e-texts of essays and poems
by Lanston Hughes

The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain

       Once 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 meaning behind that, "I would like to be white." And I was sorry the mpg 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 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 an standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.

     But let us look at the immediate background of this young poet.  His family is of what I suppose one would call the Negro middle class: people who are by no means rich yet never uncomfortable nor hungry-smug, contented, respectable folk, members of the Baptist church.  The father goes to work every morning.  He is a chief steward at a large white club.  The mother sometimes does fancy sewing or supervises parties for the rich families of the town.  The children go to a mixed school.  In the home they read white papers and magazines.  And the mother often says "Don't be like niggers" when the children are bad.  A frequent phrase from the father is, "Look how well a white man does things." And so the word white comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all virtues.  It holds for the children beauty, morality, and money.  The whisper of "I want to be white" runs silently through their minds.  This young poet's home is, I believe, a fairly typical home of the colored middle class.  One sees immediately how difficult it would be for an artist born in such a home to interest himself in interpreting the beauty of his own people.  He is never taught to see that beauty.  He is taught rather not to see it, or if he does, to be ashamed of it when it is not according to Caucasian patterns.

      For racial culture the home of a self-styled "high-class" Negro has nothing better to offer.  Instead there will perhaps be more aping of things white than in a less cultured or less wealthy home.  The father is perhaps a doctor, lawyer, landowner, or politician.  The mother may be a social worker, or a teacher, or she may do nothing and have a maid.  Father is often dark but he has usually married the lightest woman he could find.  The family attend a fashionable church where few really colored faces are to be found.  And they themselves draw a color line.  In the North they go to white theaters and white movies.  And in the South they have at least two cars and house "like white folks." Nordic manners, Nordic faces, Nordic hair, Nordic art (if any), and an Episcopal heaven.  A very high mountain indeed for the would-be racial artist to climb in order to discover himself and his people.

     But then there are the low-down folks, the so-called common element, and they are the majority-may the Lord be praised!  The people who have their hip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round.  They live on Seventh Street in Washington or State Street in Chicago and they do not particularly care whether they are like white folks or anybody else.  Their joy runs, bang! into ecstasy.  Their religion soars to a shout.  Work maybe a little today, rest a little tomorrow.  Play awhile.  Sing awhile. 0, let's dance!  These common people are not afraid of spirituals, as for a long time their more intellectual brethren were, and jazz is their child.  They furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardizations.  And perhaps these common people will give to the world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself.  Whereas the better-class Negro would tell the artist what to do, the people at least let him alone when he does appear.  And they are not ashamed of him-if they know he exists at all.  And they accept what beauty is their own without question.

     Certainly there is, for the American Negro artist who can escape the restrictions the more advanced among his own group would put upon him, a great field of unused material ready for his art.  Without going outside his race, and even among the better classes with their "white" culture and conscious American manners, but still Negro enough to be different, there is sufficient matter to furnish a black artist with a lifetime of creative work.  And when he chooses to touch on the relations between Negroes and whites in this country with their innumerable overtones and undertones surely, and especially for literature and the drama, there is an inexhaustible supply of themes at hand.  To these the Negro artist can give his racial individuality, his heritage of rhythm and warmth, and his incongruous humor that so often, as in the Blues, becomes ironic laughter mixed with tears.  But let us look again at the mountain.

     A prominent Negro clubwoman in Philadelphia paid eleven dollars to hear Raquel Meller sing Andalusian popular songs.  But she told me a few weeks before she would not think of going to hear "that woman," Clara Smith, a great black artist, sing Negro folksongs.  And many an upper -class Negro church, even now, would not dream of employing a spiritual in its services.  The drab melodies in white folks' hymnbooks are much to be preferred.  "We want to worship the Lord correctly and quietly.  We don't believe in 'shouting.' Let's be dull like the Nordics," they say, in effect.

     The road for the serious black artist, then, who would produce a racial art is most certainly rocky and the mountain is high.  Until recently he received almost no encouragement for his work from either white or colored people.  The fine novels of Chesnutt' go out of print with neither race noticing their passing.  The quaint charm and humor of Dunbar's' dialect verse brought to him, in his day, largely the same kind of encouragement one would give a sideshow freak (A colored man writing poetry!  How odd!) or a clown (How amusing!).

      The present vogue in things Negro, although it may do as much harm as good for the budding colored artist, has at least done this: it has brought him forcibly to the attention of his own people among whom for so long, unless the other race had noticed him beforehand, he was a prophet with little honor.  I understand that Charles Gilpin 5 acted for years in Negro theaters without any special acclaim from his own, but when Broadway gave him eight curtain calls, Negroes, too, began to beat a tin pan in his honor.  I know a young colored writer, a manual worker by day, who had been writing well for the colored magazines for some years, but it was not until he recently broke into the white publications and his first book was accepted by a prominent New York publisher that the "best" Negroes in his city took the trouble to discover that he lived there.  Then almost immediately they decided to give a grand dinner for him.  But the society ladies were careful to whisper to his mother that perhaps she'd better not come. They were not sure she would have an evening gown.

     The Negro artist works against an undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites.  "Oh, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are," say the Negroes.  "Be stereotyped, don't go too far, don't shatter our illusions about you, don't amuse us too seriously.  We will pay you," say the whites.  Both would have told Jean Toomer not to write Cane.  ' The colored people did not praise it.  The white people did not buy it.  Most of the colored people who did read Cane hate it.  They are afraid of it.  Although the critics gave it good reviews the public remained indifferent.  Yet (excepting the work of Du Bois) Cane contains the finest prose written by a Negro in America.  And like the singing of Robeson, it is tru y racial.

      But in spite of the Nordicized Negro intelligentsia and the desires of some white editors we have an honest American Negro literature already with us.  Now I await the rise of the Negro theater.  Our folk music, having achieved world-wide fame, offers itself to the genius of the great individual American composer who is to come.  And within the next decade I expect to see the work of a growing school of colored artists who paint and model the beauty of dark faces and create with new technique the expressions of their own soul-world.  And the Negro dancers who will dance like flame and the singers who will continue to carry our songs to all who listen-they will be with us in even greater numbers tomorrow.

      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.  I am as sincere as I know how to be in these poems and yet after every reading I answer questions like these from my own people: Do you think Negroes should always write about Negroes?  I wish you wouldn't read some of your poems to white folks.  How do you find anything interesting in a place like a cabaret?  Why do you write about black people?  You aren't black.  What makes you do so many jazz poems?

      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 'le.  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 11 white is best" runs through her mind.  Years of study under white teachers, a lifetime of white books, pictures, and papers, and white manners, morals, and Puritan standards made her dislike the spirituals.  And now she turns up her nose at jazz and all its manifestations-likewise almost everything else distinctly racial.  She doesn't care for the Winold Reiss' portraits of Negroes because they are "too Negro." She does not want a true picture of herself from anybody.  She wants the artist to flatter her, to make the white world believe that all Negroes are as smug and as near white in soul as sne wailLN to be.  But, to my mind, it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering "I want to be white," hidden in the aspirations of his people, to "Why should I want to be white?  I am a, Negro-and beautiful"?

      So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, "I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet," as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world.  I am ashamed, too, for the colored artist who runs from the painting of Negro faces to the painting of sunsets after the manner of the academicians because he fears the strange un-whiteness of his own features.  An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.

      Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored nearintellectuals until they listen and perhaps,understand.  Let Paul Robeson singing "Water Boy," and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas2 drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty.  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.



                                Rocks and the firm roots of trees.
                                The rising shafts of mountains.
                                Something strong to put my hands on.

                                            Sing, 0 Lord Jesus!
                                            Song is a strong thing-
                                            I heard my mother singing
                                            When life hurt her:

                               Gonna ride in my chariot some day!

                                            The branches rise
                                            >From the firm roots of trees.
                                            The mountains rise
                                            >From the solid lap of earth.
                                            The waves rise
                                            >From the dead weight of sea.
                                  Sing, 0 black mother!
                                  Song is a strong thing.


The Bitter River

(Dedicated to the memory of Charlie Lang and Ernest Green, each fourteen years old when lynched together beneath the Shubuta Bridge over the Chicasawhay River in Mississippi, October 12th, i942.)

There is a bitter river
Flowing through the South.
Too long has the taste of its water Been in my mouth.
There is a bitter river Dark with filth and mud.
Too long has its evil poison
Poisoned my blood.

I've drunk of the bitter river
And its gall coats the red of my tongue,
Mixed with the blood of the lynched boys
From its iron bridge hung,
Mixed with the hopes that are drowned there
In the snake-like hiss of its stream
Where I drank of the bitter river
That strangled my dream:
The book studied-but useless,
Tool handled-but unused,
Knowledge acquired but thrown away,
Ambition battered and bruised.
Oh, water of the bitter river
With your taste of blood and clay,
You reflect no stars by night,
No sun by day.

The bitter river reflects no stars-
It gives back only the glint of steel bars
And dark bitter faces behind steel bars:
The Scottsboro boys behind steel bars,
Lewis Jones behind steel bars,
The voteless share-cropper behind steel bars,
The labor leader behind steel bars,
The soldier thrown from a Jim Crow bus behind steel bars,
The 150 mugger behind steel bars,
The girl who sells her body behind steel bars,
And my grandfather's back with its ladder of scars
Long ago, long ago-the whip and steel bars -
The bitter river reflects no stars.

"Wait, be patient," you say.
"Your folks will have a better day."
But the swirl of the bitter river
Takes your words away.
"Work, education, patience
Will bring a better day-"
The swirl of the bitter river
Carries your "patience" away.
"Disrupter!  Agitator!
Trouble maker!"you say.

The swirl of the bitter river
Sweeps your lies away.
I did not ask for this river
Nor the taste of its bitter brew.
I was given its water
As a gift from you.
Yours has been the power
To force my back to the wall
And make me drink of the bitter cup
Mixed with blood and gall.

You have lynched my comrades
Where the iron bridge crosses the stream,
Underpaid me for my labor,
And spit in the face of my dream.
You forced me to the bitter river
With the hiss of its snake-like song-
Now your words no longer have meaning-
I have drunk at the river too long:
Dreamer of dreams to be broken,
Builder of hopes to be smashed,
Loser from an empty pocket
Of my meagre cash,
Bitter bearer of burdens
And singer of weary song,
I've drunk at the bitter river
With its filth and its mud too long.
Tired now of the bitter river,
Tired now of the pat on the back,
Tired now of the steel bars
Because my face is black,
I'm tired of segregation,
Tired of filth and mud,
I've drunk of the bitter river
And it's turned to steel in my blood.

Oh, tragic bitter river
Where the lynched boys hung,
The gall of your bitter water
Coats my tongue.
The blood of your bitter water
For me gives back no stars.
I'm tired of the bitter river!
Tired of the bars!

back to ¡@¡@ ¡@¡@ ¡@¡@¡@¡@Lanston Hughes