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.
“Harlem: Found Ways” is a new exhibition opening today at The Cooper Gallery at Harvard University that “presents artistic visions and engagements specific to Harlem, New York City, in the last decades.” Check it out if you are in Cambridge this summer!
And, look for an essay by yours truly in the exhibition catalogue reflecting on Dawoud Bey’s two important photographic series Harlem, U.S.A. and Harlem Redux, selections of which are featured in the show. These preview photos are courtesy of Dawoud.
While I am not opposed to the idea of re-incarnating Wilde from a African American perspective, I do find this poster questionable. This imagery is very reminiscent of the caricatured theatrical and entertainment venue ephemera of the interwar period when Harlem was in vogue, but racism and racialism very much alive. I know I suffer from racial paranoia when it comes to visual culture but all too often imagery that is meant to valorize African Americans is too reminiscent of pejorative imagery.