The Negro Artist and the Racial Manor: Infants of the Spring and the Conundrum of Publicity

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Somehow, somewhere, black writers and creators had lost control of their subjects and, with them, some of the Harlem Renaissance. (Mumford 155)

In a recent essay on the critical reception of Jennie Livingston's acclaimed documentary Paris Is Burning (1991), Philip Brian Harper proposes that the "subversive edge" the film would seem to promote is, in fact, anything but subversive. Arguing that the cultural capital that minority drag queens acquire through their filmed performances is predicated upon the loss of their agency and the loss of their privacy, Harper convincingly suggests that Livingston's subjects are wholly dependent upon the cinematic medium for public recognition. In effect, the queens are "the product of a discursive process over which they have no control." Hence what critics have often considered to be the drag queens' personal subversion of gender norms is, instead, inextricably tied to the one person who controls, edits, and manipulates their representations--Livingston, the white director (55). This scenario, it seems, is far from unique. In fact, the problematic of privacy, property, and subject position that Harper discovers at work in the House of Xtravaganza can also be found in another locale, namely Niggerati Manor, the setting of Wallace Thurman's 1932 roman clef Infants of the Spring.

Like Harper's "subversive edge," Infants of the Spring too reveals just how little control minority subjects actually have over their own representations. After the residents of Niggerati Manor, an apartment colony of Harlem's bohemian artists, throw a wild rent party, culminating in what can only be called an interracial sex orgy, Dr. Parkes, a thinly veiled caricature of Alain Locke, comes knocking at the Manor's door. Dismayed by the Manor's decadence, Dr. Parkes informs Ray, a thinly veiled portrait of Thurman, that the press will no longer turn a blind eye to the house's prurient behavior. In fact, editorials in newspapers such as The New York Call have righteously proclaimed that

"these young people should be brought to their senses. They should be made to realize the futility and danger of the path they had chosen, the rosy path to hell. They should be taken aside and reasoned with[;] then if this failed the white light of publicity should be shed upon their activities and their innate viciousness and duplicity exposed to the world."

Raymond laughed as he finished reading.

"Surely you don't take this tripe seriously?"

"It's not a matter of taking it seriously," Dr. Parkes answered solemnly.

"It's a matter of protecting yourself from unnecessary attacks on your reputation. This is a new day in the history of our race. Talented Negroes are being watched by countless people, white and black, to produce something new and something tremendous. They are waiting for you to prove yourselves worthy so they can help you. Scandal stories in the newspapers certainly won't influence the public favorably."

"My habits and my life are my own business. I intend to live just as I please, regardless of yellow journalism, of a public which might offer me material aid should I, in their opinion, prove myself worthy." Raymond's words were crisp and angry. (197-98)

This impassioned exchange suggests the links among publicity, privacy, and the New Negro artist that I will be tracing throughout this essay. Though the subject of their fiery debate is ostensibly the Manor's wild reputation, the conversation between Ray and Dr. Parkes is also a battle over what exactly a literary public sphere should be. Dr. Parkes sees the presentation of private personality within the literary public sphere as an integral part of the New Negro project. Thus the Manor's party animals had better shape up and fly right or else they will lose the public's favor. Ray, however, insists that one's private biography has nothing to do with the literary public sphere; the Negro artist should never have to submit to the "white light of publicity. …