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Harlem on Our Minds: Place, Race and the Literacies of Urban Youth

reviewed by Robert Garot - June 30, 2010

coverTitle: Harlem on Our Minds: Place, Race and the Literacies of Urban Youth
Author(s): Valerie Kinloch
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807750239, Pages: 224, Year: 2009
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The confinement and removal of racialized minority groups from urban spaces comprise some of the clearest social processes by which multiple historical trends in the United States might be clearly understood: social exclusion, the sedimentation of wealth and poverty, and the construction of privilege, to name but a few. They are also processes that are all too clearly witnessed by the young people whose families are victimized by them; indeed their wisdom and insight into such blatant examples of how social policies contradict mainstream ideologies concerning rights and equality are often stunning. Yet, as Phillip, one of Valerie Kinloch’s research collaborators notes repeatedly, schools tend to systematically overlook such dynamics. Even in Harlem, often noted as a worldwide center of Black culture, teachers must struggle to meet demands to process paperwork, develop an integrated curriculum, meet learning standards, and prepare students for standardized tests, such that students are rarely provided the opportunity to research, reflect on, and share their deep-seated frustrations at the transformation and loss of precious cultural space.

Kinloch provides an inspired example and encouragement to educators to move in this direction. By modeling a profoundly reciprocal and respectful engagement with two high school students, Phillip Reece Jr. and Khaleeq Middleton, and one high school English teacher, Ms. L. Latoya Hardman, Kinloch shows the variety of ways in which young people might grow intellectually and as citizens by carefully documenting changes to their community. In discussing their shared journal (or “rhyme book”), documentation of the neighborhood through photographs and video, video interviews, surveys, mapping, and other methods, this thoughtful book provides a treasure-trove of resources for teachers looking to vitalize their curriculum. Along the way, the book emerges as a document of gentrification in its own right, complementing a growing library lamenting the unfolding tragedy of cultural heritage lost to the profit motive (Adams and Rocheleau, 2002; Freeman, 2006; Maurasse, 2006; Jackson, 2001; Taylor, 2002).

Inasmuch as Harlem on our Minds provides a model for teachers as an example of collaborative social science, and is an important document of dire social changes in a community that is truly an American treasure, these are ancillary to Kinloch’s primary interest in developing youth literacy. Building from Paulo Freire’s enormously influential model, she meticulously shows how the pay-off of the fabulous methods listed above is in a young person’s expanded awareness of her or his environment, as reflected through a blossoming ability to articulate the many contradictions in which she or he is situated. This resonates powerfully with my own research with young people involved with gangs at an alternative high school, where students, many of whom were unable to read, were forced to complete inane, repetitive assignments based in worn-out, irrelevant and condescending textbooks. Like many of my consultants, Phillip, who had been “hanging with the wrong crowd,” and had become involved in the criminal justice system when he was 13, clearly revels in his ability to coin and articulate terms such as “White-ification,” and describe notions such as “white privilege.” The development and appreciation of students’ literacies is unquestionably a more rewarding and enlightening way to grapple with the so-called “gang problem” than self-defeating “get tough” policies which have wreaked such havoc in communities of color (Clear, 2009; Wacquant, 2001).   

While as Edmund Gordon notes in his afterword, Kinloch’s approach is quite ambitious, many readers may hunger, as I did, for ways to extend the analysis. First, inasmuch as the benefits of this collaborative research to Phillip, Khaleeq, Ms. L, and Kinloch are indubitable, why couldn’t such research be broadened to incorporate entire classrooms, schools, and even districts? Why couldn’t standards be written to require a systematic observation of community by students prior to graduation? Most students already carry a camera and video recorder in their cell phones, and those with Blackberries and iPods might be able to search online as they explore their neighborhoods. One is hard-pressed to find any subject matter, from history to English, from math to art, not incorporated in social science research. Second, while Kinloch’s approach draws on a wide variety of pedagogical and research tools, the use of each might have been extended. For instance, they carefully co-designed and implemented surveys, but they did not work to find a representative sample, or input results into a statistical or qualitative analysis program, if only to run simple cross-tabs to indicate possible correlations, thereby missing a vital opportunity to develop numerical literacy. Perhaps students’ photo montages might have been exhibited in public space, or their documentaries screened at a local theater. Kinloch’s chapter on crossing boundaries offers wonderful examples of how students brought their work and insights to community centers and graduate courses, but what more might have been possible? Third, what are the practical applications of these findings? Kinloch often notes students’ rightful rage in the transformation of their surroundings and their heritage; what social and political actions might best articulate this? How might we insure that such voices are heard? Finally, while Kinloch often speaks to the importance of recognizing a plurality of perspectives, the views of young gentrifiers are not presented. How do they reflect on changes in Harlem, rising costs, dislocated residents, racial dynamics, and their own privilege? Imagine what fruitful collaborations might result if such students were to work together with the Phillips, Khaleeqs, Samanthas, and Kims of Harlem. Such extensions will hopefully be pursued by Kinloch and others who continue to explore the possibilities for social awareness and action that arise from the many varieties of literacy to be found in designing and implementing long-term, intensive, shared social science research projects.  


Adams, M.H., & Rocheleau, P. (2002). Harlem lost and found. New York: Monacelli Press.

Clear, T. (2009). Imprisoning communities: How mass incarceration makes disadvantaged neighborhoods worse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Freeman, L. (2006). There goes the ‘hood: Views of gentrification from the ground up. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Jackson, J. L. (2001). Harlemworld: Doing race and class in contemporary black America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Maurasse, D. (2006). Listening to Harlem: Gentrification, community, and business. New York: Routledge.

Taylor, M. M. (2002). Harlem: Between Heaven and Hell. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Wacquant, L. (2001). “Deadly symbiosis: When ghetto and prison meet and mesh.” Punishment and Society, 3(1), 95–134.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 30, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16050, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 12:24:23 PM

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About the Author
  • Robert Garot
    John Jay College
    E-mail Author
    ROBERT GAROT is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at John Jay College in Manhattan, and his research focuses on the tension between public and private attributions of identity. His book, Who You Claim: Performing Gang Identity in School and on the Streets, was published in 2010 by New York University Press. Currently he is studying how undocumented immigrants in Italy cope with living outside the law. He is the recipient of a Calandra Institute Fellowship for the study of Italian society.
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