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American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 15.1 (2005) 86-111



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The Case of Ebony and Topaz:

Racial and Sexual Hybridity in Harlem Renaissance Illustrations

Ebony and Topaz was issued once in 1927 as a collection of essays, poetry, and illustrations edited by Charles S. Johnson, the African American editor of Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. Though the volume has received little scholarly attention, it articulated the theme of racial hybridity that not only proved an integral component of Harlem Renaissance cultural production but marked the diversity of American modernism between the wars. Significantly, Johnson's editorial method in Ebony and Topaz, which promised minimal interference and direction, allowed his contributors freedom to broach controversial subjects shunned by the more conservative African American editors of the period, such as W.E.B. DuBois. As a result, Johnson's compendium resisted limitation to the facile theme of racial uplift and challenged restrictive classifications of racial identity.

The most culturally subversive production came from two illustrators of Ebony and Topaz, Charles Cullen and Richard Bruce Nugent. Seemingly benign at first glance, their illustrations interrogated the interdependence between racial hybridity and alternative sexual orientations. On the one hand, these illustrations disrupted negative stereotypes of black identity by confounding racist connections between black skin and "primitive" identity. At the same time, they challenged prevailing tendencies within the African American community to fix black identity to a narrow ideal of racial uplift, a message that served to ossify rather than relax fixed categories of race.

Ebony and Topaz merits discussion within the context of American little magazines. Issued in magazine form, with an illustrated soft cover, the volume was published as a non-commercial extension of Opportunity, seeking to express a variety of creative responses to African American culture without the burden of appealing to a wide readership.1 [End Page 86] Johnson's editorial introduction emphasized the value in releasing his contributors' concerns with reader response, and he promised that they would maintain independence from their editor:

It is a venture in expression, shared, with the slightest editorial suggestion, by a number of persons who are here much less interested in their audience than in what they are trying to portray. This measurable freedom from the usual burden of proof has been an aid to spontaneity, and to this quality the collection makes its most serious claim.2

Beyond his explicit commitment to artistic freedom, however, Johnson rigorously refused editorial authority. He rarely cued the reader to his own specific opinions about the variety of subjects broached in Ebony and Topaz. In fact, W.E.B. DuBois considered Johnson's lack of editorial dominance as the volume's greatest failing. He dismissed Ebony and Topaz as "a sort of big scrapbook, quite without unity, even of race," noting Johnson's refusal to limit the collection to a singular theme of racial uplift. DuBois further revealed his preference for a fixed message: "If the whole thing had been split up into a half dozen little booklets, each with its artistic unity and clear spiritual message, the net result would surely have been greater and more valuable."3 But Johnson would consistently emphasize freedom over propaganda in his editing of Ebony and Topaz, as well as Opportunity. In 1926, Johnson wrote in an Opportunity editorial, "This journal is designed to inform and interpret, both through sociological discussions, and through what it may offer of the cultural experiences of Negroes."4 Resisting a unifying editorial voice, Johnson promoted critical inquiry, leaving the mode of interpretation to his contributors.

Johnson's editorial method can be elucidated by several prevailing attitudes toward African American identity that he faced in 1927. On the one hand, perceptions persisted among many Europeans and Euro-Americans that black identity was tied inherently to buffoonish or slovenly behavior. The refrain was heard even from Paul Guillaume and Thomas Munro in their Primitive Negro Sculpture of 1926. Despite their praise of "Negro" art, they asserted that "Negroes" across...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-4238
Print ISSN
1054-7479
Pages
pp. 86-111
Launched on MUSE
2005-05-02
Open Access
No
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