One of the seminal essays by Langston Hughes
Which first appeared in THE NATION (1926)
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 subconsciously, “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. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.
But let us look at the immediate background of this young poet. His family is of what I suppose one would call the Negro middle class: people who are by no means rich yet never uncomfortable nor hungry–smug, contented, respectable folk, members of the Baptist church. The father goes to work every morning. He is a chief steward at a large white club. The mother sometimes does fancy sewing or supervises parties for the rich families of the town. The children go to a mixed school. In the home they read white papers and magazines. And the mother often says “Don’t be like niggers” when the children are bad. A frequent phrase from the father is, “Look how well a white man does things.” And so the word white comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all virtues. It holds for the children beauty, morality, and money. The whisper of “I want to be white” runs silently through their minds. This young poet’s home is, I believe, a fairly typical home of the colored middle class. One sees immediately how difficult it would be for an artist born in such a home to interest himself in interpreting the beauty of his own people. He is never taught to see that beauty. He is taught rather not to see it, or if he does, to be ashamed of it when it is not according to Caucasian patterns.
For racial culture the home of a self-styled “high-class” Negro has nothing better to offer. Instead there will perhaps be more aping of things white than in a less cultured or less wealthy home. The father is perhaps a doctor, lawyer, landowner, or politician. The mother may be a social worker, or a teacher, or she may do nothing and have a maid. Father is often dark but he has usually married the lightest woman he could find. The family attend a fashionable church where few really colored faces are to be found. And they themselves draw a color line. In the North they go to white theaters and white movies. And in the South they have at least two cars and house “like white folks.” Nordic manners, Nordic faces, Nordic hair, Nordic art (if any), and an Episcopal heaven. A very high mountain indeed for the would-be racial artist to climb in order to discover himself and his people.
But then there are the low-down folks, the so-called common element, and they are the majority—may the Lord be praised! The people who have their hip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round. They live on Seventh Street in Washington or State Street in Chicago and they do not particularly care whether they are like white folks or anybody else. Their joy runs, bang! into ecstasy. Their religion soars to a shout. Work maybe a little today, rest a little tomorrow. Play awhile. Sing awhile. 0, let’s dance! These common people are not afraid of spirituals, as for a long time their more intellectual brethren were, and jazz is their child. They furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardizations. And perhaps these common people will give to the world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself. Whereas the better-class Negro would tell the artist what to do, the people at least let him alone when he does appear. And they are not ashamed of him–if they know he exists at all. And they accept what beauty is their own without question.
Certainly there is, for the American Negro artist who can escape the restrictions the more advanced among his own group would put upon him, a great field of unused material ready for his art. Without going outside his race, and even among the better classes with their “white” culture and conscious American manners, but still Negro enough to be different, there is sufficient matter to furnish a black artist with a lifetime of creative work. And 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. To these the Negro artist can give his racial individuality, his heritage of rhythm and warmth, and his incongruous humor that so often, as in the Blues, becomes ironic laughter mixed with tears. But let us look again at the mountain.
A prominent Negro clubwoman in Philadelphia paid eleven dollars to hear Raquel Meller sing Andalusian popular songs. But she told me a few weeks before she would not think of going to hear “that woman,” Clara Smith, a great black artist, sing Negro folksongs. And many an upper -class Negro church, even now, would not dream of employing a spiritual in its services. The drab melodies in white folks’ hymnbooks are much to be preferred. “We want to worship the Lord correctly and quietly. We don’t believe in ‘shouting.’ Let’s be dull like the Nordics,” they say, in effect.
The road for the serious black artist, then, who would produce a racial art is most certainly rocky and the mountain is high. Until recently he received almost no encouragement for his work from either white or colored people. The fine novels of Chesnutt’ go out of print with neither race noticing their passing. The quaint charm and humor of Dunbar’s’ dialect verse brought to him, in his day, largely the same kind of encouragement one would give a sideshow freak (A colored man writing poetry! How odd!) or a clown (How amusing!).
The present vogue in things Negro, although it may do as much harm as good for the budding artist, has at least done this: it has brought him forcibly to the attention of his own people among whom for so long, unless the other race had noticed him beforehand, he was a prophet with little honor.
The Negro artist works against an undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites. “Oh, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are,” say the Negroes. “Be stereotyped, don’t go too far, don’t shatter our illusions about you, don’t amuse us too seriously. We will pay you,” say the whites. Both would have told Jean Toomer not to write Cane. The colored people did not praise it. The white people did not buy it. Most of the colored people who did read Cane hate it. They are afraid of it. Although the critics gave it good reviews the public remained indifferent. Yet (excepting the work of Du Bois) Cane contains the finest prose written by a Negro in America. And like the singing of Robeson, it is truly racial.
But in spite of the Nordicized Negro intelligentsia and the desires of some white editors we have an honest American Negro literature already with us. Now I await the rise of the Negro theater. Our folk music, having achieved world-wide fame, offers itself to the genius of the great individual American composer who is to come. And within the next decade I expect to see the work of a growing school of colored artists who paint and model the beauty of dark faces and create with new technique the expressions of their own soul-world. And the Negro dancers who will dance like flame and the singers who will continue to carry our songs to all who listen-they will be with us in even greater numbers tomorrow.
Most of my own poems are racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know. In many of them I try to grasp and hold some of the meanings and rhythms of jazz. I am as sincere as I know how to be in these poems and yet after every reading I answer questions like these from my own people: Do you think Negroes should always write about Negroes? I wish you wouldn’t read some of your poems to white folks. How do you find anything interesting in a place like a cabaret? Why do you write about black people? You aren’t black. What makes you do so many jazz poems?
But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul–the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile. Yet the Philadelphia clubwoman is ashamed to say that her race created it and she does not like me to write about it, The old subconscious “white is best” runs through her mind. Years of study under white teachers, a lifetime of white books, pictures, and papers, and white manners, morals, and Puritan standards made her dislike the spirituals. And now she turns up her nose at jazz and all its manifestations–likewise almost everything else distinctly racial. She doesn’t care for the Winold Reiss’ portraits of Negroes because they are “too Negro.” She does not want a true
picture of herself from anybody. She wants the artist to flatter her, to make the white world believe that all negroes are as smug and as near white in soul as she wants to be. But, to my mind, it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering “I want to be white,” hidden in the aspirations of his people, to “Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro–and beautiful”?
So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, “I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,” as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world. I am ashamed, too, for the colored artist who runs from the painting of Negro faces to the painting of sunsets after the manner of the academicians because he fears the strange unwhiteness of his own features. An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.
Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing the Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing “Water Boy,” and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas’s drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty. 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
Beginning an occasional series of essays into the art of poetry
Even among the most barbarous and simple Indians, where no writing is, yet have they their poets who make and sing songs, which they call “Areytos,” both of their ancestor’s deeds and praises of their gods.
Sir Philip Sidney
It has often been my pleasure, upon being asked the question, ‘what do you do?‘ to answer with confidence that I am a Poet, for I love the way a bonnie lady’s ear will perform a slight twitch on first hearing the word. Unfortunately, far from their vision of a romantic, sonnet-wielding, frantic & beautiful lord-between-the-bedsheets, there is an actual meaning behind the word. Most poets are indeed excellent lovers, granted, but what does it actually mean to be a poet? First thing’s first, a poet’s soul must contain a symphonium of music. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his Biographia Litereia, writes;
The man that hath not music in his soul can indeed never be a genuine poet. Imagery,–(even taken from nature, much more when transplanted from books, as travels, voyages, and works of natural history),–affecting incidents, just thoughts, interesting personal or domestic feelings, and with these the art of their combination or intertexture in the form of a poem,–may all by incessant effort be acquired as a trade, by a man of talent and much reading, who, as I once before observed, has mistaken an intense desire of poetic reputation for a natural poetic genius; the love of the arbitrary end for a possession of the peculiar means. But the sense of musical delight, with the power of producing it, is a gift of imagination; and this together with the power of reducing multitude into unity of effect, and modifying a series of thoughts by some one predominant thought or feeling, may be cultivated and improved, but can never be learned. It is in these that “poeta nascitur non fit.”
These musical gifts are used by the poet to startle his peers, who in wonderment would listen to his words. Before long this natural dynamic elevated the poet to the position of teacher, who would define the universe for said peers, inventing gods & teaching them morality en route. Of this progress, Edward Kelly, in his prologium to Edmund Spenser’s Shephearde’s Calendar, tells us (after Plato), ‘the first inuention of Poetry was of very vertuous intent. For…some learned man being more hable then the rest, for speciall gyftes of wytte and Musicke, would take vpon him to sing fine verses to the people, in prayse eyther of vertue or of victory or of immortality or such like. At whose wonderful gyft al men being astonied and as it were rauished, with delight, thinking (as it was indeede) that he was inspired from aboue, called him vatem.’ The Vatem, or Vates, is what the Romans considered a divine seer, whose task it was to raise up mens’ minds from the mortal moral morass, enlightening them with their heavenly-assisted visions & improving public virtue through divine inspiration. A couple of years later, another Elizabethan poet, Philip Sidney, added;
Among the Romans a poet was called “vates,” which is as much as a diviner, foreseer, or prophet, as by his conjoined words “vaticinium,” and “vaticinari,” is manifest; so heavenly a title did that excellent people bestow upon this heart-ravishing knowledge
These words are contained in the Apologie for Poetry, with which Philip Sidney became the first in a long line of English poet-critics. Written in 1580-81, but printed posthumously for the first time in 1595, within these 60-odd pages exists the best description of what it is to be a poet. He wrote the Apologie after a personal attack on him & his beloved art by Stephen Gosson, whose 1579 treatise, the School of Abuse, sets about;
Conteining a plesaunt inuective against Poets, Pipers, Plaiers, Iesters & such like Catterpillars of a Commonwealth! Setting up the Flagge of Defiaunce to their mischeieuous exercise & ouerthrowing their Bulwarkes by Prophane Writers, Naturel reason & common experience
Perhaps Gosson had a point, for in the Apologie Sidney himself complains that, ‘England, the mother of excellent minds, should be grown so hard a step-mother to poets.’ Sydney remonstrates against the squallid depths to which the art had degenerated among the English since the heady times of Chaucer, almost two centuries previously. His point is, however, that it is not the art that was at fault, but the artists. Using the ancient poets as his models, Sydney hopes to redefine the image of the Muses & their Ministers. For myseld, such a bold & beautiful statement holds an impressive resonance in these our modern times, for as we shall see the vision of a poet as portrayed by Sydney (& thus the ancients) is a far cry from the impedantic disrespect of poetry which litters today’s poetical bookshelves.
Of the Apologie, JC Collins writes, ‘a better introduction to the study of poetry could scarcely be conceived, for not only does it put poetry in its proper place as an instrument of education, but it deals with it generally as only a poet himself could deal with it, with illuminating insight, with most inspiring enthusiasm.’ To Sidney, the raison d’etre of his chosen art was to ‘plant goodness even in the secretest cabinet of our souls.’ So little poetry these days comes near to even touching the true divine spark within us all, which has seen a gradual loss of respect for the art across the human condition. As I said in my first lecture, I intend to reset the clock, so to speak, & to do this we must get back to root, to identify the original kernel of the poet’s soul. Let us begin at the (relative) beginning then, with a selection of passages from the Apologie, which I hope shall elucidate Sidney’s vision of an ideal poet in a more palatable fashion.
Poets are Fathers in Learning
In the noblest nations and languages that are known, hath been the first light-giver to ignorance, and first nurse, whose milk by little and little enabled them to feed afterwards of tougher knowledges
Let learned Greece, in any of her manifold sciences, be able to show me one book before Musæus, Homer, and Hesiod, all three nothing else but poets. Nay, let any history he brought that can say any writers were there before them, if they were not men of the same skill, as Orpheus, Linus, and some others are named, who having been the first of that country that made pens deliverers of their knowledge to posterity, may justly challenge to be called their fathers in learning.
In the Italian language,the first that made it to aspire to be a treasure-house of science, were the poets Dante, Boccace, and Petrarch; so in our English were Gower andChaucer; after whom, encouraged and delighted with their excellent foregoing, others have followed to beautify our mother tongue, as well in the same kind as other arts.
Poet as Creator
Let us see how the Greeks have named it, and how they deemed of it. The Greeks named him a Poet,which name hath, as the most excellent, gone through other languages; it cometh of this word poiein which is ‘to make;’ wherein, I know not whether by luck or wisdom, we Englishmen have met with the Greeks in calling him “a maker.”
Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature; in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or quite anew; forms such as never were in nature, as the heroes, demi-gods, Cyclops, chimeras, furies, and such like; so as he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with so pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much-loved earth more lovely; her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.
Poets Fashion Ideal Models
Poesy, therefore, is an art of imitation; for so Aristotle termeth it in the word Mimesis; that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth: to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture, with this end, to teach and delight
It is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet… but it is that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a poet by…
…to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses; if they will learn aright, why, and how, that maker made him.
…brought forth so true a lover as Theagenes; so constant a friend as Pylades; so valiant a man as Orlando; so right a prince as Xenophon’s Cyrus; and so excellent a man every way as Virgil’s Æneas?
This purifying of wit, this enriching of memory, enabling of judgment, and enlarging of conceit, which commonly we call learning
Directed to the highest end of the mistress knowledge, by the Greeks called architektonike which stands, as I think, in the knowledge of a man’s self
The final end is, to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by, their clay lodgings, can be capable of.
Poets just don’t think like Sidney today –which I suppose, is the problem with modern poetry, for with so much information available at the click of a button, no-one feels like they should be able to teach people very much. Instead, they wander through their whimsies in rhyme or Free Verse & like ephemeral bees & butterflies in a garden, rather than the firm-rooted blooms of our forebears.
I firmly believe that Poetry should no longer deny its original object a stated half a millennia ago by Sidney. ‘A poem is never finished’ they say, & neither is the reason why poetry exists – to teach mankind. We must remember that it is this art’s particular ability to captivate the best words in their best order which amazes its audience, & it is from such a position of intellectual grandeur that mankind may yet be given a worthy education. We poets must begin to raise the bar once more : no-one in the West is absorbing long forgotten or as yet undiscover’d foreign forms; no-one is pushing back the boundaries of the art with conviction; no-one – god dammit – is inventing. All we have now is a sterile pond where bubbling gasses gloop to the surface – cut off by some man-made landslide from the waters of the Parnassian streams.
To rise out of the muck, a poet should return to teaching. Knowledge these days is epic, multiplying almost as quickly as the Big Bang. But poetry’s advantage is its concision, & with it an inherent ability in the arrangements of words so beautiful that people actually enjoy the experience of learning. Now I am not saying the following verses are beautiful – it was an earlier exercise of my youth – but the point is I have stored some very important information in some rather cute-ish lines.
If you have an egg to boil
Heat water up by kettle coil
Then let it bubble in a pan
& add the egg & boil to plan –
A runny egg takes minutes three
Served with soldiers & cup of tea
A hard boil’d egg nine minutes paced
Add mayonnaise & salt to taste
To make a curry hot & tasty
fry your veggies odors free
mix some meat in if you like
fleshy ham to fresh caught pike
Milk & tomatoes make the sauce
Good curry powder puffs the force
Add other seasonings to taste
Then stew awhile, no need for haste.
Not awarding-winning stuff, granted, but useful. Anyhow, that is all for today’s lecture, but I shall leave you with the close of the Apologie, which sees Sidney at his most cockiest & eloquent best;
Since the ever praiseworthy poesy is full of virtue, breeding delightfulness, and void of no gift that ought to be in the noble name of learning; since the blames laid against it are either false or feeble; since the cause why it is not esteemed in England is the fault of poet-apes, not poets; since, lastly, our tongue is most fit to honour poesy, and to be honoured by poesy; I conjure you all that have had the evil luck to read this ink-wasting toy of mine, even in the name of the Nine Muses, no more to scorn the sacred mysteries of poesy; no more to laugh at the name of poets, as though they were next inheritors to fools; no more to jest at the reverend title of “a rhymer;” but to believe, with Aristotle, that they were the ancient treasurers of the Grecian’s divinity; to believe, with Bembus, that they were the first bringers in of all civility; to believe, with Scaliger, that no philosopher’s precepts can sooner make you an honest man, than the reading of Virgil; to believe, with Clauserus, the translator of Cornutus, that it pleased the heavenly deity by Hesiod and Homer, under the veil of fables, to give us all knowledge, logic, rhetoric, philosophy natural and moral, and “quid non?” to believe, with me, that there are many mysteries contained in poetry, which of purpose were written darkly, lest by profane wits it should be abused; to believe, with Landin, that they are so beloved of the gods that whatsoever they write proceeds of a divine fury. Lastly, to believe themselves, when they tell you they will make you immortal by their verses.
But if (fie of such a but!) you be born so near the dull-making cataract of Nilus, that you cannot hear the planet-like music of poetry; if you have so earth-creeping a mind, that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry, or rather, by a certain rustical disdain, will become such a Mome, as to be a Momus of poetry; then, though I will not wish unto you the ass’s ears of Midas, nor to be driven by a poet’s verses, as Bubonax was, to hang himself; nor to be rhymed to death, as is said to be done in Ireland; yet thus much curse I must send you in the behalf of all poets; that while you live, you live in love, and never get favour, for lacking skill of a sonnet; and when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph.