- New Negro Politics
. . . Rough hewn from the jungle and the desert's sands,
Slavery was the chisel that fashioned him to form,
And gave him all the arts and sciences had won.
The lyncher, mob, and stake have been his emery wheel,
TO MAKE A POLISHED MAN of strength and power.
In him, the latest birth of freedom,
God hath again made all things new.
Europe and Asia with ebbing tides recede,
America's unfinished arch of freedom waits,
Till he, the corner stone of strength
Is lifted into place and power.
Behold him! dauntless and unafraid he stands.
He comes with laden arms,
Bearing rich gifts to science, religion, poetry and song. . . .Reverend Reverdy C. Ransom, "The New Negro" (1923)
Ransom's 36-line poem captures one of the most compelling stories of racial uplift that circulated in American society and culture between Reconstruction and World War II: the American Negro's symbolic transition from "Old" to "New." The Old Negro was a degrading trope that caricatured blacks as uncles, mammies, and chillun' who dressed, talked, behaved, and thought in ways that lacked the kind of sophistication and refinement generally attributed to whites. Such stereotypes oversimplified black subjectivity and experiences while ridiculing the idea that "the race" could be morally, intellectually, and culturally elevated to "civilization." Over time, black intellectual discourses of the New Negro emerged to contest Old Negro terminology and iconography. Literature, photographs, illustrations, theater, and speeches were but a few of the cultural media through which blacks espoused racial uplift.1 In the century since Ransom penned "The New Negro," many intellectuals and scholars specializing in nineteenth- or twentieth-century African-American literature have told this [End Page 836] story, or some variation or part thereof, about the politics of racial representation.2
What does it mean, really, to call racial representation, vis-à-vis the New Negro, political? In his brilliant book, W. E. B. Du Bois and American Political Thought (1997), Adolph L. Reed Jr. discourages the misapplication of "politics" in histories of African-American culture. He accuses literary historians of "unhelpfully blur[ring] the distinction between cultural history and the history of social and political thought, such that the former has tended to substitute for the latter" (130). Literary scholars ascribe "politics" to African-American culture, especially as it relates to social behavior and art, in ways that presumably a political historian would dismiss as ahistorical, if not also hagiographical. More accurate definitions of politics should include issues of "legitimacy, justice, obligation, the meaning of equality, or the nature of the polity" (130); "demography, social psychology, political economy, or public opinion"; and the conventions of government (152).
Similar critiques of African-Americanist approaches to politics have arisen in literary studies. In So Black and Blue (2003), Kenneth W. Warren provides a nuanced and tactful way of thinking about how and why historians should distinguish between "direct black political action" and "indirect cultural politics" (31). Direct black political action acknowledges that "race . . . is at bottom a problem of politics and economics—of constitution making and of wielding power legislatively and economically in order to mobilize broad constituencies to preserve an unequal social order" (21). In this context, blacks have used activist, legislative, judicial, or public-policy means to access institutional resources and power, and to exploit them for their own best interests as racialized subjects. Indirect cultural politics, by contrast, signifies the efforts of black intellectuals and artists, after the failure of Reconstruction, to operate "outside the political realm of direct representation—whether one did so literarily, sociologically, philosophically, administratively, or philanthropically" (20). Through this distinction, Warren identifies a long historical trend in black intellectualism, tracing back to a post-Reconstruction "cultural turn in black politics" (33–34), when leaders and uplifters linked cultural to political arbitrations of racial representation. According to Warren, this logic is flawed because culture was not—and has not been ever since—as responsible and transformative as direct political action.
Warren's implicit and admirable call for more accurate historical contexts that account for the cultural turn of black politics does not decry—as much as Reed does—contemporary academic interest in cultural politics. But the...