Inventing the New Negro: Narrative, Culture, and Ethnography

Inventing the New Negro: Narrative, Culture, and Ethnography

Inventing the New Negro: Narrative, Culture, and Ethnography

Inventing the New Negro: Narrative, Culture, and Ethnography


It is no coincidence, Daphne Lamothe writes, that so many black writers and intellectuals of the first half of the twentieth century either trained formally as ethnographers or worked as amateur collectors of folklore and folk culture. In Inventing the New Negro Lamothe explores the process by which key figures such as Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Dunham, W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and Sterling Brown adapted ethnography and folklore in their narratives to create a cohesive, collective, and modern black identity.

Lamothe explores how these figures assumed the roles of self-reflective translators and explicators of African American and African diasporic cultures to Western, largely white audiences. Lamothe argues that New Negro writers ultimately shifted the presuppositions of both literary modernism and modernist anthropology by making their narratives as much about ways of understanding as they were about any quest for objective knowledge. In critiquing the ethnographic framework within which they worked, they confronted the classist, racist, and cultural biases of the dominant society and challenged their readers to imagine a different set of relations between the powerful and the oppressed.

Inventing the New Negro combines an intellectual history of one of the most important eras of African American letters with nuanced and original readings of seminal works of literature. It will be of interest not only to Harlem Renaissance scholars but to anyone who is interested in the intersections of culture, literature, folklore, and ethnography.


In 1925, after having won second prize in an Opportunity magazine contest for her short story “Drenched in Light,” the intrepid Zora Neale Hurston made her way from Eatonville, Florida, to the crowded streets of New York City in search, like so many other Southern migrants, of education and opportunity. Soon after her arrival in the city, she enrolled at Barnard College, where she studied anthropology with Franz Boas. It did not take long for Hurston to become a vital member of Harlem’s social and literary scene, even as she gained credentials as an anthropologist. in 1927, and again in 1934 after having been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to study folklore, she took the education and cultural capital that she had accumulated in New York with her on her fieldwork in the South. She was intent on documenting the particular contributions of Southern Blacks to American society, but consequently, she found that the return to the South demanded that she negotiate the spaces—both real and rhetorical—between the familiar and the strange, the insides and the outside of a culture that she knew so well yet learned to value only once she moved away and saw it through the eyes of a stranger.

Hurston, like so many of her New Negro peers, would build a career at the borders of American interracial and cross-cultural encounters. Inventing the New Negro: Narrative, Culture, and Ethnography represents one attempt to examine the geographical locations identified by, and socially mediated gazes used by, Black intellectuals in the early decades of the twentieth century. These writers and artists adopted and adapted anthropology, folklore, and sociological discourses to name and create a cohesive, collective, and modern Black identity. I refer to the texts they produced as “sites of culture” in order to underscore the attempts of writers like Hurston to create counternarratives to American society’s racist discourse on blackness by mapping African American culture across particular geographical spaces, while viewing it from their socially mediated “sights,” or perspectives.

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