Rooted in the community : black middle class identity performance in the early works of Allan Rohan Crite, 1935-1948

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Caro, Julie Levin

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This dissertation considers the early career of Boston-based, African American artist Allan Rohan Crite (1910-2007) and situates his central artistic Goal--to present uplifting images of middle class black Bostonians--within the ideological framework of the New Negro Movement of the 1920s-1940s. In each of the chapters, I consider one of the four bodies of work Crite produced simultaneously during his early career--painted portraits, neighborhood street scenes and church interiors and brush and ink illustrations of African American spirituals. I focus on these subjects in order to explore Crite’s desire to portray the middle class status of his family and community and to redefine the spirituals in terms of his own middle-class sensibility. I describe Crite’s visualization of his black middle class Episcopal and Bostonian identity in these works as performances or enactments created through a series of repeated gestures of “respectable” appearance and behavior. My analysis also considers the artist’s motivations to preserve, in the physical form of his artworks, the black middle class values and way of life in Boston that he feared was in danger of being lost and forgotten. Rooted in the Community is also a revisionist account, for it seeks to revise the notion of an African American artistic “rootedness” to mean an artist rooted in his own immediate community rather than in a search for his cultural roots in the African past or within the rural folk culture of the American south. This study challenges a bias within the discourse on racial identity in art that privileges a notion of racial authenticity, or an essentialized conception of black identity centered upon the “folk,” or working and lower class African Americans. I also challenge the negative assessment of the black middle class as a group devoid of interest in the black community and propose that early twentieth century definitions of black middle class identity embodied in the notions of the “talented tenth” and the “race” man or woman best define Crite’s sense of himself as a black artist, for he felt a responsibility towards the black community and was not alienated from it.