Required Reading: Darryl Pinckney’s Harlem Reading List

Writer and Harlem local Darryl Pinckney shares his favorite books—historical, personal, photographic, and otherwise—that best capture Manhattan’s storied uptown enclave. 

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It’s never easy to crack a foreign land's code. In Required Reading, cultured residents provide a peek into their city’s deepest secrets with an expertly curated syllabus.

A Midwesterner by birth, Darryl Pinckney moved to New York in the early 1970s attend Columbia University. “You could hear gunfire sometimes, and my friends would talk about what the schvatzes were doing. Jokingly, of course,” he says with chiding awareness of his time in the starched collegiate neighborhood of Morningside Heights, overlooking Harlem. “Nineteen-seventies New York had a very different reputation from what it is now, but Harlem seemed a friendly place [then].” Pinckney then spent three years in Berlin after university, which formed the basis for his recent novel, Black Deutschland, about a young, gay, Midwestern black man discovering the strange and beautiful underbelly of Berlin in the 1980s. “I was always very aware of ‘looking at’ while I was there. The reason I wrote the book was in tribute and memorial to a crazy time.” It was in that gritty and luminescent European capital that Pinckney met the poet James Fenton, his partner of 25 years, with whom he resides in Harlem today.

"It's an ongoing, never ending renovation project,” says Pinckney of the one-time derelict SRO he and Fenton have reimagined into a single-family home in the West 120s. Though a frequenter of the Schomburg at the Harlem Public library, Pinckney mostly works at his desk near the window of his writing studio. Often, Fenton cooks and they have people over for dinner, or, on special occasion, hold musical salons in keeping with a longstanding Harlem tradition of braiding together intellectual and artistic endeavors with the intimacy of domestic quarters. Pinckney recalls a salon at a poet’s Harlem home where artists and writers socialized against a background of jazz. “I remember I looked up, and there was this beautiful young, black girl that looked like she was from a sepia photograph from the 1920s,” he says. “That’s when I met Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts.” In many ways, Harlem is still a place where the dream of what it means to live in New York is still alive. “It does still happen here, and not only that. You can make it happen. People understand the language of what you're trying to do."