Standing Next To A Mountain
Standing Next To A Racial Mountain
Well, I stand up next to a mountain
And I chop it down with the edge of my hand
(Hendrix Voodoo Child)
by Indie 000
In the 1920’s black people were not viewed as slaves but not as equal citizens either. To add, the artists had it worse. They as artists wanted to feel free (which America prides itself to be) yet they were burdened by segregation or not allowed to be artists at all by exclusion from formal promotion. The question was should black artists be concerned with identifying themselves as American artists, black artists, American artists who happen to be black or some other label? The question of identity as artists (poets) was wrestling in the minds of many Harlem Renaissance artists. In the 1920’s racism continued to exist within and outside of the art community. The Tulsa Race riots happened in 1921, a year after the Harlem Renaissance was just getting underway. According to The Nation magazine an estimated 150-250 people died; the majority were black. “One could travel far and find few cities where the likelihood of trouble between the races was as little thought of as in Tulsa. Her reign of terror stands as a grim reminder of the grip mob violence has on the throat of America, and the ever-present possibility of devastating race conflicts where least expected” (White 2). Jim Crow Laws in the United States started around 1876 through 1965. These laws allowed and insisted racial discrimination by state and local governments. They were not all obvious but still existed. The most noted law known publicly regarding racial discrimination was Brown vs Board of Education. This law ended legal segregation in schools. It isn’t a surprise that Klu Klux Klan membership numbers also were up to at least four million.
We can look in our own times to American politics and see the vitriol is
applied to President Obama. If one believes that art reflects life, in these climates such as Jim Crow Laws of 1868 though 1965 and the race riots of 60’s through the 70’s. The art not only reflects life but also protects the ones who choose to show the world their lives through the arts including not just the visual arts but also music and writing. I think that this is what the Harlem Renaissance set out to do, to create a space for black creatives to exist and work with their own interests expressed. These artists were certainly capable, to which we know as current readers, listeners and gazers can attest. However, in Harlem Renaissance’s inception the mainstream audience because of education, culture and their ethnicity questioned their skills.
The Harlem Renaissance was a composite of black poets, artists, musicians, intellectuals, writers, and creatives who centered or moved to Harlem from different places in America to find a space to be creative and gain appreciation for their contribution to America and all her Arts.
As for the Harlem Renaissance there were five themes that defined the movement.
1) Africa as a source of race pride, 2) Black American heroes, 3) racial political propaganda, 4) the black folk tradition, and 5) candid self – revelation.
(The Harlem Renaissance, Steve Watson 8-12)
Langston Hughes wrote a manifesto, although it may have not been considered as such, titled “ The Negro Artists and the Racial Mountain.” This manifesto exemplifies the previously mentioned themes. They raise questions about the decisions for an artist to identify as an American poet as opposed to a black poet. He begins his manifesto with an encounter he had with a younger poet.
“ One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet not a Negro poet, “ meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself” (Hughes 348). Hughes considers this poet to be eluding his race and embracing a race that would not consider him equal as poet or as a human being. Hughes feels that this poet and all black poets should embrace their identity and title as black artists. This would, for one, uplift the entire race, convincing the world that great poets can come from the black race, and as a result demonstrate that black people or at least many black people are cultured, intelligent and as creative as any other people or group.
There are many benefits and non-benefits to identifying as a black poet or American poet who happens to be black. The black community does not ostracize poets who identify as black, yet those who identify as American poets and happen to be black are. The black community has felt that their image has been drugged and put through the ringer and its image is viewed contemptuously. One can look to images then such as minstrels, stereotyped mammy maids imagery and current images of pimps, drug dealers and gang members. But when a positive image of a black person such as a doctor, activist, or officer for example, is represented it is given support by the black community. I do not agree with extreme opposite representations. I think when there is balance presented the ethnic group’s humanity is honestly expressed.
On the other hand, American poets who happen to be black are considered less threatening and their works are considered universal. These poets do not overtly challenge the stereotypes created for them to be entertaining or exploitive. Claude McKay who was born in Jamaica and wrote “America” wrote in a less “pro-black” form, often a sonnet in rhyming couplets and was considered a “real” poet. He, too, saw in America’s internal conflict, the exclusion and segregation of black people and black artists.
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
(McKay, America 484, 1-4)
However, most work of black poets, regardless of what identity it claimed, was ghettoized, and the content of the work was considered only race specific, despite the universal human element layered within the narratives.
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me aint been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And board torn up
(Hughes, Mother to Son 1-5)
This poem transcends a specific racial concern and is universal in message. The speaker is a mother who gives her son a motivational talk about life using her experiences as the teacher. This is one of the most universal poems Langston has written.
Another problem is that all black poets, who identify themselves that way or not, usually are reduced to the African American section in the bookstores and this is 2013! Rarely will you see a poet who is black in a different section in the bookstores other than the African – American section unless it’s Science Fiction. I remember frequently visiting the old Borders bookstore searching for Octavia Butler’s works. They were never in the African American section of the bookstore but always located in the fictional sections. The authors I had an interest in were restricted to the African-American section hidden from other readers who didn’t think to go to the African-American section. I do not know the reasons for this but can only speculate that she didn’t want them there or the decision makers thought that the subject matter was beyond or moved pass race and ethnicity unless you consider alien forms and beings a race or ethnicity. The art is larger than race and speaks beyond small categories. Love is love regardless of race, age, etc.
There ain’t no mountain high enough
Ain’t no valley low enough
Ain’ t no river wide enough
To keep me from you
(Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell)
Is this an American problem or a black problem? As a writer do you consider how your audience views you and your brand, label or identity or do you concern yourself with writing? This question was an issue then and it is now. Hughes’s disagreement with other black poets he took issue with was writing for white people about things considered embarrassing within the black culture or detaching yourself from “blackness” sans negative rap music (but that’s another story). Hughes speaks about how he tries to emulate the feeling of jazz in his poems. He gives an example about the detachment from the black experience regarding a Philadelphia clubwoman whose pride evaporated when it came to exemplifying the music that her ethnic group created.
“Yet the Philadelphia clubwoman is ashamed to say that her race created it and she does not like me to write about it. The old subconscious “white is best” runs through her mind…. And now she turns up her nose at jazz and all its manifestations (Hughes 349). Today those who think themselves artists first, black second are concerned more about writing in a way that allowed them access into the brackets of the “great writers title” and on the New York Times best sellers list. This seems to be a club for a select few black writers who have used non-racial specific writing as a springboard to catapult themselves into that arena or write in a way that ignores the real time racism that still exists albeit possibly individual as oppose to institutional. I would note that one can’t be sure that all that is written is the writer’s decision and published as such; it could be the publisher’s call to publish it. This may not be what Hughes meant initially but it is still a concern of those not writing from their black experience. But now we must ask what is the Black experience these days? There exist many experiences and black people are not monolithic. There are some who live in the suburbs, rural and urban areas; are rich, poor, educated and under-educated. It is arguable that the demographic can account to class and economics more so than ethnicity. But race and ethnicity continue to play a part and that, too, can be the subject of art of all kinds.
Today’s black artist has a contemporary label that allows him or her to excuse them from solely responding to a racial, social, political art practice. There is currently a movement, if you could call it that, called “post black”. This is basically a term created or imagined by artist Glen Ligon and Studio Museum’s Thelma Golden. This term is not to remove the black artist’s socio/political concerns of the past from the art historical archives but to introduce art making and writing that concerns itself with form and art alone. “Golden’s post – black artist, as for everyone else who has learned the lessons of the post-soul era, the traditional meanings of blackness, the meanings that took their most recent form in the soul-era politics of respectability and black power, are too confining. New meanings have emerged; new forms of black identity that are multiple, fluid, and profoundly contingent, along with newly sophisticated understandings of race and identity (African American Review Taylor 625 print).
Is this the future of black artists or just a temporary solution to a gap between the past and the future?
So wide you can’t get around it
So low you can’t go under it
So high you can’t get over it
This is a chance
This is a chance
Dance your way
Out of your constrictions
(One Nation Under A Groove– Funkadelic)
The African American artist wishes to be loyal to his culture and ethnicity, yet also be free to create work in forms that relieves him of any restrictions.
The poet titles the manifesto “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”
Does the mountain that Langston write about still exists? Is that mountain what separates the past and future? Does the mountain obfuscate the artist from seeing the future? These are questions I can only answer for myself and not for anyone else. I think that’s the point the poet is making. The mountain is a self-referential metaphor that represents an obstacle for the artist; a poet; a musician or creative. You are left with a few solutions to go beyond the mountain, this obstacle.
You stand on the mountain, you go around the mountain, go through the mountain or remain overshadowed by this mountain.
There should be a paradigm shift amongst the perspectives of artists generationally and their ideologies. A division amongst these perspectives shouldn’t occupy itself within these two perspectives; rather, a sense of balance should and fundamentally allow each perspective to coexist. Otherwise the black artist will continue this dichotomous loop cycle. Instead of there being an embarrassment of their art that’s considered primitive, there will be an embarrassment of great minds and critical observations that emerge from groups such as the Harlem Renaissance; therefore, embarrassment of future manifestos by the black artist, poet, musician and creative in mind will cease to exist on an expressive and critical level.
Funkadelic, One Nation Under A Groove
Gaye, Marvin, Terrell, Tammie, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
Hendrix, Jimi. Voodoo Child
Hughes, Langston, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, Loeffelholz, Mary. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012. 348. Print.
Hughes, Langston, 1-5, Mother to Son, Loeffelholz, Mary. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012. 871. Print.
McKay, Claude, 1-4, Africa, Loeffelholz, Mary. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012. 484. Print.
Taylor, Paul. “Post Black, Old Black.” African American Review. 41.4 (2007): 626. Web. 2 Jul. 2013.
Watson, Steve. The Harlem Renaissance . New York: Pantheon Books, 1991. Print.
White, Walter Francis, 1893-1955, The Eruption of Tulsa In Nation 112 no. 2921:909-910 (June 29, 1921). (New York, NY: Nation, 1921). pp. 909-910–. [6-29-1921