Foreign Service Journal - June 2013 - page 36

JUNE 2013
the foreign Service journal
Brian Russell Roberts is a professor of American literature at Brigham
Young University, with a focus on African-American literature. The
University of Virginia Press just published his book,
Artistic Ambas-
sadors: Literary and International Representation of the New Negro
, which examines the intersecting literary and diplomatic work of
African-American writers who traveled as U.S. diplomats during the
late 19th and early 20th centuries.
he decades of the 1920s and 1930s are
famous for an unprecedented flowering of
African-American writing, with many black
authors fighting against racial discrimina-
tion by publishing novels, poems, plays
and essays that argued for their entitlement
to full civil rights. Among them, Langston
Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston have emerged as the most
enduringly famous. Hughes’s 1921 poem, “The Negro Speaks
of Rivers,” is widely read in American high schools and uni-
versities to this day, and Hurston’s 1937 novel,
Their Eyes Were
Watching God,
was adapted as a made-for-TV movie by Oprah
Winfrey in 2005.
Less well known is the fact that the Harlem Renaissance—
the literary movement those authors have come to represent—
was built upon the late 19th- and early 20th-century work of
a vibrant group of African-American writers who represented
the United States overseas as diplomatic and consular officers.
Beginning during the Reconstruction era, U.S. presidents
courted and rewarded their black voting constituencies by
appointing African-Americans to diplomatic and consular
posts, primarily in nations and colonies of color.
Their ranks included Frederick Douglass, the famous
abolitionist and social reformer, who served as U.S. minister to
Haiti from 1889 to 1891, and was the first African-American to
detail his diplomatic work in an autobiography,
Life and Times
of Frederick Douglass
James Weldon Johnson, whose “Lift Every Voice and
Sing” is still widely sung as “The African-American National
Anthem,” worked as a consular officer in Venezuela and Nica-
ragua from 1906 to 1913. During these years, Johnson wrote
most of his first book of poetry and completed a novel.
W.E.B. Du Bois also briefly represented the United States
abroad. Co-founder of the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People and a longtime editor of the
NAACP’s magazine,
The Crisis
, Du Bois spent December 1923
Ambassadors of
Race andNation
Here is the little-known story of a group of African-American diplomat-writers
whose late 19th- and early 20th-century work shaped the Harlem Renaissance.
By Br i an Russe l l Roberts
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