In his essay “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926), W.E.B. DuBois is concerned with three main ideas.
He is first concerned with the idea of Beauty, not as that which is in the eye of the beholder, but as that which is considered to be classical, universal, and transhistorical. Primarily, his question is “After all, who shall describe Beauty?” He suggests that African Americans are in a particularly good position to do this work because as he says, “pushed aside as we have been in America, there has come to us not only a certain distaste for the tawdry and flamboyant but a vision of what the world could be if it were really a beautiful world.”
Secondly, he emphasizes his belief that art’s purpose is propaganda. He says that “I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.” His feelings are that art, as well as reflecting Beauty, should serve the purpose of securing people’s rights.
Finally, he is concerned with the ways in which African Americans and the art that they contribute to society will be judged. He knows that similarities will exist between art that is produced by African Americans and that which is produced by other non-Black people in America, but he is interested in the ways in which the distinction of African-American art can be recognized, and how that recognition carries with it not only a recognition of the weight of African-American art itself, but also of the humanity of the artists who created it. “I do not doubt that the ultimate art coming from black folk is going to be just as beautiful, and beautiful largely in the same ways, as the art that comes from white folk, or yellow, or red; but the point today is that until the art of the black folk compells [sic] recognition they will not be rated as human.”
George Schuyler’s “The Negro-Art Hokum” and Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” have historically been considered in tandem as one is a direct response to the other. Both were published in The Nation in 1926. In “The Negro-Art Hokum,” Schuyler makes an argument against the specificity of African-American art, thus the title. If something is a “hokum” it is nonsense, or something that is meaningless or untrue. For Schuyler, there is no such thing as African-American art. Because of the influence of white models, and the varied participations of white people, Schuyler claims that what is called African-American art is really just American art.
Langston Hughes wrote “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” one week later in response to Schuyler. In his argument, Hughes criticizes what he calls “the racial mountain,” which he states is “this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.” He stresses his belief in the particular experiences of African-Americans to create cultural arts that are distinct, and are beautiful and important in that distinction.
Consider these two arguments from the early part of the twentieth century in relation to the arguments Morrison makes toward the end of the twentieth century in “Unspeakable Things Unspoken.”
1880s — Southern states pass “Jim Crow” laws , consigning black passengers to segregated seating in railway cars and ultimately enforcing a barrier between blacks and whites in all aspects of public life.
1895 — Booker T. Washington delivers his “Atlanta Compromise” speech at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta.
1896 — In Plessy v. Ferguson the Supreme Court rules the “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites was constitutional, legalizing segregation.
1909 — The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is founded.
1914 — The Great Migration of blacks out of the rural South to cities in the North begins. Between 1914 and 1920 500,000 or more blacks go north for jobs in industry and better opportunities.
1917 — The United States enter into World War I
1919 — The end of World War I; the beginnings of The New Negro Movement
The New Negro Movement began in the aftermath of World War I as a movement of cultural resistance. The name of the movement is drawn from Alain Locke’s essay “The New Negro,” and the collection of essays in which it was included by the same name. The name of the movement has come to be popularly known as “The Harlem Renaissance” since the 1970s when the term was coined by African American historian, John Hope Franklin.
Welcome to CES 331/ENGL 321: Introduction African American literature. This semester we will begin to explore the foundations, development, innovations, implications, and possibilities of an African American literary tradition. We will begin our first class by posing the questions: What is African American literature? Where does it fit within our notions of what American literature is? And, what purpose(s) has African American literature served, and what purpose(s) does it continue to serve today?
We will also go over the administrative aspects of the course by going over the syllabus, reviewing course requirements and policies, discussing the expectations for the semester, and doing general introductions. Let’s get started…