Artistic Ambassadors

Artistic Ambassadors: Literary and International Representation of the New Negro Era

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 240
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    Artistic Ambassadors
    Book Description:

    During the first generation of black participation in U.S. diplomacy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a vibrant community of African American writers and cultural figures worked as U.S. representatives abroad. Through the literary and diplomatic dossiers of figures such as Frederick Douglass, James Weldon Johnson, Archibald and Angelina Grimké, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida Gibbs Hunt, and Richard Wright, Brian Roberts shows how the intersection of black aesthetic trends and U.S. political culture both Americanized and internationalized the trope of the New Negro. This decades-long relationship began during the days of Reconstruction, and it flourished as U.S. presidents courted and rewarded their black voting constituencies by appointing black men as consuls and ministers to such locales as Liberia, Haiti, Madagascar, and Venezuela. These appointments changed the complexion of U.S. interactions with nations and colonies of color; in turn, state-sponsored black travel gave rise to literary works that imported international representation into New Negro discourse on aesthetics, race, and African American culture.

    Beyond offering a narrative of the formative dialogue between black transnationalism and U.S. international diplomacy,Artistic Ambassadorsalso illuminates a broader literary culture that reached both black and white America as well as the black diaspora and the wider world of people of color. In light of the U.S. appointments of its first two black secretaries of state and the election of its first black president, this complex representational legacy has continued relevance to our understanding of current American internationalism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3369-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. IX-X)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. XI-XIV)
  5. Introduction: The Politics of New Negro Literary Culture and the Culture of US International Politics
    (pp. 1-10)

    The end of the 1930s found African American writer Richard Wright conceiving of his literary predecessors via the trope of international diplomacy. In his famous 1937 essay “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” he wrote, “Generally speaking, Negro writing in the past has been confined to . . . prim and decorous ambassadors who went a-begging to white America. They entered the Court of American Public Opinion dressed in the knee-pants of servility, curtsying to show that the Negro was not inferior, that he was human, and that he had a life comparable to that of other people. For the most part...

  6. PART I Representative Characters:: The New Negro’s Representative Elements and Official Internationalism
    • [PART I Introduction]
      (pp. 11-14)

      Arriving on the heels of the nineteenth-century heyday of blackface minstrelsy, the years of the 1890s through the 1930s witnessed a struggle on the part of many African Americans to wrest the role of black race representation from white America. This was a struggle against what came to be known as the Old Negro, a myth and formula that circulated as the condensation of minstrelesque figures ranging from Jim Crow to Zip Coon, from Rastus to Sambo, and from Uncle Tom to Aunt Jemima. Calling on black writers and artists to combat the degrading legacies of the Old Negro, W....

    • 1 The Negro Beat: “Distinguished Colored Men” and Their Representative Characters
      (pp. 15-41)

      Frederick Douglass has been credited with many firsts, but when President Benjamin Harrison appointed him US minister to Haiti in July 1889, he was by no means the first black US diplomat. With African Americans’ postbellum emergence as a voting constituency, US presidents and other officials looked for visible means of courting the so-called Negro vote, and appointing black diplomats functioned to curry favor with black voters while capitulating to the prejudices of white Americans who disliked seeing black citizens assume positions of prominence inside the United States. The first African American diplomat of this era was Ebenezer Don Carlos...

    • 2 Passing into Diplomacy: US Consul James Weldon Johnson and The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
      (pp. 42-64)

      When Richard Wright dismissed the African American writers who preceded him as “prim and decorous ambassadors” who “curts[ied] to show that the Negro was . . . human” (“Blueprint” 53), he took aim at the African American middle class (the college bred, the bourgeoisie, the talented tenth) who had worked, especially during the first three decades of the twentieth century, as apparently self-appointed spokespersons for the nation’s black masses. Yet Wright’s objections to African America’s artistic ambassadors went beyond mere misgivings regarding the representation of the masses by the elite few. Wright’s concern was also methodological. He resented the indirect...

  7. PART II Lost Theaters:: Black Transnationalism and a New Negro Politics of Immanence
    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 65-68)

      Although scholarship on the New Negro era traditionally has focused on the spaces of Harlem and the United States more generally, several recent studies in black transnationalism have brought attention to the New Negro movement’s intersections with spaces beyond the United States’ borders. Fittingly, scholars oriented toward the New Negro’s transnational circuits have found a sort of favorite son in Jamaican American writer Claude McKay and a touchstone text in McKay’s 1929 novelBanjo, which has a French Mediterranean setting and focuses on a heterogeneous community of black men living on the Marseilles waterfront.¹ According to Brent Hayes Edwards,Banjo’s...

    • 3 Diplomatic and Modern Representations: George Washington Ellis, Henry Francis Downing, and the Myth of Africas
      (pp. 69-91)

      In 1913, the year James Weldon Johnson resigned his Nicaraguan consulship, ex-diplomat George Washington Ellis responded to a friend’s request for a letter treating the topic of “the Negro in the American Foreign Service.” Ellis pointed to Johnson and others to suggest that “the Negro official . . . holds a number of dignified and desirable consulships.” He further recalled the international work performed by “some of the greatest names in the race,” mentioning the “race’s most famous orator and leader,” Frederick Douglass, and noting that John Stephens Durham and John Mercer Langston had “time and again . . ....

    • 4 Metonymies of Absence and Presence: Angelina Weld Grimké’s Rachel
      (pp. 92-116)

      In the 1910s, as George Washington Ellis and Henry Francis Downing brought their foreign service to bear on their literary efforts, poet and playwright Angelina Weld Grimké was gaining recognition for her dramaRachel. Set entirely within the living room of a middle-class African American home, the play seems to exist in a domestic sphere quite separate from the internationally oriented space inhabited by the New Negro era’s world-traveling writer-diplomats. Further seeming to steer the drama away from international preoccupations,Rachelfocuses on the difficulties of African American motherhood while critiquing the national problem of lynching. Regarding Grimké’s literary use...

  8. PART III Hip-to-macy:: New Negro Internationalism and American Studies
    • [PART III Introduction]
      (pp. 117-120)

      Continuing to travel and write long after the New Negro era, Langston Hughes emerged during the 1960s as one of the commentators who has most provocatively theorized the integration of diplomatic and African American cultures. In his 1965 collectionSimple’s Uncle Sam, Hughes presents readers with a scene in which Harlem folk character Jesse B. Semple discusses how best to “take up the international situation.” “I would call a Summit Meeting,” Simple explains, “and get together with all the big heads of state of the world.” Simple’s interlocutor replies, “I gather you would . . . become a diplomat.” But...

    • 5 Diplomats but Ersatz: The Hip-to-matic Pan-Africanism of W. E. B. Du Bois and Ida Gibbs Hunt
      (pp. 121-145)

      Because Langston Hughes’s archetypal hip-to-mat is the organizer of a “Summit Meeting,” hip-to-macy emerges as an apt trope through which to interrogate the international and representational questions surrounding a series of landmark summits—the meetings held by the Pan-African Congress (PAC) in 1919 and the 1920s. Within the context of these watershed moments of black internationalism, the lens of hip-to-macy becomes especially crucial to assessing the activities and writings of two of the PAC’s founding African American organizers, W. E. B. Du Bois and Ida Gibbs Hunt. Cofounder of the NAACP and longtime editor of theCrisis, Du Bois was...

    • 6 The Practice of Hip-to-macy in the Age of Public Diplomacy: Richard Wright’s Indonesian Travels
      (pp. 146-172)

      During James Weldon Johnson’s early twentieth-century work in Venezuela, he added a new dimension to his role as a consul. His primary duties involved aiding US sailors and facilitating trade between Venezuela and US wholesale houses, but on his own initiative, he helped organize two Venezuelan baseball clubs. In some ways, organizing baseball teams was a creative answer to Johnson’s commercial duties: it spurred “an order for complete outfits from a New York sporting goods house.” But to Johnson’s mind, the emergence of baseball teams in Venezuela had ideological implications extending beyond standard diplomatic protocol. “When I left Puerto Cabello,”...

  9. Epilogue: Hipster Diplomacy’s Fall and Barack Obama’s Forms of Things Unknown
    (pp. 173-180)

    In 2002, as President George W. Bush moved toward authorizing the US invasion of Iraq, Jamaican American calypso singer and political activist Harry Belafonte took aim at the black members of Bush’s inner circle. In an interview with San Diego radio station KFMB, Belafonte offered an incisive description of the first black US secretary of state: “In the days of slavery, there were those slaves who lived on the plantation and there were those slaves that lived in the house. . . . You got the privilege of living in the house if you served the master. . . ....

  10. Notes
    (pp. 181-198)
  11. Works Cited
    (pp. 199-222)
  12. Index
    (pp. 223-231)