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Images of Black Modernism

Verbal and Visual Strategies of the Harlem Renaissance

Miriam Thaggert

Publication Year: 2010

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.”

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press


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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

There are a number of people who helped me bring this book to fruition. First, I thank Elizabeth Abel for being such a gracious and generous adviser. She has provided a model of mentorship and scholarship which I was very privileged to observe and learn from. ...

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Introduction: A Crisis in Black Art and Literature

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pp. 1-28

The year 1926 was a challenging one for the magazine Crisis: 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 of Crisis, W. E. B. Du Bois, sought to counteract the magazine’s declining influence ...

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Chapter 1: Tone Pictures: James Weldon Johnson’s Experiment in Dialect

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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: ...

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Chapter 2: Reading the Body: Fashion, Etiquette, and Narrative in Nella Larsen’s Passing

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pp. 65-87

There is a striking convergence of issues between James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Nella Larsen’s Passing. 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. ...

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Chapter 3: Surface Effects: Satire, Race, and Language in George Schuyler’s Black No More and “The Negro- Art Hokum

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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 ...

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Chapter 4: Collectin’ Van Vechten: The Narrative and Visual Collections of Carl Van Vechten

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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 ...

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Chapter 5: A Photographic Language: Camera Lucida and the Photography of James Van Der Zee and Aaron Siskind

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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” ...

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Conclusion: Remembering Harlem: Wallace Thurman, Alain Locke, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Harlem” Exhibition

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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. ...


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pp. 197-198


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pp. 199-236


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pp. 237-248

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760505
E-ISBN-10: 1613760507
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558498303
Print-ISBN-10: 1558498303

Page Count: 264
Illustrations: 21
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 794700492
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Images of Black Modernism

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Art in literature.
  • African American art -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • Harlem Renaissance.
  • African Americans in literature.
  • African Americans in art.
  • Visual perception in literature.
  • Modernism (Literature) -- United States.
  • American literature -- African American authors -- History and criticism
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