This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain
Excerpted from the June 23, 1926 Issue
One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America—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. A very high mountain indeed for the would-be racial artist to climb in order to discover himself and his people.
Certainly there is, for the American Negro artist who can escape the restrictions the more advanced among his own group would put upon him, a great field of unused material ready for his art. 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 matter to furnish a black artist with a lifetime of creative work. And when he chooses to touch on the relations between Negroes and whites in this country with their innumerable overtones and undertones, surely, and especially for literature and the drama, there is an inexhaustible supply of themes at hand. To these the Negro artist can give his racial individuality, his heritage of rhythm and warmth, and his incongruous humor that so often, as in the Blues, becomes ironic laughter mixed with tears.
Jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America: the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile. To my mind, it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering “I want to be white,” hidden in the aspirations of his people, to “Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro—and beautiful!”
So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, “I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,” as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world. I am ashamed, too, for the colored artist who runs from the painting of Negro faces to the painting of sunsets after the manner of the academicians because he fears the strange un-whiteness of his own features. An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.
Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.
Langston Hughes (1902–1967) wrote “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” when he was only 24 years old. His last poem in The Nation was published in January 1967, just four months before he died.
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The Mountain Has Changed
April 6, 2015
Brother Langston nailed it when he said that Black culture provides “sufficient matter to furnish a black artist with a lifetime of creative work.” I was shaped as a writer by things I experienced when I was 6 years old. I remember walking through Boston—to be precise, Mattapan and Roxbury—with my hand engulfed inside my dad’s, and running into his friends, and noticing the linguistic flavor they sprinkled into their language. I recall sitting in the back of Dad’s car while he played Richard Pryor cassettes; I didn’t get the jokes, but the flavor of Pryor’s big, infectious personality came through. I remember dancing to Marvin Gaye with Mom in the living room. I recall her watching that curmudgeonly racist Archie Bunker on TV and not really understanding why she loved to watch him, but I could see she was OK engaging with racist white culture. (I did not then understand that she was laughing at Bunker, who tended to be the butt of the jokes.) Even then I was drawn to the rebelliousness of George Jefferson, whom my mom also loved. It was thrilling and hilarious to watch Jefferson slam his front door in white people’s faces, and liberating to see him not care at all about what the white people around him thought. He was an early warrior in the battle against an overconcern for the white gaze. I remember drinking in the bodacious, soulful pageantry of loud Baptist church services that were part concert, part worship, part Broadway. Through all those sources and more, the spice and color and style of Blackness sank into me, and thus into my writing. The cultural imperative that it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing was passed down not just through the artists but through everyone in the community. There is a way of manipulating the English language, as well as a soulful way of cooking, of dressing, of walking, of doing almost anything, and that sense flows through the community and into its artists. The adults around me walked and dressed and talked in a way that used style as a weapon, and exuded an idea that style itself was substance, and proclaimed that a life without style was barely worth living.
But there was also, I learned slowly, a massive Black ego in those folks around me, which existed as a way of protecting their spirit. The world is set up, it seems, to constantly remind us that we are lesser, and so folks are at work constructing egos that are far greater than their résumés suggest they should be but are necessary for psychic survival. These are egos as mental armor—this, even though the ’70s were a time of a slow, steady rise in the community, a rise that was the child of the many wars fought in the ’60s; and thus a Blackness born of the ’70s was infused with hope, because of the ascensions happening in business and politics and culture during that era of affirmative action. I also learned that Blackness means working twice as hard to get half a shot. On the morning I was heading off to my first day in the first grade at a new school, my mother pulled me close and said, “Remember, you have to be twice as good as those white kids.” She introduced me then to John Henryism. According to the stories, Henry was a steel-driving man at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, a giant brother who drove steel faster than any man around. Then they had him race against a steel-driving machine: Henry won, but died of a heart attack. Now “John Henryism” refers to the concept in Black America that we feel we must work twice as hard, must double-prove ourselves.
Of course, Blackness is also laced with pain. I got a fill of that, too, when I was 6. From the many, many times I got spanked (with a hand or a belt, never a switch) to the many times we went out to eat and were sat near the kitchen, suspiciously away from everyone else, and my offended mom grabbed our hands and stormed out. We watched the Boston busing riots on the local news, witnessing the violent refusal to integrate and knowing that our Boston neighbors, our fellow citizens, were rejecting us. We lived in the midst of a city derisively called “up South,” to convey that the racism there was just as deep as the South’s. Felt like it. One day at summer camp, I was sitting on a bench in a locker room talking to some kid about people going over Niagara Falls in a barrel when a slightly older kid came out of nowhere and said, “I don’t know anything about Niagara Falls, but I know you’re a nigger.” That, Skip Gates would say, was a “moment of instruction,” a moment that occurs in most Black autobiographies/lives, a moment when you are told by the dominant culture what Blackness is worth, and the answer is: not much.
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Right there, you start to build your double consciousness, your Du Boisian twoness, which allows you to hold two opposing ideas in mind: to know that the dominant culture looks down on you, and yet that it is undeserved. Because if you can’t see both sides, you’ll lose your mind—and all of that shapes you as a person and an artist. The Black artist, in order to be serious, must bring to bear the sense of style as substance the community demands, as well as the pain we feel from being battered by racism. Because racism is critical to the social construction of Blackness—racism in its various forms, from micro-aggressions to direct confrontations, to incidents that happen to others but weigh heavily on you, to structural racism. Black culture and Black people are deeply shaped by racism, but culturally, we’re as rich as Oprah. So, as Langston said, Black artists need look no further than their own childhoods to find a wealth of material. All of Black culture rests inside a Black mind as a great well from which to draw to create art, and that is brother Langston’s big point. Surely, for every artist, wrapped up within all the things learned and experienced over the decades, all the technical and spiritual elements that inform his or her art, there is also identity.
Of course, this is true not only for Blacks, but for Latinos, Asians, Jews, women, gays—all those folks who commonly work with identity in their art. Identity is inescapable even for whites, men, Christians and straight people; their art, too, is shaped by it. And there’s a loss for art and for the nation when they fail to examine how identity shapes their world and their art, when they treat identity like something transparent, something they can’t see, when they act like those fish David Foster Wallace wrote about who say, “What the hell is water?” Even if the work does not wear identity on its sleeve, the work is still shaped by it. If the creators in dominant societies could make art that was more aware of their privilege, then an entirely new and powerful and more true conversation about America could arise.
Sometimes I wonder if their lack of connection to their culture is a matter of deep hearing. When I sit down to write, I can’t help but hear voices: I hear my community demanding style and my ancestors demanding substance and our tragic dead demanding work that’s meaningful and my artistic North Stars—Baldwin, Ellison, Morrison, Tate, Bearden, Davis, Coltrane, Gaye, Stone, Simone, Clinton—urging me to talk about the beauty and the pain and the complexity of being Black, and to do so in ways that challenge accepted notions and yet still make it funky. The legacy is a daunting beast, filled with genius. The pressure of competing with it is immense. If the Ghost Hunters snuck up behind me as I was trying to write, they might see a universe of slave liberators, political agitators, Baptist preachers, exuberant orators, beloved writers and incomparable musicians—so many musicians—arrayed around me all in chorus, urging and cajoling and daring me to somehow dig a little deeper.
And yet still there are pitfalls: the Black artist must confront the choice between being a messenger about the community, telling people what would be good for them to see (what some might call an artistic politician or even a propagandist), and being a pure maker of artistic product, a window through which to view the artist’s world, whether or not that window makes the community look better. In the near century since Langston said there was a high racial mountain for Black artists, the nature of that mountain has changed. Brother Langston saw a world that barely cared about Black culture. If he came back today, he would probably be pleasantly shocked to find a nation fixated on Black culture, with Motown and Def Jam creating the soundtracks for the lives of the baby boomers and Gen X, respectively. Today’s Black artist confronts not a mountain of indifference to what moves him, but a door flung open too wide, tempting him to sell out his culture and community, to present a calm and reassuring face to the dominant white culture and not make it feel bad about racism, offering it instead a pleasing caricature of Black culture to aid in racial tourism: being able to explore the ghetto from the safe vantage of your car as you listen to hip-hop, or your couch as you watch a movie set in the hood. This fetishization and commodification of Blackness leaves Black artists faced with a choice between feeding the dominant culture with the soothing simulacra of Blackness that it wants and having a better chance at success—or presenting a more nuanced vision of Blackness and risking longer odds. Even when you think you’ve taken the latter route, as Dave Chappelle did on his legendary Comedy Central show, success can have you worrying that maybe you did sell out and then running to Mother Africa to get your head on straight again.
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But the key note in brother Langston’s essay is love. He loves Black people and Black aesthetics and Blackness. This is the source of his sense that Black culture provides all the memories, wisdom and nutrients an artist needs. It is hard won, that love: it can feel like swimming upstream against a raging current to reach a love of Blackness in a nation ruled by white supremacy and thus by white aesthetics, a nation where the message is that all things Caucasian are more beautiful. It sometimes feels like you must actively download separate mental software that allows you to see through the torrent of messages lauding white beauty in order to prize Africanness. Langston begins the essay discussing a so-called promising Black poet who does not want to be a “Negro poet,” which Langston reads as a subconscious wish to be white. He bemoans that the Black artist “is never taught to see that beauty” of Blackness: “He is taught rather not to see it.” And later, “The old subconscious white is best runs through [the] mind.”
Unless the Black mind is vigilant, it can succumb to the idea that white is best. This was a key point of the Black Power movement and the Black Arts movement and the rise of African-American studies departments: to teach the beauty of Black physiognomy and the depth of Black history and the import of Black culture, and thus to help crush white supremacy wherever it lurks in Black minds—because liberation from the colonized mind is so empowering. Langston loves Blackness so much that he even has kindness for George S. Schuyler, who wrote the article that Langston is responding to. Schuyler’s essay seems to me completely the product of a colonized mind: he rejects the very concept of Blackness and the notion of a shared community, suggesting that Blacks are just Americans of a different color and ignoring the binding experience of being Black in America. I need not know the exact streets another Black person has walked to feel some connection with them. I know that you are my brother or my sister even if we look at the world in different ways. I know that every Black person has been touched by racism in some way and that racism is a life-shaping experience, not an incidental one, and that there is a community built on the need to help one another survive the pain and hypocrisy of American racism. There is a Black community even if there is not Black monolithicity. My impulse was to respond to Schuyler’s essay—which dismisses Black art with a blithe back of the hand—with anger. But Langston’s response is elegant, because his love for Black people is so great that he even has love for those who don’t believe Black culture exists.
I feel sad for those who can’t see their own cultural legacy, for they are poorer than the rest of us; they are ignoring a large bank account left to them in a will written by millions of people who came before them. We all stand on the shoulders of ancestors who stood on their ancestors’ shoulders. The only question is whether we know we are standing on those shoulders, or if we think we are somehow really, really, really tall.