“Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states…”
--Langston Hughes, from Let America Be America Again
What Langston Hughes might find surprising if he were alive and still writing in 2013 is the way the cultural dynamics he observed during the Harlem Renaissance have undergone a series of reconfigurations to produce a different kind of hurdle for the professional creative artist. The African-American literary legacy that he did so much to help establish–– just as Russell Simmons’ labors helped launch the non-stop hip-hop movement––now virtually overflows with the kind of work he championed.
One supporting example of that observation is the National Book Foundation’s recent announcement that it will present Maya Angelou with the 2013 Literarian Award in November. Another would be the pervasive presence of hip-hop in different aspects of popular culture across the globe.
Much of what may be viewed as racial progress has had nothing to do with changes in racial attitudes but can be described as adaptations forced by the digital revolution and its impact on such important industries as publishing, recording, and film. The challenge now for the American individual of African descent, Hughes might contend, is what happens when he or she is not interested in restricting his or her imagination to themes defined by race. The doors are few indeed that open for African Americans who dare to think, and then take action, outside that particular box.
The double-bitter irony of today is that too frequently in mainstream organizations––whether off-line or on––the creative artist who happens to be black will be allowed an opportunity only if willing to fill a particular slot or role complementing their skin color. As if knowledge and ability were cheap fashion accessories rather than valued qualities of character. Despite that, the concept of self-empowerment in the modern era is a very popular one that has enabled many to make their own opportunities rather than wait for others to provide them.
In Search of a Functional Balance
The need to strike some kind of functional balance between individual artistic license and some sense of social responsibility is obviously not one restricted to African Americans. This particular ideological conflict may be wholly unavoidable when it comes to the nature of democracy as it is practiced in the United States. Artistic license is viewed as an aspect of the freedom of speech. And as ongoing debates over gun control laws and how they impact the right to bear arms show very clearly, liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights are not something Americans––black, white, or otherwise––take very lightly.
Langston Hughes wrote “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” at a time when African Americans were struggling to define themselves as individuals rather than as the sociological classifications imposed upon them. He concluded his essay with these words:
“We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”
Now that “tomorrow” has arrived, the cultural choices have evolved along with the social and political dynamics. Any measure of freedom is also a measure of power, and it has long been acknowledged that along with power comes responsibility. If some creative artists choose to ignore that responsibility it is likely because the public marketplace does not require them to acknowledge it and in fact often rewards them for the exact opposite. It nevertheless grows more and more difficult to deny direct correlations between words and images that glorify the most violently nihilistic elements within a given community and the actual destruction of any such community.
The best artists do not attempt to ignore or dream away the horrors of the world. Neither do they wallow in the existence of such soul-devouring terror for its own sake. The best artists, like Langston Hughes himself, confront and battle with the worst realities until they are able to wrestle from them meanings that add to the beauty of life instead of enabling them to magnify the agonies of life.
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
and ELEMENTAL the Power of Illuminated Love
More from the Text and Meaning Series by Aberjhani
- Text and Meaning in Langston Hughes’ The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain Part 1
- Text and Meaning in Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance Part 1
- Text and Meaning in Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance Part 2
- Text and Meaning in Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance Part 3
- Text and Meaning in MLK’s I Have a Dream Speech Part 1
- Text and Meaning in MLK’s I Have a Dream Speech Part 2
- Text and Meaning in MLK’s I Have a Dream Speech Part 3
- Text and Meaning in Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream Speech Part 4