If the late 19th century was the golden age of American freethought, as Susan Jacoby posits in her recent biography of Robert Ingersoll, then the same can be said of the early twentieth century when examining African American freethought. The 20-year period from 1925 to 1945 saw an outpouring of black literature that explored themes of atheism and agnosticism in a bolder way than nearly all writers except Frederick Douglass had done before. Countee Cullen published a number of poems attacking the idea of a white God, Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road announced her Deism to the world, Langston Hughes’s The Big Sea likewise posited that he had no need for Jesus or church, and Nella Larsen’s 1928 novel Quicksand featured an atheist protagonist (modeled largely on herself) for whom religion symbolized the oppressive, patriarchal culture of early 20th century America.
One of the central concerns of black freethinkers of the Harlem Renaissance era was articulating a philosophy of art. This is not to say they were the first black intellectuals to theorize about art. In the second half of the 19th century, Frederick Douglass had likewise attempted to ponder the impact art could have on black life in America. Douglass reflected often upon whether paintings, drawings, or photographs were the best media in which to represent blacks. In My Bondage and My Freedom, he suggested that the scars and welts on the backs of slaves represented the character of slaveholders and the artwork of these scars could be very useful tools in the abolitionist movement. For Douglass, photography was his chosen art form because he believed it could provide authentic representations of blacks and advance the appreciation of black humanity.
Similar themes would likewise occupy the pens of black freethinkers in the 1920s. After the publication of Alain Locke’s The New Negro in 1925, a text that heralded the start of the Harlem Renaissance, numerous writers would explore the foundation, meaning, and direction of black art. In June 1926, George S. Schuyler and Langston Hughes both published short essays in The Nation that examined the racial character of African American art. Schuyler’s “The Negro-Art Hokum” appeared first and dismissed the idea that cultural expression could have a racial basis. Instead, he argued, all art produced by blacks and whites in the United States is American art that copies European forms and styles. For Schuyler, his notions of black art were tied to his ideas of black equality. To say that there is even something called black art is to say black people are inferior. “On this baseless premise,” he wrote, “so flattering to the white mob, that the blackamoor is inferior and fundamentally different, is erected the postulate that he must needs be peculiar; and when he attempts to portray life through the medium of art, it must of necessity be a peculiar art. While such reasoning may seem conclusive to the majority of Americans, it must be rejected with a loud guffaw by intelligent people.”
Langston Hughes, on the other hand, believed that black art represented the beauty, and not the inferiority, of African American culture, especially folk culture. Hughes actually starts his essay agreeing with Schuyler, nothing that the “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” was one of the central problems standing in the way of blacks artists. But rather than give up the attempt to create black art, Hughes argued that young writers of the Harlem Renaissance should focus their attention on the mass of black people and black folk culture because it would “furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their individuality in the face of American standardizations. And perhaps these common people will give the world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself.” His focus on black folk culture would also be a central theme in the writing of Zora Neale Hurston, especially her 1935 work Mules and Men. Above all, Hughes thought that black art should help black people be proud of their culture and whites to recognize its beauty as well. “To my mind,” he noted, “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!’”
Another central concern of African American art critics was whether or not art should be used as an explicit tool of racial propaganda. Just a couple months after Schuyler and Hughes’s essays in The Nation, W. E. B. Du Bois gave a speech to the NAACP annual convention entitled “Criteria of Negro Art.” A key goal of this essay for Du Bois was to bridge the artistic radicalism of the Harlem Renaissance with the politics of civil rights. Du Bois appreciated the attention black artists were finally getting, but he feared that many whites supported this work because they felt it would end agitation for black equality. He was also suspicious of those blacks that now supported the work of these younger artists because they were tired of agitation for political rights. His central argument would be that “all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.” In making this case, Du Bois harkens back to Frederick Douglass’s ideas about black art and depictions of black people, noting that art must be used as a tool to advance the appreciation of black humanity. There may be some place where beauty and art sit above truth and justice, he claims, but in there here and now the two cannot be separated.
Alain Locke, philosopher at Howard and widely regarded as one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, didn’t necessarily disagree with Du Bois’s ultimate goal, but he did believe that art and propaganda should be separated. “My chief objection to propaganda,” he argued, “apart from its besetting sin of monotony and disproportion, is that it perpetuates the position of group inferiority even in crying out against it. For it leaves and speaks under the shadow of dominant majority whom it harangues, cajoles, threatens, or supplicates.” Locke was one of the purists to whom Du Bois referred in his essay. Locke decried the fact that civil rights publications such as The Crisis, Opportunity, and The Messenger had become the chief media in which black poets and novelists wrote. Instead, he believed that purely literary journals such as Harlem, where his essay “Art or Propaganda” appeared in 1928, should be the main venues for black art. Locke also noted in this essay “in our spiritual growth genius and talent must more and more choose the role of group expression, or even at times the role of free individualistic expression—in a word must choose art and put aside propaganda.”
Locke’s connection between art and spiritual growth in this latter statement speaks to one of the central ties between black freethought and the philosophy of art. It is no surprise that secularists like Du Bois, Locke, Hughes, Schuyler, Hurston, and others were so concerned with theorizing about and producing art. In his work Without God, Without Creed, James Turner notes that one of the major functions of belief in God is that it “offers a sacred center on which to release feelings of awe, dependency, exaltation, and reverence springing from the deepest wells of the mind.” Nonbelief would have to serve a similar function in order to remain a viable alternative to religion. This is why atheists and agnostics of the late 19th century such as Robert Ingersoll “discovered a variety of springs of reassurance and objects to revere. Science, art, and nature each provided consolation, comfort, and a kind of holiness.”
The same was true of black freethinkers of the Harlem Renaissance, and the same remains true today. Indeed, as Anthony Pinn has recently pointed out, for many black freethinkers in the 21st century, museums and art galleries have taken the place of churches. In his 2012 work The End of God-Talk, Pinn writes “although appreciating and making use of written texts, African American nontheistic theology suggests an alternative perspective on source materials through the centrality of the body and the embodied self’s presentation in time and space as marker of the religious.” This presentation can occur in sculpture, drawings, paintings, and especially photography. Museums and galleries that hold these pieces of art function as sacred churches where people affirm and reaffirm their identity. While there have of course been important shifts in blacks freethought from the era of the Harlem Renaissance, most notably the rise of evangelical black atheists in the past 25 years, the appreciation for and theorizing about art has been a central component of black freethought for nearly a century.
Christopher Cameron is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is the author of To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement. He is currently working on a history of black freethinkers from 1800 to the present and a history of liberal religion and slavery from the revolutionary era to the Civil War.
 Susan Jacoby, The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 2.
 Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York and Auburn: Miller, Orton, and Mulligan, 1855), 79-85.
 George S. Schuyler, “The Negro-Art Hokum” The Nation Vol. 122 No. 3180 (June 16, 1926), 663.
 Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” The Nation Vol. 122, No. 3181 (June 23, 1926): 692.
 Ibid, 693.
 Ibid, 694.
 W. E. B. Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art” The Crisis, 32 (October 1926): 296.
 Alain Locke, “Art or Propaganda” Harlem: A Forum of Negro Life 1 (November 1928): 12.
 Ibid, 13.
 James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 248.
 Ibid, 249.
 Anthony B. Pinn, The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 10.