While studying African-American poetry, two poets becomes crucial – Langston Hughes and Imamu Amiri Baraka. Hughes, was one of the most important forerunners of the Harlem Renaissance that sought to establish the Negro identity detached from the white gaze and influence. Baraka led the Black arts movement and played an essential role in establishing black aesthetic in poetry.
Therefore, the two critical essays summarized below are manifestoes to understanding black poetry of the two movements, the Harlem Renaissance and the Black arts movement.
The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain
Hughes’ central argument is to urge the Negro artist to free himself from the shambles of the white gaze to not only accept his true identity but also evoke pride in it through his art. He states that the biggest mountain in front of the Negro artists is aping white identity and mannerisms so much so he is forgetting his own.
The poet begins the essay by recalling that a young Negro poet once told him that he doesn’t want to be identified as a Negro poet rather than just a poet. Hughes takes this as a sign of the young Negro wanting to detach from his cultural identity and become “as much American as possible” (Hughes 140).
Hughes claims that this is the mountain in front of the Negro art, “the desire to pour radical individuality in the pour radical individuality in the mould of American standardisation” (Hughes 140). To explain the loss of identity, Hughes gives the example of middle class black families which look up to white virtues and try to mimic them like going to church every weekend, marrying the lightest woman he can find, going to white theatres and movies etc. It is no wonder then that the black artists cannot interpret the beauty of his race, because he is taught not to see it or scorn it if he does, replacing it with white habits instead.
Hughes brings out a contrast between the middle-class and the poor blacks. He states that Black ghettos are where the Negro artist will be born. These common people, Hughes states, don’t care about the whites and thus “hold their individuality” (Hughes 140). For this Negro artist that will emerge a whole deal of material is ready if he chooses to write about Negro and white relations.
Hughes abhors the indifference shown to Negro art but not just the whites but by the Black elites too. He mentions the death of prose by Chesnutt and poetry of Dunbar to show how the Negro artists are only looked upon as a freak or a clown. To gain prominence, Negro art has always needed the appropriation of the white man. The Negro artist has survived on the “misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites” (Hughes 141)
Hughes states that the “Noridcized Negro intelligentsia” (Hughes 141) hates anything that confronts them with their race but Hughes still sees a rising scope for black literature. He confesses his own poetry is filled with jazz because jazz is “one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America” (Hughes 142) and laments how the elite blacks can’t appreciate Jazz conditioned by white education.
Hughes states that it is thus the Negro artist’s duty to change,
“through the force of his art that old whispering ‘I want to white’ hidden in the aspirations of his people to ‘why should I be white?’” (Hughes 142)
Therefore, Hughes states that he is ashamed of the artist who instead of painting his own race and culture chooses to paint sunsets because he is, “he fears the strange unwhiteness of own features” (Hughes 142). Thus, he concludes, it is time for the young Negro artist to express his dark-skinned self without shame and stand on top of the racial mountain and “be free within ourselves” (Hughes 143).
Hughes, Langston. “The Negro artist and the Racial Mountain.” Poetry in Theory: An Anthology1900- 2000. Ed. Tom Cook. USA: Blackkwell Publishing, 2004. Print.
Hunting is Not Those Heads on the Wall
Baraka here provides an argument for poetry in forms of privileging the process over the product. He states that the process of poetry is what is poetry rather than the end product. He places thought over art and the western academics replace the process of art with the appreciation of the artefact.
Baraka insists that just as things are not capable of achieving God, it is only the process of art that can bring us closer to God. He calls this the “God Function” (Baraka 386)
Instead of looking at the final artwork, Baraka focuses on the “verb process” (386) – the doing, the coming into being. He states this is why live music is preferred because it lets us enjoy the artefact as it emerges.
Referring to the process as “that” throughout the essay, Baraka states that naming ‘that’ would make it artificial i.e will turn it into an art object by assigning content to it. Naming is appropriation according to Baraka. He gives the example of the Greeks who began naming Gods and writing stories so that they could have control over how their Gods exist.
For Baraka, God has turned into a static art object from a force that brought everything into existence (the process). Baraka thus states the importance “verbal value” and says that formal art which follows preconceived notions lacks the “that.” For Baraka, “art-ing is what makes art.” (386) but we substitute this verb for an object again, namely the muse.
Baraka demands that art should do more than just make sense, it should “wild grab for more!” (387). He emphasizes the importance of both form and content in art and says that the only thing that makes art bad is when it becomes artificial and is not concerned like the non-western concept of art with the “natural expression of art” (387).
Baraka states that post the renaissance there is a “loss of prestige for the unseen” (388) human inventions thus replaces “that” which moves us . We only value what takes up space which is where we miss out on the process of art.
Baraka, Imamu. “Hunting is not those heads on the wall” Poetry in Theory: An Anthology1900- 2000. Ed. Tom Cook. USA: Blackkwell Publishing, 2004. Print.