Schuyler, Hughes, Locke, & DuBois

George Schuyler maintains that it is impossible for the voice of the Harlem Renaissance  to be a unified one because these recent migrants to the North come from different regions and have different experiences. He offers that the reason for the current, but now obsolete representation of African Americans as downtrodden (as found in the blues) and bizarre (as evidenced by the popularity of the Charleston dance) is universal because they emanated in the south. I believe Schuyler could agree that a representative style could originate in Harlem, but it would take years and years to develop. Schulyer also states that the model African American artists are more or less white artists because they have been educated in Europe and have those same sensibilities. He assumes that this is why W. E. B DuBois and the like are the most exalted of the African American artists because they’re basically in the same vein as whites. Schulyer explains that, “Aside from his color, which ranges from very dark brown to pink, your American Negro is just plain American.” Just like the melding of European immigrants into the American existence after years of settlement, African American have also been altered by their surroundings, becoming American. Schulyer is more of a proponent for classification by nation, not race.

Langston Hughes is diametrically opposed to this classification. He believes that African American poets must be spiritually connected to their race in order to be successful and true. He writes, “But this 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 acknowledges that African American artists often need acceptance and funding by whites in order to make it onto the scene, but in doing so, they squash reality. In trying to please whites, they write about stereotypes, and in trying to make their own people happy, they are asked to hype up how respectable their people are – never do they write about what they know. The end goal of African American art, according to Hughes is to express individuality. He concludes, “If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.”

Alain Locke is also an advocate for what the individual can create and he asserts that the individual can only flourish once the propaganda has vanished. He writes that propaganda, “perpetuates the position of group inferiority even in crying out against it.” This argument is similar to Hughes’ recognition of the fact that African Americans want acceptance and choose to write in a manner that promotes their people but doesn’t lend itself to exposing the varied shining stars.

DuBois states that African Americans cannot write what they know because it will not be accepted. He backs this up with an anecdote about how one of his works was denied when the characters were black, but accepted and embraced by the same editor when the color of the characters and the location were changed. To me, the implications of DuBois’ tale show that the experiences of whites and African Americans are unified enough so that they can be used to represent either race when fitting. Wouldn’t this tie into Schulyer’s desire to classify according to nation, not race?

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9 responses to “Schuyler, Hughes, Locke, & DuBois

  1. Marianna

    The only problem I had with the Langston Hughes article was the fact that he associated monetary wealth with “whiteness”. I’m not sure I fully understand why a black doctor or a black lawyer could not appreciate his racial background as much as, say, a black poet or artist. Why does he look down on those professions which require years of hard work and practice? I couldn’t help but wonder if he associates lawyers and doctors with “whiteness”, and artists/poets with “blackness”? If so, I don’t agree with him at all. Why can’t be there a “high-class” Negro who climbs that “racial mountain” while still maintaining his own spiritual background.

    Should the younger Negroes aim solely towards the artistic field? While it is important that the Negro artist, poet, whoever, find himself in relation to the society in which he lives, I can’t help but wonder why Hughes’ article reads more like a youthful rebellion towards all the norms of society.

  2. mkhanis

    The only problem I had with the Langston Hughes article was the fact that he associated monetary wealth with “whiteness”. I’m not sure I fully understand why a black doctor or a black lawyer could not appreciate his racial background as much as, say, a black poet or artist. Why does he look down on those professions which require years of hard work and practice? I couldn’t help but wonder if he associates lawyers and doctors with “whiteness”, and artists/poets with “blackness”? If so, I don’t agree with him at all. Why can’t be there a “high-class” Negro who climbs that “racial mountain” while still maintaining his own spiritual background.

    Should the younger Negroes aim solely towards the artistic field? While it is important that the Negro artist, poet, whoever, find himself in relation to the society in which he lives, I can’t help but wonder why Hughes’ article reads more like a youthful rebellion towards all the norms of society.

  3. Sabrina

    By putting these essays in conversation, it seems as though Du Bois can be the only mediator between Hughes and Schuyler. Hughes takes the time to denigrate the black middle class and stereotype an entire subset of blacks, while praising, romanticizing and stereotyping “the common element” equally unjustly. He praises the group who choose “their nip of gin on Saturday” as representative of black “folk.” Where Hughes uses this wide stroke to paint African Americans, Schuyler seeks to erase them and subsume them in Americanism. Yet both are calling for a sort of equality, as is Du Bois. I don’t agree that Schuyler’s classification matches with Du Bois,’ as posed above, instead Du Bois believes that black art should be valued within the American artistic canon, yet still valued for it’s individual, markedly black elements. He does not want to create stratifications within the black community, or blur racial lines. He instead wants to point out pervasive racism for what it is (what Schuyler cannot see), but still remain optimistic that black artists can push their way onto equal footing with other artists.

  4. I am also disinclined to agree that DuBois and Schuyler share common ground regarding the fore mentioned classification. Dubois critically writes that “[j]ust as soon as true art emerges; just as soon as the black artist appears, someone touches the race on the shoulder and says, “He did that because he was an American, not because he was a Negro; he was born here; he was trained here; he is not a Negro-what is a Negro anyhow? He is just human; it is the kind of thing you ought to expect.” Dubois is clearly indicting the reductive thinking of his more conservative contemporary.
    Admittedly, I initially failed to pick up on the elements of stereotyping in Hughes’ essay. It is a solid analysis, and it sent me back to the page because when I first read it I came away with a different interpretation. His tone impressed me as celebratory regarding the “common element.” As well, this term is preceded by “so-called,” implying that Hughes may not see them as common at all. It is from this community—a community whose “joy runs, bang! into ecstasy,” whose “religion soars to a shout,” where people work, rest, play, sing and dance—that Hughes expects a “truly great Negro artist” to emerge. He does romanticize. But if his romanticism is informed by a population that departs from classical forms and rebels against social conventions, it is rather affirmative. Hughes is far from labeling any art produced in such an environment as hokum.

  5. Leah

    My favorite part of the Schuyler essay was when he said, “… it is sheer nonsense to talk about ‘racial differences’ as between the American black man and the American white man. Glance over a Negro newspaper (it is printed in good Americanese) and you will find the usual quota of crime news…” This idea of “Americanese” completely captures Schuyler’s point of view: there should be no race, only nationality. I can definitely see the advantages of this way of thinking. No need to worry about why we are different, because we are all Americans, we are all the same. No more fear is needed of the unknown, because we are all exactly the same. However, I think this is an extremely limited way of seeing things. Eliminating race, and the history, the music, the beliefs and culture that come with it would be tragic. We can be united as Americans while at the same time celebrating our differences. Right?

  6. The W.E.B. DuBois approach sort of reminded me of the idea of assimilation that was big late 19th century early 20th century where immigrants were concerned. This idea that we should mold ourselves to the status quo of the times in order to be accepted as an equal, through troublesome, makes perfect sense for the Negro back then.
    Why rock the boat when you’ve just received a few menial rights and you can actually speak? I was thinking perhaps DuBois thought it was a little too soon to rock the boat, so he decided becoming the “model” American, though mostly represented as the White man, was an effort to illustrate the Negro man as part of something, be it society, the nation, and what have you.
    As much as I would like to take Hughes’ position, at that point in time it seemed futile to try to get to the place he wanted to be. This Negro who was simply doing it the Negro way and not necessarily the “American” way seemed to alienate them from society more so than linked them.
    I think if DuBois approach was considered as a model then–get educated, change your look, fight on their terms–more ground would’ve been covered where civil rights and true equality was concerned. I think because so many of the writers of the time wanted to individualize the approach, the Harlem Renaissance was a failure in the sense that they really didn’t ameliorate the Negro man instead they closed his mind, wrote fiction and poetry, and some protest literature–that suggested renewing the mind–yet DuBois approach makes that more possible simply because the knowledge gained by getting educated, opens an array of possibilities where the Negro mind is concerned.

    Aubria Ralph

  7. josephtruscello

    The propagandistic aspects of African American art come into question in all four of these pieces, but especially for Du Boise and Locke. Du Bois asserts that no art escapes propaganda and therefore all art is propaganda. He is not one to appreciate art for art’s sake since, for him, art is a mechanism for social change. The partisanship inherent in Du Bois’ message is exactly what Alain Locke speaks against. Propagandistic art, for Locke, is one sided and therefore baseless. If Locke had his way, African American artistic expression would assert itself without the influence of propaganda, and its strength would be derived from its own beauty and originality.

    Schuyler and Hughes are very much concerned with the interplay of African American and “white” culture. For Schuyler, the portrayal of the African American as fundamentally different from white people is what must be rejected. Schuyler wants to destroy the myth that that people of different races are consequently of different species. Since African Americans and white people are living in the same world, and since they are all people, then they should not be separated by racial boundaries derived from faulty portrayals in art. Therefore, for Schuyler, the partisanship that results from separating “black” art from “white” art is problematic. In contrast to this attitude, Langston Hughes asserts that there should be a distinction between white and Negro art. He goes as far as to say that the black poet who says “I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet” is actually saying “I want to be white.” Hughs does not seem to consider that the poet might desire to be an individual free of group associations. Therefore, Hughes might believe that the collective is inescapable and formative of the artist. That poet will always be a Negro poet, for Hughes, because he is a Negro, and his primary influential surroundings were all African Americans. Still, Hughes’ argument does not seem to consider individuality whatsoever, and maybe that’s his point: maybe he is saying that the groups are inescapable and therefore must be considered as a defining aspect of the artist.

  8. jbaxter82

    The discussion from last class and the four articles seem to focus on two things. One, how to look at and interpret the art of African Americans at this time period? Two, how this art should be or can be used to further the cause of African American equality in America? This is an obvious, yet important distinction to be made.
    It is difficult for me to wrap my head around the first concept for a few reasons, but I think that the main difference is whether to view the art being produced objectively or subjectively. Should African American art be viewed objectively, as a product separate from the African American experience and the racial strife in the country? or should there be caveats or subjective filters added to our viewing of this art as “Negro” art? This question complicates all interpretation of art, yet exponentially in this context. In my opinion, all art is a reflection of the atmosphere it is created in and the personal history of the creator. The four authors have four different views on this subject, and their opinions are shaded by their own experience.
    In terms of the second question, the four authors are also split disparately. The conditional quality of the art produced speaks to its ultimate sociological effect. What is the purpose of art, besides personal expression? In the eyes of these four authors art can be a powerful vehicle for change. Maybe sometimes the action of expression can be an empowering influence. The goal seems to develop and genuinely cultivate a racial culture that is proud of its station and independent in its expression.
    I realize there are more questions than interpretation here, but the articles seem most effective as a push to question art, not to understand it.

  9. rachie2343

    As for Schuyler, i was extremely bothered by his interpretation of African American art. He almost made the idea sound so impossibly hopeless and silly. He even goes as far as to discredit the works of such artists who wrote slave narratives, spirituals, work songs etc. , by saying that “any group under similar circumstances would have produced something similar.” Yes, anyone who lived through slavery my have produced similar works, however, when the African Americans chose to express their experiences in their art, they inherently made these experiences their own, and they became the originators of their works. What Schuyler fails to realize is that while we all may live under the American umbrella, is does not mean that we all need to be the same, and we can still hold on to our distinctive differences.

    Hughes struck a cord with me when he wrote African Americans will not recognize their own works “unless the other race has noticed him beforehand.” This point is similar to something that I said in class last week when we were defining the term ‘new negro.’ According to Locke, a new negro is someone who is tired of being deemed a social outcast, especially by his own. Locke says that a new negro must brake the barriers of social acceptance and wants “to be known for what he is, even in his faults and shortcomings,” and according to Hughes, thats what the Negro artist fails to do. The Negro artist is too worried about what his own people will think of him, and how he will portray African American life to the whites.

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