Carl Van Vechten created a set of portraits of African American entertainers who knew each other through an interracial New York—London circuit during the interwar period. Less studied than the New York—Paris axis, this network offers rich insights for those interested in this important moment in modernist and African American cultural histories. Best known for the controversial racial views promulgated in his infamous novel Nigger Heaven (1926), Van Vechten, in his photographic practice, reveals a different approach to race. An analysis of his photographs reveals that he and this cohort refashioned Blackness in their own terms. Blackness was displaced to expressive shadow, becoming a malleable sign divorced from the body that allowed them to negotiate racial identities that were distinguished from inherited stereotypes. The acknowledgment that race was a social construct opened up new possibilities for living unfettered by traditional constraints on African American lives.
I will be giving the talk, “I, Too, Am America: Edna Thomas and Black Stardom in Interwar Harlem,” on Friday, April 28th at Cambridge University. The abstract is as follows:
This presentation will consider the life and career of the African American actress Edna Thomas (1886-1974). Thomas is best remembered for her role as Lady Macbeth in the Federal Theatre Program’s production of Macbeth in 1936. Thomas was also a lesbian who was involved in a relationship with the British aristocrat, Olivia Wyndham, who moved to Harlem in the early 1930s to live with Thomas. Thomas sustained her liaison with Wyndham even as she navigated roles as the wife to Lloyd Thomas to whom she remained married, as a race woman, as a Harlem society hostess, and as a member of elite transatlantic queer circles. Surviving photographs will illuminate how she performed her myriad public and private roles, balancing the demands of her stardom while sustaining her queer lifestyle. As a fair-skinned woman, light skin privilege and the phenomenon of passing informed how Thomas negotiated her racial, gender, sexual and class identities.
I will be having a conversation with Liz Way from the Museum at FIT about the Harlem Renaissance and fashion. Join us on March 24th at the Harlem School of the Arts!
Harlem during the Jazz Age was renown for the style of its denizens. The twenties was a time of radical transformation for clothing, and Harlem was at the cutting edge of new trends, influencing mainstream fashion and culture in unprecedented ways. This conversation will examine what people wore during the Harlem Renaissance and beyond, from flapper dresses to Zoot suits. The style of fashionable Harlemites has had a lasting influence on fashion and is still felt today.
Time hasn’t been kind to the white women who participated in the Harlem Renaissance. As philanthropists and activists, authors and patrons, they sought a place for themselves in that remarkable outpouring of African-American art during the 1920s and ’30s. Some, constrained by social expectations, effaced the records of their work. Others made it difficult for historians to treat them with much seriousness. What, after all, can we do with someone like Nancy Cunard, a British steamship heiress raised on a remote English estate, who felt no shame in proclaiming “I speak as if I were a Negro myself”?
“Miss Anne” — the dismissive collective name given to white women — makes bit appearances in the literature of the era as a dilettante or imperious patron; later, she’s depicted as a thrill-seeking “slummer.” Always, she lurks in the shadows of her male counterparts in scholarly studies of the movement. But she was there, encouraging writers, underwriting cultural institutions, supporting progressive political causes. And many leading Harlem Renaissance figures — including Langston Hughes, Alain Locke and Nella Larsen — had reason to be grateful to her. At least for a while. Like everything else about Miss Anne, those relationships got complicated.
In this remarkable work of historical recovery, Carla Kaplan, author of “Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters,” does well by a group of women who got so much wrong. She resurrects Miss Anne as a cultural figure and explores the messy contradictions of her life, moving her from the periphery of a story about white patronage and boundary-testing interracial liaisons to the center. With a focus on six of the roughly 60 white women active in the Harlem Renaissance, Kaplan delineates Miss Anne as a counterpart to the better known flapper or “new woman” of the Roaring Twenties. But this is really a collection of individual stories, a group biography that lets the idiosyncrasies of the individual women shine through. “Negrotarians,” as the writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston called Harlem’s white patrons, were a diverse crew, full of good intentions, startling blind spots and astonishing self-confidence.
Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola (1877 – 1947) was an early 20th century American impostor and entertainer who presented an exoticized identity as a native of Africa, when in reality he was born Joseph Howard Lee in Baltimore, Maryland. Despite an impoverished start in life and a lack of education, and a series of scandalous arrests related to homosexual activities, mainly involving underage individuals, LoBagola maintained a long and colorful career posing as an African “savage”, during which he delivered lectures to many institutions and conducted public debates.
LoBagola was able to secure a book contract with Knopf to publish his “life story.” He was photographed by Doris Ulmann, one of the photographers I discuss in Afrochic.