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Picturing the New Negro: Harlem Renaissance Print Culture and Modern Black Identity (review)

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 16, Number 2, April 2009
pp. 446-448 | 10.1353/mod.0.0096

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In Picturing the New Negro, Caroline Goeser asks readers to move beyond a traditional emphasis on the printed word to consider the impact of the image on the culture and meaning of the Harlem Renaissance. Recent studies by Anne Carroll and Martha Nadell have opened the gate toward such considerations, but Goeser takes us further down the road by enlarging the scope and concerns of these texts to a "wider overview of illustrated Harlem Renaissance print culture" (vii). Goeser investigates the roles played by little magazines, book jacket designs and illustrations, and newspaper ads in order to add dimension to our understanding of the aspirations and limitations of the New Negro Movement. Walter Benjamin provides theoretical inspiration with his work on mechanical reproduction that has encouraged Goeser "to perceive illustration as a modern form" and to permit her to "understand the modern reader or viewer as perpetually distracted." Benjamin's study of translation influences Goeser's stance on illustration as a "creative act, rather than a slavish imitation of, or supplement to an 'original' text'" (ix).

This ambitious project, Goeser tells us, was born in personal conflict: "Before embarking on the body of my text, I would like to reveal something of my own relationship to this material." Following this statement is an explanation of the genesis of this project, which involves her personal reckoning with a "fraught" life in organized religion. The book has foundations in conversations between the author and her father, a minister and Lutheran seminar professor, and her mother, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. Goeser explains, "It was through a kind of familial religious link that I found my first relationship to Harlem Renaissance print culture, and from there, discovered the multiplicity of its attractions" (xii).

This important work too has a multiplicity of attractions, replete as it is with gorgeous, well-selected images, many familiar to readers of Harlem Renaissance studies, but placed here in fresh contexts. The book is not aimed strictly at readers seeking a new take on the Harlem Renaissance, but more generally, it is useful for those who desire some insight into the world of illustration and race. Goeser's explanation of the book's origins also serves to account for the significance of the sixth chapter of Picturing the New Negro, "Religion as 'Power Site of Cultural Resistance'." In the larger story about representation, the role played by Christianity—its iconography even more than its philosophy—is undeniably central to the project of refashioning of the Negro during the Harlem Renaissance, and beyond.

The ambivalence Goeser describes as having characterized her own relationship to religion serves as a central thread in this book. "In-betweenism"—a phrase coined by Richard Dyer to describe figures such as the "dyke" or the "queen" that defy rigid classifications of gender—describes the kernel of Goeser's analysis. Goeser sees "in-betweenism" in the way in which artists like Aaron Douglas, Richard Bruce Nugent, and E. Simms Campbell, for instance, locate representations of blackness both between and within the dichotomies of nature and culture, black and white, gay and straight, the Golden Age and the Modern Era, among others. This is the essence of the black modernism she pursues, which is defined in essence by the true ambiguity beneath accepted distinctions between past and present, Old Negro and New. Illustrations, Goeser contends, help address if not resolve this ambiguity, insofar as they are products of the often fractious relationship between commerce and cultural politics. "Within the constraints of these relationships," she writes, "I have found that illustrators devised creative methods for effective visual marketing—an important tool in revising old stereotypes and creating forceful new representations of modern black identity" (106). Goeser applauds and insists on the triumph of black artists over the crude market demand for racial caricature. These victories came about after much struggle, of course. Interracial networks were constructive and destructive, and African American artists had to assume the guise and guile of the trickster in order to disseminate images of racial dignity within texts designed to cater to consumers of offensive stereotypes. Even more than other studies on this topic, Goeser is interested in the ways in which both...

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