Are white Mexicans racist against Mexican Americans

Miguel Covarrubias and the Harlem Renaissance The Mexican Who "Discovered" Blacks in the United States

It was a first to feature African Americans in one of the most respected magazines in the United States - at a time when segregation still existed there. The illustrations were supplied by Miguel Covarrubias.

By Veka Duncan

In 1924, José Juan Tablada wrote a column in the daily newspaper El Universal. In it he assured that Miguel Covarrubias was "the man who discovered blacks in the United States". The first to “see beauty where no one had seen it before” [1]. In the same year the magazine had Vanity Fair published a series of illustrations made by Covarrubias of Harlem's African American people. It was a first for African Americans to appear on the magazine's pages. Miguel Covarrubias was a young illustrator of twenty who found himself in New York thanks to a grant from the Mexican government. The presence of “Chamaco” (the boy), as he was to become known due to his youth, coincided with the presence of a prominent group of Mexican intellectuals and artists in the emblematic US city. And at the same time with the birth of a movement that brought African-American culture into conversation through literature and art: the Harlem Renaissance, the Harlem rebirth.
  • © picture alliance / The Advertising Archives
    Caricature for Vanity Fair magazine, painted by Miguel Covarrubias
  • © picture alliance / The Advertising Archives
    Cover picture for the magazine "Vanity Fair" with caricature by Miguel Covarrubias
  • © picture-alliance / akg-images
    Street fighting between blacks and the police in Harlem, New York, 1935. The occasion was a rumor that a black man had died of abuse by the police and the street fighting claimed 21 lives.
  • © picture alliance / AP Images
    Motel manager James Brock, right, stops Martin Luther King, left, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy at the door of the motel restaurant in St. Augustine, Florida on June 12, 1964 when they tried to enter with a group for lunch. The integrationists were arrested when they refused to leave the premises.
  • © picture-alliance / IMAGNO / Austrian Archives
    Colored-only bar in Harlem, New York, circa 1935
  • © picture alliance / Everett Collection
    Malcolm X speaks at an outdoor rally in Harlem in 1963
  • © picture alliance / akg-images
    Separate entrance for colored people in a Paramount cinema, USA 1930, photo colored digitally
Under the title "Enter the New Negro", the contribution at that time in Vanity Fair had a profound impact on the image of modern African Americans and, consequently, on the power and dissemination of the ideas of the Harlem Renaissance. At the same time, it should play a fundamental role in the recognition of African American culture among the - white - middle and upper classes in the United States who read these types of magazines. The construction of this "new black" was one of the central efforts of the Harlem movement. It was directed against the stereotypes that circulated in the visual culture of that era. Mainly through literature, but also through theater, the visual arts and music, this group struggled to occupy new spaces in the field of culture and created a new image of themselves. The illustrations of Covarrubias were made by the Afro-American community of Harlems, who described themselves as the "New Negro Movement", generally welcomed, as they basically meant the acceptance of this new identity in the ruling culture. If we look at the illustrations with Covarrubia's linework, however, it is undeniable that an image was constructed that was based on the expectations of the white elite.

Covarrubia's "New Black"

The initial shock of seeing a group of African Americans on a double-page spread in one of the most respected publications in the United States, a country still segregated, had to take Covarrubia's “New Black” sigh of relief provoke the white elite: Before their eyes he was no longer the noble savage, tamed by forced labor in the field, but a cultivated and highly developed individual, with artistic talents and dressed in the latest fashion. The headline that accompanied the illustrations emphasized precisely this: The “New Black” had left behind the black man of the cotton plantations, who played the banjo and sang slave songs. This new black man was as “real as your neighbor” [2], an urban being that had broken away from its rural past.
Covarrubia's illustrations were imbued with concepts that the US elite considered acceptable. However, that does not take away their deeply subversive character in the context of the time. Accompanied by texts by the Afro-Caribbean writer Eric Walrond, which were influenced by Harlem slang, the corresponding pages of the magazine will have raised more than a raised eyebrow. Especially since its creator was a Mexican. Accustomed to being the observed, the group of Mexicans in New York changed the traveller's line of sight. It reverses centuries of processes in which the Mexicans were the strangers to be understood.

About his column "New York by day and by night" it was now a Mexican, José Juan Tablada, who wrote a travel chronicle. Just as the European explorers wrote earlier. Tablada appropriated a world that seemed completely alien to him with his pen. His impressions of New York must have been fascinating descriptions for his readers in Mexico. For them, Manhattan represented the epitome of modernity. But the reports were at the same time an announcement to the West: Now we are the ones who observe and try to understand your strange customs and views. A new Mexican has entered the stage.

As "real as your neighbor"

In this regard, the search efforts of the Mexican movement in New York - with its own avant-garde elements - and those of the Harlem Renaissance are not so different from each other. What the illustrations and caricatures of Covarrubias emphasize is the intersecting gaze of two minoritarian and historically colonized groups. Covarrubia's view is permeated by ethnic stereotypes. But he possibly recognized in the expectations towards the Afro-Americans again the exoticism that was exploited for European and Anglo-Saxon consumption when it came to “the Mexican”.

However, consciously or unconsciously, Covarrubias played an important role in reinforcing the stereotypes. His work couples the figure of the African American with dance and music. In this way he satisfies a deeply rooted need for the white image of African Americans. [3] Various researchers who devoted themselves to the study of Covarrubia's work have also emphasized in this regard that such a representation coincides with the illustrator's own interests. He left an important legacy in terms of his dance studies. However, this does not eliminate the racist streak of his illustrations. By connecting African Americans with the music and show business, he presents them as a nightlife community, between vice and sexuality.
We can do Covarrubia's work in Vanity Fair Apologize from all possible perspectives - his anthropological interest, his own satirical view, the admiration that his work received from the most prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance, the visualization of this "beauty that no one had seen" and its subsequent recognition by the white readers of the magazine. But we must not deny that the same ethnic exaggeration that Covarrubias depicts would later result in profoundly racist expressions such as the "blackface". Or that the sensuality of his personalities still shapes our perception of Afro-Americans - or Afro-Caribbean women - as an inherently sensual person. This is nothing more than a reification of their bodies in the dominant visual culture. Ultimately, Covarrubias drew a world that, despite his admiration, was alien to him. This strangeness manifested itself clearly in his work for Vanity Fair. It is also permeated by a racism that we Mexicans do not dare to admit.

[1] José Juan Tablada: "New York de Día y de Noche: Miguel Covarrubias, el hombre que descubrió a los negros de Estados Unidos" (New York by day and by night: Miguel Covarrubias, the man who blacks in the USA), daily newspaper El Universal, November 30, 1924

[2] The original headline of the article written by the editor of Vanity Fair was: "Enter the New Negro [...] Exit, the Colored Crooner of Lullabys [sic.], The Cotton-Picker, the Mammy-Singer and the Banjo-Player" (Arrival of the New Black [...] departure of the Colored Schnulzensinger from Lullabies, the Cotton Picker, the Mammy Singer and the Banjo Player). In the accompanying text, the phrase "as real as your neighbor next door" appeared. Vanity Fair, December 1924

[3] Phoebe Wolfskill "Caricature and the New Negro in the Work of Archibald Motley Jr. and Palmer Hayden" in: The Art Bulletin, Volume 91, Number 3 (September 2009), page 354

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