Writing by Ali Gavin. Illustration by Isi Williams.
In June of 1926, the poet Langston Hughes sat down to write ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ with much to say. Having read George Schuyler’s article, ‘The Negro Art Hokum’, he was ready to compose his response.
‘The Negro Art Hokum’ had expressed Schuyler’s belief in the sameness of all Americans. To him, there was no such thing as ‘Black art’ that contained any essential difference from the art of white Americans. This was a complementary belief to his view that the ‘soul’ of the Black American was identical to that of the white American - that the African American was “merely a lampblacked Anglo-Saxon.” Ultimately, American culture was a derivative of European culture, and that each American - regardless of race - was a product of this culture. A product of nationality, rather than race. Leading Black artists like W.E.B. Du Bois, Meta Warwick Fuller, and Henry Ossawa Tanner had all been produced by American and European institutions.
Schuyler had asserted that the development of spirituals (“based on Protestant hymns and and Biblical texts”), as well as the blues, jazz, and the Charleston came “from dark-skinned sources” with the help of white Americans. However, he assigned these developments to the category of “contributions of a caste in a certain section of the country,” rather than deeming them to be of any great significance to a particular race. According to his belief, these artistic productions would have been brought out by any group of people, were they subject to similar circumstances; the colour of these artists’ skin, he wrote, was “merely a coincidence.”
Schuyler’s theory placed European influence as the essential source of all American art, whether Black or white. He posed the question; if European immigrants become, after a few generations, completely assimilated with and indistinguishable from Americans of older generations, then why is the same not true of African Americans who have been subject to the same “Americanism” for three hundred years? They all “talk, think, and act about the same”. The perceived difference between Black and white Americans, he claimed, is a result of certain writers co-opting “imbecilities of the Negro rustics and clowns” and passing them off as being characteristic of African Americans, thus causing the average white American to conjure up popular stereotypes when thinking of Black Americans.
Schuyler’s article seemed to be that it is nationality, rather than race, that influences the work of any particular artist. “They all reveal the psychology and culture of their environment - their colour is incidental,” he wrote. This thesis proposed that the idea of a fundamental difference between the races is an old myth used by ‘Negrophobists’ to uphold their views. Other Black artists who reinforce the idea of “Negro art” are simply aiding them, but “intelligent people” must reject such an idea.
Schuyler’s proposition affected Langston Hughes to the point that he was motivated to write back. In the next edition of the abolitionist paper, The Nation, Hughes’ own thesis on ‘Negro art’ was published. ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ argues that the attempt to destroy the special position of the Black artist is, in fact, a side effect of the process of “American standardization.” Hughes recalls the sadness he felt after a young Black poet told him that he wanted just to be a poet, rather than a “Negro poet.” To Hughes, the meaning behind this was that the young man wanted to be a white poet, and thus desired to separate from his race.
Hughes looks at how the middle class upbringing of this aspiring poet had affected his desire. The norm of the “Negro middle class”, he writes, is to be raised in a manner that makes every possible effort to have its members fit in with - even become like - white Americans. This artist born into this particular culture, Hughes regrets, is taught not to see “the beauty of his own people.” The culmination of this sort of upbringing is the establishment of an especially high “mountain” which blocks for the artist the path of self-discovery.
Such an upbringing is contrasted in the article with the culture of what Hughes calls the “low-down folks.” They are, according to him, the true bearers of an authentic Black culture. They are not afraid of their true selves, and do not care to appear white. These are the people that allow artists to hold on to individuality in opposition to “American standardization” - they “accept what beauty is their own without question.”
For the Black American artist who manages to escape the binds of middle-class repression, there is “a great field of unused material” waiting to be turned into art. This is especially true, Hughes says, for the artist who chooses to draw on the theme of race relations in America. He believes that, to this type of the material, the Black artist can bring something unique; racial individuality, rhythm and humour.
For Hughes, the conditions of the period now known as the Harlem Renaissance forcibly brought the Black artist to the attention of Black Americans. The artist, however, occupied a tough position, with pressure from a Black audience to represent the race in a ‘respectable’ fashion, and with a set of centuries-old expectations to contend with from a white audience. Hughes uses Jean Toomer’s Cane as an example of a piece of work that broke the boundaries on both sides. Though it was not praised by either audience at the time of publication, the prose it contained was innovative and beautiful - it was, Hughes writes, “truly racial”.
“Why should I want to be white?”, the article asks. The young Black artist is urged not to be afraid of the “un-whiteness” of their features. Black art, says Hughes, is not created to please white people. It is - and should be - able to express both a beauty and an ugliness without the constraints of what has so far been considered the mainstream. The Black artist is called to present their “individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.” It is this sentiment, rather than Schuyler’s thesis, that marked Langston Hughes as a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance.
The era now referred to as the Harlem Renaissance began as the First World War ended, and lasted until the mid-1930s (3). In W.E.B Du Bois’ 1903 The Souls of Black Folks (4), the notion of the ‘double-consciousness’ possessed by the Black American population was presented. Du Bois theorised that, in a country as racially divided as America, Black people saw themselves not only from their own perspective, but self-consciously from the perspective of white America too. This dichotomy became a recurring idea in the subsequent works of the Harlem Renaissance. Alain Locke viewed the period as a sort of “spiritual Coming of Age” (5) for Black Americans, and asserted that a “New Negro” was being created. It was a time when new Black institutions were created, such as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. This new (relative) freedom for Black Americans to show an interest in their own culture was reflected in the art they created. Some of the main figures of the Harlem Renaissance included Zora Neale Hurston (author of Their Eyes Were Watching God), Jean Toomer, Nella Larsen (author of Quicksand and Passing), the jazz musician Duke Ellington, the painter Aaron Douglas, and, of course, the poet and author Langston Hughes. The renaissance arose from sets of disparate cultural, economic, and social circumstances which circled around Harlem - New York City being a natural magnet for those looking for work during the Great Migration from south to north which followed the emancipation of Black slaves. To the forefront of the Harlem Renaissance were modernism, internationalism and, notably, the idea of the ‘folk’. Artists were given the opportunity to explore, in their own mediums, the position of Black people within America and beyond, and often examined the roots of ‘authentic’ Black culture. They were, in essence, following the prompts provided by Hughes in his groundbreaking article.
The Harlem Renaissance brought about a new sense of consciousness both in America and worldwide. Never before had Black Americans been able to create art that so freely confronted race, racial politics, and racial identity. Stories and artworks in which Black people were centralised, in which their culture and speech were given consideration, and in which caricatures were not present were finally able to be produced. White America no longer had total and utter control over the work of America’s Black artists. It was nothing short of a turning point for literature, music, visual art, philosophy, and for culture generally. Black artists could, at last, begin to “stand on top of the mountain, free within [themselves]” (1).
Hughes, Langston. ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’. 1926. http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/360.html
Schuyler, George. ‘The Negro Art Hokum’. 1926. http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5129/
Reuben, Paul. ‘The Harlem Renaissance: A Brief Introduction’. 2019. https://www.paulreuben.website/pal/chap9/9intro.html
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folks. 1903.
Locke, Alain. The New Negro: An Interpretation. 1925.