Passing as White (Collar): Jim Crow’s Typewriter and the Harlem Renaissance

Presented by: Dr Tamyln Avery

Date: Friday 23 April 2021
Time: 12–1pm
Location: Online via Zoom 


The typewriter – a polysemic term suggesting both the writing instrument and its human operator – has been key to historicizing the interpenetration of social practices, technology, and the materiality of writing for influential theorists such as Marshall McLuhan and Friedrich Kittler. Yet, even in accounts of the typewriter that have challenged the ease with which female liberation has been coupled with secretarial labour, race remains largely unexamined. This paper redresses that oversight, in relation to the works and letters of Harlem Renaissance writers, including Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, Wallace Thurman, Dorothy West, Jean Toomer, and Eric Walrond. Despite their political and aesthetic differences, these writers were united in this respect: they each represented black typists engaging with the white-collar sector through discourses of racial passing, where both clerical and literary typewriting alike convey difficulty, frustration, impermanency, and alienation, rather than efficiency, productivity, permanency, and emancipation. These writers thus denaturalised the widespread ideology that stenography would become a convenient “step-ladder” to both racial uplift and artistic productivity. This coalition of literary typewriters not only narrate to us a fascinating and critically overlooked account of black modernism and literary innovation under Jim Crow; they confront us with a powerful master-allegory of the sexual and racial segregation that underwrites the wider history of art, intellectual culture, and white-collar labour in the United States and beyond. 


Dr Tamlyn Avery is a Lecturer in American Studies in the School of Communication and Arts, and an editor of Affirmations of the Modern, the official journal of the Australasian Modernist Studies Network (AMSN). Her research interests include modernism, music, and race in American Literature, and her research has appeared in journals such as American Literature, Australian Feminist Studies, and Mississippi Quarterly. She is currently preparing a monograph on the history of the American Bildungsroman for Edinburgh University Press. 


About Research Seminar and Workshop Series


School of Communication and Arts Research Seminar Series

The research seminar and workshop series occur each semester, each with a different topic and guest speaker from UQ or otherwise.

Friday, 11 March

Online via Zoom

Research Seminar - Tuning In with the Stethoscope in the Nineteenth CenturyDr Melissa Dickson (University of Birmingham)

Friday, 25 March


Early Adventures in Australian Actor Training

Dr Chris Hay

Friday, 8 April

Online via Zoom

Invention and reinvention in the landscape symbolism of Joachim PatinirMichael Levy

Friday, 29 April

Online via Zoom

Negotiating balance of cultures among Chinese Australians to facilitate ageing well

A/Prof Shuang Liu

Friday, 13 May


Redefining crisis in museums: insider’s perspectives on digital engagement

Dr Caroline Wilson-Barnao, Craig Middleton (National Museum of Australia), and Lisa Enright

Friday, 3 June

Hybrid: Online via Zoom and in person at the
SCA Writer's Studio
(Level 6, Michie)

A journey through the Australian environmental movement ecosystem

Dr Robyn Gulliver

Friday, 10 June

Online via Zoom

TBADr Alex Bevan