The Gorgeous Mosaic: Why “The Negro Artist and The Racial Mountain” Still Matters
On the complex call for freedom in Langston Hughes’ most seminal essay
The nature of art will always conflict with critical demand; simply because the mere aesthetic of creation itself is given to so many variables and variants, that it is inevitable that it will somehow conflict with the norms of whatever society in which the art is created. And the Harlem Renaissance had more than its fair share of demands put upon it. On its way to being the first major movement in the history of African American Art to synthesize the myth, ritual, and structure of black history into various forms, it underwent numerous aesthetic conflicts which centered around race and individual identity.
The primary demanding artistic voice- concerning the fact that they were tied into the general buying public-was that of the white patron. To paint their involvement in the Harlem Renaissance in merely damning terms short changes the complex nature of the personal and financial relationships that they had with the artists that they were supporting. Patrons like Charlotte Osgood Mason and Carl Van Vechten were not only instrumental in getting the work of numerous artists to a broader stage, they provided the financial support in which they could do the work itself. Real estate developer William Harmon established the Harmon Foundation, a program that highlighted African American achievement in the art, literature, and various humanities. The greater truth was that the patrons, like the public itself, were not interested in the specificities of the art itself as they were in their own set definitions of it. The art exhibitions of the Harmon foundation quickly turned into a caricatured formula and the demand of exoticism from whites in other art forms was so great that rarely any work that had themes beyond that proved profitable.
Another voice of artistic demand came from one of the most formidable giants in African American Literary History, W.E.B Dubois. One cannot sing enough praises to ” The Souls Of Black Folk,” one of the most sophisticated books ever written about race, and a vital document in the history of American letters. By the time of the renaissance, however, the finely nuanced vision of an inter-class artistic and cultural utopia that guided his book had eroded into a cantankerous Marxist dogma blanketed in the rhetoric of racial uplift. There were no guidelines, just rules, and the primary one was to create art to ” move the race higher”; which meant an artist couldn’t create an image in which white people could constrict as a stereotype.
To many, it seemed like a sound policy, but to Langston Hughes, it meant suppressing part of his humanity, something that he couldn’t live with. In his essay ” The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archive…) Hughes argues for the right for an artist to view the humanity of their environment in whenever terms they see fit. “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame,” Hughes said. ” If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.” In response to the positive image demands of Dubois, Hughes is not arguing for negative portrayals instead of positive ones. He is simply saying that the demands of art supersede and give greater reward than the mere portrayals themselves.
The third and probably most important artistic demand of the Harlem Rennaisance was the ones that the individual artists put on themselves. Here is where an array of factors play a part, from the aforementioned patronage and Dubois’s faction to an artist's environment, knowledge of form, sense of self, and overall personal well-being. You can see those factors in the different and complex structural aesthetics of the poetry of Countee Cullen, the negro poet Hughes refers to in the first paragraph of his essay. Cullen’s quest to be seen in a universal spectrum by using the form of the sonnet is a compelling one, and much of the poetry that he wrote will last as long as people retain an interest in the English language. One can empathize with his need to break free from the paternalistic stereotypical constraints of race regarding African American artists, especially the ones propagated by the patrons of the Harlem Renaissance at the time. And to describe his poetry as merely raceless overlooks the complex way in which he explored the terms of being a black artist( ” Yet Do I Marvel”) recalled experiences of racism ( ” An Incident”) and the oh so complex cultural ties that African Americans have with Africa ( ” Heritage”) (http://www.nku.edu/~diesmanj/cullen…)
However, one can see Hughes’ point when he implicitly mentions Cullen in ” Racial Mountain” as an artist in conflict with his color. ( Cullen is the black poet Hughes is talking about in the first few paragraphs of the essay). Hughes isn’t criticizing Cullen’s blackness per-se, as the opening paragraphs seem to indicate. The true message of Hughes’s beef with him can be seen in the last sentence of the second to last paragraph of the essay; when he says ” An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must never be afraid to do what he might choose”. He isn’t criticizing Cullen’s wide artistic scope, which ranged from Blake to Keats, he is just saying that it was a shame that that wide scope refused to include the beauty of jazz and the spirituals. It is in his art which provides the most sterling example of his aesthetic; as in poems such as Jazzonia, The Weary Blues, The Negro Speaks of Rivers and Theme for English b, Hughes displays a poetic gift steeped in the nuances of Jazz, Gospel, Blues, Spirituals, Work Songs and Walt Whitman’s free form style( which in itself was influenced by spirituals). (http://www.poetryconnection.net/poe…)
After the publication of “Mountain”, Hughes was just as bedeviled by the question of black politics as Cullen. His best work changed the English language: revolutionizing the way jazz, dialect, the blues, and the oral tradition would put on the page; but it made him terribly unpopular in black literary circles. The Pittsburg Courier put his face on the front page and called it “HUGHES BIG BOOK OF TRASH”. The Amsterdam News reviewed deemed him to be a “Sewer Dweller” and spent years railing at him for having “unwashed” black life as the subject matter of his work. For years Hughes was the saw that Black respectability politics critics work on, and to speak of it the Harlem Rennasiance in nothing but warm in glowing terms doesn’t do justice to the truth of what he had to go through.
It also doesn’t do justice to the truth of how he struggled after the renaissance ended. Hughes’ involvement in communism is overplayed by his conservative critics, and while it did harm his poetry by taking it from Harlem to the canvas of a billboard, it was the only way he could pay his rent. When he stopped writing slogans for socialist realism and fixed his eye toward home, he had already become an iconic figure, a cherished elder for a burgeoning movement; and at times struggled to find a literary identity outside of the responsibilities his position entailed
By the mid-1960, however, his position had caved in on his head. Led by Amiri Baraka, who wrote a violent, homophobic response to his rejecting one of his poems, a generation of black male poets had scorned him. Harold Bloom, another corrosive racial arsonist, founded two generations of scholarships that reduced him to a hallmark card writer. Probably the worst example, however, was the Oxford black student union, a group of intellectuals who stated to his face that he wasn’t black enough to contribute to the struggle.
The upshot of the abuse he took is that it freed Hughes from any responsibility except the one on the page, and led him back to the uncensored, clear, and free voice that he had in “Mountain”. Published in 1967, “The Panther and the Lash” is Hughes straight, no chaser; a book with few slogans, statements, or fragmented ideas denied the full attention of his powers. It was his most focused and particular book of poetry since “Weary Blues”; written as a homage to the Harlem that never ignored him long after chic poetry movements had. In both their music and voice, the poems present Hughes a beat forward from his usual tempo; jittery, pragmatic, and at times a little cranky. Yet in the end, one marvels at that voice at its absolute best, and so much of what is good about Hughes-and in the process, American poetry-can be seen in these pages.
The unique obstacles against which the artists of the Harlem Renaissance labored to create not only influenced the forms of art in that movement; they were one of the factors which contributed to its enduring beauty. Langston Hughes was an indelible part of those chapters, and to this day, he remains a complex figure that deserves closer study than he is given. We are still having the complex conversations that “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” started, and for that( as well as the bulk of his body of work ( he deserves a tremendous amount of gratitude.