Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance

Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance

Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance

Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance

Excerpt

She's no whiter than you see.

—WILLIAM WELLS BROWN, Clotelle: or, the Colored Heroine (1867)

Mulatta iconography proliferated during the Harlem Renaissance as a result of visual and literary cross-fertilization. A by-product of counter-representational strategies to combat negative images of black womanhood, the mulatta was born from a complex melding of aesthetics and activism; and she remains a fraught, continually reinvented figure in black literary and visual culture. My framework for tracing the iconography of the mulatta can also be applied to other interartistic constructions that propose to represent identity, from the New Woman to the folkloric blues hero known as the bad-nigger. Conceived in broader terms, the framework pushes at the boundaries of narrative by identifying a protagonist who cannot be pinned down solely by pen, paintbrush, or lens. In this introduction, I clarify the scope and substance of my argument about the mulatta's status as a visual and literary icon, acquaint readers with the vocabulary of racial ambiguity, and provide a foundational lexicon of images that antedate the mulatta in Harlem Renaissance culture.

By establishing the mulatta as a literary trope, antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction literature laid the groundwork for the her iconic representation. Early African American writing provided a vocabulary that inscribed and codified what miscegenation meant and looked like, thus exposing what had once been invisible traces of blackness and, more important, making them evident to particular audiences. Two “portraits” from mid-nineteenth-century African American literature set the stage for my study and reveal the origins of the visual grammar of mulatta, a common language of perception and performance drawn from literary and visual culture. The first appears in William Wells Brown's Clotel, or, the President's Daughter (1853). Instead of beginning with a brief synopsis of his subject's childhood, as he does in his own autobiographical . . .

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