- Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance
Cherene Sherrard-Johnson opens her provocative and intriguing book, Portraits of the New Negro Woman, with a reading of a painting by Harlem Renaissance artist Archibald Motley. One of Motley's many portraits of mixed-race women in a 1928 solo exhibition, A Mulatress, drew a great deal of attention, even appearing on the front cover of the exhibition catalogue and in reviews of the show. Critics used a language of racial classification, rather than of painterly inquiry, to discuss Motley's work; they described it and other works in terms of race and primitivism, rather than as meditations on line, color, or composition. Sherrard-Johnson uses the portrait and reactions to it to set up the central concern for her book: the aesthetically and culturally complex representations of the mulatta in the visual and literary work of the Harlem Renaissance. Images of mixed-race women—in novels, films, paintings, and illustrations—engage with racially inflected discourse, evident in interpretations of Motley's portraits: Mulattas in Sherrard-Johnson's visual and textual sources are simultaneously proper and primitive, domestic and desirable, civilized and sexual. As such, they are most significantly also a central part of the Harlem Renaissance's wrestling with race, gender, sexuality, and class.
Sherrard-Johnson's work is part of a recent trend in Harlem Renaissance studies to explore the literary work of the era in conjunction with visual—rather than musical—sources. Portraits of the New Negro Woman deftly reads a range of visual material and literary texts in a conversational structure. Sherrard-Johnson argues that by placing these sources in conversation with each other, we may discern a common grammar, one that relies on the visual even within literary texts to negotiate the often contradictory ideas of race, gender, sexuality, and class. These contradictions are ascribed to and evident in representations of the mulatta, a figure "of mediation, desire, transcendence, [End Page 182] tragedy, respectability, and transgression" (17). Portraits of the New Negro Woman opens by situating literary and visual images of mixed-race women in nineteenth-century American cultural forms, arguing that these representations contain—or rather fail to contain—competing ideas of African American femininity. Mulattas are figured ultimately as an "ambiguous symbol of racial uplift" (xx), who stand for the "connection between the commodification of the black female body and the aristocraticizing of the black race" (11).
In her first chapter, Sherrard-Johnson's juxtaposition of Motley's and Larsen's works points to the mixed-race woman as struggling with her status "as an iconic fetish," both aristocratic and exotic, a position that undermines the desire for independence that drives Larsen's heroines (22). "Using Motley's work as a . . . codex," the author argues that Larsen uses a modernist visual orientation, one that relies on Orientalism, to critique limiting visual representations of mulattas (24). Sherrard-Johnson next considers Jesse Fauset's meditation on passing and the New Negro female artist. Plum Bun, she argues, explores the marketing of mulatta identity through the tensions in Angela Murray's movement, through passing, between two social positions: the avant-garde modernist artist and the New Negro woman. Sherrard-Johnson makes her case by positioning the novel against illustrations and advertisements that appeared in the Crisis. The third chapter considers Fauset's work "as a primer" for film, a site where the visual and the literary meet (78). This chapter analyzes literary tropes of the modernist mulatta in the new technology of 1920s and 1930s cinema, which continues to deploy and critique mixed-race identity both as New Negro woman of uplift and as sexual and exotic creature who may compromise static categories of gender, race, and class.
Sherrard-Johnson's pairing of Jean Toomer's Cane and William H. Johnson's painting moves the iconography of the mulatta to the South, thereby contesting the Harlem-centric idea of the Harlem Renaissance. In addition, her pairing...