Are the ideas presented in "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" by Langston Hughes still relevant today?
In this essay, written in 1926, Hughes explores the pressure on black artists, especially those from the educated middle and upper classes, to please white audiences. Not only is there pressure from whites; these African Americans want to be artists in a white mode—to write, paint, sing, or dance as white people would. As Hughes puts it:
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.
Hughes says the black artist must resist this urge for whiteness. He also notes that lower-class African Americans feel far freer to create art in an idiom that genuinely reflects black culture and experience. He sees this explosive lower-class creativity as a fertile and vital arena for black art.
But despite the pressure, Hughes says, he senses the emergence of a truly black art movement. He writes:
But in spite of the Nordicized Negro intelligentsia and the desires of some white editors we have an honest American Negro literature already with us. . . . And within the next decade I expect to see the work of a growing school of colored artists who paint and model the beauty of dark faces and create with new technique the expressions of their own soul-world. And the Negro dancers who will dance like flame and the singers who will continue to carry our songs to all who listen—they will be with us in even greater numbers tomorrow.
I would say an "honest" black literature and art has emerged over the last century to express and communicate the black experience. It ranges from innovative hip-hop and rap music to stunning black literature and theater.
However, I would say it also continues to be an uphill battle for the black artist to gain wide acceptance for honest self-expression, as many whites still resist facing the reality of the black experience. As we have seen most recently with White Lives Matter as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement, a backlash has emerged that wants to deny the specificity of racism. Likewise, art that deals honestly with the racism, as well as the experience of diaspora, that is still often a reality of black life can engender a hostile reaction, as writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates have experienced.
Current demonstrations against removing the Confederate flag and statues of slave-owning generals from the public arena, as well the dearth of statues in public squares celebrating black heroes, also reveal a continuing insensitivity toward the black experience. There is a continuing pressure on the black community to accept white definitions of heroism and white artistic expressions (such as statues of whites created by whites) as normative. Despite the efforts of many black artists to express themselves in their own terms, the "mountain" of pressure to conform to the dominant culture still exists.
The main argument of Hughes in this compelling essay concerns the way in which to be a black artist is to face opposition against both your own people and against the white majority that will comment upon your work. Often, as the following quote from this essay demonstrates, a black artist is stuck between a rock and a hard place:
The Negro artist works against an undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites. "Oh, be respectable, 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.
There is therefore the danger, Hughes argues, of black artists not being true to their artistic selves and modifying what they write and want to express to try and satisfy either his own people or whites. A true black artist, Hughes says, will write what is on his or her heart without changing it and thinking about how their work will be received.
In a sense, I think there are ways in which this essay is still relevant today. Let us remember that so often authors are defined by their skin colour or ethnicity. If a woman writes a book, the fact that the author is a woman is majored on. Likewise if an African-American writes a book, this becomes very important as to how that work is marketed and sold. Whilst we could argue that such concerns as Hughes expresses have alleviated as a result of the Civil Rights movement and steps that have been taken towards equality, unfortunately ethnicity and race are still very powerful concerns.