Since the beginning of Slavery and the following years of abolishment of it, the “African American” experience, values, expression, and more has become a developing culture of itself in the United States. From the Harlem Renaissance period, as well as the Modernism or Realism movement, African Americans have turned to various art forms to try and express themselves and pass on various themes and expression. Many a times, these pieces can evoke various political, social, and thematic objectives based on the writer’s desire. Two famous writers, Langston Hughes and Richard Wright come from these periods of time and have used their works to pursue creating their own expression and experiences.
Langston Hughes, in his essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”, creates his desire for African American artists and people in the tumultuous racial and social period that he lived in. Very similarly, Richard Wright’s novel Native Son also attempts to convey his social objectives for African Americans during such similar times. Both pieces excel in conveying the gap that they believe exists between white and black Americans, as well as the prejudice, shame, and more that created strife for many artists and people alike. While they share many attributes for the ills of America and racial relations of the past, they differ in how they choose to express them and the solutions or feelings that they propose.
In Langston Hughes’ essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”, he discusses African American art during the past and present of America and his inability to understand the shame and conformity that many displayed. He opens this essay by discussing a time in which he spoke with a poet who states that they would like to write like a white poet, displaying distaste for the title of “Negro Poet”. In response, Hughes describes that this poet is thus subconsciously stating that he ‘would like to be white’ and expresses sorrow for “no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself” (Hughes). He continues this story and slowly builds into a broader sense of African American artists and people who stray away from their race and heritage, instead wanting to conform to the desires of white media and expression. He states that by doing this, African American people are losing their sense of culture, pride, and self by abandoning their own expression to standardize themselves to the wants and desires of white people who control what is considered acceptable. Through this abandonment of self, Hughes states that one becomes shameful of their race and should ultimately strive to love their own expression and strive to explore racial issues as that is what is African American expression and art.
Richard Wright’s novel Native Son is quite similar in this exploration of African American shame and how it affects one’s self. In Wright’s novel, he explores the experiences of Bigger Thomas, an African American man who accidently kills the daughter of a rich white business owner while working as a chauffeur and living on the estate. The novel deals with the following events of this murder, following both Bigger’s attempt to cover up the murder, his escape, and then the trial that he must face. The novel deals with the themes of racism, fear of African Americans, and the shame of one’s own skin color because of this prolonged racism.
The theme of shame is heavily present through both the dialogue of Bigger Thomas, as well as his internal thoughts and feelings. During the first book of the novel, Bigger is tasked with being a driver for his bosses’ daughter Mary. Mary convinces Bigger to pick up her boyfriend Jan and then has him bring them to a part of the city that is predominately African American so that they can experience the type of life that Bigger is given. During this time, Jan takes over driving the car and Bigger is squished between the middle. Quickly, he becomes apprehensive of the two and falls deeper into feelings of self-consciousness and hyper awareness of himself. He begins to call attention to his own self and is afraid to move, otherwise he feels he may call “attention to himself and his black body” (68). In this scene, Bigger’s hyper awareness of his own skin color begins to create shame for himself and his race. This continues when Jan and Mary convince him to bring him to a food establishment that he regulars. In this scene, Bigger is apprehensive to go into the shop and be sitting with two white people due to his own race and a feeling of not belonging or being wrong.
Through this section, we see how Richard Wright tackles the theme of African Americans feeling shame and wanting to distance themselves from their own color. This is like how Langston Hughes also discusses the feelings that African Americans have with their rejection of their race and heritage. Both pieces attempt to find expression in how many find the racial divide of America to be something that causes themselves to lose pride in their race and a strong desire to reject anything that makes them less white. While both Langston Hughes and Richard Wright tackle this phenomenon that plagues many African Americans, their approach to a solution to the problem is where they begin to create difference.
In Hughes’ article, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”, he tries to convey the solution that one must find appreciation and an ability to create art and expression through racial topics and a realization of their skin color. Hughes describes that “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” (Hughes). Hughes describes this endless amount of critical form of art as the way that one can take pride in their heritage and create true expression for themselves, rather than to just adhere to the standards that have been put forth by white audiences and critics alike. Hughes cries out for artists to embrace this form of art and to explore themselves for the “un-whiteness” of their own selves is through their knowledge that they are beautiful. He even finishes his essay by stating that whether or not white audiences appreciate these forms of art and expression, by doing this, they create a place for themselves and a freedom that no one can take from them.
Richard White on the other hand seems to lack this solution that Langston Hughes proposes through his essay. In the novel Native Son, one can argue that the message through the shame that is brought upon one’s self from one’s own skin color is to simply present this racial divide and disparity between whites and African Americans. Through the novel, Bigger Thomas’s identity as an African American gives him the knowledge and fear that he will not be given treatment and trust that others would get if they were white. After the murder of Mary Dalton, Bigger simply accepts that since he is African American, he will never be understood that it was an accident and it will be simply viewed through the lens of whites as a brutal murder and rape. Wright’s novel has been described by many as one that uses scare tactics to create change and to get his point across of the disparity between African Americans and whites through this shame that is created by post slavery.
While both Langston Hughes’ essay and Richard Wright’s novel differ in their approach to the solutions and feelings of shame for one’s skin color or heritage that exist within African American communities, both attempt through their work to create expressions that detail these feelings and problems. Langston Hughes discusses the rejection of one’s self and the title of a “Negro Artist”. He then presents a solution that one should ignore the standardization of art from white culture and strive to find beauty and love for their own expression. Native Son also discusses this shame of one’s skin color and heritage through Bigger Thomas’ experience through the accidental murder of his bosses’ daughter, as well as his own hyper awareness of his own skin color to convey this racial divide between whites and African Americans.
Even up through contemporary literature, African American artists have continued to strive to find ways to present their expression of themselves, as well as their own culture and identity that has been created post slavery. As racial relations continue to be worked upon, artists will continue to find ways to express the lives that they find themselves in, as well as make sense of the past that has been created through turmoil and pain.
- Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain (1926).” Dreaming Out Loud, doi:10.2307/j.ctt20p57xg.17.
- Wright, Richard, 1908-1960. Native Son. New York :Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005. Print.