Blog 5 – Karisa Harris-Cleary

We have been and continue discussing the puzzling form of Negro: An Anthology, which contains not only the anticipated variety of writing, but photographs and historical documents as well, organized geographically. Winkiel first introduces the text as a scrapbook-like compilation “from a fringe area,” as Benjamin asserts, but later suggests that it be read more as an event (Winkiel 507). This performative text comes to life through a “juxtaposition between civilized and savage,” a collection of black history ranging from primitive Africa to the oppressions in America and Europe. The interwoven histories create a black transnational identity by opening the possibility of race as a historically and geographically determined conception (Winkiel 513, 514). With this anthropological motive of Cunard’s in mind, the observed romanticizing of the African-American culture throughout Negro remains indeterminately promising as much as it is pushes invasiveness.

There is a sort of disconnect between this black transnationalism and a retrieval of African diasporic life. While preserving African roots is imperative, there was a growing population of post-diaspora black identity that was rooted in America and Europe rather than Africa. Cunard does take this into account through the countless slavery art and archival writings, but she continues to convey this primitive essential notion of the culture. Take the entry, “Negro Sculpture and Ethnography,” which displays assortments of primal African artistic artifacts and even a few from Cunard’s own collection. This is followed by an excerpt from Ladislas Szecsi’s paper “The Term ‘Negro Art’: is essentially a non-African Concept,” where he claims that “The Negroes have been able to create works of art because of their innate purity and primitiveness,” but this was diffused at the intersection of the African and the European (Cunard 413).

This is exactly the type of romanticizing that Cunard and other modernists portrayed amidst this anthropological illustration of the African-American culture, which lead to the scrapbook reading of Negro. As Winkiel expounds, “…even as Cunard romanticizes the vanishing Africa- and African-diasporic ways of life, she… argues instead for an alternative modernity based on black transnationalism” (Winkiel 517). Still, there are moments within this romantic tone of various pieces within the text that construct an uncomfortable prickliness that almost contests those “alternative modernity” motives. Antheil’s “The Negro on the Spiral,” is a prime example of this phenomenon. He romantically declares, “…the Negro has a rhythmic sense second to none in the world… so intricate in rhythmic pattern, so delicately balanced in contra-rhythms and proportions, and so breath-taking in unisons and choral impact are these extraordinary performances” (Cunard 214-215). The uneasiness comes with phrases like “the special Negro throats” and his later notion of the mulatto child of the United States through African-American musical influence (Cunard 215). By elevating this culture so high above all others, Antheil is still othering the identity to an extent that becomes quite circular, just as he, in reference to the voice of African music, defines the throat as “Negro throats.”

Following, of course, is Cunard’s multiple representations of herself as an African-American. No matter how anthropological her perspective may be she will never be able to view the world from the underprivileged subject of the time. Winkiel’s included negative photograph of Cunard with ivory bracelets coiled around her neck does an excellent job of illustrating the borderline distaste of a possible fetishism. She include the caption, which reads: “With the older women these ivories are priceless treasures, and they will endure any hardships in preference to degrading themselves by selling them, however great the inducement may be.” Winkiel then states this noteworthy point that Cunard is referring to that suffering in which she may be partially responsible for in obtaining these artifacts, and then she poses for this photograph with a look of anguish and a symbolic notion of hanging, or potentially even lynching (Winkiel 515).

On the other hand, the geographical organization and historical representation of Negro presents this montage of disconnected pieces that poignantly embody significant and expansive pieces of the African-American identity (Winkiel 514). The gaps between each entry break the flow of a narrative and present an accurately fragmented history, with no room for a “single dominant perspective” (Winkiel 513). If Cunard’s romantic intrigue with this culture wasn’t embedded right into the pages of Negro, it could go without analyzing, but there’s something to be interpreted from this white romanticized perspective of the African-American.

Citations…

Cunard, Nancy. Negro. New York: Negro Universities, 1969. Print.

Winkiel, Laura A. “Nancy Cunard’s Negro and the Transnational Politics of Race.” Modernism/modernity 13.3 (2006): 507-530. Web.

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