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Down the Up Staircase: Three Generations of a Harlem Family Hardcover – April 11, 2017
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Bruce D. Haynes's story is a classic American tale―which combines the big themes of history with the gritty reality of a single family's extraordinary story. (Jeffrey Toobin, staff writer at The New Yorker and senior legal analyst at CNN)
Haynes channels W. E. B. Du Bois to provide a rich sociological portrait of his "talented tenth" family. The lively writing conveys both universal family dramas of social mobility (up and down) as well as the particular context of Harlem across the twentieth century. A great read! (Dalton Conley, author of Honky, Princeton University)
An utterly captivating work that shows off Haynes's brilliant sociological imagination on every page. He and Solovitch are masterful at linking the small personal details of everyday family and community life to social structure and history. Like Dalton Conley's Honky, this book will be seen as a significant contribution to the emerging literary form of sociological memoir. (Mitchell Duneier, author of Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea, Princeton University)
Down the Up Staircase is a beautifully written, captivating, and absorbing book that connects seemingly private concerns with public policies and structures in clear and convincing fashion. It delineates vividly how poverty and downward mobility do not make people noble, resilient, and resourceful, but instead shatter social ties and self-esteem. This fast-paced book will likely be consumed by readers in one sitting, but its powerful and poignant stories will linger in the mind long afterwards. (George Lipsitz, author of How Racism Takes Place)
Down the Up Staircase is a riveting narrative about three generations of a black family and their struggle to maintain inherited privilege. Written with elegance and penetrating insight, the book shines light on the precarity that all blacks confront, regardless of their social class and personal ambitions. (Stephen Steinberg, author of Race Relations: A Critique, professor of urban sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York)
A candid and profoundly personal contribution to America's racial history. (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))
This masterful account begins as a portrait of a house that was a living, breathing extension of the family that lived in it both in hopeful times and in darker ones. But it soon reaches out into the larger social landscape of Harlem and then into the changing history and culture of an entire land. In doing so, it shifts seamlessly from a sensitive biography to a thoughtful ethnographic sketch of an important place in an important time, and then into a wise and compelling essay on the social history of our time. What we encounter on the printed page, of course, is written narrative, but it is conveyed to us in what might best be described as a rich and perceptive voice. In every way, a remarkable work. (Kai Erikson, Yale University)
This thoughtful and sobering memoir weaves the beauty and tragedy of Haynes's family story into the complex history of Harlem.... Like Harlem's story, the memoir is bittersweet, painting a full and complicated picture of black upper-class life over generations. (Publishers Weekly)
Down the Up Staircase combines elements of memoir and sociology, culminating in an incredibly rich story. (Bookish)
In this thoughtfully conceived and crafted memoir, the authors offer evocative, relentlessly honest portrayals without judgment. In doing so, they encourage the reader to ponder the variables in her own life, the tides and forces that help or hinder her pursuit of the sweet life. (Elizabeth Dowling Taylor The New York Times Book Review)
[A] moving memoir. (Georgia Rowe East Bay Times)
As Isabel Wilkerson did expertly in 'The Warmth of Other Suns' ― the Pulitzer Prize-winning epic tale of the Great Migration ― Haynes and Solovitch follow their relatives through decades, revealing the impact of public policy and social change on the family from generation to generation. (Krissah Thompson Washington Post)
Haynes and Solovitch weave memoir and sociology to document the shifting fortunes of the black middle-class family, and of Harlem itself, and illuminate the tenuous nature of status and success among the black middle class. (The Davis Enterprise)
Interweaving a variety of sociological concepts and historical examinations with intimate portraits of this singular family, Down the Up Staircase takes readers on an entertaining and provocative tour of twentieth-century urban America. (Richard E. Ocejo New Books in Sociology)
Down the Up Staircase traces the social history of Harlem through the lens of one family across three generations, connecting their journey to the historical and social forces that transformed Harlem. Haynes and Solovitch capture the tides of change that pushed blacks forward through the twentieth century and the forces that ravaged black communities. This story is told against the backdrop of a crumbling three-story brownstone in Sugar Hill that once hosted Harlem Renaissance elites and later became an embodiment of the family's rise and demise.
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I adored every moment of this book (and not just because the author is an acclaimed sociologist and college professor with career experience in jury selection) - his extended family, his childhood home, and Harlem of the 1960s-early 1980s are each able to speak plainly of their eminence, beauty, legacy, tension, struggles, and downfall.
But I couldn’t say the book was quite what I expected. Perhaps it’s because it was written by a sociology professor, or perhaps because I had the advance reader digital copy, which couldn’t pride itself on good formatting, and perhaps final editing. But still, I feel like the writer couldn’t quite figure out what he wanted to say. What was the book about? His family? Or a detached history of Harlem? At times it reads like a memoir, at times – a history book. Sometimes things lapse, aren’t connected enough or are repeated as if they haven’t been said yet. So the overall experience of reading wasn’t too exhilarating, especially as I’ve read some pretty good nonfiction this year.
But I will admit that the subject matter is good – therefore I give it 3 stars. It was interesting to her certain stories of Harlem, and to gather more background about some of the bigger names in black people’s culture that, to use their own words – “advanced the race”. I loved reading about what they believed in, and despite how mistreated they were, how they still persisted. I honestly didn’t know New York was such a bad place to live in the 1970s, especially if you were PoC. So as an educational experience, it was good.
In the end, I figured out why it’s called Down the Up Staircase. Ultimately, this is a story of a family’s downfall, with the backdrop of Harlem history. And although the author didn’t really make it quite clear what the story was about, it does do it’s job and give you quite a lot of insight about the place and the day.
I thank Columbia University Press and NetGalley for giving me access to an early copy in exchange for an honest review.