Thursday, April 2, 2009

1926: "Criteria of Negro Art" by W. E. B. Dubois

The Author:
W. E. B. Dubois

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1868, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (pronounced: “doo BOYZ”) graduated from Fisk University in Nashville in 1888 and seven years later became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. From 1897-1910, he taught economics, history, and sociology at Atlanta University. It was during this period that he published his best-known work, The Souls of Black Folk (1900), which called for the development of an elite African American intellectual and professional class, which Du Bois would refer to as the “talented tenth.” After helping found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, he edited the organization’s monthly magazine, The Crisis, from 1910-1934. He returned to Atlanta University in 1933 and taught there until 1944. From 1952-1958, the U.S. government revoked his passport because of his outspoken admiration for the Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union. In 1961, at the age of 93, he joined the Communist Party USA and moved to Ghana (in West Africa), where he died in 1963, one day before Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D. C..

The Text:
“Criteria of Negro Art”

In this address, delivered at the Chicago Conference of the NAACP, Du Bois “insists on the need for art to function as agitation, protest” and “advance the cause of the race” (Leitch et al. 979).

“We can go on the stage; we can be just as funny as white Americans wish us to be; we can play all the sordid parts that America likes to assign to Negroes; but for any thing else there is still small place for us.” (984-985) [The image at left is of Bert Williams (1875-1922), a light-skinned African-American who, wearing blackface, became one of the most successful Vaudevillian comedians of his era.]

“…all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not give a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.” (985-986)

“…it is not the positive propaganda of people who believe white blood divine, infallible and holy to which I object. It is the denial of a similar right of propaganda to those who believe black blood human, lovable and inspired with new ideals for the world.” (986)

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