Wednesday, April 8, 2009

1926: “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” by Langston Hughes

The Author:
Langston Hughes

Born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902, Hughes attended Columbia University in New York City for one year (1921-1922) and dropped out. Before returning to school (Lincoln University, a historically black college in southeastern Pennsylvania) as a 24-year-old sophomore in 1926, Hughes worked as a seaman on a freighter that traveled along the coast of West Africa, spent several months in Paris, and worked as a busboy at a hotel in Washington, D. C.. On his graduation from Lincoln University, he moved to Harlem, where he lived for most of his life until his death in 1967.

More known for his poetry than his plays and his fiction, Hughes was "the most celebrated African American writer of the first half of the twentieth century." (Leitch et al, 1311)

The Text:
"The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain"

Four years after Hughes dropped out of Columbia University following his freshman year, he published this essay (which appeared in The Nation) and his first book of poetry (The Weary Blues--see image below on the left).

"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 mode of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible." (1313)
"The Negro artist works against an undertow of sharp critcism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites. 'O, be resepctable, write about nice people, show how good we are,' say the Negroes. 'Be stereotyped, don't go too far, don't shatter our illusions about you, don't amuse us too seriously. We will pay you,' say the whites. Both would have told Jean Toomer not to write 'Cane.' . . . Yet (excepting the work of DuBois) 'Can'e contains the finest prose written by a Negro in America." (1315-1316)

"[J]azz is to me one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America . . . [y]et the Philadelphia clubwoman is ashamed to say that her race created it and she does not like me to write about it. The old subconscious 'white is best' runs through her mind. Years of study under white teachers, a lifetime of white books, pictures, and papers, and white manners, morals, and Puritan standards made her dislike the spirituals. And now she turns up her nose at jazz ..." (1316)

" 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 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." (1316)


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