The "New Negro" in the Old World: Culture and Performance in James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Fauset, and Nella Larsen

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (monograph)


This thesis investigates the relationship between the “New Negro” moment of the early twentieth-century America and the Old World of Europe, as represented in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), Jessie Fauset’s There is Confusion (1924), and Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928). In the nineteenth century, Europe functioned as a symbol of freedom, education and art in the African-American literary imagination. It is my contention that these notions are questioned in the novels of Johnson, Fauset and Larsen.

The episodes set in Europe are seen as a lens through which the role of the African-American in Western civilization can be studied. The African-American artist/protagonists are seen as cultural intermediaries, who bridge Euro-American and African-American culture, national and folk culture, high and low culture. Their performances are here understood as crucially related to the geo-cultural symbolism of Europe. Performance is considered as a vital part of African-American identity formation, tallying with the double consciousness that DuBois identified as characteristic of the African-American. I suggest that in these novels, the trope of performance (based on double consciousness) is used to critique the notions of race and culture, whereby conceptions of racial essentialism and cultural authenticity are questioned. The novels themselves are also considered as performative acts that helped form the concept of a New Negro in the 1920s.

To approach the social meaning of these novels, they can be contrasted with vernacular African-American art forms, here represented by music, such as blues, ragtime and jazz.Music, which plays an important part in all the novels, is analyzed in relation to the European-derived novel. This is a discussion in which the notion of authenticity surfaces, with regard to what constitutes a black identity and a “black text.” I argue that music here functions as an index of cultural identity and a motif through which this identity could be re-imagined. However, instead of offering simple affirmations of a shared black identity, the novels initiate discussions of what can and cannot signify “blackness.” The texts of Fauset and Larsen are particularly ambiguous in this respect, indicating the authors’ sensitiveness to the combined limitations of race and gender.


  • Lena Ahlin
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Languages and Literature


  • Europe in African-American literature, English language and literature, Nella Larsen, Jessie Fauset, James Weldon Johnson, minstrelsy, whiteness, performance, cultural authenticity, New Negro, Harlem Renaissance, African Americans in Europe, Engelska (språk och litteratur)
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Supervisors/Assistant supervisor
  • [unknown], [unknown], Supervisor, External person
Award date2004 Jun 5
  • English Studies
Publication statusPublished - 2004
Publication categoryResearch

Bibliographic note

Defence details Date: 2004-06-05 Time: 10:15 Place: Sal 239 (the Shakespeare Room), Engelska institutionen, Helgonabacken 14, Lund External reviewer(s) Name: Wedin, Carolyn Title: professor Affiliation: University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, USA ---