January 20, 2014

"Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro" and Progressive Dreams

Prosperity Anxiety and Racial Romanticism: 80 Years Ago


RING ANY BELLS? A cover from a 1928 magazine, SURVEY GRAPHIC, that I came across this morning in one of my bottomless image collections. Surprising how the concerns of 80 years ago seem parallel today. But then, the habits of the liberal ("progressive") mind haven't changed all that much....

SURVEY GRAPHIC was a progressive magazine "covering a wide range of important social issues, including race, anti-semitism, housing, labor, educational reform, and nutrition, to name a few." It had laudable goals for the time, but its look was -- for the era-- startling and innovative. It prefigured, in many ways, the work of Edward Tufte.

Chief among the goals of Survey Graphic was to communicate information visually through the use of charts, graphs, illustrations, cartoons and photographs. Paul Kellogg hoped to "engage the attention of a wide audience by use of graphic and literary arts in partnership with the social sciences, to catch the eye and heart as well as the intellect."
As you can see above, it did "catch the eye as well as the intellect" in a way that today's fluff and puff magazines can never hope to emulate.

Another glimpse of the issues that concerned the magazine that are still not resolved today is this cover from a women's issue:


SURVEY GRAPHIC thrived in the 30s but slowly died off after WWII. An excellent essay on the history of this influential magazine is found HERE.

One complete issue, Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro, is online HERE.

Cover by Winold Reiss

This issue was probably assembled by the distinguished Alain Locke ("Father of the Harlem Renaissance"), or at the very least anchored around his three contributions to it. In any case, it certainly owes much of its attitude if not its content to Locke's "The New Negro: An Interpretation" also published in 1925.

Politically revolutionary for its time (1925), the issue appears somewhat more ambiguous in today's eyes with articles like "Harlem Types" -- a meditation on the then residents on Harlem that would get anyone attempting it today imprisoned in "Racist Jail" for life.

Illustrations by Winold Reiss

Even then, the editors knew they were treading on sensitive ground. Witness their copy that accompanies the article:

"Harlem, or any Negro community, spreads a rich and novel palette for the serious artist. It needs but enlightenment of mind and eye to make its intriguing problems and promising resources available for the stimulation and enrichment of American art.

CONVENTIONS stand doubly in the way of artistic portrayal of Negro folk; certain narrowly arbitrary conventions of physical beauty, and as well, that inevitable inscrutability of things seen but not understood. Caricature has put upon the countenance of the Negro the mask of the comic and the grotesque, whereas in deeper truth and comprehension, nature or experience have put there the stamp of the very opposite, the serious, the tragic, the wistful. At times, too, there is a quality of soul that can only be called brooding and mystical. Here they are to be seen as we know them to be in fact. While it is a revealing interpretation for all, for the Negro artist, still for the most part confronting timidly his own material, there is certainly a particular stimulus and inspiration in this redeeming vision. Through it in all likelihood must come his best development in the field of the pictorial arts, for his capacity to express beauty depends vitally upon the capacity to see it in his own life and to generate it out of his own experience."

Today, it is a commonplace to deny that there is any sort of "Plantation Mentality" working within the progressive political community. That may be so, but there's little doubt that a certain heart-felt and "wistful" romanticism worked its magic for poor little white boys lost in the blues in decades now gone by.

Posted by Vanderleun at January 20, 2014 1:32 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

SSDD - Same $#!+ Different Day.

Posted by: Potsie at January 21, 2014 5:43 AM