I was first introduced to the figure of Hubert Harrison as a history undergraduate attempting to write my final year dissertation on the role of Caribbean intellectuals in the Harlem Renaissance. Arriving in New York from St.
Harlem and the photograph share a long, closely entangled history. Photographic images of the riots that erupted in the neighbourhood in 1935 and 1943 helped to puncture the image of Harlem as a playground for white urban adventurers, and to raise in its place the spectre of a ‘no-go’ area, a district of Manhattan sealed off from direct encounter by whites.
In 2009, when Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ ‘Empire State of Mind’ dominated the charts and the airwaves, the chorus phrase ‘concrete jungle where dreams are made up, there’s nothing you can’t do’ conjured images of New York’s iconic skyline as well as its promise, embodying the sentiment that no other American – if not world - city captures the imagination quite like New York.
Although most Americans take pride in being ‘a nation of immigrants’ (a slogan apparently popularized by John F. Kennedy), the process of immigration causes perennial controversy in the United States. That is true even in New York City, which would not exist without it, and which stars in many historical narratives of it.