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  • “New Negro” v. “Niggeratti”:Defining and Defiling the Black Messiah
  • Steve Pinkerton (bio)

Allow me to propose two visual bookends to the Harlem Renaissance: Winold Reiss’s “The Brown Madonna,” which served as frontispiece to Alain Locke’s landmark anthology The New Negro (1925), and “Mary Madonna,” a 1930 drawing by Richard Bruce Nugent (figs. 1–2). Despite their similar titles, these pictures could hardly be more different. Reiss’s Madonna wears blue, in keeping with traditional iconography of the Virgin; a pale nimbus radiates from her figure, contributing to the portrait’s sacramental valence. She gazes chastely to one side, holding in her arms the (Christ) child who seems to incarnate that “New Negro” announced in large letters on the adjacent title page—herald of the race’s cultural renascence in and through art. (Locke himself likely chose the image’s typological caption.)1 In contrast, Nugent’s Mary stares directly at us with weary, licentious eyes. This racially indeterminate nude seems more Magdalene than Madonna, more erotic than maternal; two colorful triangles converge at her pelvis, calling attention to what may or may not be a site of holy reproduction.2

In either case, this transgressive Madonna hardly conforms to the ideal of bourgeois acceptability endemic to programs of “racial uplift” generally and to the ethos so carefully crafted five years earlier by Locke’s anthology. If Reiss’s Madonna functions, in Marlon Ross’s words, as an “allegory of spirituality purified of suggestive sexuality,” Nugent’s does the opposite: its suggestive sexuality “purifies” the image of its allegorical and spiritual freight.3 How, indeed, can this drawing claim to depict the Madonna at all, especially given the perplexing absence of a child? The baby that functions in Reiss’s portrait as emblem of the [End Page 539] nascent New Negro has disappeared from Nugent’s vision—just as it disappears from The New Negro itself. For along with Reiss’s sixteen other sketches and portraits that appeared in the anthology’s first two printings, his “Brown Madonna” has not appeared in subsequent editions, including the only one currently in print.4 One consequence of this erasure has been to vitiate the volume’s originally insistent aura of messianic expectation, a messianism heralded by the “Brown Madonna” and her baby as well as by Reiss’s suggestively beatific portraits of prominent New Negro figures: Locke, Countee Cullen, Paul Robeson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Elise McDougald, and others. These lush, full-color plates create a veritable renaissance iconography, one that establishes an almost sacred iconicity. Many of the subjects’ heads float disembodied, evoking spiritual transcendence; their foreheads gleam with accentuated effect, suggesting haloes. Jean Toomer glows with a radiance that exceeds even the brown Madonna’s, in keeping with the fact that he, more than any other contributor, is held to promise a fulfillment of the volume’s messianic hopes. (William Stanley Braithwaite’s New Negro essay even invokes Toomer as the “bright morning star of a new day of the race,” echoing Christ’s own self-identification as “the bright and morning star” in Revelation 22:165).

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Fig 1.

Winold Reiss, The Brown Madonna, 1925. Fisk University Galleries, Nashville, Tennessee.

Reproduced by permission of Renate Press.

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Fig 2.

Richard Bruce Nugent, Mary Madonna, 1930.

Reproduced with permission from the collection of Thomas H. Wirth.

To encounter The New Negro as it was originally published, then, is a little like reading a lavishly illustrated Bible. It is also to wonder whether the anthology offers itself, rather more literally than is commonly acknowledged, as “the Bible of the Harlem Renaissance.”6 As we will see, Locke’s anthology not only participates in scriptural typology [End Page 540] but actually presents itself as a typological fulfillment of scripture, compiling a highly selective canon of renaissance texts and in the process providing a kind of New Testament for African American culture. Accordingly, the volume’s messianic expectations simmer palpably beneath its surface, coming finally to a boil in the concluding essay by Du Bois: a document whose Revelatory character was, I argue, partly determined by Locke...


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