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The Harlem Renaissance and Its Dual Identities: Fostering the New Negro in American Art

Kim Jina 1

1전남대학교

Accredited

ABSTRACT

Occurring between 1919 and 1934, the Harlem Renaissance marked the first period of intense activity on the part of various African-American writers and artists. With the Great Migration and World War I, as well as the New Negro movement, a new cultural consciousness formed among many African-American writers and artists. This paper first discusses the social background of the Harlem Renaissance's development and how the concept of the New Negro, in particular, offered new progressive ways for African Americans to represent themselves in arts. The paper then examines how New Negro artists, such as Meta Fuller, Aaron Douglas, and Palmer Hayden, embodied the New Negro-ness in their works. With regard to the visual arts in particular, Alain Locke was the most prominent guiding figure who provided artists with a new cultural and aesthetic vision. In The New Negro(1925), Locke expressed his desire to establish a school of Negro art and emphasized the attention to the African ancestral arts that brought potent inspiration for many modern artists. This emphasis on African art must not, therefore, be misunderstood as literally going back to Africa, as some nationalists emphasized. Instead, Locke's suggestion was to make New Negro artists equal partners to other white American artists by enhancing their unique artistic heritage. The New Negro represented in the art works was in fact created in in-between spaces between Africa and America. Fuller's Ethiopia Awakening (1914) portrayed an ancient black Egyptian woman just coming back to life, and proposed the formation of a new consciousness by demolishing the association with a dead continent and slavery. Douglas, in his earlier works in the 1920s, radically fused hard-edge abstract style influenced by cubism with ancestral African images such as masks, artifacts, and poses. Hayden's works from the 1930s, unlike his earlier realistic still-lifes and landscapes, revealed the use of foreshortening in a more modern style. They also revealed an ambivalent position towards the African-American figures, who are drawn with exaggerated skin colors and forms including eyes, lips, and head shapes. In particular, The Janitor Who Paints(1930) was often criticized for internalizing stereotypes of Negros and complicating issues of “whether it is submission or protest” for the white viewers. These artists, however, all did their best to represent the New Negro consciousness in their individual ways, and their works were formed by the ongoing conflict and association between black and white, American and African, and modernism and primitivism. On the one hand, Harlem Renaissance arts and the notion of the New Negro reinforced these dualistic divisions, but on the other hand, they also questioned and confused the lines between these two categories. Although the New Negro artists continued to be denied the treatment that mainstream artists received, since most African Americans of that time did not have adequate civil rights, they chose to represent themselves and subsequently proposed a new cultural perspective, thus establishing a precursor for later African-American arts, as well as the American arts related to the issue of cultural identities.

Citation status

* References for papers published after 2022 are currently being built.

This paper was written with support from the National Research Foundation of Korea.