As the modest, meaningful gains of Reconstruction deteriorated into the racialized apartheid of Jim Crow segregation, an ideology flourished in the minds of intellectuals, educators, artists, laborers, and veterans who formed the free and newly emancipated classes of African Americans. Blacks met the 20th century in a transformed state, as New Negroes leaving behind an old, or what some viewed as subservient, plantation-era mentality. The narrator of Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901) described the New Negro as a subject in transition: “Standing, like most young people of her race, on the border line between two irreconcilable states of life, she had neither the picturesqueness of the slave, nor the unconscious dignity of those of whom freedom has been the immemorial birthright” (p. 42). Whether as a figure in transition or a newly emancipated subject, many saw the New Negro as the antidote to the old Negro. Alternatively casting the New Negro as an image, ideology, or trope, proponents of the concept engaged in a war of representation in the arena of culture, politics, and public opinion to replace dehumanizing stereotypes with progressive images of confidence and prosperity. While the movement is often seen as concurrent with the Harlem Renaissance (1917–1935) (see Levering-Lewis 1997), in fact, New Negro ideology emerges earlier in the prolific literary period of the 1890s. As issues of equal access to socioeconomic institutions, voting rights, anti-lynching legislation, and fair housing replaced the unifying abolitionist struggle for emancipation, diverse strategies for political activism thrived among African Americans. The founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909) (evolved from the Niagara movement), the National Association of Colored Women (1896), and the United Negro Improvement Association (1914) mark the New Negro era as one of collective action. Working alongside artists and intellectuals, these political organizations fueled the momentum of the forward-looking worldview that would be advertised, promoted, and showcased in the arts and humanities as well as in the new psychology and socio-anthropological methods of knowledge gathering. By the time W. E. B. Du Bois speculated in 1903 about the double-consciousness of the America Negro in response to his rhetorically posed question “How does it feel to be a problem?” the New Negroes were already working on an answer. Their transformative rhetoric would radiate throughout the African diaspora, traveling with the artists and architects of the movement and gaining global perspective through a robust exchange of ideas and transnational encounters.
Though Wintz points to 1895 as the first utterance of the term “New Negro” in an article in the Cleveland Gazette (28 June 1895), Gates and Jarrett 2007 positions the boundary lines from 1892 to 1938 with the qualification that the New Negro trope did not remain static for the forty-year period in which it was most active. It evolved and, according to Foley 2003, devolved from a term that “signified a fighter against both racism and capitalism” to a more moderate romantic figure associated with black elite values. Locke 1925 would establish the lens through which the literary renaissance would be viewed with the goal of uplift to be achieved primarily through cultural, rather than politicized, activism or affiliation with communism, Garveyism, or other radical stances. Harlem was an important locus point, but as Baldwin and Makalani 2013 maintains, it was not the only epicenter of New Negro activity. Maxwell 1999 argues that New Negroes espoused leftist values even if they were not card-carrying members of the Communist Party. Exploring the movement’s relationship to modernism, Baker 1987 asserts the New Negro was not just an urban formulation occurring in isolation as the author delineates the varying approaches to advocacy of W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, which stressed the ability to manipulate or master the rhetoric of the oppressor according to his own aims. While the atmosphere of the movement took on a decidedly masculine tone, feminist scholarship explored how women activists and artists, galvanized by the Woman’s Club movement and the trope of the New Woman, articulated the special role of the New Negro woman as more than an exalted maternal figure or midwife, but as a partner in the struggle for uplift fighting against intersectional oppression, as explored in Sherrard-Johnson 2007. Nadell 2004 documents and analyzes how the movement’s strategies of counterrepresentation focused on the visual; multimedia collaborations between visual artists and writers manifest the inter-artistic connection between the New Negro political and cultural terrain.
Baker, Houston, Jr. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Compact study places Washington and Du Bois in dialogic relationship vis-à-vis their strategies for uplift and the artistry each deployed to achieve their divergent, but not necessarily oppositional, aims; one of the first texts to position the Harlem Renaissance as a distinct modernist movement.
Baldwin, Davarian L., and Minkah Makalani, eds. Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
Decentering Harlem, the editors argue for the New Negro over the Harlem Renaissance as a more inclusive and accurate term for the artistic output of the era; assembled essays underscore the movement’s global impact.
Foley, Barbara. Spectres of 1919: Class and Nation in the Making of the New Negro. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.
Follows the tension between direct political activism in response to race riots and other forms of white on black terrorism culminating in the Red Summer of 1919 in contrast to more indirect cultural activism through artistic production during the 1920s.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Gene Andrew Jarrett, eds. The New Negro: Readings on Race, Representations, and African American Culture, 1892–1938. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.
Impressive introduction establishes the parameters of the New Negro. Identifies a wide array of primary texts from artists, historians, and scholars who explore and define the New Negro in the period just after Reconstruction.
Levering-Lewis, David. When the Negro Was in Vogue. New York: Penguin, 1997.
Seminal historiography of the New Negro Renaissance as a movement of artistic activism centered in Harlem. Refutes the claims of Huggins 2007 (cited under the Literary Left) that the Harlem Renaissance was a failure, ushering in a generation of fresh perspectives on the era’s relationship to politics and art.
Locke, Alain, ed. The New Negro: An Interpretation. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1925.
This anthology with its movement-defining introduction emphasizes the break with the old mentality of enslavement and the new embrace of self-determination in freedom. Anoints contributors who would become the foundational figures of the Harlem Renaissance era. Aesthetic choices tended to preserve the status quo and de-emphasize radicalism.
Maxwell, William. New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism between the Wars. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Nadell, Martha. Enter the New Negroes: Images of Race in American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Examines casual encounters as well as formal collaborations between writers and illustrators, theorists and painters, to illustrate the collusion and profound impact of visual culture and image-making in the New Negro era.
Sherrard-Johnson, Cherene. Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.
Examines the cross-genre exchange between visual artists and writers that coalesced around the figure of the mulatta as a vexed trope representing both the restrictions of idealized New Negro femininity and the writers’ hopes of transcending the constraints of race, class, and gender.
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