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Dossier 2 - Dialogues en images dans l'Atlantique noir : contre-représentations des années 1920 à nos jours

Transnational Aesthetics in “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro”

Esthétique transnationale dans « Harlem, Mecque du Nouveau Nègre » (1925)
Whit Frazier Peterson

Résumés

Résumé : Cet article se penche sur les différentes dimensions transnationales qui se manifestent dans le numéro spécial du Survey Graphic daté de mars 1925, titré "Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro" – un numéro qui inspirera l'ouvrage New Negro Anthology d'Alain Locke. L'analyse porte sur les contributions du plasticien allemand Winold Reiss (dont l'influence sur l'artiste Aaron Douglas est manifeste), de l'auteur jamaïcain W. A. Domingo, du poète jamaïcain Claude McKay et de l'auteur germano-portoricain Arthur A. Schomburg. L’article entend montrer que les artistes noirs, acteurs d'une esthétique transnationale, ont tout aussi bien contribué à la culture occidentale (pourtant supposée blanche, au cœur de laquelle leur héritage américain les place), que créé une culture spécifiquement africaine-américaine qui participe pleinement à la culture américaine au sens large.

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Introduction

  • 1 Anne Elizabeth Carroll Word, Image, and the New Negro: Representation and Iden (...)
  • 2 Ibid, 155.
  • 3 The terms transnational and diaspora benefit from clarification: Gilroy reminds us that (...)

1Anne Elizabeth Carrol includes a chapter on the March 1925 “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro” issue of Survey Graphic in her monograph Word, Image and The New Negro. She notes that among “the insights offered by the issue […] is that it demonstrates the strategies African Americans used to claim an American identity.”1 She then goes on to analyze these strategies, and critiques them while also noting which strategies were more successful than others. She concludes her discussion with the observation that by “emphasizing that Americanization was a process, by identifying the criteria for its achievements, and by demonstrating their fulfillment of that criteria, the contributors deconstructed the binary of American and un-American that shaped definitions of American and African American identity in the 1920s, often to the exclusion of African Americans.”2 In this paper, I am especially interested in how this magazine issue actually pulls back the veil on the idea of nationalities, and by focusing on African American populations in the neighborhood of Harlem, reveals the deep transnationality of America as a whole, and all nations and relations in general, especially among the Black diaspora.3 Thus, I am interested in the implications of transnationality in this issue of Survey Graphic.

  • 4 This issue of Survey Graphic is in fact often overlooked in favor of The New N (...)

2Survey Graphic was a popular magazine at the time, and the “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro” issue was the forerunner to the anthology The New Negro, an important document in the Harlem Renaissance.4 In this paper, I explore the ways in which the Black and white artists and thinkers who contributed to this issue, by destabilizing the concept of nationality, also helped develop a new multicultural transnational aesthetic in the process. This transnational aesthetic benefits from being studied through the lens of postcolonial thinkers such as Edouard Glissant, Homi Bhabha and Paul Gilroy as it anticipates many of their concerns, especially Glissant’s concept of a poetics of relations, which is very much in line with the transnational aesthetic evoked by this issue of the magazine. I will focus specifically on German artist Winold Reiss, Jamaican authors W.A. Domingo and Claude McKay, and Puerto Rican-German author Arthur A. Schomburg, looking at the way their approaches to this transnational aesthetic anticipates and can be read through a lens of postcolonial theory.

  • 5 Anne Elizabeth Carroll, Word, Image, and the New Negro: Representation and Identity in th (...)
  • 6 Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, The Western Esoteric Traditions (Oxford University Press, 2008 (...)
  • 7 Ibid.

3I have chosen these artists and their work for two reasons: the first is that they represent some of the strongest pieces in the special issue, as Carroll also notes, and secondly because they are, with the exception of Winold Reiss, all Black authors and together they represent a transnational group of artists.5 In the case of Reiss, I am primarily interested in how his work in this issue went on to influence the work of Aaron Douglas, who can be seen as an artist who emerges from the transnational aesthetic foregrounded in this special issue of the magazine. Douglas’ belief in a new “transcendental” race then emerges from his response/reaction to the work of Reiss. Douglas, who along with Jean Toomer was a follower of G. I. Gurdjieff, saw the concept of race as meaningless. In essence, “Gurdjieff regarded man as the prisoner of ‘identification,’ whereby the sense of self is squandered in mechanical reactions to and false identification with external stimuli.”6 For Gurdjieff, Toomer and Douglas, although “human beings are biologically descended as a generic species, a person’s spiritual ascent or evolution must be achieved as an individual.”7 The details of Gurdjieff’s complex esoteric philosophy are beyond the scope of this paper, but Douglas’ paintings are interesting in light of how they use concepts of transnationality to suggest the possibility of spiritual transcendence, as will be discussed in more depth in the next section.

  • 8 This vague term, “the liberal tradition” can be understood in this sense as classical Jo (...)
  • 9 Carroll, Word, Image, and the New Negro: Representation and Identity in the Ha (...)
  • 10 Cara Finnegan, “Social Welfare and Visual Politics: The Story of Survey Graphic,” New De (...)

4Survey Graphic can be considered a social justice magazine in the liberal tradition.8 As Anne Elizabeth Carrol writes in her study of the magazine, the editors wanted to “present information that would contribute to their readers’ knowledge, and spur the forces of social change.”9 Cara Finnegan’s article “Social Welfare and Visual Politics: The Story of Survey Graphic” looks at the history of the magazine and gives some context for what led to the special “Harlem Mecca” issue to begin with. According to Finnegan, the magazine’s history begins with a journal called Charities Review, first published in 1891. Charities Review eventually became The Survey in 1912 after editor Paul Kellogg conducted “a broad survey of social conditions in the industrial city of Pittsburgh.” Survey Graphic, first published in 1921, was an offshoot of the highly academic and scientific The Survey, and was meant to be a more popular, visually arresting version of the magazine.10

  • 11 Leonard Harris and Charles Molesworth, Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Phil (...)
  • 12 Cheryl A Wall, “Histories and Heresies: Engendering the Harlem Renaissance,” Meridians, (...)
  • 13 Jeffrey C Stewart, The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke, (Oxford University Press, 201 (...)
  • 14 Alain Locke, “Enter the New Negro,” Survey Graphic, Harlem: Mecca of the (...)

5Thus, the magazine became a popular vehicle for social causes that could move beyond just progressive social reform in the areas of economics and sociology; namely it became a vehicle for artistic and cultural developments as well, and here is where it also became transnational in its outlook. The magazine published special issues following “nationalist ‘awakenings’ in Mexico, Ireland, and Russia,” and in 1924 a special dinner was held at the New York City Civic Club to celebrate the publication of African American activist, editor and author Jessie Fauset’s novel, There is Confusion.11 The broader goal of the dinner, writes Harlem Renaissance scholar Cheryl Wall, was “to announce the black cultural awakening to the white men and women with the money and clout to sponsor its artists.… They got the message. Paul Kellogg, editor of Survey Graphic, offered to devote a special issue of his journal to the work of black writers.”12 Originally the Harlem issue was to be a collaborative work between Charles S. Johnson, editor of the Black cultural magazine Opportunity, Alain Locke (who would later go on to edit the Harlem Renaissance anthology The New Negro), and Kellogg himself; however, through an unclear set of circumstances (perhaps orchestrated by Locke), Locke ended up as sole editor of the issue.13 This is significant because Locke would also be the sole editor of The New Negro anthology, which would develop from this special issue. To that end, much of the specific racialized transnational vision that arises from these texts can be seen as a result of Locke’s editorial choices, editorial choices influenced by his “philosophy of values,” which, much like Spivak’s strategic essentialism does for identity constructs, argues that although we know that values are not absolute, we must behave as if they are in order to be active agents in society. For Locke, the New Negro was a transnational figure by definition. As he writes in “Enter the New Negro,” his introduction to the special issue of Survey Graphic, “persecution is making the Negro international.”14 My paper will examine the international aspect of Black America in this special issue of Survey Graphic and examine some of the aesthetic implications that arise from Locke’s editorial choices.

Winold Reiss and Aaron Douglas and the Spiritual Transnational

  • 15 Frank Mehring, “Mediating Mexico: Winold Reiss and the Transcultural Dimension of (...)
  • 16 Frank Mehring. “The Visual Harlem Renaissance; or, Winold Reiss in Mexico,” Amerikastudi (...)
  • 17 Mehring, “Mediating Mexico,” 24.
  • 18 Jon Woodson, To Make a New Race (University Press of Mississippi, 1999), 42-45. For a fu (...)
  • 19 Stephanie L Hawkins, “Building the ‘Blue’ Race: Miscegenation, Mysticism, and the Langua (...)
  • 20 Mehring, “Mediating Mexico,” 24.
  • 21 Marilyn Stokstad identifies the building as the Capitol building in her study, Art Histo (...)

6Winold Reiss had worked with Kellogg previously on the May 1924 issue of Survey Graphic, “Mexico: A Promise.” He had met the writer Katharine Anne Porter in Mexico, and when Porter “was asked to edit a special issue on Mexico for the Survey Graphic, she remembered the encounter with Reiss and the sketches he had produced during his trip through Mexico.”15 According to Mehring, the portraits that Reiss came up with “blend a longing for rustic German peasant life with the fantasy of a pre-Columbian harmony between land and people in Mexico.”16 As Mehring notes, Reiss’ vision was also a spiritual one: “Among the contributors in the special edition [on Mexico] was also Jose Vasconcelos. His book La Raza Cosmica (The Cosmic Race) from 1925 foreshadows the concept of a new race, which was very much in line with what Winold Reiss tried to translate into forms and colors on canvas.”17 I would additionally argue that this concept was taken up by Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas and expanded upon and perfected in his later work. The concept of a new race also has echoes in the esoteric philosophy of Gurdjieff, adopted by Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer.18 Toomer, whose concept of a new race is fully expressed in his poem “Blue Meridian” (1936), already had, as Stephanie Hawkins notes, “its precursor in Cane’s closing chapter, the short drama ‘Kabnis,’” a work first published in 1924.19 These spiritualized “forms and colors on canvas,” as Mehring describes them, can clearly be seen in Douglas’ paintings “Into Bondage” (1936), “Aspiration” (1936) and “Aspects of Negro Life: Song of the Towers” (1934).20 One sees not only the jagged lines and patterns that are present in Winold Reiss’ designs in Survey Graphic and The New Negro, but also in the way that Douglas goes beyond his mentor in depicting the highly spiritualized nature of folk-types. For example, in both Reiss’ “Dawn in Harlem” (Fig. 1) in Survey Graphic and Douglas’ “Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction” (Fig. 2), the background features an initial circle (two or three in fact, in Douglas’ painting), which expands outwards into several concentric circles. Angular buildings form a second pattern superimposed over the first in Reiss’ drawing, whereas jungle foliage and dancing silhouettes form a second pattern in Douglas’ painting. The semi-circular billowing clouds of smoke at the top of Reiss’ picture are echoed in the semi-circle of leaves that frame the top of Douglas’ painting. Douglas adds an additional silhouette of the Capitol on a hill in the background, to which a figure in the center of the painting is pointing, thus emphasizing not only the racial and historical associations evoked in the picture, but also the spiritual aspects of the picture as well, in that the concept of freedom is seen as a journey to the mountain top, evoking Moses’ climbing of Mount Nebo to see the promised land.21 Moreover, for Douglas, the flattened effect used by Reiss in his portraits is extended to the point where Douglas’ figures become silhouettes; they have no facial features at all. The folk element has remained essential to Douglas’ figures, but they have moved beyond the concept of the self as we understand it.

  • 22 Cheryl Ragar, “Aaron Douglas: Influences and Impacts of the Early Years,” Aaron Douglas: (...)
  • 23 Richard Powell. “The Aaron Douglas Effect,” Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist, e (...)

7The importance of the “Harlem: Mecca” issue of Survey Graphic for Aaron Douglas cannot be understated. It is fair to suggest that without this issue, Douglas might never have become the artist that he did. As Cheryl Ragar writes: “Both [Ethel Ray] Nance and [Eric] Walrond wrote, encouraging Douglas to join them in the black cultural renaissance of Harlem, a move that Douglas finally was persuaded to make after reading the 1925 special issue of Survey Graphic magazine edited by Locke and devoted to chronicling the Harlem boom.” Once in Harlem, “Alain Locke arranged for the young artist to study under Winold Reiss.”22 So it is only natural that Douglas’ early work was heavily influenced by Reiss. In fact, in the 1925 anthology The New Negro, it is often hard to distinguish between their two styles. Locke credits Reiss with the book design, meaning the sketches and patterns that appear at the chapter headings of the anthology, whereas eleven drawings in the anthology are attributed to Douglas. Richard Powell, in describing this work, writes that “these illustrations were, at best, reminiscent of Winold Reiss’ previous black-and-white work or, at worst, failed imitations.”. Powell identifies the shift in Douglas’ vision to the December 1925 cover of Opportunity Magazine (available online at the Yale Beinecke Library here: https://onlineexhibits.library.yale.edu/​s/​gatheroutofstardust/​item/​8180), in which the “picture’s stark simplicity and bold, asymmetrical placement of figures were like nothing in Reiss’ repertoire.”23

Figure n°1 : Winold Reiss, Dawn in Harlem (1925) 

Figure n°1 : Winold Reiss, Dawn in Harlem             (1925) 

Figure n°2 : Aaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction (1934)

Figure n°2 : Aaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life: From             Slavery to Reconstruction (1934)

8Essentially Douglas is taking Reiss’ figures and foregrounding them. Whereas Reiss relies on figures working within the shifting patterns within the background, Douglas moves the figure beyond the background, places the focus on the figure or figures, and allows the patterns to accentuate the spiritual aspects of the figure, instead of having the figures merge with the patterns. It is almost as if Douglas turns Reiss’ detailed folk portraits into the faceless spiritualized folk figures of a new race that Vasconcelos calls for. This new race, neither Black, white, Mexican or anything else specifically, is essentially a transnational race – a conglomerate of all races. As Jean Toomer writes in his poem “The Blue Meridian”:

  • 24 Jean Toomer. “The Blue Meridian.” The Wayward and the Seeking, edited by Darwin T. Turne (...)

Uncase the nations
Open the pod by outgrowing it,
Keep the real but destroy the false;
We are the human nation.

Uncase the regions – Occidental, Oriental, North, South–
We are of Earth.24

  • 25 Homi Bhaba. The Location of Culture (Routledge, 1994), 50.
  • 26 This concept of “signifying” references Henry Louis Gates formulation, in which (...)

9Thus, Douglas is repositioning the focus of his work into what Homi Bhabha would call a third space, in which not cultural diversity, but cultural difference is foregrounded, what Bhabha identifies as a “process of signification through which statements of culture or on culture differentiate, discriminate and authorize the production of fields of force, reference, applicability and capacity.”25 By refocusing on the spiritualized figure, Douglas takes the Black body, the “Harlem Types” (as Reiss titles his section of portraits of African Americans in Survey Graphic) out of the signifying Africanized patterns of Reiss, and into this Bhabhaian third space. Douglas thereby signifies on Reiss’ work and shifts its meaning into a spiritualized transcendental area that is a hybrid of Reiss’ Europeanized Africanism and Douglas’ spiritualized transcendent African American aesthetics.26

W.A. Domingo and the Invigorating West Indian Influence

  • 27 W.A. Domingo, “The Tropics in New York,” Survey Graphic, March 1925, 648.
  • 28 Ibid, 648.
  • 29 Ibid, 649-650
  • 30 Ibid, 649.
  • 31 W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (orig. pub. 1903, reprint ed., Dover P (...)
  • 32 Domingo, 650.

10Whereas Douglas’ early work takes the work of Reiss and reinscribes it into a third space of cultural difference, in which the meaning of the work and the cultural perspective of the work changes, indeed signifies on Reiss’ meaning and thus on this special issue of Survey Graphic in general, W.A. Domingo is interested in the way the Black diaspora in Harlem had changed Black culture in general. Thus, for Domingo meaning is not changed due to a struggle between colonizer and colonized, but among already colonized subjects. His essay, “The Tropics in New York” begins: “Within Harlem’s seventy or eighty blocks, for the first time in their lives, colored people of Spanish, French, Dutch, Arabian, Danish, Portuguese, British and native African ancestry or nationality meet and move together.” Domingo’s thesis, that these migrants “bring with them vestiges of their folk life” that has changed Black culture in New York in general, is meant to show how Harlem, as a transnational Black diasporic neighborhood, is in the process of creating a new Black aesthetic, one that has reconnected with the dispersed and disparate members of the diaspora, and that richer, more culturally complex material is developing from this process of re-formation.27 Domingo writes, “According to the census for 1920 there were in the United States 73,803 foreign-born Negroes; of that number 36,613, or approximately 50 per cent lived in New York City, 28,184 of them in the Borough of Manhattan. They formed slightly less than 20 per cent of the total Negro population of New York.”28 It is reasonable to suggest that when almost one-fifth of a population are relatively recent arrivals, the new cultural material that they bring will find its way into the neighborhoods into which it is introduced. Indeed, Domingo writes, “[t]en years ago it was possible to distinguish the West Indian in Harlem especially during the summer months. Accustomed to wearing cool, light-colored garments in the tropics, he would stroll along Lenox Avenue on a hot day resplendent in white shoes and flannel pants, the butt of many a jest from his American brothers who, today, have adopted the style that they formerly derided.”29 Domingo extends his argument, however, to suggest that not only are foreign-born Black people in America changing its culture, but that they have been doing so for quite a while, especially foreign-born Black Americans from the British West Indies. Domingo writes, “West Indians have been coming to the United States for over a century. The part they have played in Negro progress is conceded to be important. As early as 1827 a Jamaican, John Brown Russworm, one of the founders of Liberia, was the first colored man to be graduated from an American college and to publish a newspaper in this country.” He goes on to note that “Prior to the Civil War, West Indian contribution to American Negro life was so great that W.E.B. DuBois, in his Souls of Black Folk, credits them with the main responsibility for the manhood program presented by the race in the early decades of the last century.”30 What Domingo is referring to here is the Haitian revolution from 1791-1804, which according to Du Bois, inspired Black Americans to declare their own manhood, and stand up to their white oppressors. Du Bois writes: “The free Negroes of the North, inspired by the mulatto immigrants from the West Indies, began to change the basis of their demands; they recognized the slavery of slaves, but insisted that they themselves were freemen, and sought assimilation and amalgamation with the nation on the same terms with other men.”31 This is to say, then, that Black culture has been transnational for quite a while; indeed, it has to be acknowledged that by the very nature of Black Americans coming from disparate nations from West Africa, there always has been a transnational aspect to African American culture, and the introduction of cultural aspects from the British West Indies is only an extension of this process of transnational cultural migration. For Domingo, the West Indian’s most important contribution to Black American life and culture is the manhood project cited by Du Bois, and he ends his essay with a quote from Claude McKay’s famous sonnet, “If We Must Die”: “Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,/Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back.”32

  • 33 Édouard Glissant, The Poetics of Relation (orig. pub. 1990, English ed., University of Mi (...)

11In order to understand the importance of what Domingo is doing here, Bhabha’s third space may still apply, but not in the context of colonizer and colonized. Here the work of Edouard Glissant is useful, as Glissant’s poetics of relations takes Giles and Deleuze’s concept of the rhizome and weaves it into a postcolonial theory of relations. Relation theory, for Glissant, is the expression of a “world force” that, like Giles and Deleuze’s rhizomes, spreads out in different directions in an infinite number of ways and manifests itself in just as many ways, thus making it an almost impossible theory to fully explore. Nevertheless, “this force and its way of being is what we call Relation: what the world makes and expresses of itself.”33 In Domingo’s article, these relations can be seen as creating a new type of people through their cultural contact and through their shared relational position to the oppressor culture, i.e., a third space of the colonized. The cultural contact among the West Indian populations and African American populations had a dramatic impact on both geographic areas. Moreover, it had important cultural consequences. As Glissant writes:

  • 34 Ibid, 161-62.

Contact among cultures infers, however, a relation of uncertainty in the perception one has or the experience one senses of them. The mere fact of reflecting them in common, in a planetary perspective, inflects the nature and the “projection” of every specific culture contemplated. Decisive mutations in the quality of relationships result from this, with spectacular consequences that are often thus “experienced” long before the basis for the change itself has been perceived by the collective consciousness.34

  • 35 Ibid, 161-163.

This is to say that if Douglas and Reiss described the transnational relationship as one of colonizer and colonized which could be read through a Bhabhaian lens, then the relationship among the transnational communities described in Domingo’s article extends the discussion to include Glissant’s poetics of relations. This complicates the concept of the transnational in that, for Glissant, all human interaction becomes relational, and cultural relationality becomes a complex web which continually weaves over and through itself, changing itself through its own operations of relationality.35

Claude McKay: Caught Between the Old World and New York

12If Domingo’s article examines the complexity of relational exchange among colonized populations through a sociological lens, Claude McKay, a Jamaican poet who is often associated with the Harlem Renaissance, and who also makes an appearance in the Harlem Mecca issue of Survey Graphic, examines the colonized populations through a cultural and political lens. McKay’s poem, also titled “The Tropics of New York” is placed alongside Domingo’s essay:

  • 36 McKay, 648.

Bananas ripe and green, and ginger root,
      Cocoa in pods and alligator pears,
And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit,
      Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs,

Set in the window, bringing memories
      Of fruit-trees laden by low-singing rills,
And dewy dawns, and mystical blue skies
      In benediction over nun-like hills.

My eyes grew dim, and I could no more gaze;
      A wave of longing through my body swept,
And, hungry for the old, familiar ways,
      I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.36

  • 37 Ibid. I would like to thank Professor Daniella la Pena at the University of Reading for (...)

13McKay complicates the relationship the immigrant has to the new land. The image that arises from this poem is that of the poet gazing at a window in a Harlem grocery, apparently a grocery store that is either owned by West Indians, or a Harlem grocery that has simply included West Indian foods among its wares. The lyrical “I” looks longingly upon these prizes. A stark difference, however, is presented in the lines: “Set in the window, bringing memories/Of fruit-trees laden by low-singing rills.” While the (most likely impoverished) speaker cannot afford to purchase the delicacies displayed in the window, he remembers back to the “fruit-laden trees” of his home country, where no money was required to pluck a fruit from the tree and enjoy its blessings. So still being “hungry,” he “turned aside” and “wept.” This is an excellent example of two cultures meeting and clashing, namely the culinary culture of Jamaica and the capitalist culture of the United States. Here, the contrast of the “new,” as in the new experiences of New York, with the “old” of the “old, familiar ways” of the tropics makes a contrast which highlights the way that a globalizing world has both benefits and distinct disadvantages.37

  • 38 Tyrone Tillery, Claude McKay: A Black Poet’s Struggle for Identity, (Universit (...)
  • 39 Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, “Transatlantic Collaborations: Visual Culture in Afr (...)
  • 40 Ibid., 233.

14That McKay was a socialist and a critic of capitalism is well-documented. Indeed, McKay biographer Tyrone Tillery writes, “[i]n ‘Socialism and the Negro’ he [McKay] stated his belief that socialism and the working-class revolution were of immense importance and benefit to African Americans.”38 This is to say that the transnational aspect of the Harlem Renaissance was often critical of certain aspects of this cultural hybridity, and this is a tension that is felt in Survey Graphic as well. Domingo’s essay, which argues that the West Indian brings the spirit of resistance to Black American culture, is a call for resistance that is reinforced by McKay’s poem, itself a call for resistance dressed in the garb of cultural hybridity. Moreover, McKay’s poem highlights the tension between the Black American as colonized colonizer and the now doubly-otherized foreign dark-skinned person. For example, writing on Jessie Fauset’s travel articles, Cherene Sherrard-Johnson examines “what happens when the mantle of Western privilege is taken up (and occasionally cast off) by the Black woman cosmopolitan traveler.”39 Fauset, argues Sherrard-Johnson, as someone who is not in her native land, often sees with “imperial eyes,” but “her status as an African American woman adds another layer of complexity to transculturation, or the reciprocal but uneasy process of exchange that happens at the moment of encounter.”40

  • 41 Gilroy, 19; 31-32.
  • 42 Schomburg, Arthur A. “The Negro Digs Up His Past.” Survey Graphic, March 1925, (...)

15For McKay, who is also not in his own land, who is in fact in the land of the oppressor, but in the neighborhood of another oppressed group, a similarly complex layer of transculturation emerges: an additional “third space” of resistance develops between the Black capitalist and the Jamaican immigrant. Thus, when Gilroy writes of the rhizomatic process of cultural proliferation in which African Americans and people from the Caribbean are “changed into something else which evades those specific labels and with them all fixed notions of nationality and national identity,” he is referring to this complex process of transculturality which operates over and over again in culturally diverse societies, where the dueling concepts of Black essentialism and cultural hybridity both become more urgent and problematic, Black essentialism as a means of resistance against the society at large and cultural hybridity as a means of acknowledging the cultural diversity that nevertheless exists among Black populations that live in the same neighborhoods. 41 Thus, the poem and the essay, sharing the same name, together provide a broad perspective on the way in which transnationality has developed and changed African American culture. Domingo’s essay, with its nod to the transnational antebellum efforts of Black Americans and West Indians, also recalls Arthur Alfonso Schomburg’s essay in the “Harlem Mecca” Survey Graphic on the need for Black Americans to reclaim their past in order to build a future.42 Schomburg’s essay will be the subject of the next and final section of my study.

Arthur Schomburg and Excavating the Black Past

  • 43 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread (...)
  • 44 Ibid, 149
  • 45 Bhaba, 228.

16For Schomburg, the Black past is one that is necessarily transnational. To translate a transnational past into a “unified” Black past, however, is problematic as it involves the conflation of several national histories that already belong to what Benedict Anderson identifies as “imagined communities.”43 For Anderson, this type of cultural time conflation is called “Unisonance,” and it is a concept that Bhabha picks up on in his critique of nations “DissemiNation.”44 Bhabha writes: “The people emerge in an uncanny moment of their ‘present’ history as ‘a ghostly intimation of simultaneity across homogenous empty time.’”45 Thus, for Schomburg to see the Black past as necessarily transnational is in fact to see the Black past as the only way it can be seen: as the story of several already imagined communities (nations) transmuted into a meta-imagined community (the Black nation).

  • 46 Schomburg, 670.
  • 47 Ibid, 670.

17Schomburg begins his essay by declaring: “The American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future.”46 While Schomburg argues that for most Americans a break with the past is something to be desired, it is only in the reclaiming (or re-construction) of a Black past that the Black artist can develop culturally rich material. Thus “we find the Negro thinking more collectively, more retrospectively than the rest, and apt out of the very pressure of the present to become the most enthusiastic antiquarian of them all.”47

18Schomburg goes on to discuss the recent “exhibition of books, pamphlets, prints and old engravings” hosted by the Public Library of Harlem in 1925. Among these collections were not only many important documents related to “our common American history,” but also “still rarer items of Africana and foreign Negro interest.” These included:

  • 48 Ibid, 671.

[T]he volumes of Juan Latino, the best Latinist of Spain in the reign of Philip V[…]; the Latin and Dutch treatises of Jacobus Eliza Capitein, a native of West Coast Africa and graduate of the University of Leyden, Gustavus Vassa’s celebrated autobiography […], Julien Raymond’s Paris expose of the disabilities of the free people of color in the then (1791) French colony of Hayti, and Baron de Vastey’s Cry of the Fatherland, the famous polemic by the secretary of Christophe that precipitated the Haytian struggle for independence.48

  • 49 Ibid, 672.

19Schomburg presents a Black past that is rich in cultural material that is not only American and African, but broadly transnational, with influences from Europe as well. Any Black artist going forward needs to go back not only into the African past, but also the European past, as well as the American past to trace the ways that the Black diaspora contributed to American, African and European culture at large. The importance of this statement resonates today: it reminds us that a Black aesthetic is a hybrid aesthetic, as Black artists, writers, activists and thinkers have been just as responsible for helping create the purportedly all-white European culture passed down to them as they were for the Black African culture which Schomburg notes that artists “first in France and Germany, but now very generally” have found so “astonishing.”49

  • 50 The first mention in print of the concept of the Black mecca seems to be with the public (...)

20Thus, as Locke argues in his introduction to the “Harlem: Mecca” issue of Survey Graphic, the special issue deals with “the race question as a world problem.” It is a magazine which, by invoking the concept of Mecca, a city known as a place of international congress for Muslims all over the world, and applying it to Harlem,50 stresses the transnational aspect of the Harlem community and the Black diaspora in general, thus anticipating further transnational postcolonial and transnational Black studies. As Locke writes:

  • 51 Locke, 633.

The pulse of the Negro world has begun to beat in Harlem. A Negro newspaper carrying news material in English, French and Spanish, gathered from all quarters of America, the West Indies and Africa has maintained itself in Harlem for over five years. Two important magazines, both edited from New York, maintain their news and circulation consistently on a cosmopolitan scale. Under American auspices and backing, three pan-African congresses have been held abroad for the discussion of common interests, colonial questions and the future cooperative development of Africa. 51

  • 52 Ibid, 634.

21Locke argues that while the African American’s “new internationalism is primarily an effort to recapture contact with the scattered peoples of African derivation,” any research into the Black diaspora’s history becomes a study in transnationalism itself.52 The “Harlem Mecca” issue of Survey Graphic serves as a useful demonstration of the ways in which transnationality works in terms of relations between colonizer and colonized, between two oppressed colonized communities, and between oppressed colonized communities and othered communities within those oppressed communities. It is thus a fascinating document that demonstrates the need for the large rhizomatic studies done by theorists such as Bhabha, Gilroy and perhaps most importantly Glissant, whose poetics of relations anticipates the complex relational problems within Black communities. Importantly, as an early document of Black transnationalism, the “Harlem: Mecca” issue of Survey Graphic can be seen as a useful document for Black diaspora studies and Black transnational studies in general.

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Notes

1 Anne Elizabeth Carroll Word, Image, and the New Negro: Representation and Identity in the Harlem Renaissance (Indiana University Press, 2007), 124.

2 Ibid, 155.

3 The terms transnational and diaspora benefit from clarification: Gilroy reminds us that the term diaspora originally comes from the Jewish tradition. As Gilroy writes: “The themes of escape and suffering, tradition, temporality, and social organization of memory have a special significance in the history of Jewish responses to modernity.” See Gilroy, 205. This concept is useful when thinking about what Alain Locke means when he suggests that African Americans and Black people in general were becoming international through their persecution. Similarly, the term “transnational” is used here in the sense of several groups of “imagined communities” (as will be discussed in greater depth later in this article) that interact with each other, and through this interaction, form increasingly more and varied “imagined communities” in the process.

4 This issue of Survey Graphic is in fact often overlooked in favor of The New Negro. David Levering Lewis writes that “American literature was not much enhanced by Survey Graphic’s offerings.” See David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue (Penguin Books, 1997), 116. He also dismissed a story by W.E.B. Du Bois as “a throwaway piece of engaging irony,” See Lewis. When Harlem Was in Vogue, 116. Lewis does, however, concede that there was also some work “of far more than average merit” included. See Ibid. It is my contention that more thorough discussions of this magazine issue could prove fruitful, and this article can be considered a step in that direction.

5 Anne Elizabeth Carroll, Word, Image, and the New Negro: Representation and Identity in the Harlem Renaissance (Indiana University Press, 2007), 150.

6 Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, The Western Esoteric Traditions (Oxford University Press, 2008), 233.

7 Ibid.

8 This vague term, “the liberal tradition” can be understood in this sense as classical John Lockean liberalism. Consider, for example, Locke’s contention that “[t]he state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.” See John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (orig. pub. 1690, reprint ed. Hackett Publishing Company, 1980), italics in original.

9 Carroll, Word, Image, and the New Negro: Representation and Identity in the Harlem Renaissance, 125.

10 Cara Finnegan, “Social Welfare and Visual Politics: The Story of Survey Graphic,” New Deal Network, 01 Feb. 2017. Accessed 15 Jan. 2020 at https://web.archive.org/web/20170201100259/http://newdeal.feri.org/sg/essay01.htm.

11 Leonard Harris and Charles Molesworth, Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher (University of Chicago Press, 2008), 189.

12 Cheryl A Wall, “Histories and Heresies: Engendering the Harlem Renaissance,” Meridians, vol. 2, no. 1, 2001, 61.

13 Jeffrey C Stewart, The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke, (Oxford University Press, 2018), 434-435.

14 Alain Locke, “Enter the New Negro,” Survey Graphic, Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro, vol. 6, no. 6, March 1925, 633.

15 Frank Mehring, “Mediating Mexico: Winold Reiss and the Transcultural Dimension of ‘Harlem’ in the 1920s,” Forum for Inter-American Research: The Journal of the International Association of Inter-American Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, July 2014, 22-25.

16 Frank Mehring. “The Visual Harlem Renaissance; or, Winold Reiss in Mexico,” Amerikastudien, vol. 55, no. 4, 2010, 640.

17 Mehring, “Mediating Mexico,” 24.

18 Jon Woodson, To Make a New Race (University Press of Mississippi, 1999), 42-45. For a full discussion of the concept of the new race as seen by both Vasconcelos and Toomer, see Tru Leverette, “New Americans: Race, Mixture, and Nation in the Work of Jean Toomer and José Vasconcelos,” South Atlantic Review, vol. 73, no. 3, 61-85. This idea of a new race would have been taken up by Aaron Douglas as well, who was introduced to Gurdjieff’s teaching by Jean Toomer and became “a convert for life.” See David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue (Penguin Books, 1997), 73.

19 Stephanie L Hawkins, “Building the ‘Blue’ Race: Miscegenation, Mysticism, and the Language of Cognitive Evolution in Jean Toomer’s ’The Blue Meridian,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 46, no. 2, Summer 2004, 149-180.

20 Mehring, “Mediating Mexico,” 24.

21 Marilyn Stokstad identifies the building as the Capitol building in her study, Art History. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. (Prentice Hall, 2002), 1113. A second, castle-like structure next to the Capitol remains unidentified, although to my eye it resembles the building at 409 Edgecombe Avenue where many Black luminaries lived in Harlem, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Thurgood Marshall.

22 Cheryl Ragar, “Aaron Douglas: Influences and Impacts of the Early Years,” Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist, edited by Susan Earle (Yale University Press, 2007), 82.

23 Richard Powell. “The Aaron Douglas Effect,” Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist, edited by Susan Earle (Yale University Press, 2007), 55, 53.

24 Jean Toomer. “The Blue Meridian.” The Wayward and the Seeking, edited by Darwin T. Turner (Howard University Press, 1982), 226.

25 Homi Bhaba. The Location of Culture (Routledge, 1994), 50.

26 This concept of “signifying” references Henry Louis Gates formulation, in which signifying can be understood as “repetition and revision, or repetition with a signal difference.” See Henry Louis Gates, The Signifying Monkey (Oxford University Press, 1988), xxiv.

27 W.A. Domingo, “The Tropics in New York,” Survey Graphic, March 1925, 648.

28 Ibid, 648.

29 Ibid, 649-650

30 Ibid, 649.

31 W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (orig. pub. 1903, reprint ed., Dover Publications, 2012), 29.

32 Domingo, 650.

33 Édouard Glissant, The Poetics of Relation (orig. pub. 1990, English ed., University of Michigan Press, 1997), 159-160.

34 Ibid, 161-62.

35 Ibid, 161-163.

36 McKay, 648.

37 Ibid. I would like to thank Professor Daniella la Pena at the University of Reading for this insight into the “old” world contrasted with the “new New York” evoked here.

38 Tyrone Tillery, Claude McKay: A Black Poet’s Struggle for Identity, (University of Massachussetts Press, 1992), 44.

39 Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, “Transatlantic Collaborations: Visual Culture in African American Literature,” in Gene Andrew Jarrett, ed., A Companion to African American Literature, E-Book ed., (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

40 Ibid., 233.

41 Gilroy, 19; 31-32.

42 Schomburg, Arthur A. “The Negro Digs Up His Past.” Survey Graphic, March 1925, 670-672.

43 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, 2006.

44 Ibid, 149

45 Bhaba, 228.

46 Schomburg, 670.

47 Ibid, 670.

48 Ibid, 671.

49 Ibid, 672.

50 The first mention in print of the concept of the Black mecca seems to be with the publication of this issue of Survey Graphic. I have not been able to locate any other printed mention of a “Black mecca” prior to this issue, although Maurice Hobson argues that Atlanta had already obtained that moniker shortly after the Civil War, as large numbers of African Americans moved to the city. See Maurice Hobson, The Legend of the Black Mecca (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 2.

51 Locke, 633.

52 Ibid, 634.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure n°1 : Winold Reiss, Dawn in Harlem (1925) 
URL http://journals.openedition.org/siecles/docannexe/image/8957/img-1.jpg
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Titre Figure n°2 : Aaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction (1934)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/siecles/docannexe/image/8957/img-2.jpeg
Fichier image/jpeg, 4,4M
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Whit Frazier Peterson, « Transnational Aesthetics in “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro” »Siècles [En ligne], 51 | 2021, mis en ligne le 04 janvier 2022, consulté le 01 juillet 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/siecles/8957 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/siecles.8957

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Whit Frazier Peterson

Lecturer and Research Associate in American Studies, University of Stuttgart

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