Self-Fashioning in the Harlem Renaissance

A large part of the Harlem Renaissance was a reclamation of control over the Black narrative and we see how that narrative differs across authors and publications. 

A large part of what makes Opportunity a magazine that is seemingly the pulse of Harlem at the Harlem Renaissance is this emphasis on its intentions. How Opportunity differs itself from other periodicals like the Crisis, is its explicit intentions of affirming the newfound Black identity; the demand for social change is not only evident but it’s intended to provoke a conversation. Crisis had an image that was heavily surveilled by W.E.B DuBois, he often had a say in the images that went on the covers but the the photographers and subjects in photos remained uncredited. The Crisis was largely about presenting to audiences what DuBois had to say than a medley of art with multiple contributors of equal importance.  Opportunity is a hodgepodge of nonfiction writing and poetry, in some ways it’s a publication that understands that change is dynamic and there is no singular way to approach change.Change could be inspired by the vision that DuBois laid out in The Crisis with Black folk depicted engaging with art and sports but our humanity can still be demonstrated in other ways. 

Countee Cullen, contributing poet to Opportunity, writes poems that often channel abstractions like desire and heartbreak. Cullen’s poetry details the inherent desire to love and be loved. Countee Cullen’s poetry suggests that The New Negro can be sensitive and have the capacity to love someone intimately. How does knowing that Countee Cullen was gay help us read his poetry to interpret themes that are relevant to Black Queer studies?

“Love in Ruins” is a poem that laments a love that once was. Lines like “Love for a meager space deigned to allow” can doubly apply to Blackness as well the queer experience. On one hand this poem can be articulating oppressive structures that threaten the burgeoning Black identity that thrives on community and self-love. On the other hand, this could be a poem grieving a queer relationship that was concealed in shame and unsustainable. I believe that both ideas eclipse within this poem and throughout Cullen’s other works. We wouldn’t be able to observe how his lyricism addresses layers of identity if it weren’t periodicals like Opportunity that democratized the voice of the Harlem Renaissance.

Racial and Sexual Ambiguity in Passing

Nella Larsen was such an elusive figure from the Harlem Renaissance. Not too much was known about her personal life so it would be inaccurate to claim that she was queer but her novel Passing is often read as possessing queer depictions. The concept of racial passing invites an air of ambiguity to the work that provokes scholars and myself to wonder what else stirs in the subtext. If we observe Passing from a queer lens, it radically changes how we understand the novel and Blackness as a whole.

Passing with queer identity in mind becomes allegorical for living a closeted life and its restrains on one’s happiness; this becomes clear when we close read the two female protagonists meeting after a long time of not seeing one another. Irene and Clare’s relationship is never mentioned in an explicitly sexual or romantic nature but the language that is used to describe their relationship can still apply to sexual or romantic desire. Within the first few pages of the book Irene opens a letter from Clare that begins: “For I am so lonely, so lonely…cannot help longing to be with you again, as I have never longed for anything before; and I have wanted many things in my life, (Larsen, 8)” It’s moments like this throughout the novel where Irene and Clare show such grand affection for one another that it seems almost intimate. Also it wasn’t uncommon for sapphic relationships in literature and media to exist under the veil of a “really close” friendship.

This novel entertains the idea of murkiness; every interpretation of it is speculative. I agree with literary scholar Lori Harrison-Kahan on her view that the characters of the novel are “moving back and forth between racial and sexual passing (Harrison-Kahan, 2002)”. Both kinds of passing seem to be sharing space in this narrative. Irene’s feelings toward Clare alternates from feelings of disgust, enticement, admiration, and fear all throughout; I can’t help but connect all of these emotions to a desire and sexual frustration. Irene’s interiority and discomfort with Clare around could denote shame for her sexual attraction toward Clare.

Queering Passing also shifts the lens of the novel’s tragic ending. It’s my opinion that Irene pushed Clare out of the window as an act of love. Another text where I’ve seen this was Safe by Georgia Douglas Johnson. The main character murders her infant moments after delivery because she was afraid that her son would eventually be lynched anyway. The play ends with the devastating words: “Now he’s safe––safe from the lynchers! Safe!” (Johnson, 1929). It could very well be that Irene had the same attitude when pushing Clare out of the window; she might’ve thought that Clare falling to her death was protecting from a much more vicious fate. It’s my assumption that Larsen is contributing to a history of Black literature that imagines death as an escape from racial cruelty. Reacquainting novel with queer identity colors this moment as an action made out of romantic love for Clare.

Conscious Pathbreakers: Escaping the “Ghetto”

Eunice Roberta Hunton once wrote, “Harlem is a modern ghetto”. Harlem of 1925 was not exactly the concentration camps of Warsaw, Poland where members of the Jewish community were kept forcibly segregated from others. The Nazis used their racist and prejudiced narratives to uproot, disrupt and stop the productivity of a whole community of people and created barriers making exit impossible. Although the people of color living in Harlem were not “forced” to live in just the area, the fear of racial discrimination and violence confined blacks to communities and neighborhoods concentrated by their minority group. With Jim Crow in full effect in the south, and racial crimes becoming more common, it was safer for all minority groups to self-segregate. Hunton’s article “Breaking Through” in the Survey Graphic gives a different perspective of Harlem, one that contrasted many of the other Harlem Renaissance writers. Rather than describe the community as “Mecca” or a place of enlightenment, Hunton explains the “invisible lines and bars” of race that “bound” the community to their modern ghetto or in today’s term “hood”. In this post, I’m going to cover the similarities between 1925’s Harlem “ghetto” and today’s Harlem.

Looking at Hunton’s description of Harlem, there are two distinct points that I found notable. The first notable point is the quote, “Education is the way out of the ghetto”. In other words, for community members to escape the confines of their race-bounded neighborhoods they must develop discipline through higher education. Education is often referred to as the great equalizer because it opens opportunities for jobs and resources not accessible without it and the youth of this time knew this very well. These young people or “conscious path-breakers” knew disciplines like teaching, religion or medicine were the paths most black people could easily fit in but were still limited to the community. They were rather getting into more individualistic disciplines like business, technical professions, and the arts. It was this educational trailblazing that led to a lot of “first”. Even Eunice Roberta Hunton was the first female African American prosecutor to work in the New York District Attorney’s office. These “firsts” opened doors that the people of the “ghetto” would have never seen possible by coming back to the community and in turn, educating them of the experience they gained outside of the community. The second point is the false change outsiders would bring into the “ghetto”. Hunton states, “…there is no conscious attempt to break the ghetto bonds…”. In this quote, she is explaining how white people would only come to Harlem to “help” because of their own self-interest. Many of these white people would do actions such as charity events and welfare fundraisers to ironically keep the blacks in the ghetto. This was done deliberately so these same white people would have connections in Harlem to satisfy their curiosity and wonder of black culture. The conscious pathbreakers are the only people escaping the ghetto and helping the community change in a real way, through mindset changes and knowledge.

When I compare Hunton’s description of Harlem to today. I see so many similarities. Harlem is still inhabited by mostly minorities, and many would still refer to it as the hood compared to downtown Manhattan. I still see, even within myself, a need to achieve my highest academic goals so I too can “escape the ghetto”. I remember my grandmother saying to me that because of the color of my skin I must work harder because I’m doing it not only for myself but for my ancestors and future generations. I also still see outsiders coming into the community looking to “help” with temporary fixes that just keep people of color in the ghetto with programs such as welfare, public housing, and employment. Mrs. Hunton’s description of Harlem as a modern ghetto is still accurate today which is why her point of education being the way out remains true.


Hello and welcome to my blog on Black Cultural Infancy and Intra-racial Conflict

Here you will see my interpretations on the emergence of Black Culture

after the Reconstruction era. Below is the suggested reading for my pages



  1. Overview: What is Cultural Infancy?
  2. Utilizing Appeasement
  3. Harlem and the White Man’s Burden
  4. The Wary Gaze
  5. Contemporary Parallel


The Wary Gaze: Looking at the “Exotic” and/or Dangerous

In Harlem Renaissance literature the gaze is a common trope used to represent feelings of longing and desire. Subjects glance at the foreign or unknown “other”, visually captivated by the things that are different from them. In the eyes of Black characters however, this gaze takes on a more complicated and sometimes even devious meaning. The “other”, in Harlem literature, usually represents the unachievable. Characters who turn their gaze towards “others” are in actuality looking at something that they desire but cannot possess or become.

In the play Color Struck by Zora Neale Hurston Emma, a dark skinned woman, is jealous of Effie who is light skinned. Emma believes that her boyfriend John is attracted to Effie because of her lighter skin. During the cakewalk party, Effie offers Emma and John a piece of pie which Emma refuses. As Effie walk away, Emma glares at her which doesn’t go unnoticed by John. The two get into an argument and Emma accuses John of “carryin’ on wid dat punkin-colored ole gal.”

Emma’s gaze is one of jealousy and covetousness. She is afraid of losing John to a half-white woman and is therefore painfully aware of their presence everytime John is around them.

“He’s in there with her-Oh, them half whites, they gets everything, they gets everything everybody else wants! The men, the jobs-everything! The whole world is got a sign on it. Wanted: Light colored. Us blacks was made for cobble stones.”

Emma’s belief that half whites “get everything” insinuates a gaze that is not born out of desire but out of watchfulness. She is not captivated by mulatto women — she is wary of them. To her, light skinned women are not just to be looked at, they are something to be feared.

Irene in Nella Larsen’s Passing exercises this same caution with Clare. Clare, who is a negro woman passing for white, enters into Irene’s life after a long time of silence. Soon, Clare begins to win over the favor of Irene’s children and husband. Irene, like Emma, accuses her husband Brian of finding Clare “extraordinarily beautiful”. She becomes watchful of Clare and is distressed by her proximity to Brian:

“For a minute Irene hesitated, then turned her head, though she knew what it was that held Hugh’s gaze. Clare, who had suddenly clouded all her days. Brian, the father of Ted and Junior…Then she saw him smile, and the smile made his face all eager and shining. Impelled by some inner urge of loyalty to herself, she glanced away. But only for a moment. And when she turned towards them again, she thought that the look on his face was the most melancholy and yet the most scoffing that she had ever seen upon it.”

This instance of “watching” and “gazing” is one that is painful to Irene. She is watching her husband be “seduced” by an “exotic” woman and feels helpless to stop it. I put ‘seduced’ in quotes here because it is suggested that Irene is being paranoid about Brian and Clare’s relationship. Whether Irene’s assumptions are rational or not is debatable, but the fact remains that Irene feels as if she is “losing” to a woman who is arguably the “other”. Although Clare is Black she still lives life as an “other” due to her social status and “exotic” race.

When contemplating “exoticism” it’s typical for the looker to want the thing he/she regards as being exotic. Their gaze is usually one of attraction and normally indicates a desire to possess or claim the thing being watched. However, in works such as Color Struck and Passing, the exotic represents invasion. The foreign “other” does not come in peace but comes to take and steal. This is another common theme in Harlem literature especially in regards to whiteness. Although Clare and Effie are only half-white, they represent a group that is prone to “taking” or “stealing” from Blackness (especially Black women). While Irene’s racial background is not fully explored, she still lives as a Black woman and is therefore not immune to this thievery. The gaze, in regards to Black women, are therefore layered with dimensions that can touch upon status, class, forbidden love and other unattainable qualities, but it is almost always intermingled with a sense of jealousy and panic due to the instability of their lives and the “whiteness” that invades it. The trope, by modern standards, can be construed negatively — but the panic of losing to “whiteness” and the watchful gaze kept over it is not entirely unfounded.

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.

Harlem and The New White Man’s Burden

Chapter 2 of Word, Image, and the New Negro : Representation and Identity in the Harlem Renaissance Anne Elizabeth Carroll assesses Black representation in The Opportunity, and it’s dedication to objectivity. In it, she explains that The Opportunity’s editor, Charles Spurgeon Johnson, felt objectivity was necessary for “challenging assumptions about why African Americans were leaving the South” (71). She further explains Johnson’s belief that although White Americans may be outraged, African Americans would not be able to survive on that sympathy forever:

Errors in judgements of the character of the migrants, in turn, would have made their adjustment to life in the North more difficult. If their flight was from persecution, Johnson explained, that “excites little sympathy either from the practical employer or the northern white population among whom these Negroes will hereafter live. (71)

Images, therefore, such as the one featured in The Opportunity’s September 1923 article “How Much is the Migration a Flight from Persecution”, may have been initially provocative, but the long term effects were potentially damaging. According to Johnson, constantly exposing white men to images of poverty or persecution would eventually lead him to believe that Black people could not sustain themselves. He would see them as completely codependent. Johnson thus feared that white employers would begin to see Blacks as a liability. Instead of feeling sympathy, the white man would be afraid of becoming responsible for such a large and unsustainable group — in other words, he would be afraid that they might once again become his burden.

'The White Man's Burden' (Apologies to Rudyard Kipling)
‘The White Man’s Burden’ (Apologies to Rudyard Kipling) Victor Gillam, Judge magazine, 1 April 1899)

Frankly, this idea of the “White Man’s Burden” is of course nothing new. It was first coined in Rudyard Kipling’s poem of the same name in the late 19th century as an excuse for continued imperialism. Colonialists, in an attempt to justify their holdings of foreign lands, believed that they were responsible for the edification and usefulness of Negroes and other non-white races. Assuming authority over these races was presented as an act of duty as these races could not provide for themselves. As a result, African Americans, subsequently, were forced into a relationship of complete codependency and subjugation to the “superior” white Americans who knew what was best for them.

This codependent relationship, however, began to overturn in the early 20th century. Instead of voluntarily consenting to this “burden”, Carroll suggests that white Americans were now resentful towards the idea of helping Negroes. The once altruistic sentiments of imperialism were now replaced by feelings of infringement and inconvenience. Charles Spurgeon Johnson and WEB Du Bois, who were both keenly aware of this opposition, therefore dedicated The Opportunity and The Crisis respectively to instilling this idea of Black sustainability. Instead of images of poverty and destitution, the periodicals would instead combat these misconceptions with stories of prosperity and advancement, showcasing Black accomplishments and potential.  As a result, many of these publications turned their sighs to the newly prosperous and culturally developing region of Harlem as their muse.

Initially published during the Harlem Renaissance The Opportunity, introducing itself as the “Journal of a Negro Life”, takes an objective approach to illustrating Black advancement. It’s stories and articles attempt to present non-fictional works and streams of data as stumbling blocks to the “inferior Black” narrative. “The Corner” by Eunice Hunton Carter, published in The Opportunity’s April 1925 issue, is a creative nonfiction narrative detailing the cultural robustness of everyday Harlem life:

Motor cars whizzed by carrying throngs of pleasure seekers, aliens many of them, in search of novelty and thrill, come to the black city for something new…In reality as their cars swept past the corner, they were passing life by. They had missed a chance of seeing life when they didn’t stop and watch the boy on the corner who for clapping companions in front of the drug store was doing a dance that was a bit of Buck and Wing, a bit of “Charleston” and many other things. They didn’t hear the errand boy who came out of the drug store singing a song that had drifted out of the cabaret to come from him purified by the sheer joy and spontaneity of his singing…

Harlem Socialites: Photo James Van Der Zee
Harlem Socialites: Photo James Van Der Zee

A group of school girls, bright felt hats perched jauntily on sleek bobbed heads, with short fur coats from which bright scarves fluttered in the night, passed by linked arm in arm, chattering as they went home from a late moving picture…” (pg 121 in archive)

The imagery is vivid and the result is clear; Carter is painting Harlem as a place of culture and community, where different characters occupy various stations of life. Also, Carter’s reference to Harlem as a “black city” represents that it is not only a stable community, but a thriving one. She paints for us images of music, industrialization, education, and economy. There is joy and prosperity by humble standards. What’s even more noteworthy is Carter’s description of the neighborhood as an attraction. “…pleasure seekers, aliens many of them, in search of novelty and thrill,” she writes. Carter therefore stipulates that Harlem is not just appealing to negroes, but is appealing to tourists as well. The “alien pleasure seekers”, as she calls them, are looking for the thrill of “Harlem life”, they see it is new and exciting, comparable to the other New York areas.

Eunice Carter - The Mob Museum
Eunice Carter

“The Corner” is just one of the many depictions The Opportunity uses to refute the new “white man’s burden” narrative. It highlights Harlem’s vivacity without ignoring the underlying problems of poverty and racism. In addition Carter herself , Manhattan’s first female African American prosecutor, perfectly exemplifies the kind of voice The Opportunity benefits from. Her success as a lawyer further proves that Blacks could be invaluable, self sustaining citizens if given the chance. Her work both in and out of prose exemplified Black productivity.


Works Cited

Carter, Eunice Hunton. “The Corner.” The Opportunity, Apr. 1925, pp. 114–115.

Contemporary Reflection – Past Vs. Today

Many things throughout history have changed, to the point where if a person from the past were to somehow travel to the future, they would be utterly loss in insane sorts of ways. The advent of technology means that the person from the past would see people talking to themselves on glowing screens, strange forms of food they’ve never heard of before, and how everything is connected to a cloud. To add on further, the products they used to use and eat would have been replaced with all sorts of food from General Mills and Kellogg’s.

But there would always be one thing they would recognize, and something that’s really stood the test to time. Frankly, it would be the infrastructure of the buildings in Harlem and even though some of the buildings have been torn down due to repair and other circumstances, the familiar brick walls and characteristic staircases would remain.

The corner piece of it all would be the parks, because even throughout the ages, it does not change beyond the addition and removal of some potentially playground equipment.

Many things have changed in Harlem, so it’s almost wonderous in a way to look at what has stayed.