Literary and International Representation of the New Negro Era
Brian Russell Roberts
During the first generation of black participation in U.S. diplomacy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a vibrant community of African American writers and cultural figures worked as U.S. representatives abroad. Through the literary and diplomatic dossiers of figures such as Frederick Douglass, James Weldon Johnson, Archibald and Angelina Grimké, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida Gibbs Hunt, and Richard Wright, Brian Roberts shows how the intersection of black aesthetic trends and U.S. political culture both Americanized and internationalized the trope of the New Negro. This decades-long relationship began during the days of Reconstruction, and it flourished as U.S. presidents courted and rewarded their black voting constituencies by appointing black men as consuls and ministers to such locales as Liberia, Haiti, Madagascar, and Venezuela. These appointments changed the complexion of U.S. interactions with nations and colonies of color; in turn, state-sponsored black travel gave rise to literary works that imported international representation into New Negro discourse on aesthetics, race, and African American culture.
Beyond offering a narrative of the formative dialogue between black transnationalism and U.S. international diplomacy, Artistic Ambassadors also illuminates a broader literary culture that reached both black and white America as well as the black diaspora and the wider world of people of color. In light of the U.S. appointments of its first two black secretaries of state and the election of its first black president, this complex representational legacy has continued relevance to our understanding of current American internationalism.
A revelatory exploration of the chasms and bridges between black internationalism and U.S. diplomacy in the twentieth century. With remarkable archival ingenuity, Brian Roberts explores the resonances between literary representation and political representation, above all in a set of powerful readings of the ways some of the major works of the African American literary tradition—by James Weldon Johnson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Claude McKay, and Angelina Weld Grimké, among others—were written in the shadow of diplomacy, even when they might at first seem to be merely ‘domestic.’ Artistic Ambassadors forces us to reconsider the literary writing of overlooked black diplomats (George Washington Ellis, Henry Francis Downing) as well as to recontextualize the work of ‘ersatz’ diplomats such as Ida Gibbs Hunt and Richard Wright who aimed to influence international politics without taking on official diplomatic posts.
Brian Roberts’s Artistic Ambassadors is an essential book for understanding transnationalism in African American modernity. Roberts shows us how the diverse international work of African American intellectuals—from consular work for the State Department to anti-imperialist Pan-Africanism—informed African American culture and politics long before our current debates about globalization.
Brian Roberts takes the adventurous reader on a dazzling, intellectually challenging roller coaster ride. He juxtaposes the literary and diplomatic endeavors of a variety of African American internationalists (Frederick Douglass, James Weldon Johnson, Angelina Weld Grimké, and Ida Gibbs Hunt among them) of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and analyzes both their evolving creative output and their governmental missions. Roberts skillfully maneuvers us through the global shoals those men and women navigated and astounds us with their earlier, and his own present-day, daring. Artistic Ambassadors provides both serious mental exercise and an exciting interdisciplinary romp, seen from new perspectives and with new eyes, through African American history and literature.
This well-written and thoroughly researched study sits at the intersection of works on the cultures of U.S. imperialism and works on black transnationalism. It is distinctive in identifying the ways blackness and empire, as racial and political formations, have been intertwined with rather than antagonistic to each other, race with empire rather than against it. Artistic Ambassadors offers an alternative trajectory to civil rights in African American political culture, one that sits both within the state and without domestic space, contextualizing the later rise of Ralph Bunche but also certain elements of Barack Obama's presidency. Artistic Ambassadors also provides a crucial missing link in understanding why certain forms of self-determined, New Negro, black masculine identity rested on the notion of racial representativeness, as Roberts tracks the journey from ‘Negro representative’ abroad to ‘representative Negro’ at home.
Roberts... has put together an audacious historical exploration of the African American cultural figures who worked in the US diplomatic service abroad.
Roberts' debut book is a challenging and enlightening interrogation of the international and literary projects of New Negro era figures. In addition to African American and American Studies scholars, this text is of interest to political science and international studies scholars, and literary critics.
Brian Russell Roberts is Assistant Professor of English at Brigham Young University.
Artistic Ambassadors concentrates on a number of leading figures and their engagements abroad in the decades preceding the Cold War, and thus arrives at a welcome moment....This is a well-written and thoughtful account of a subject that was, generally speaking, a priority for our ancestors, and will require even more attention as this century unfolds: i.e., how can African Americans leverage global solidarity for domestic gain?
What makes Roberts’s book so compelling in the context of studies of black transnationalism is his focus on figures... who were caught in the intricate nexus of acquiescence to the state and, at times, principled opposition to it.... The somewhat anomalous position of these diplomats makes them prime sources for scrutinizing how far the bonds—and the breaks—of the international may take us.... Reflecting upon the rich histories of those who shuttled between these poles of negotiation may be our best hope of articulating provisional solutions and avoiding the pitfalls of the past.