James VanDerZee's New Negro Vision

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

In her article ‘Selecting the Harlem Renaissance’, Daylanne English notes that ‘we must not underestimate the importance of photographs for the period’s construction of the New Negro, nor for our construction of the Harlem Renaissance’. As one of the foremost photographers working in Harlem in the 1920s, James VanDerZee played a pivotal role in conveying and perpetuating the image of Jazz Age Harlem as a flourishing black community. Despite his self-confessed distance from many of the cultural movements of the time, this article argues that much of VanDerZee’s approach was consistent with elements of New Negro philosophy and ideology, particularly that articulated by W. E. B. DuBois. That ideology viewed, as Henry Louis Gates Jr observes, the public self as something to be fashioned and shaped. Drawing upon a variety of visual tropes, some old such as cartes de visites and cabinet card portraiture, and some much more modern such as publicity photographs found in film magazines of the time, VanDerZee’s images chronicled the aspirational lifestyles of the emergent black middle class of ‘Strivers Row’ (north beyond 139th Street) and the various religious and sporting organizations that permeated Harlem and played a crucial role in developing a civic culture. In doing so, VanDerZee challenged prevailing stereotypes of African Americans then in circulation within American popular culture and helped to change the image of African Americans in the United States.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)121-135
Number of pages13
JournalEuropean Journal of American Culture
Volume36
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2017

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