Art as propaganda: didacticism and lived experience

Art as propaganda: didacticism and lived experience

Khaled Aljenfawi

“Thus all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing

of the purists … I do not care a damn for any art that is not

used for propaganda”–Du Bois’ Criteria of Negro Art. (1)

“What was about to break was not the dam of segregation but the

long suffering patience of those Harlemites who never read

Opportunity and no longer derived vicarious pride from Walter

White’s presence at the Saint Mortiz”–Lewis’ When Harlem was in

Vogue. (2)

W.E. Burghardt Du Bois’ essay “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926) is remarkable because in it Du Bois voices what seems to be one of his strongest ideological beliefs, that art should be used for propaganda, and that this apparently ideological use of art can uplift and improve African Americans’ social and racial conditions in the American society. However, what is also more interesting is the context or forum through which Du Bois voiced his famous speech. Indeed “Criteria of Negro Art” was originally delivered as a speech or an “address” by Dr. Du Bois at the Chicago Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in 1926. (3) According to the editor of The Crisis, Du Bois’ address was so popular to the extent that “so many people have asked” The Crisis’ editor “for the complete text.” (4) However, before I discuss the conference’s context through which Du Bois delivered what became a landmark speech, I need to elaborate further on why art as propaganda was to become a controversial issue in the Harlem Renaissance.

What is significant here is that this kind of propagandist vision of art created a tension between Du Bois, the “talented tenth” and other African American artists who wished to reflect the social, political, and historical realities that many African American citizens experienced. Indeed, many contemporary African American artists’ reacted to Du Bois’ call, and produced literary works that reveal a deeper ideological rift between the “talented tenth” and many African American artists, play wrights, poets, and novelists.

It is also important to point out here that Du Bois’ call for production of art for propaganda reflects his position about such an issue during that particular historical moment, 1926. In other words, I find it necessary when one discusses Du Bois’ vision about art to recognize that Du Bois’ theoretical positions about art and racial struggle changed dramatically through the years. Indeed, his call for art as propaganda for social uplift in 1926 does not represent a complete picture of his later views. Du Bois developed and took more radical positions about the racial struggle of African Americans. This radicalism eventually culminated in his self-exile to Ghana later on in his life.

For example, one can notice this rift between the two different intellectual and aesthetic paradigms of thoughts in the way these two groups perceived art. The “talented tenth’s” position about art seemed to have reflected a bourgeois perspective in which art is deployed for racial uplift, but in reality this position reflected black middle-class biases. In other words, art for propaganda seemed to have included specific assumptions about the outcome of racial struggle. Instead of using art to uplift black Americans and empower them to get their social and political rights, Du Bois seemed to have associated the idea of social/racial uplift with economic prosperity.

Du Bois’ was a highly educated individual, and as such it is legitimate to argue that he understood the implication of the words, terms or rhetorical strategies he used in his writings or speeches. Therefore, when he used “propaganda” he already knew the connotations, implications, and meaning associations of this word. Ironically, as an intellectual who represented the educated blacks in Harlem, who were already living in economically prosperous conditions, Du Bois deploys a communist vision of art as propaganda. This kind of rhetorical deployment or rhetorical strategy in using powerful terms as propaganda represents other non-conformist African American artists as “proletariat.” In fact, Du Bois might have been right in choosing propaganda to reflect what he perceives as needed for racial uplift, but this kind of vision contradicts with what was going on in Harlem.

African American artists, who did not belong to the talented tenth middle-class social environment, saw things differently. They already witnessed and live the suffering of an oppressed people under the harsh realities of a capitalist system. In other words, art as propaganda became an anachronistic deployment of Communist/social terms in the wrong context. The tension between the two ideologically and aesthetically different paradigms, or the two modes of conceptualization of what constitutes art, transforms into a debate about what is black aesthetics. Du Bois and other members of the “talented-tenths” call for art to serve as a racial and cultural propaganda for African Americans created opportunities for artists to both voice their own personal views about what counts as art for them and to argue against what many of them perceived as limiting in the idea of art as propaganda. Of course, the call for the creation of art for social uplift might have stimulated some new creative artistic energy. However, this call seems to have also heightened an already developing ideological tension between the two ideologically different groups: tension may have lead to a dispersion of these creative energies into more concern of what constitute art rather than “really” creating art that helped, developed and improved the social, political, and economical conditions of black Americans.

In this essay, I will examine the implications of the concept of propaganda in the Harlem Renaissance, its social, political, and racial implications, and explain how incompatible the objectives of this primarily idealist project were with what was really going on in the daily lives of African Americans. What makes the application/implications of the concept of propaganda interesting is that its historical use and connotations are controversial. In other words, one can argue that Du Bois’ voicing of his message might have been only one way to create more incentives for African American artists to create literary and artistic works that reflect African American culture, aesthetics and life experience in the US. However, what is problematic in such a call is the implicit determination on Du Bois’ part to “not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.” (5) Du Bois’ determination not to give a damn about art if it does not serve as propaganda for the African American racial identity does not completely provide us with an accurate reflection about whether African American artists ever listened to him. As I have mentioned earlier, Du Bois’ famous sentence, “not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda,” does not reflect Du Bois’ general or overall position about art, but only reflect his position at that particular historical moment, 1926. (6) However, even though this position reflects/states one particular public statement of Du Bois about art, it also generated very interesting contemporary reactions.

In other words, Du Bois seems to have adopted, whether consciously or unconsciously it does not really matter, a didactic approach to art. Didacticism is an educational perspective where teachers, particularly with a “moral” vision instruct their students with what they should do or learn. To be didactic is to have a specific set of ideological goals that correspond to a larger strategy in which educators, instead of helping their students to create their own knowledge through their own personal encounters with life, try to instruct them on what they should do. Du Bois’ propagandist vision about art seems to have enveloped coded but clear messages that artists should direct and offer their art for social uplift. Further, what is more problematic is that Du Bois, apparently belonging to the more secured middle-class African American society ignores the fact that it is sometime difficult for an artist to combine/understand how a didactic approach to art (propaganda) can be consolidated with artistic creativity.

Creativity, especially artistic creativity, as Langston Hughes and other African American artists perceived it, is a personal endeavor on the part of the artists, and didacticism or propagandist instructions can only inhibit and obstruct such creativity. Artists need to create their own personal impressions about life through creating works that reflect those personal visions about life, and limiting or providing specific propagandist objectives to those personal visions does not maintain them as personal as they should be. I will argue later that art for propaganda, or just simply attempting to provide instructions about what African American art should become inhibits art and leads to an increase in tension between didacticism, which one can equate here with propagandist visions of art, and artistic creativity.

Next, I will also explore the tension arising from the spread of such originally populist concepts as propaganda or art as propaganda, and I will argue that many African American artists were already aware of this tension and they voiced their concerns about this issue in their work. What I mean by tension in the Harlem Renaissance’s context is the developing strained relationship between the ideas of art as propaganda, its conflicting demands for a creation of art for social uplift, its didactic implications, and free aesthetic creation as many African Americans artists perceive it. As mentioned earlier, the implications of didacticism or propaganda as a social, political, or artistic ideology, beside stretching the resources of African American artistic creativity, do not conflate with what was going on in real life. African American artists, as I will explain later, lived in their community, witnessed the daily suffering of their fellow Harlemites amidst an increasingly oppressive racial segregation in the larger American social context, and they wished to reflect these day-to-day experiences.

These wishes to reflect the experiences of ordinary people, seem to have been incompatible with what the “talented tenth” wanted: an encapsulating of artistic creativity and African American aesthetic in what was deemed necessary: to uplift the race. However, the majority of the race, ordinary African American people, did not seem to be highly literate or even to have enough time to browse the pages of The Crisis or Opportunity, but needed new solutions to face the daily challenges they face in order to control their lives. For example, the social unrest that erupted in Harlem in 1935 could have been avoided if art as propaganda as an aesthetic, social and intellectual project really worked to ease the economic, social and racial suffering of ordinary African Americans. (7) Perhaps African American artists did not produce works that led to or produced practical solutions for such problems, but at least they wanted to reflect the realities of ordinary African Americans and expose their suffering to their readers, whether whites or blacks. As a project, art for propaganda was more preoccupied with shaping the aesthetic identity of African American art to confirm to what appeared to be classical dimensions, but it did not seem to have been preoccupied with how this classicalization or hellenizing for this matter, produced influences on ordinary people.

In addition, using art for propaganda, with its semi-populist vision did not seem to have appealed to ordinary people, who are already living in a capitalist society controlled by a free market economy. For example, most African Americans living in Harlem were subject to many economic hardships, like unemployment, poverty, and lack of efficient or sufficient funds for social programs. It is undeniable that these conditions did exist back in 1920s and 1930s Harlem as they exist now in current day America. In addition, people living in an already prejudice-ridden larger environment could not have been attracted to intellectuals who urge them to use art for Propaganda. In other words, Du Bois’ appeal to African American artists to use art for propaganda contradicts with the realities that many African American artist encounter in their daily life. Some of these African American artists lived in Harlem and experienced similar economic, social and racial conditions to what other ordinary African Americans went through and one cannot argue that such a Du Boisian call struck a cord with them!

What is populist about Du Bois’ propaganda call is that, like other “populist [ideologies, it] is moralistic, emotional and, [curiously] anti-intellectual, and non-specific in its programme.” (8) Indeed, to say that “all art is propaganda and ever must be,” as Du Bois clearly does, is to show the African American society to be divided between the haves and have-nots. (9) This kind of depiction of African American society “portray[s] society as divided between powerless masses and coteries of the powerful who stand against them.” (10) Interestingly, Du Bois belongs to a middle-class African American group, therefore he belongs to the powerful, or at least to the financially secured section of the society. How was it possible for Du Bois or other talented tenth intellectuals to clearly and in an unbiased way, understand what the ordinary African Americans go through in their daily lives? It is important to remember however, “the notion of class conflict is not a part of that populist rhetoric. Rather it glorifies the role of the leader[s] the protector[s] of the masses.” (11) I am not arguing here that Du Bois seems to have been fully aware of the implications of his propaganda message, but it is safe to assume that his intellectual, social, and artistic strategy complicates any attempt to find solutions to racial discrimination or to uplift African Americans through art.

What makes this propagandist mission problematic is Du Bois’ implicit call for selecting certain intellectuals to represent and lead the whole race. In other words, in “The Talented Tenth,” an article which Du Bois published twenty three years before writing “Criteria of Negro Art” Du Bois clearly underlines what he thinks African Americans need. For Du Bois, African Americans should choose among themselves certain individuals who will have the responsibility to guide the race:

The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its

exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes

must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem

of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass

away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own

and other races. (12)

What is curious in the above passage is that Du Bois conflates the problem of African American education with the need for what he describes as exceptional men. It is not clear whether these exceptional men can either be intellectuals like him or artists. However, it does not really matter here whether these exceptional men are intellectuals, individuals who undergo a similar classical education like Du Bois, or artist. What is important from Du Bois’ perspective is that they should be educated to guide the African American masses, or more appropriately, the African American proletariats!

What has become apparent in such a conflicting and peculiar context is that the voices of Du Bois and other “talented tenth” spokesmen seem to have been brazen in a vacuum. In other words, art for propaganda did not seem to fall on listening ears, but seemed to have been a shrill in an empty forest, whose inhabitants are already besieged with what food to provide for the next day, and how to overcome the psychological and mental strains caused by overt racism. Art for propaganda or simply art in general produces a therapist effect or cathartic influences on readers, however, art for propaganda in Du Bois’ context did not seem to have produced any effect at all. African American masses or ordinary people continued to struggle under social, political, and racial oppressions, and whatever cathartic mission African American artist had in writing their work seemed to have evaporated. Indeed, African American artists seemed to have been more concerned with responding to attempts to identify what is African American art, countering the intellectual tenth’ continuous emphasis on this need, rather than harkening to continuous demand for social justice uttered by ordinary African Americans.

For example, Ray in Claude McKay’s novel Home to Harlem can represent an African American individual who does not see any importance to ideas like art as propaganda. While discussing the importance of education with Grant, another character in McKay’s novel, Ray explains that “it’s all right to start out with nice theories from an advantageous point of view in life. But when you get a chance to learn life for yourself, it’s quite another thing.” (13) What Ray demands is an education that “make[s] [him] a sharp, snouty, rooting hog.” (14) To be a sharp, snouty and rooting hog might be Ray’s definition of living through the struggle of life undeterred by its inhibitions and challenges. One wonders whether such a high-flown concept such as art for propaganda ever turned ordinary African American individuals into sharp and rooting hogs? In other words, art of propaganda did not seem to provide Ray with social and practical skills to dig his way through the harsh realities of the African American condition.

In addition, the tension arising from the clash between the ideologies of art as propaganda, as represented by Du Bois with artists’ personal artistic visions, who, as mentioned earlier, were living and experiencing African American’s daily life, might have resulted from the use of the term propaganda. I will trace the origin of the term Propaganda and explain how Du Bois’ use of the term Propaganda to describe the new mission of art in the African American Harlem context is erroneous and misleading.

Before voicing his famous call, “art is propaganda and ever must be,” Du Bois situates his ideological and aesthetic understanding of art in specific cultural, social, and aesthetic contexts. In his famous speech, Du Bois explains that the “Negro Youth” can restore beauty to the world. (15) Beauty that “human beings are chocked away from it, and their lives distorted and made ugly.” (16) It is the Negro Youth, according to Du Bois, who can bring a “new appreciation of joy, of a new desire to create, of a new will to be.” (17) Indeed, the Negro Youth, according to Du Bois are a “different kind of Youth, because in some new way it bears this mighty prophesy on its breast, with a new realization of itself, with new determination for all mankind.” (18) In addition, the Negro Youth, according to Du Bois has to [tell] the truth and exposes evil and seeks with beauty and for beauty to set the world right. That somehow, somewhere eternal and perfect beauty sits above Truth and Right, [according to Du Bois] I can conceive, but here and now and in the world in which I work they are for me unseperated and inseparable. (19) Using such a platonic discourse, Du Bois tries to explain how one can find beauty in daily life.

He narrates a story of two sisters, one who is white, and the other who is brown. The white sister marries a white man, and when her brown sister prepares to go to her wedding, the mother refuses to let her. Eventually, the brown sister “went into her room and turned on the gas and died.” What is important for Du Bois in narrating this story, which might be a real story, is that it represents for him a “Greek Tragedy.” (20) What is significant to notice here, is that Du Bois seems to borrow some of his descriptions of the excellency of art from classical references. In other words, though he encourages the Negro Youths and artists to borrow from their own history and their own daily life, still, in order to illustrate his points, he frequently brings in examples from the classics. This borrowing of terms like “Greek Tragedy” might not be an explicit indicator of Du Bois’ favoring classical notions of art. Indeed, like many middle-class African Americans intellectuals, Du Bois received what one might call today a classical education, a remnant of Nineteenth-Century educational curriculums, but it is curious that he uses the term propaganda and Greek Tragedy in the same context.

The adjective classical, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) seems to have been used to describe educational strategies intended for teaching students according to what was perceived as conforming in style or composition to the rules or models of Greek and Latin antiquity; therefore to having similar qualities of style (OED). If one contrasts Du Bois’ privileged education with what many ordinary African Americans were receiving in their segregated schools, one can definitely argue that what Du Bois perceived as art does not necessarily resemble what many African American artists understood as art. In other words, Langston Hughes, Hurston, Thurman and many other African American artists wanted to reflect African Americans’ realities, lived in and experienced in their contemporary times, and for Du Bois to have the boldness as to provide ideological instructions of what they should write about or create, seems to have been absurd.

Du Bois’ tendency to use hellenized concepts of thought and beauty might tell us something about his intellectual background and education, however, to use such a conceptualization of art in the African-American context is anachronistic and at the same time is ironic. Of course, one cannot argue that art as propaganda is a project intentionally designed to ignore social realities, but many African American artists responded consciously and intentionally to the failings of the propagandist project. Indeed, artists like Hughes, McKay, and others continued to preoccupy themselves with exposing what they envisioned as a failure: Art is not propaganda; art is exposure of social realities(s). In addition, as mentioned earlier, the idea of Propaganda cannot be interpreted in an unproblematic way.

For example, Propaganda, according to the OED, is information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view. On the one hand, what is interesting about Propaganda as a cultural, political and social project is that it did not gain its negative connotations due to the effort /policies of politicians in totalitarian regimes, like the Soviet Union for example, but its etymology also indicates that the term was used for other objectives. A word of caution is needed here: as previously implied, Du Bois’ art for propaganda call might have been only a rhetorical term used to stimulate African American artists to produce art that highlights the plight of African Americans in a society that discriminates against them and that robs from their opportunities to be equally treated as citizens.

In addition, Du Bois as a famous orator might have used the term propaganda to underline the necessity for artists to use their creativity to serve and help their oppressed fellow African Americans. However, as an intellectual with such a classical educational background, in addition to his established reputation as an art critic and a highly recognized social commentator, it can be argued that Du Bois knew the implication of his use of the term propaganda to describe this new mission: racial uplift through art. However, it is also curious to trace the etymology of the concept of propaganda further and to show why is it controversial if used in such an African American context.

For example, propaganda also refers to Congregatio de propaganda fide, or congregation for propagating the faith, which is the Congregation or College of the Propaganda (OED). What is curious about the use of the term Propaganda, which I will relate later to Du Bois’ use of it, is that it tends to be usually used it in religious contexts. Propaganda was first used to refer to The College of the Propaganday, which was a medieval Papal society for the “extension of the Roman Catholic faith among pagans and heretics.” (21) In addition, the purpose behind the creation of the society was the “founding” of “national colleges” for training missionaries so as to educate young men from the very countries which were to be mission fields, so that they might be sent home as well-equipped champions of the Roman Catholic faith. (22) Though it is certain that Du Bois did not perceive ordinary African American citizens and African American artists as pagans or heretics whom he needs to convert into Catholicism, he totally understands what he meant by the term propaganda. Du Bois uses Propaganda as a social, political, philosophical, aesthetic and artistic endeavor to uplift the suffering African American people to a more just social and political treatment.

In other words, Du Bois uses Propaganda in the contexts of what he perceives as the continuous segregation between whites and blacks, the exclusion of blacks from the larger American society, and he also understands that there should be some kind of mission to fix all this. Indeed, art for propaganda might help ease the pressures of inequality inflicted by some white groups on the majority of the black population.

Artists, as I will argue later, wanted to create works of art that reflected their own personal styles, and some of them have already complained from what they have perceived as restraining intellectual demands to transform their art into propaganda. For example, Hughes in his article “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” explains that the African American artist already face “restrictions” in his social environment. In other words, Hughes complains that “the American Negro artist” has a difficult time trying to “escape” these restrictions imposed on him by “the more advanced among his own group.” These restrictions, according to Hughes come through “the better-class Negro” who will “tell the artist what to do.” (23) What counters this call for art as a propaganda, according to Hughes is the “growing school of colored artists who paint and model beauty of dark faces and create with new technique the expressions of their own soul-world.” (24)

I am not arguing here that Du Bois wants to create colleges and schools where African American artists are trained and “educated” so “that they might be sent home as well-equipped champions of the Roman Catholic faith,” but what he preached was a similar orthodox message. (25)

Propaganda entails missionary zeal toward specific objectives when individuals become preoccupied with one or a specific number of goals that they “have” to accomplish through their will and devotion to their creed. However, African American artists seemed to have resisted Du Bois’ artistic zealotry and voiced this resistance in their own words. Though Hughes in his article “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” equates the high quality of Du Bois’ work with that of Jane Toomer’s Cane, however, one can still argue that Hughes’ criticism of the talented tenth, or intellectuals whom he calls the Nordicized Negro Intelligentsia, includes Du Bois. (26)

It is interesting to notice here that the term Propaganda seems to have been primarily used for educational purposes, a didactic/educational mission which seems to have been in Du Bois’ mind when he made his famous call for art as propaganda. In any event, when the “province of the Propaganda” becomes totally “Catholic the Propaganda,” turns into an “Inquisition.” (27) Of course, Du Bois and the talented tenth did not make havoc or used inquisitional policies to suppress dissident texts, etc, but the intellectual and artistic atmosphere Du Bois’ call has created seems to have provided the necessary conditions for an inquisitional censorship of African American art and literature.

These tensions between what is possible to accomplish and what is difficult to accomplish and debates about the “right” direction of the African American artistic endeavor heighten into moments of tensions one finds in African American novels, essays, and poetry.

Alain Locke in his forward to his book The New Negro recognizes that “there is a growing realization that in social effort the co-operative basis [between whites and blacks] must supplant long-distance philanthropy.” In addition, Locke argues that the only safeguard for mass relations in the future must be provided in the carefully maintained contacts of the enlightened minorities of both race groups [emphasis added]. (28) What is important to emphasize here is that Locke, like Du Bois, seems to have relied on art to accomplish the miracle of integrating blacks into the larger American culture. Indeed, one can read Locke when he calls for the need of a “revaluation by white and black alike of the Negro in terms of his artistic endowments and cultural contributions, past and prospective,” as another deployment of art as Propaganda. (29) Alain Locke, according to David Levering Lewis in his book The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, had an “unsurpassed” influence in “the Harlem Renaissance.” Indeed, according to Lewis, Locke “advanced the careers of Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Richmond Barthe, Aaron Douglas, and Langston Hughes.” (30) However, as a “virtual chamberlain to the imperious Charlotte Osgood Mason (‘Godmother’), whose great wealth was bestowed with Locke’s advice” on other African American artists “on condition that they remain faithful to her notion’s of black creativity,” Locke seems to have a great influence on African American art. (31)

Though Godmother, Charlotte Osgood Mason, was not an exact replica of Mrs. Dora Ellsworth, the white patron of Oceola Jones in Langston Hughes’ short story “The Blues I’m Playing,” her notions of African American art are peculiar. (32) According to Lewis, Mrs. Mason was fascinated with “Primitives” and after some interest in American Indian culture she, started providing financial assistance to many African American artists. (33) Though her interest in African American art might have been different from Du Bois’, still, Godmother has a specific interest that collides with, say, Du Bois’ propagandist vision. Mrs. Mason was able to provide financial assistance to Langston Hughes and other African American artists, however, were Du Bois and the other members of the “talented tenth” able to compete with such patronage as that of Mason? I’m not arguing here that there was an implicit competition or implicit tension between the “talented tenth” and Mrs. Mason, but I find it difficult to understand that both visions of art might not have been really helpful to prospective artists.

In other words, private white patronage, like Mrs. Mason who was financially able to provide prospective artists with money, cars, etc, material needs that many African American artists seemed to have needed, is different from Du Bois’ propagandist patronage. The ability to provide real and ready financial aid is totally different from a continuous provision of propagandist advice only. There is no concrete evidence that any of the Harlem Renaissance’s artists underlined or highlighted this difference between white patronage’s ability to provide financial aid with black propagandists like Du Bois’ ability to provide only a new vision about art as propaganda. Du Bois, Johnson, and other members of the “talented tenth” might have provided venues and forums through which African American artists can publish their work. However, they did not seem to be able to provide financial assistance that African American artists desperately needed to live, especially, with the declining economic situation in the US which lead to the catastrophic recession, just few years later.

Indeed, Lewis, in his book When Harlem was in Vogue implies that the decline of the Harlem Renaissance seems to have been due to the collapse of the economic system in the US. I agree with Lewis when he argues that toward the end of the Renaissance, tension was rising in Harlem because of the worsening economic situation of many Harlemites. Indeed, according to Lewis “what was about to break [ironic use of the image of a dam in which he cites Van Vechten’s letter to James Weldon Johnson about the approaching break of the segregation dam] was not the dam of [racial] segregation but the long-suffering patience of the Harlemites who never read Opportunity.” (34) Lewis continues and explains that this suffering and economic “deterioration” due to unemployment and the decline in government services seems to have lead to what appears to be the worst contemporary racial violence (1935).

Amidst such declining economic situations, Locke continues to argue that “it must be increasingly recognized that the Negro has already made very substantial contributions” into the larger American society through art. (35) What one can notice here is that Locke’s vision of African American art is different from Du Bois’ in which the former calls for a “constructive participation” between blacks and whites. In other words, Locke calls for recognition of art that African American artists have already produced, unlike Du Bois who calls for a redirecting of future artistic production toward uplifting the social and political status of African Americans. Locke, somehow, already recognizes African American art as it is and calls for a celebration of its already achieved status. What Locke fails to recognize here, however, is that in real life, beyond the cultured Harlem premises, ordinary African Americans seem to have been suffering their worst economic nightmare. However, let us continue perusing what Locke wishes to say about art and see how his and other talented tenth’s vision lead to a gradual tension one can notice in African American literary works.

For Locke, African American artists have already produced artistic works of great aesthetic caliber and that to “revaluate” the “Negro in terms of his artistic endowments and cultural contributions” means a celebration of past and prospective [emphasis added] production. (36) In addition, this revaluation of the Negro art, according to Locke, cannot happen without a “cultural recognition,” a gesture he hopes will lead to the “betterment of race relationships.” (37) Though Locke’s perspective about African-American art is different from Du Bois’ propagandist vision, still, they seem to reiterate a similar message: black art or the effort to create an African American aesthetics should be directed toward accomplishing better racial relations.

One could argue that for a “critic, philosopher” and “teacher” like Locke, the racial problem of African Americans can be more effectively argued and discussed from an economic and class point of view. (38) However, Locke also uses a similar didactic approach in his discussion of art. Locke in his article, “The New Negro” explains that the “objectives” of “the Negro to-day” are “those of his outer life.” These objectives, according to Locke are “none other than the ideals of American institutions and democracy.” (39) In other words, like privileged white Americans, African American individuals wish to accomplish the democratic objectives white Americans wish accomplish. What is ironic here is that Locke seems to bracket or limit African Americans’ social objectives in a matrix of the general American democratic ideal. In other words, Locke imposes the task of creating an individual African-American “inner life” on black individuals, despite racial discrimination. Indeed, he explains that this inner life is “yet in process of formation, for the new psychology at present is more of a consensus of feeling than of opinion.” (40) However, democratic or psychological conditions of African Americans also do not explicate the suffering of these people. The plight of African Americans seemed to have been more complicated than what can be solved through the betterment of their economic or democratic conditions. What one notices in Du Bois’ portrayal of the role of art in African American life can also be noticed in Locke: African Americans only require a recognition of their role in American democracy, and that one can use art for such a dear prospective!

Like Du Bois and Locke, Charles Johnson, for example, analyzes the racial problem in a similar fashion. Johnson, in “The New Frontage on American Life” discusses discrimination as basically an economic problem due to the southern immigration of a rural (southern) African American population. However, at the end of his discussion, Johnson, who belonged to Du Bois and Locke’s intellectual group, confesses that” there is no fixed racial level of culture” and that “there is as great differences, with reference to culture, education, sophistication, among Negroes as between the races.” (41) What Johnson does here is that he, half-heartedly, confesses his class biases. For example, to

insist that there are interracial differences among African Americans raises the question of what was really happening between bourgeois intellectual classes and ordinary African Americans. If black intellectuals recognize their difference or otherness from other black Americans, how can they have the courage to portray or even describe the suffering of a social group from whom they disassociate themselves. In other words, African-American’s internal class biases remerge in Johnson’s discussion, a gesture that seem to undermine the legitimacy of his criticism. Indeed, one can argue that the intellectual bourgeois’ discussions of race indirectly polarizes these class differences among African Americans, instead of bridging the gaps created by racial discrimination. It takes George Schuyler’s contribution to this ongoing debate in his article “The Negro-Art Hokum” to heighten the tension between Art as Propaganda and the assimilation of African Americans in the American society. In other words, the age of American Standardization of Afro-Americans has begun. However, before we discuss Schuyler’s contribution to this ongoing debate, we need to explore further the economic implications behind art for Propaganda, a theme that preoccupies Schuyler’s discussion.

On the one hand, to propagate a specific artistic point of view, like racial uplift through art, is similar to a process through which many bourgeoisies tried to “forge an alliance with subordinate classes against agrarian oligarchies, on terms that do not give an independent weight to the subordinate classes that are brought to play.” (42) One can safely identify Du Bois and his intellectual associates as bourgeoisie and the general Harlemite citizens as the subordinate classes. Further, one can argue that the subordination of the subordinate classes of African Americans by the black bourgeoisie created a tension between the bourgeoisie and their subordinates. One can find glimpses of this tension in many African American literary works. Indeed, many Harlem artists were aware of this tension between some intellectual bourgeois individuals’ artistic objectives and their supposed subordinates, to the extent that they, simultaneously, opposed this highly controversial project. The outcome of such curious blending of communism/capitalist objectives and realties clearly produces a crisis and a failure.

I am not suggesting here that whatever Du Bois writes or discusses in his works becomes like a gospel followed to the word by African American artists, but I wish to point out that Du Bois’ notion about art as propaganda has turned into a controversial issue and attracted a lot of attention. One source for this controversy is that Du Bois’ notion of propaganda becomes a superimposition of his own personal understanding of art upon others. According to David Levering Lewis, in When Harlem was in Vogue, Du Bois’ project was already doomed from the beginning, and that it was destined to fail because it ignored the social, historical and even artistic realities available for African American artists.

On the one hand, Du Bois and other African American intellectuals coming from the same milieu seem to have contributed in creating an illusionary project or mission for art that does not correspond to what was really happening in the real life of African Americans. On the other hand, David Levering Lewis exposes the impossibility of fulfilling the egalitarian objectives of this propagandist project. Many other African Americans artists provide us with ample evidence that the application of this propagandist strategy does not produce tangible or practical results, like the uplifting of the black race. On the contrary, it reveals the great gap between what was preached and real African American art.

In his article”, The Negro-Art Hokum” Schuyler criticizes the missionary zeal of Du Bois and others to use art for racial and social uplift. He argues, “as for the literature, painting, and sculpture of Aframericans [sic]-such as there is- it is identical in kind with the literature, painting, and sculpture of white Americans.” (43) Perhaps the emotionally charged critique of Schuyler, who describes the African American as a “lampblacked Anglo-Saxon,” does not represent a wide range of African American’s points of view. However, what Schuyler adds to the controversy of art as propaganda is that he defines the concept of racial “[uplift]” as originally the assimilation of African Americans in what he describes as “Americanism.” (44) Instead of calling for gradual assimilation of African Americans in white society, Schuyler calls for a total acceptance of the fact that complaints found in black newspapers about racial discrimination are only misguided gestures “to satisfy the cravings of the reader of the Negro newspapers.” (45)

Schuyler’s eccentric analysis of the racial divide that was plaguing many African Americans and making their life intolerable reveals a deeper divide among the intellectuals in Harlem. Indeed, it might also represent the highest tension point of the debate of what should African Americans do to face the apparently inevitable problems with race. However, the debate, when viewed from the perspectives of the actual African American artists themselves, takes another turn in which the concept of propaganda is critiqued as illusionary or a “middle class” dreaming. (46)

Langston Hughes in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” begins his critique of his “intellectual brethren” by basing / relying on the “common people [‘s]” living heritage that artists can be “furnished” with a wealth of “colorful, distinctive material for” art. (47) In other words, the tension between artists and racial uplifting theorists [Du Bois, Locke, etc] becomes a confrontation between an artist who, in Hughes’ words, wishes to be “himself,” and “his own group” who through “sharp criticism and misunderstanding” toward African American artistic products ignore this wish. (48) What is curious in Hughes’ discussion of this misunderstanding about what African American art should be like, is that while he criticizes Du Bois and other intellectuals and describes them as “the Nordicized Negro intelligentsia” he is actually polarizing them as a distinctive group. (49) Thus, one might argue, that even an artist who opposes the propaganda project, like Hughes, has contributed to divide African Americans into two distinctive groups, instead of strengthening the unity of the race.

According to Hughes, NNI [Nordicizied Negro Intelligentsia] try to prevent the African American artist from being “free to choose what he does.” (50) What is interesting about this heightening tension is that other African American artists voiced their view about the prospect of assimilation into white culture and society in writing literary works that test this possibility.

Jessi Fauset in her novel Plum Bun examines the idea of passing racial barriers through focusing on the problematic issue of light/black skin. In exploring passing, or the attempts toward an actualization of that longed for assimilation possibility, Fauset seems to test the limits of Du Bois & Co’s propagandist project. However, the assimilation tools in Fauset’s novel are not artistic, but biological: fair skin colored blacks.

Angela, the major character in Fauset’s novel, encounters a white world that rejects her race and generally dehumanizes the African American character. However, in her long journey and her love affair with her white lover Roger, Angela problematizes her identity’s crisis in which she has only one option, either to [withdrew] “or risk losing her” old Angela Murray [as black] personality. (51) Angela’s withdrawal from her relationship with Roger constitutes recognition of the harsh reality of social assimilation between white and blacks. Du Bois’ dream of racial collaboration and assimilation intensifies in Angela’s experience into a threat or a crisis of losing her racial identity. Roger’s unpredictable burst of anger whenever the word “Negro” is pronounced robs Angela of her dreamt of security and safety. Thus, assimilation even through having a fair skin color does not guarantee total acceptance of blacks by whites. What Angela realizes at the end of Fauset’s novel is that it is only by going back to ones’ original life, that one can feel safe. Angela unites with Antonio, who is half black/half white.

Perhaps Fauset, in choosing A Novel without a Moral as the subtitle for Plum Bun was not directly reacting to Du Bois’ propagandist artistic project, but she was certainly testing the possibility of racial assimilation that project promised. Therefore, one can argue that the application of racial / social assimilation of blacks into white society did not succeed as a project. It might have succeeded in texts written by Du Bois or other talented tenth intellectuals, but it created a tension that cannot easily be resolved. African American literature zooms in/on these possibilities of assimilation and one can only find repulsive rejections by many whites.

Art as propaganda, as mentioned earlier, has generally been spread by communist politicians and artists, and ironically, one of the tenets of Populism is “the Going to the People” concept, in which the ideal is to create a “socialist, egalitarian and democratic society.” (52) What is ironic in this situation is that art as propaganda in the African American’s context occupies a problematic position in which the aspirations of the Talented Tenth were democratic; while at the same time they used archaic/misplaced terms as propaganda to spread their didactic teachings about art.

In other words, art as a propaganda needed very important social, religious, political etc, factors to be effective. However, African Americans, as we read in many African American literary texts, exposed the lack of the appropriate political or social settings that were prerequisite to a propagandist project to succeed. Both the talented tenth and the African American artists seemed to have been preoccupied with the same issues: What is art? What is African-American art? Can artists only write or create in order to uplift other African Americans? These and other issues, like the debate about racial assimilation with the broader white culture, seem to have created tensions between some members of the African American intellectuals group [talented tenth] whose vision about art had a missionary zeal, and African-American artists who had primarily aesthetic interests in art. Though these cultural, intellectual, and aesthetic debates contributed in reshaping African American identity and culture, they did not produce tangible results either in improving the social condition of African Americans or helping to develop their economic condition. A far more explosive event seems to have lead to the decline of Harlem as an intellectual center for African Americans: “on the evening of March 19, 1935” when “ten thousand angry Harlemites” destroyed “two millions dollars in white owned commercial property.” (53) Art as propaganda had deteriorated into racial confrontation.

(1). W.E. Burghardt Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art,” in David Lewis, ed. The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader (New York: Penguin, 1995), 103.

(2). David Lewis, When Harlem was in Vogue (New York: Penguin, 1997), 306.

(3). Criteria of Negro Art.” The Crisis Oct. 1926. Negro Art 21,290[unidentified editor’s note].

(4). Ibid., 290.

(5). Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art,” in David Lewis’ Portable, 103.

(6). Ibid., 103.

(7). Lewis, When Harlem was in Vogue, 306.

(8). Tom Bottomore, et al. A Dictionary of Marxist Though (Cambridge (MS): Blackwell, 1991), 432.

(9). Du Bois, Criteria of Negro Art, 103.

(10). Ibid., 432.

(11). Bottomore, et al, A Dictionary of Marxist Though, 432.

(12). W.E Du Bois, “The Talented Tenth,” (1903). The Negro Problem (New York: James Pott and Company, 1903), 11.

(13). Claude McKay, Home to Harlem. 1928. Michigan(Edward Brother, 1987), 243.

(14). Ibid., 243.

(15). Du Bois, Criteria of Negro Art.” The Crisis Oct. 1926. Negro Art 21, 292.

(16). Ibid., 292.

(17). Ibid., 292.

(18). Ibid., 292.

(19). Ibid., 292.

(20). Ibid., 292.

(21). O Meier, Die Propaganda, ihre Provinzen and ihr Recht,” (1852-53) in Grandung and erste Einrichtung der Propaganda-Kongregation. (1901) (Munich: P. M. Baumgarten Der Pabst, 1904), 268.

(22). Ibid., 268.

(23). Lewis, Portable, 92.

(24). Ibid., 94.

(25). Meier, Die Propaganda, ihre Provinzen and ihr Recht, 268.

(26). Lewis, Portable, 94.

(27). Meier, Die Propaganda, ihre Provinzen and ihr Recht, 268.

(28). Alain Locke, The New Negro. (1925) (New York: Touchstone, 1992), 9.

(29). Ibid., 15.

(30). Lewis, Portable, 756.

(31). Ibid., 756.

(32). Lewis, When Harlem was in Vogue, 151.

(33). Ibid., 152.

(34). Ibid., 307.

(35). Locke, New Negro, 15.

(36). Ibid., 15.

(37). Ibid., 15.

(38). Lewis, Portable, 755.

(39). Locke, New Negro, 10.

(40). Ibid., 10.

(41). Ibid., 297.

(42). Bottomore, Dictionary 432.

(43). Lewis, Portable, 97.

(44). Ibid., 97.

(45). Ibid., 98.

(46). Hughes, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, in Lewis’ Portable, 91.

(47). Ibid., 92.

(48). Ibid., 91,94.

(49). Ibid., 92.

(50). Ibid., 95.

(51). Jessie Fauset, Plum Bun: a Novel with a Moral. 1929 (Boston: Beacon, 1990), 177.

(52). Bottomore, Dictionary, 431.

(53). Lewis, When Harlem was in Vogue, 306.

Khaled Aljenfawi*

* Khaled Aljenfawi is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Illinois State University.

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