In The New Negro, three generations of black artists and intellectuals addressed questions raised by Du Bois two decades earlier in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). What does it mean to be both black and American? On what terms can African Americans participate in the making of a common national life in the United States without denying what is distinctive about themselves as members of a particular group? What is the relationship between culture and politics? What is the relationship among history, art, and racial identity?
Locke’s opening essay, “The New Negro,” is of enduring historical significance in this connection. His remarks on the politics of culture and the use of art for social purposes—specifically, on the exploitation of folk themes by middle-class artists as a form of racial lobbying—have stimulated decades of heated discussion and criticism. Responding to the tendency of sociologists to see black Americans primarily in light of the “Negro problem,” Locke insisted instead that “the elements of truest social portraiture are found in artistic self-expression.” So far as African Americans were culturally articulate, they were to speak for themselves.
The flowering of a new race spirit among African Americans was an example of movements of national self-determination around the world. As a large part of the peasant matrix of the American South, black Americans had made that region a gift of their...
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