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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: the arts and the black revolution II

Chapman, Abraham
Editorial comment: black poetry today,   pp. 401-[410] PDF (9.1 MB)

Page 402

was affirmed by most of the participants
in the New Negro movement of the
early part of the century. The general
cultural perspective of this movement was
articulated by its ideological father,
W. E. B. DuBois, well before the Harlem
Renaissance of the 1920's came into being,
in his famous article "The Immediate
Program of the American Negro" published
in The Crisis in 1915:
In art and literature we should try to loose
the tremendous emotional wealth of the Negro
and the dramatic strength of his problems
through writing, the stage, pageantry and
other forms of art. We should resurrect
forgotten ancient Negro art and history, and
we should set the black man before the
world as both a creative artist and as a
strong subject for artistic treatment.
Countee Cullen, a prominent poet of the
Harlem Renaissance, insisted that he
wanted to be a universal poet rather than a
Negro poet and he developed his view
in the anthology he published five years
after Johnson's, Caroling Dusk: An
Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets (1927).
In his foreword to the book he wrote:
I have called this collection an anthology of
verse by Negro poets rather than an
anthology of Negro verse, since this latter
designation would be more confusing than
accurate. . . . Moreover, the attempt to
corral the outbursts of the ebony muse into
some definite mold to which all poetry by
Negroes will conform seems altogether futile
and aside from the facts. . . . The poet
writes out of his experience, whether it be
personal or vicarious, and as these experiences
differ among other poets, so do they differ
among Negro poets; for the double obligation
of being both Negro and American is not so
unified as we are often led to believe. A
survey of the work of Negro poets will
show that the individual diversifying ego
transcends the synthesizing hue.
Johnson and many other writers of the
Harlem Renaissance found the racial
experiences and folk music, literature and
culture developed by the Negroes in the
United States a positive source of
values, artistic forms, themes, and
literary subject matter. Cullen, classical
and conservative in his poetic forms and
romantic in temperament, had other
aesthetic needs. He also felt that there
was somehow a dichotomy between racial
experience and poetic expression which he
voiced in the concluding couplet of his
famous sonnet "Yet Do I Marvel":
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him singl
This was Cullen's reaction to the harsh
reality, historical and contemporary, which
James Baldwin describes as follows in
his latest statement of views, "A Letter
to Americans," in Freedomways
(Spring, 1968):
Furthermore, all black Americans are born
into a society which is determined - repeat:
determined - that they shall never learn
the truth about themselves or their society,
which is determined that black men shall use
as their only frame of reference what white
Americans convey to them of their own
potentialities, and of the shape, size,
dimensions and possibilities of the world.
And I do not hesitate for an instant to
condemn this as a crime. To persuade black
boys and girls, as we have for so many
generations that their lives are worth less
than other lives, and that they can only live
on terms dictated to them by other people,
by people who despise them, is worse than a
crime, it is the sin against the Holy Ghost.
This pressure also generated the supposed
dichotomy between white, Western and
"universal" values, on the one hand, and
black, supposedly limited and parochial
values on the other. The main thrust of a
significant number of writers of the
Renaissance was a challenge to this view
and affirmed the value to America and the
world of the human understanding and
culture that emerged from the experiences
and artistic creations of the black men in
America. It is this challenge and this
appreciation of racial consciousness
and values that the black cultural
nationalist movements of today and the
unfolding black poetry movement are
advancing to a new and different stage.
A backward glance at the debate on
"racial self-expression" in the 20's thus
becomes the best introduction to the debate
on "black poetry" today.
Of all the poets of the Harlem Renaissance
it was Langston Hughes who became the
best known and most widely read Negro
poet in the United States. The long span

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