New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement

By Lisa Gail Collins; Margo Natalie Crawford | Go to book overview

12 A Familiar Strangeness
The Spectre of Whiteness
in the Harlem Renaissance
and the Black Arts Movement

Emily Bernard

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, it doesn't matter.
We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored
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.

—LANGSTON HUGHES, "THE NEGRO ARTIST AND THE RACIAL MOUNTAIN," 1926

"I would like to be white." This phrase ends the first sentence of Langston Hughes' formidable 1926 essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." This statement is not autobiographical. Rather the sentiment is Hughes' translation of a declaration made by an unnamed poet—Countee Cullen—about his preferred professional identity.1 Cullen told Hughes that he wanted to be known as "a poet—not a Negro poet" and Hughes heard behind Cullen's words a lamentable self-loathing, a pitiable hankering for whiteness. The path from Cullen's sentiment to Hughes' interpretation is circuitous at best, however, and there are, finally, multiple ways in which Cullen's desire could be understood. Surely, Hughes, in his long acquaintanceship with Cullen, perceived myriad subtleties inherent in Cullen's resistance to the label "Negro poet," and experienced his own ambivalence about such labels. But Hughes' interest in Cullen's words here is not philosophical but polemical. Only in this reduced and distorted version does Cullen's language serve a significant role in Hughes' essay. It provides an occasion for the exposure and condemnation of the black middle class, reviled here as the most eminently insidious agent of white supremacy. But while Hughes' essay pretends to curse Cullen and his kind—black imitators of

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