- Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance
In Portraits of the New Negro Woman, Cherene Sherrard-Johnson considers the idea of the mulattress as an icon in the art and literature of the Harlem Renaissance. While many writers, artists, critics, and social commentators of the time may have understood a woman of mixed or uncertain race as a "proper upper-middle-class club woman or a sultry temptress," Sherrard-Johnson rejects these simple interpretations in favor of an icon that is able to transgress boundaries of race, class, and gender and represent a more complex variety of meanings (xv). She successfully complicates the iconography of what was referred to as the "mulatta" by examining representations of the figure in the works of many authors (including Nella Larsen, Jessie Fauset, and Jean Toomer), painters (Archibald J. Motley, Jr., Faith Ringgold, William H. Johnson, and others), photographers, and filmmakers.
Other writers (Sherrard-Johnson specifically mentions the work of Eva Allegra Raimon and Teresa Zackodnik) have attempted to explain or revisit the influence and importance of the mulatta as a trope, but Sherrard-Johnson's work differs from their studies in that she focuses on both male and female writers and artists and explicitly on "the mulatta as an iconographic coalescence of visual and literary maneuvers" (18). Her argument is supported by meticulous scholarship, and the many visual representations and excerpts showing the mulatta as a trope all reinforce her position.
Sherrard-Johnson claims that the complexity of the mulatta icon allowed writers and artists to challenge the dominant racial ideas of the time by using it to present "modes of agency and subjectivity that could not be entirely described through discourses of uplift or the conventions of sensationalism" (xvi). She argues that seeing the connections in the use of the trope in varying artistic forms is "vital to understanding the changing conditions of race in this volatile period of American history and culture" (xvi).
One of the tasks that the book undertakes is to reveal a "common visual grammar of representation" that was shared by artists and writers of the time (22). While Sherrard-Johnson acknowledges that these artists and writers may not have been aware of one another's work and may have often presented differing interpretations of the mulatta as an icon (as in the case of Larsen and Motley), she points out that when their work is placed in a "cross-genre dialogue," it is possible to see the problem of balance that they faced (24). On the one hand, some felt compelled to create a form of art that emphasized the connections with high modernism that they felt would increase the likelihood of favorable critical reception of their work outside of the community of Harlem Renaissance artists, while others struggled to present the mulatta within the scope of the "New Negro" identity and its focus on racial uplift. There are also questions about whether the works of these writers and artists challenged prevailing ideas about the exoticism and primitivism of the mulatta or whether they actually reified these ideas.
The first chapter, "A Plea for Color," presents an in-depth examination of the mulatta in the work of Nella Larsen and Archibald J. Motley, Jr. Sherrard-Johnson follows this with a chapter on Jessie Fauset's fiction, in which she compares Fauset's attempts to represent the mulatta—including a strong focus on "passing"—with those of white American and European images of the black female. In the third chapter, "Black Beauty Betrayed," there is a continued examination of Fauset's work in contrast with visual iconography, particularly the race-oriented films of Oscar Micheaux. In the fourth chapter, she considers the complications of the icon through an examination of two male artists (Jean Toomer and William H. Johnson) and how their interpretations challenge a monolithic view of the Harlem Renaissance as unified in [End Page 515] its interpretations. In her final chapter, she concludes her argument by examining how...