Many Cultures at Home in Harlem

African American Heritage  •  Culture & Identity


How can we better understand race, ethnicity, and class within America’s modern urban experience? VFH Fellow Sandhya Shukla is discovering some answers in the New York City community of Harlem.  Her project, “Cross-Cultures of Modern Harlem,” examines how diverse groups with crisscrossing cultures have come together to make Harlem their new home.

Looking at Harlem from the turn of the twentieth century to the present, Shukla’s project, “Cross-Cultures of Modern Harlem,” focuses on ethnic and racially different groups of people in Harlem:  African Americans, Africans, West Indians, Puerto Ricans, Italians, Mexicans, and others. Most existing research in this area portrays these groups as separate and self-contained. Shukla instead argues that Harlem’s diverse peoples are better defined by their exchanges with one another, and that Harlem can—and should—be looked at as a whole rather than as a conglomeration of separate groups.

Shukla’s perspective stems from “cross-culturality.”  Instead of talking about Harlem as “multicultural” or as the home of many different “contained” groups, cross-culturality allows Shukla to pose Harlem culture as something that is in a constant state of transition and movement.

Her research has not been without its obstacles. While conducting interviews in Harlem, she found people to be invested in their own particular identities and visions of themselves. In fact, various forms of racial and ethnic identification have been empowering to groups in Harlem, especially in terms of gaining political representation in government. By challenging peoples’ notions about identity yet remaining respectful of these differences, Shukla attempts to discern the larger story of Harlem and its people, and capture the interactions among multiple communities.

Overall, Shukla’s has two intentions for this project. As an academic, she wants to intervene in the body of scholarly literature that has seen Harlem in distinctive racial and ethnic terms, and for a popular audience, she wants to complicate our understanding of urban culture by telling the story of this city-space through the model of cross-culturality and rendering Harlem as global. According to Shukla,  Harlem’s meaning cannot be understood in purely American terms. Instead, today’s Harlem has been made by ideas and ways of being from other nations and places and is a dynamic global space.

Why does any of this matter? Shukla’s work helps us to think about what it means to live in a city, in the present moment, and what it has meant over time. She focuses on the intimacy and conflicts among cultures, all of which define and shape urban life.


Shukla is an associate professor of English and of American Studies at the University of Virginia. Her previous work includes India Abroad: Diasporic Cultures of Postwar America and England (2005) and the interdisciplinary essay collection Imagining our Americas: Toward a Transnational Frame (2007).

If stories of various cultures interest you, you can explore more via  Culture & Identity at VFH.