- This thesis examines two cultural productions of the Harlem Renaissance: Aaron Douglas's mural series, Aspects of Negro Life, and Nella Larsen's novel Passing. I read these works together because, more than their shared time period, they showcase an attention to the visual. Both Larsen and Douglas's works are concerned with the power of the look, and, in turn, question who gets to look and how that look shapes new modes of thought for the viewer or reader.
Chapter one examines Douglas's mural series, linking his artistic style to Orphism, an optics-centered art form popularized in Europe in the 1910s. I argue that Douglas's adaptation of this art form allows him to articulate a combined focus on the optical and historical together. This combination works to unsettle essentialist ideas about race and to question a predominant strain of optimistic thinking about the role of historical narratives for African American racial advancement, exemplified by the work of Arthur Schomburg. The chapter briefly surveys Orphism and optical theory of the 1910s as a separate phenomenon from Douglas's 1930s project. With this historical context in place, I read each of the four murals in the series to highlight the ways in which the viewer's eye is called to look across the canvas. By ruminating on the gaze as Douglas invites us to, the chapter shows that sight is always interwoven with history.
Chapter two examines Nella Larsen's Passing, exploring the ways that sight can but does not always grant agency to the one who looks. I argue that Passing's obsession with sight functions as a key part of the novel's larger question about the relationship between agency and control. By presenting disparate narratives about the power of vision, the novel undercuts a singular understanding of agency. In making this argument, the chapter draws heavily from Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks and bell hooks' Black Looks. These two theorists chart a link between sight, agency, and control through a theory of the gaze. Engaging their ideas, the chapter examines the complicated iterations of the gaze throughout the text, with a primary focus on the looking relationship between the novel's protagonist, Irene Redfield, and her childhood friend, Clare Kendry. Read together, the chapters highlight the varying conceptions of the gaze during the Harlem Renaissance.