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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 403

of his poetic productivity, from his first
published volume of verse, The Weary
Blues (1926) to his posthumously
published The Panther and the Lash:
Poems of Our Time (1967), made him a
most significant bridge to contemporary
Negro poetry which he was actively shaping
until his death in 1967. Throughout his
lifetime he adhered quite consistently to
the poetic principles he enunciated in his
well known article "The Negro Artist and
the Racial Mountain" published in The
Nation, June 23, 1926. He wrote then:
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 sub-consciously, '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. . . . We
younger Negro artists who create now intend
to express our individual dark-skinned
selves without fear or shame.
In 1961, participating in a radio symposium
in New York City with James Baldwin,
Alfred Kazin, Lorraine Hansberry, and
others, Langston Hughes said:
My main material is the race problem -
and I have found it most exciting and
interesting and intriguing to deal with it in
writing, and I haven't found the problem of
being a Negro in any sense a hindrance to
putting words on paper. . . . My early work
was always published in The Crisis of the
NAACP, and then in the Opportunity
of the Urban League, and then the Negro
papers like the Washington Sentinel and the
Baltimore Afro-American, and so on. And I
contend that since these things, which are
Negro, largely for Negro readers, have in
subsequent years achieved world-wide
publication - my work has come out in
South America, Japan, and all over Europe -
that a regional Negro character like Simple, a
character intended for the people who
belong to his own race, if written about
warmly enough, humanly enough, can
achieve universality.
And I don't see, as Jimmy Baldwin sometimes
seems to imply, any limitations, in artistic
terms, in being a Negro. I see none
whatsoever. It seems to me that any Negro
can write about anything he chooses, even
the most narrow problems: if he can write
about it forcefully and honestly and truly, it is
very possible that that bit of writing will be
read and understood, in Iceland or Uruguay.
Like many artists Hughes believed that the
individual and the human, explored in
depth and all its complexities, is universal,
and that includes ethnic individuality.
This question has not only confronted
Negro poets. W. B. Yeats raised it, and
answered it to his satisfaction and to the
enrichment of world poetry. He examined
this question at some length in his essay
"A General Introduction for My Work"
incorporated in his book Essays and
Introductions (1961). Here Yeats stated his
"first principle" that "a poet writes
always of his personal life," and secondly,
that he found "my theme" in the Irish
resistance movement. Yeats found no
contradiction between his desire to be
universal and his desire to express his
"Irishry" as he put it. He wrote, almost
in one breath, that "I wanted to cry as
all men cried, to laugh as all men laughed"
and then said that "if Irish literature
goes on as my generation planned it,
it may do something to keep the 'Irishry'
The personal and private, the ethnic and
racial which are the products of common
social and historical experiences, and the
universal, are not separate and warring
categories, but are all fused in the
individual personality, outlook and vision
of life. Understood in this sense the racial
feeling or consciousness of the poet is
not something which separates him from
the rest of humanity but an organic part
of his distinctive and individual sense of
Alain Locke, who has been called the mentor
and the leading critical voice of the
Harlem Renaissance, observed during that
great debate of the 20's:
In the case of the American Negro the
sense of race is stronger than that of
nationality; and in some form or other is a
primary factor in the consciousness of the
Negro poet. Race has many diverse ways of
reflecting itself in the equation of life;
each temperament reflects it just a bit
differently and reacts to it just a bit differently.
We too frequently neglect this important
point, that the racial factors may reside in

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