Category Archives: The Trope of a New Negro and the Reconstruction of the Image of the Black

Utilizing Appeasement

Crisis Magazine works to visually reconcile ideas of Blackness with modernity and culture. Images of prominent and historical Black figures on the covers highlight the intellectual and cultural influence of Black people, defying the racist depictions so common at the time. Instead of stereotypical caricatures, Crisis shows Black people as participants of respectable society. Most of the women are dressed in elegant Victorian garb while the men can be seen in suits and military uniforms. They display elements of wealth, class and education amongst a variety of figures. This, of course, is done intentionally. In addition to refuting racial stereotypes, Crisis images serve to “repackage” the negro, arguing that he has evolved beyond that of a slave. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr writes in the essay The Trope of a New Negro and the Reconstruction of the Image of the Black:

“…the image of a “New Negro” has served various generations of black intellectuals as a sign of plenitude, of regeneration, of a truly reconstructed presence” (130).

The May 1921 issue perfectly demonstrates this. The cover features Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a french violinist and composer of African descent. The issue features a biography of Bologne, detailing his many feats and accomplishments despite being a “mulatto”. Bologne, by Gates’s definition, exemplifies plentitude, regeneration and presence. His feature is just one of the many Black figures who personify this “New Negro”.

Nevertheless, the “New Negro” is in actuality a paradoxical concept. The idea relies on the theory of “newness” or a “reconstruction” of Black identity, however figures like Bologne predate the “New Negro” concept which, according to Gates, arrives in the late 19th early 20th century. The New Negro, therefore, is not new at all — he has always existed. Gates also addresses this fallacy in his essay:

“The paradox of this claim is inherent in the trope itself, combining as it does a concern with time, antecedents, and heritage, on the one hand, with a concern for a cleared space, the public face of the race, on the other” (132).

The New Negro trope demands both a new yet redeemed creation, a figure that has both transcended his past yet has no path at all. Crisis, therefore, abandons this impossible task for something more achievable. While the conventional New Negro is about repackaging or “rebranding” Blacks for the appeasement of Whites, Crisis conversely argues that The New Negro has always been. He is not a new creation, but an aesthetic that has already existed within Black spaces.

I think it’s important to note here that Crisis is primarily for Black readers. It is geared towards a specific audience with the task of producing the individual (or collective) edification of African Americans. We can see that, contrary to Gate’s discourse, Du Bois is not using Crisis to appeal to white people. He is not intent on “repackaging” Blacks for the sake of whites but is repackaging them for themselves, working to produce a less destructive narrative and give Blacks something to aspire to. Du Bois seeks to instill pride in his people in order to move towards advancement and upward mobility. While his methods in doing this can be considered flawed (using primarily light skin people on his covers) the intention, and by extension the result, is still the same.