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Artistic Ambassadors

Literary and International Representation of the New Negro Era

Brian Russell Roberts

Publication Year: 2013

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 Ambassadors also 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.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 1-6


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xiv

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Introduction: The Politics of New NegroLiterary Culture and the Cultureof US International Politics

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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...

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Part I. Representative Characters

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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...

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1 / The Negro Beat: “Distinguished Colored Men”and Their Representative Characters

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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...

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2 / Passing into Diplomacy: US ConsulJames Weldon Johnson and The Autobiographyof an Ex-Colored Man

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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...

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Part II. Lost Theaters

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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...

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3 / Diplomatic and Modern Representations:George Washington Ellis, Henry Francis Downing, and the Myth of Africa

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pp. 69-116

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...

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Part III. Hip-to-macy

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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 collection Simple’s Uncle Sam, Hughes presents readers with a...

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5 / Diplomats but Ersatz: The Hip-to-matic Pan-Africanism of W. E. B. Du Bois and Ida Gibbs Hunt

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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...

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6 / The Practice of Hip-to-macy in the Age of Public Diplomacy: Richard Wright’s Indonesian Travels

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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...

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Epilogue: Hipster Diplomacy’s Falland Barack Obama’s Forms of Things Unknown

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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...


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pp. 181-198

Works Cited

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pp. 199-222


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pp. 223-231

E-ISBN-13: 9780813933696
E-ISBN-10: 0813933692
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813933689
Print-ISBN-10: 0813933676

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2013