Where Writers of African Ancestry in America Find Themselves

There has never been a consensus or even a plurality agreement among writers who identify as Black about the aesthetics of our creative work. Or, whether there is such a thing as black writing. Or what makes the African American literary canon cohere. Or what constitutes pandering to an audience. We have never agreed on these issues. Instead, there have been ripe discussions, signifying, shade thrown, praise fests and theorizing about the particular situation that writers of African ancestry in America find themselves. This essay is intended as a tiny snapshot of some of these discussions. What it doesn’t do is provide the full arc of of a writer’s intellectual output so that we can see, for example, how a writer who at one time embraced a nationalist school of thought moved on later to embrace structuralist theory.  Instead I’ve chosen to provide isolated moments and quotes that are emblematic of the issues.

Portrait of the Black Writer as a White Writer

In a 1926 essay published in the Nation magazine, Langston Hughes wrote, “this is the 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.” He begins the essay with an anecdote about a young black poet who shared with Hughes how he wished to be considered simply as a poet and not a Negro poet.

Throughout the 20th century, black artists and intellectuals wrote dozens of articles and essays about black cultural production, and how white supremacy operates within that production. Questions that were being asked included 1.) Who are black writers writing for? 2.) On which cultural traditions do they draw? 3.) Is it art or propaganda? 4.) Protest School or Modernist Individual? 5.) As Claudia Rankine mentioned in her keynote address, Is it sociology or literature? 6.) Who is distributing the work?

These questions are ultimately about three subjects, 1.) Audience 2.) Publishing 3.) Aesthetics, and how all three are shaped by our nation’s historical attitudes about race.


Patron Saints and Gatekeepers

Baraka wasn’t the only writer who thought Harlem Renaissance artists catered to white audiences. Larry Neal agreed, writing that few in the black community had known that the Harlem Renaissance existed and that the renaissance was “a fantasy-era for mostly black writers and their white friends.”  Neal, Baraka, and other writers in the Black Arts Movement were clear that they wanted art that was by and for the black community. They wanted art to reflect Black perspectives, politics, traditions and aesthetics. “The Black Nation as Poem,” Neal wrote. “Ethical stance as aesthetic. The integral unity of culture, politics, and art.”  While it’s simplistic to suggest that Harlem Renaissance writers were not interested in nationalism, politics, or that they pandered only to whites, it is true that many of the Harlem Renaissance writers had white patrons—supporters like Carl Van Vechten and H.L. Mencken.  Charlotte Osgood Mason was a philanthropist known as “Godmother” who funded Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes (until he cut ties with her for artistic reasons). Mason financially supported the important work Hurston did collecting folklore in Florida and Haiti. Still, despite white patronage, the work of Harlem Renaissance writers like Hughes, Hurston, and Claude McKay is all deeply concerned with black culture and black people.

And white patronage is not a recent phenomenon. The earliest writings in our tradition, slave narratives, had to be attested to by a white person for the intended white readership. For example, the slave narrative of Venture Smith, first published in 1798 and re-published in 1897, contains the attestation of educator Elisha Niles who wrote that “the reader may here see a [Benjamin] Franklin and [George] Washington in a state of nature or rather in a state of slavery. Destitute as he is of all education, and broken by hardships and infirmities of age, he still exhibits striking traces of native ingenuity and good sense.” In Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 poetry collection, a list of lawyers, judges and reverends attest to the following: “We whose Names are underwritten, do assure the World, that the Poems specified in the following Pages were as we verily believe written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl.” These attestations were important because the narratives and early writings were often used as evidence by abolitionists to disprove Enlightenment-era scientific racism that deemed blacks morally and intellectually inferior. As Henry Louis Gates and Valerie A. Smith write, this is an enduring tension inherent in the African American literary tradition. They write, “the tension….between the most private utterances of a [writer] such as Phillis Wheatley…and the political uses to which those utterances are put obtains to this day.”

Today, we don’t talk of overt political uses of black writing, but of “tokenism.” The odds against publishing are high for everyone, but black writers also have to surmount the racial inequities in the publishing industry. The 2015 Lee and Low Survey on Diversity in Publishing indicated that, overall, the industry was 79% white, 78% woman/cis-woman, 88% Straight/Heterosexual, and 92% Non-disabled. Add to these statistics the fact that many editors, agents, and employees in publishing lack formal education in the written traditions of people of color. David Mura has written about this lack of knowledge about canons of color in a 2016 article, “White Writing Teachers (or David Foster Wallace vs. James Baldwin)”. All of these factors, taken together, can result in imprecise editing of black work, awkward promotion of it, and critical reviews of black writing that alienate the work from its larger tradition.


How You Say What You Say

In 1937’s “The Blueprint for Negro Writing,” Richard Wright wrote that black writing should display social consciousness and responsibility. Wright, author of Native Son, is considered an important writer of protest fiction.  But in 1949, James Baldwin wrote the essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel” in which he denounces the protest novel as propaganda.  Baldwin thought that the protest novel was useless whether written by Richard Wright or Harriet Beecher Stowe. He wrote:

“[B]elow the surface of [Native Son] there lies, as it seems to me, a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy. Bigger is Uncle Tom’s descendant, flesh of his flesh, so exactly opposite a portrait that, when the books are placed together, it seems that the contemporary Negro novelist and the the dead New England woman are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle; the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses.”

Decades earlier, in a 1926 speech titled, “The Criteria of Negro Art,” W.E.B. DuBois wrote that “All art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of purists.”

Also in 1926, George Schuyler rejected the idea of a Negro aesthetic, writing that “Negro art ‘made in America’ is as nonexistent…as the reported sophistication of New Yorkers.”

By the 1940s, Schuyler’s view was not the favored one and it definitely had fallen out of favor by the 1960s. In 1968, Etheridge Knight is quoted as saying, “Unless the Black artist establishes a Black aesthetic he will have no future at all. To accept the white aesthetic is to accept and validate a society that will not allow him to lie. The Black artist must create new forms and new values, sing new songs (or purify old ones).”

Crucial to this idea of a black aesthetic is the use of vernacular and folklore. Richard Wright thought black writers should mine black folklore. He wrote “The Negroes most powerful images of hope and despair still remain in the fluid state of daily speech.” He encouraged black writers to “continue and deepen” the tradition, writing, “It was in a folklore molded out of rigorous and inhuman conditions of life that the Negro achieved his most indigenous and complete expression.”

It’s interesting, then, that Wright criticized Zora Neale Hurston’s use of vernacular.  In his 1937 review of Their Eyes Were Watching God, he wrote, “Miss Hurston can write; but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that had dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley. Her dialogue manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their pure simplicity, but that’s as far as it goes.”

Hurston’s mentor Alain Locke also criticized Their Eyes Were Watching God in his 1938 review:

“It is folklore fiction at its best…” he begins and then later, “But when will the Negro novelist of maturity, who knows how to tell a story convincingly — which is Miss Hurston’s cradle gift, come to grips with motive fiction and social document fiction? Progressive southern fiction has already banished the legend of these entertaining pseudo-primitives whom the reading public still loves to laugh with, weep over and envy. Having gotten rid of condescension, let us now get over oversimplification!”

Never one to be shaded without shading back, Hurston reviewed Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1938, writing, “Since the author himself is a Negro his dialect is a puzzling thing. One wonders how he arrived at it.”

And in response to Locke, Hurston allegedly said, “I will send my toenail to debate him on what he knows about Negroes and Negro life.”

It’s not until the 1970s and 1980s with black feminist literary criticism that Hurston’s aesthetic becomes legible and respected. And this brings me to an important point. If scholars and writers in the first half of the 20th century were concerned with the way white supremacy affects black cultural production, they are concerned with intersectionality in the latter half of the 20th century; in other words, how racism, patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, and heteronormativity from within and outside of African American communities affect back cultural production.

For example, In Charles Nero’s “Toward a Black Gay Aesthetic,” (1991) he marks how black queer writers revise the African American literary tradition by signifying on the cis-heteronormativity contained in classic texts. And Audre Lorde wrote about how class, gender, and race intersect with written genres so that we tend to privilege prose and linearity over poetry and non-linear creative expression.

These issues about publishing, audience, and aesthetics remain relevant today.  Recently, I was struck by the parallels between writing by Marlon James in 2015 and writing by Amiri Baraka around 1984.

In a Facebook post, Marlon James wrote a response to Claire Vaye Watkins’ essay, “On Pandering.” In that essay, Watkins, who is white, argues that as a young woman writer she pandered to a white masculinist aesthetic because that is what is valued and taught as the high literary standard. James responded that many writers of color feel they must pander to the idea of a white woman reader. Then, James wrote:

“There’s an award that I have been a finalist for, more than once, and in both situations I was the only person who knew that I wouldn’t win. I looked at the winner and I looked at the judges and both followed exactly the same aesthetic. And looked the same as well. I knew right there, what they were looking for in a book and I knew the winner fulfilled it with flying colours, even if it wasn’t that great a book.”

In his autobiography, Baraka writes about being in San Juan, Puerto Rico as a young man, sitting on a bench in a park and reading poetry in the New Yorker magazine.

“I realized that there was something in me so out,” he wrote, “so unconnected with what this writer was and what that magazine was that what was in me that wanted to come out as poetry would never come out like that and be my poetry.”

Hearing the echoes of Baraka in James’ recent comments reminded me that black writers still confront questions about writing and publishing with integrity given who we are and where we are.

Renee Simms is an assistant professor of African American Studies at the University of Puget Sound. Her published work appears or is forthcoming in CallalooNorth American ReviewThe RumpusJoylandSalonThe Feminist Wire, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships and support for her fiction from Ragdale, Vermont Studio Center, Kimbilio Fiction, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, and VONA.