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. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But 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.
This article appeared in The Nation in 1926. The first paragraph implicitly refers to Countee Cullen, who used very traditional forms in his work and sometimes seemed to have a more conservative, Booker T. Washington-like approach to reform, as opposed to McKay and Hughes’ more radical ideas, drawn from the tradition of Du Bois.
Hughes blames the poet’s bourgeois background, which effaces the beauty of his race and people in favor of normalization. The racial mountain is the “Nordic world and Episcopal heaven” such a poet tries to reach in spite of himself. He praises instead the low-down folks who are still individual “in the face of American standardizations” (rather an ironic comment for a Marxist!). There is a colorful world of raw material for the Negro artist in black popular culture. Toomer does this: “Cane contains the finest prose written by a Negro in America. And like the singing of Robeson, it is truly racial.” Folk music has already arrived, as has Negro literature. Now painting, theater, and dance will take off. Hughes describes his method:
“Most of my own poems are racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know. In many of them I try to grasp and hold some of the meanings and rhythms of jazz… But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul–the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.”
“An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.” [that is, concern himself with race in art… vs Baldwin?]
“We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”