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Images of Black Modernism

Images of Black Modernism: Verbal and Visual Strategies of the Harlem Renaissance

Miriam Thaggert
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Images of Black Modernism
    Book Description:

    Focusing on the years from 1922 to 1938, this book revisits an important moment in black cultural history to explore how visual elements were used in poems, novels, and photography to undermine existing stereotypes. Miriam Thaggert identifies and analyzes an early form of black American modernism characterized by a heightened level of experimentation with visual and verbal techniques for narrating and representing blackness. The work of the writers and artists under discussion reflects the creative tension between the intangibility of some forms of black expression, such as spirituals, and the materiality of the body evoked by other representations of blackness, such as “Negro” dialect. By paying special attention to the contributions of photographers and other visual artists who have not been discussed in previous accounts of black modernism, Thaggert expands the scope of our understanding of the Harlem Renaissance and contributes to a growing recognition of the importance of visual culture as a distinct element within, and not separate from, black literary studies. Thaggert trains her critical eye on the work of James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen, George Schuyler, Carl Van Vechten, James Van Der Zee, and Aaron Siskind—artists who experimented with narrative and photographic techniques in order to alter the perception of black images and to question and reshape how one reads and sees the black body. Examining some of the more problematic authors and artists of black modernism, she challenges entrenched assumptions about black literary and visual representations of the early to mid twentieth century. Thaggert concludes her study with a close look at the ways in which Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance were reimagined and memorialized in two notable texts—Wallace Thurman’s 1932 satire Infants of the Spring and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s controversial 1969 exhibition “Harlem on My Mind: The Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968.”

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-050-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Introduction A Crisis in Black Art and Literature
    (pp. 1-28)

    The year 1926 was a challenging one for the magazineCrisis: A Record of the Darker Races.The official publication of the NAACP, it competed that year with another African American magazine,Opportunity,for literary preeminence; and the editor ofCrisis,W.E.B. Du Bois, sought to counteract the magazine’s declining influence on the participants of the Harlem Renaissance.¹ Despite these challenges, theCrisiscontinued to argue for the civil rights of African Americans and attempted to shape Americans’ perception of blackness by focusing on the written word, art, and other forms of cultural expression during a remarkably productive moment for...

  6. 1 Tone Pictures James Weldon Johnson’s Experiment in Dialect
    (pp. 29-64)

    In a 1929 letter to James Weldon Johnson, the black film producer and actor William “Bill” Foster asserted a claim about the African American voice and a rising form of entertainment, the talking picture. According to Foster, the new medium offered unprecedented opportunities for the African American performer: apparently the smooth, tonally low voice of the African American recorded better than white voices. Once film studios realized that the black voice was an exceptional addition to the new cinematic technology, large numbers of black actors and singers would be hired, and steady work would be possible. It was a simple...

  7. 2 Reading the Body Fashion, Etiquette, and Narrative in Nella Larsen’s Passing
    (pp. 65-87)

    There is a striking convergence of issues between James Weldon Johnson’sAutobiography of an Ex-Colored Manand Nella Larsen’sPassing.Not only do both novels of racial passing have narratives that revel in ambiguity, but also the frequently deceptive characters in the two novels are keenly attuned to bodies and to fashion. The ex-colored man’s perceptive appraisal of others is rooted in the glance at their clothes. Even before he learns of his mixed racial background, for example, the unnamed narrator is aware that he is different from the other boys at his school because of his impeccable manner of...

  8. 3 Surface Effects Satire, Race, and Language in George Schuyler’s Black No More and “The Negro-Art Hokum”
    (pp. 88-111)

    In 1933 James Weldon Johnson found himself in an awkward position. Two black writers, one George Schuyler and the other Claude McKay, wrote to him requesting a recommendation letter for a Guggenheim Fellowship. Johnson explained his dilemma to the administrator of the prestigious grant. Although both were stellar enough to receive the award, if only one of the two men could receive it, “Schuyler should be the one; for he has not yet had a real chance to show what he may be able to do.” Johnson was particularly impressed with Schuyler’s skill in a style of writing infrequently employed...

  9. 4 Collectin’ Van Vechten The Narrative and Visual Collections of Carl Van Vechten
    (pp. 112-144)

    Carl Van Vechten’s 1926 novel is most famously known for linking a racial epithet with a sanctified space. The very title,Nigger Heaven,was, and still is, offensive enough to dissuade one from glancing at the pages within the covers.¹ After perusing the novel, after doing what critics of the novel advised against—that is, reading the pages behind the intemperate name—one discovers several possible motivations for choosing the appellation. The most objective reason is geographical: the phrase refers to Harlem’s location uptown in New York City, “above” white New Yorkers downtown. In the mouths of some of Van...

  10. 5 A Photographic Language Camera Lucida and the Photography of James Van Der Zee and Aaron Siskind
    (pp. 145-176)

    There is a compulsion to interpret certain forms of visual representation literally. In photography, for instance, the instinct is to take the photograph at face value, that is, as a readily apparent truth. Roland Barthes notes in his classic discussion of photography that viewers often take the photograph “immediately or generally” for its referent, and the “photographic referent” is “the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph.”¹ The photograph offers a type of guarantee, a visual proof, of an object’s or a person’s presence at a specific moment, and the...

  11. Conclusion: Remembering Harlem Wallace Thurman, Alain Locke, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Harlem” Exhibition
    (pp. 177-196)

    Like no other period in African American culture, the Harlem Renaissance invites romanticization. Continually remembered, discussed, debated, the period is perhaps one of the few moments in twentieth-century African American history that does not suffer from a willing forgetting. Inevitably, because of this always animate history, the efforts to resituate and reconstruct the moment result in inventing, rather than recording, the period. Daylanne English notes that it is only a certain Harlem Renaissance that gets remembered, that attains canonical-like status in the cultural memories of black America. Through a “contemporary academic selection process . . . the Harlem Renaissance often...

  12. Abbreviations
    (pp. 197-198)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 199-236)
  14. Index
    (pp. 237-248)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 249-249)