What Is “Negro Art”?
- Grades: 6–8, 9–12
This article was originally published in Scholastic Search, Teachers'Edition.
When Queen Latifah and Kathleen Battle perform, the only thing linking the two is that they are both African-American. Queen Latifah swaggers and raps to the sound of a heavy bass line; Ms. Battle sings grand opera in an evening gown. Is one doing more than the other to advance the cause of her race? Is Queen Latifah fostering pride in her future by performing a "black" art form? Or is she playing into the stereotype that blacks are no good at "white" art forms? And Ms. Battle? Is she proving that blacks can make it in the white-dominated opera world? Or is she selling out?
Seventy years ago, poet Langston Hughes raised his voice in this debate, arguing that black artists too often felt ashamed of their own heritage and calling on blacks to recognize the beauty in their own culture.
"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 because he fears the strange un-whiteness of his own features. An artist must be free to choose what he does, 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 near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let the smug Negro middle class 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, 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."
1. Langston Hughes accuses some black poets of (a) hating whites; (b) overlooking the beauty of black culture; (c) overlooking the beauty of white culture.
2. Hughes thinks that (a) paintings of sunsets are not especially beautiful; (b) the painting of sunsets should be left to white artists; (c) some black artists see more beauty in nature than in themselves.
3. Hughes says that many black artists resist black subjects because they (a) fear criticism from the black community; (b) are ashamed of things black; (c) think that black people won't buy art.
4. Hughes uses the term "near-intellectual" to describe blacks who don't listen to black musicians and singers. By this he means people who (a) have not heard the work of black artists; (b) are not smart enough to appreciate the quality of black artists; (c) are intelligent enough, but are prejudiced against distinctly "black" culture.
5. Hughes implies that many of the blacks who reject black art or music are (a) middle-class; (b) poor; (c) wealthy.
6. Hughes says that black artists who choose to focus on black subjects should (a) not be overly upset if no one likes their work; (b) be disappointed if blacks don't like their work; (c) be disappointed if whites fail to understand the beauty of black culture.
7. Hughes says that black people can be "ugly, too" because he thinks that (a) most black people are not pretty; (b) white people think black people are ugly; (c) black people are like everyone else there are good and bad in all races.
8. Hughes says that black artists who focus on black subjects (a) should create mainly to express themselves; (b) should try to please black critics; (c) know that there will be no market for their work.
9. On a separate piece of paper, respond to Hughes in your own words, using examples of today's artists to agree or disagree with him.