illustrated portrait of American poet and author Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

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What is the primary argument of "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" by Langston Hughes?

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In his essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," poet Langston Hughes interprets the statement of a young African-American poet that, "I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet," to mean, "I want to write like a white poet"; this suggests he was really expressing a subconscious desire to be white.

Hughes goes on to argue that this apparent aspiration to bourgeois gentility, as embodied by the dominant Caucasian society, and the psychological cost that adherence to its constraints on creative freedom implies, is terribly damaging to the quality of the creative work and to the spiritual integrity of any African American artist who would embrace it. And it only adds insult to injury that not only does white society pressure African American artists to conform to its standards, but his own people often share the same attitude: "Oh, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are, . . . "

As a leader of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and especially as a poet himself, this issue of honesty in art was a visceral, existential question. In his view, a vital art demands that the African American artist must be true to the full range of their experience, including that of their racial heritage.

[T]o 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."

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This brief essay by Langston Hughes is in many ways a manifesto for the Harlem Renaissance, the movement by young African American artists, writers, and musicians in the 1920s. Hughes's argument is summarized at the beginning of the essay, where he observes that African American artists are under pressure to emulate white art in an attempt to gain respectability:

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 is arguing that Black artists should embrace "racial individuality." According to him, their work should celebrate Black culture, not emulate white culture. He is especially scathing in his criticism of the Black middle class, people whom he accuses of rejecting their heritage by scorning behaviors, art, and culture that they associate with African American life. Of course, these would be the people that would be most likely to consume art created by African American artists, and this is the "mountain" that these artists face.

At the same time, artists and writers like Hughes face pressure from white publishers and critics. They are encouraged to behave and write about themes that are essentially stereotypes—white conceptions of African American culture. In returning to the main argument, Hughes asserts the duty of young African American artists to be true to their own heritage, not to pander to people of either race who try to push them to create inauthentic work. As he puts it,

An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.

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