter Two: Space, Race and Identity

  • Chapter Three: Passing and the Spectacle of Harlem

  • Chapter Four: Women in the City of Refuge

  • Chapter Five: Consumer Desire and Domestic Urbanism

  • Chapter Six: Elegies to Harlem

  • Conclusion:  Notes and Bibliography

Pluto Books has a web-site, which may be visited.

(London: Pluto Press, 2000)

Editors: Maria Balshaw and Liam Kennedy

Theories of urban space have, in the past few years, been the focus of a great deal of work by scholars in cultural geography, urban studies and critical theory. At the same time there has been renewed interest from literary and film scholars in the forms and meanings of the city in modernity. There has, however, been no substantial attempt to draw these different fields of enquiry into dialogue with one another. This volume offers such a perspective - presenting a lively and coherent introduction to the ways in which representations of the city engage with theoretical views on urban space, and impact upon our everyday engagements with city space.

The volume offers new perspectives on city spaces - and discusses cities (Birmingham, Singapore for example) rarely included in texts on urban space - at the same time as it offers new views on the work of representation. Following an editors’ introduction that maps out the theoretical terrain, the contributors’ essays are organised under three themes central to this new understanding of the city and its representation: space and vision; spaces of difference; and (post) national spaces. The volume offers distinctive views on the discourses, images, metaphors and fantasies through which we ascribe meaning to urban experience, and through which we represent the socio-spatial processes of urban identity formation.


  • Maria Balshaw and Liam Kennedy, Introduction


  • Douglas Tallack, City Sights: Mapping and Representing New York City
  • Richard Ings, A Tale of Two Cities: Urban Text and Image in The Sweet Flypaper of Life
  • Pascal Pinck, From the Sofa to the Crime Scene: Skycam, Local News and the Televisual City


  • Al Deakin, Fear and Sympathy: Charles Dickens and Urban (Dis) Ability
  • Maria Balshaw, Elegies to Harlem: Looking For Langston and Jazz
  • Peter Brooker, The Brooklyn Cigar Co. as Dialogic Public Sphere: Community and Postmodernism in Paul Auster and Wayne Wang's Smoke and Blue in the Face
  • Liam Kennedy, Paranoid Spatiality: Postmodern Urbanism and American Cinema


  • Myrto Konstantarakos, The film de banlieue: Renegotiating the Representation of Urban Space
  • Stephen Shapiro, ‘Whose Fucking Park? Our Fucking Park!’: Bohemian Brumaires (Paris 1848/East Village 1988), Gentrification, and the Representation of AIDS
  • Gargi Bhattacharyya, Metropolis of the Midlands
  • John Phillips, Singapore Soil: A Completely Different Organisation of Space

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Last updated 1st December 2000