African-American Photographer James Latimer Allen’s Madonna and Child

The African American photographer James L. Allen (1907-1977) created this image of a black woman cradling a black infant in her arms during the 1930s (Fig. 1). Allen operated a studio in Harlem between 1926 and 1943 producing artistic and commercial photographs.1 During the Harlem Renaissance, mother and child portraits and figure studies were especially popular in the African American media, signaling the importance placed on motherhood and the nurturing of future generations. Celebrations of family reflected the sense of pride, community, and optimism that prevailed among African Americans during this period. This imagery also countered grotesque stereotypes that circulated globally by the beginning of the twentieth century.

In Allen’s photograph, the woman’s head is draped with a white fringed and striped shawl and framed with a circle of light that is paired with a star above her left shoulder indicating that the image denotes the Christian Madonna and Child represented as black figures. This was confirmed by the photograph’s reproduction on the cover of the December 1941 issue of Opportunity magazine, a periodical published by the National Urban League (Fig. 2). Black mother and child imagery likely always conjured the Marian icon for its audience, but the creation of a black version of the Madonna was deliberate for occasions like Christmas. Brown, black, and sepia Madonnas became a recurrent theme in African American visual culture of this period.  Read more..

Source: Mavcor Journal, Center for the Study of Material & Visual Cultures of Religion