The year 1919 witnessed the start of a very important movement in the creativity in arts by the black Americans. This movement is known as the Harlem Renaissance – the flourishing of African American cultural and intellectual life. It featured the creativity of the “Negroes” in the field of arts, catering to their every need, like literature, drama, music, visual art, and dance.
It encouraged the artist in every black American to stand up and be recognized. New York City’s Harlem would be the center stage for painters, sculptors, musicians, and writers to produce works of art. During this time art was given a huge responsibility; it would become the main medium through which the African American race would strive for equality.
Black Writers and the “Negro” Art
Many black writers, such as Alain Locke, W.E.B. DuBois, and Langston Hughes wrote specifically about the importance of art and its ability to promote equality. Although many black writers agreed with this idea, other more conservative writers did not; such is the case with George S. Schuyler. In his work “The Negro-Art Hokum” Schuyler states that race and art are separate, and there is no “Negro Art” but only American art. While his integrated and collective view of art may have a positive outlook in our time, it was less than encouraging for those living during the Harlem Renaissance. Looking at both sides would mean exploring the depths of how these writers understood “Negro Art” and “American Art”.
Alain Locke and “The New Negro”
The importance of art was first exposed by Alain Locke in his famous essay “The New Negro”. This essay is often seen as the catalyst for the emergence of a new movement within the African American society. Written in 1925, Locke aims to tell the nation that African Americans are changing and adapting under the social prejudices that have previously been forced upon them. The mind of the ‘New Negro’ is moving away from social discourse, and it is “shaking off the psychology of imitation and implied inferiority” (Locke pg).
A new group of people are being formed; he calls them the ‘New Negro’. Locke calls for artistic contributions by the black race. He believes that with art, the race will gain cultural recognition; he looks at the role of art as “a bridge between individuals and cultures” (Gates 984). This is a transformation of some sort; something which doesn’t rely on how things are usually done: something that embraces a new psychology and possesses a new spirit.
Alain Locke’s “The New Negro” aims to define the new black American; lifting him from the images of slave trades and plantation workers. He explains how the old concept of “Negro” is more of a mythical figure, something which the society has dictated it to be. This is usually a view of the oppressed poor, being stepped on while some people are holding them back. These characteristics however, were more of a “conceived” trait rather than a “perceived” trait.
The society thinks that up until that time, the Negroes were low lives who are incapable of artistic appreciation and production. They have their eyes closed about the Negro’s achievements, including literature, music and visual arts. Alain Locke’s “The New Negro” is not necessarily introducing a new breed of black Americans. It is more of an eye-opener of what these people have created and what they’re capable of doing in the context of art.
W. E. B. Du Bois and his “Criteria of Negro Art”
The following year W. E. B. Du Bois contributed similar views of art and race with his speech “Criteria of Negro Art”, in which he specifically defines art as the key to equality among the races. He states that art is propaganda and that it should always be propaganda. DuBois feels that art is a way of proving ones humanity. “Just as soon as the black artist appears, someone touches the race on the shoulder and says. ‘He did that because he was an American, not because he was a Negro; he was born here; he was trained here; he is not a Negro—what is a Negro anyhow?
He is just human; it is the kind of thing you ought to expect” (Du Bois pg). This portrait of racial equality through art is an inspiring call for the emergence of black artists. According to Du Bois, black American art should utilize truth as a tool. Since art is propaganda, it should aim to seek the truth and show the truth. Artists will fully understand art if they are truthful with what they create, with what they write; artists should be truthful with the way they handle their art.
“The Negro-Art Hokum” vs. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”
In 1926, the June issue of The Nation featured “The Negro-Art Hokum” by George S. Schuyler as well as Hughes’s response piece “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”. The magazine had angered Schuyler by appointing Hughes as a critic before the article had even appeared (Kuenz 174). Ultimately, the pairing of these two essays lends many to play favorites among the two rather than assess each piece as its own subject. As one would expect, Schuyler often receives negative opinions.
George S. Schuyler viewed art as something that should not be divided by any race; instead, it should just be recognized through a certain nationality, and in the case of the “Negro” art, it should just be classified as an American art. Schuyler may have a point, but he was not able to properly explain and defend it. It could mean that he was more concerned in further marginalizing the situation of the black Americans, that’s why he opted for a more general classification which is considering Negro art as American art.
“Aside from his color, which ranges from very dark brown to pink, your American Negro is just plain American… Negroes and whites from the same localities in this country talk, think, and act about the same” (Schuyler). He made a mistake however, when he somewhat talked down on the black Americans because it seems that he has no regard for the black culture, saying that it is just a matter of color. He may have generalized on the artistic aspect of black Americans, but they also posses a culture which has essentially contributed in the formation of the country.
Schuyler didn’t recognize the existence of the black American culture: “This, of course, is easily understood if one stops to realize that the Aframerican is merely a lampblacked Anglo-Saxon” (Schuyler). This statement made by Schuyler somewhat looks down on the African American culture, assuming that they have just black counterparts of the white residents of the country.
Black Americans have a rich culture, including a wide influence in art. This doesn’t give any person the right to assume that they are just colored counterparts of the majority.
One argument that Schuyler raised was that black Americans are living the same lives as white Americans, that’s why there shouldn’t be any difference even in their perception and appreciation of art.
“When the jangling of his Connecticut alarm clock gets him out of his
Grand Rapids bed to a breakfast similar to that eaten by his white brother across the street; when he toils at the same or similar work in mills, mines, factories, and commerce alongside the descendants of Spartacus, Robin Hood, and Eric the Red; when he wears similar clothing and speaks the same language with the same degree of perfection; when he reads the same Bible and belongs to the Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, or Catholic church.
When his fraternal affiliations also include the Elks, Masons, and Knights of Pythias; when he gets the same or similar schooling, lives in the same kind of houses, owns the same makes of cars (or rides in them), and nightly sees the same Hollywood version of life on the screen; when he smokes the same brands of tobacco, and avidly peruses the same puerile periodicals; in short, when he responds to the same political, social, moral, and economic stimuli in precisely the same manner as his white neighbor, it is sheer nonsense to talk about “racial differences” as between the American black man and the American white man” (Schuyler). This lengthy but meaningful passage by Schuyler could be considered as his basis for the argument that whites and blacks are just superficial concepts.
However, he didn’t consider one thing: culture goes beyond what you eat, what you do for a living; it is deeply rooted in the people’s emotions, a basis for their character formation. Once it is imprinted in their personality, these black Americans would surely recognize what is black and what is white when it comes to art.
“The Negro-Art Hokum” can be seen in a number of different ways and can easily be misconstrued. It has caused some to view Schuyler as a traitor to his race (Gates 1220).
Hughes attacks this presumption in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”. He argues that African Americans should be proud of their heritage and culture.
Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” he points out that despite living in a country filled with white people, African Americans should never look away from where they truly came from. They should stand up for their heritage and culture, which could be manifested in different forms of art. According to Hughes, the Negro artist is full of potential, because he has a very rich culture backing him up. “Without going outside his race, and even among the better classes with their “white” culture and conscious American manners, but still Negro enough to be different, there is sufficient material to furnish a black artist with a lifetime of creative work” (Hughes).
This statement means that the Negro could truly afford to be different because they are characterized with a rich culture, as well as great talents that would supply a lifetime of creative works in the form of literature, visual arts, and more. People possessing these skills and talents should not be ashamed of his roots. Instead of succumbing to the white “Americanization” of these artistic skills, African Americans should focus on how they would be able to make their culture stand out. They should love their own, especially their artists who posses the talent that could match and even surpass any artist from other races.
The African American people should learn to appreciate their own creations, and address these as the output of a black American, and not of a commoner. Many blacks wanted to be assimilated by the whites and their culture, but to Hughes, he suggested that it is better to accept what you really are: “Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro–and beautiful! (Hughes)”
The racial mountain is the obstacle which the black Americans should be able to conquer. They may be living in a country full of white people telling them what to do, what to think, and what to follow. The black Americans have to overcome this push-shove treatment being given to them, and that could be realized by strengthening their own culture. They have a lot of potential, added the fact that they posses talented young minds. All they have to do is to stand up to the challenge and prove that they can truly be considered a unique, independent culture.
Look at: Race in art… Locke says it’s important, Dubois says it’s important, Hughes says it’s important. Schuyler says there is no race in art- only art. He has a good point- but it seems that he was overlooking the importance it can have for a culture. He seems to overlook the fact that equality had not yet been achieved and that his fellow artists wanted to gain that equality through art. Its interesting that Schuyler was denying that very vehicle that would hopefully gain the equality he presumed to be already in effect.
Schuyler seems ahead of his times. He writes “The Negro-Art Hokum” in 1926 and argues that there is no Negro-Art; there is simply American Art, and no distinction between the two. Although he makes an understandable argument it seems that he denies the main problem. We can see how one may agree with Schuyler in that both African Americans and white Americans have had an affect on one another. But when we look at what Hughes says about racial pride, it’s hard to agree with Schuyler.
DuBois, W.E.B. “Criteria of Negro Art”. 1926. The Crisis. November 7 2007. <http://www.webdubois.org/dbCriteriaNArt.html>.
Gates, Henry Louis, and Gene Andrew Jarrett. “Introduction to the New Negro.” The New Negro: Readings on Race, Representation, and African American Culture, 1892-1938. Ed. Alain Locke. New York: Atheneum, 1968. 3-16.
Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”. 1926. The Nation. November 7 2007. <http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/360.html>.
Locke, Alain. “Introduction to the New Negro.” New York: Atheneum, 1968. 3-16.
Schuyler, George S. “The Negro-Art Hokum.” Nation 122 (1926).