U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Harlem Renaissance and Black Freethinkers’ Philosophy of Art (Guest Post by Christopher Cameron)

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.”[3]

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.[4] 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.”[5] 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!’”[6]hughes

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.”[7] 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.

lockeAlain 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.”[8] 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.”[9]

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.”[10] 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.”[11]

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.”[12] 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.

[1] Susan Jacoby, The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 2.

[2] Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York and Auburn: Miller, Orton, and Mulligan, 1855), 79-85.

[3] George S. Schuyler, “The Negro-Art Hokum” The Nation Vol. 122 No. 3180 (June 16, 1926), 663.

[4] Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” The Nation Vol. 122, No. 3181 (June 23, 1926): 692.

[5] Ibid, 693.

[6] Ibid, 694.

[7] W. E. B. Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art” The Crisis, 32 (October 1926): 296.

[8] Alain Locke, “Art or Propaganda” Harlem: A Forum of Negro Life 1 (November 1928): 12.

[9] Ibid, 13.

[10] James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 248.

[11] Ibid, 249.

[12] Anthony B. Pinn, The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 10.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is very interesting–I know a little these debates, but without the complicated question of freethinkers. Two questions that are maybe related. First, I am struck by the quote in the last paragraph and the centrality it gives to the physical body as a site or nexus–or maybe anchor?–for the sacred in a work of art. Is this to be understood as a way of grasping racialized being (because bodies are racialized in a way that texts are perhaps not)? Is something similar to be found earlier? I ask partly because there is a mostly 19th century way of thinking about aesthetics that, say, Du Bois would have had access to that would privilege the body, really physiology, in understanding what art is and does.

    Second, the presentation of religion (at least in this short post) from Turner and Ingersoll both suggest that it should be understood as essentially individual. But this is of course not broadly accepted. For me Durkheim is the great antagonist to this way of thinking–religion and the sacred are manifestations of the social, really of society itself. This perspective functions differently in an American than Durkheim’s French context, and, I think, especially in an African American context. Would hate to be asked to say how, exactly, but surely differently. And one might similarly think of art as having a basically social function (perhaps a replacement for religion)? I think of Du Bois at least, whose work I know best, as basically deaf to these sorts of spiritual-communalist considerations, but very likely I’m doing him an injustice.

    • Thank you for these great questions Eric. I would say a key reason black freethinkers privilege the body is as a reaction against Christianity. African American Christianity certainly speaks to the needs, wants, and actions of the body, but there is often the sense that the body’s needs are in opposition to the purposes of human life, which are distinctly spiritual. Many freethinkers chafe at the bourgeois respectability politics of black Christians as well because much of these politics try and regulate the body in certain ways. In Nella Larsen’s novel Quicksand she notes that when the protagonist Helga Crane is at Naxos University, meant as a stand-in for Fisk and Tuskegee Institute, the leaders there “yapped loudly of race, race consciousness, of race pride, and yet suppressed its delightful manifestations, love of color, joy of rhythmic motion, naive spontaneous laughter” (17). She couldn’t understand why they wanted students and teachers to wear only bland colors like blue or brown when yellow, red, and green were more fitting for darker complexioned people. It’s interesting to me that Larsen picked these particular colors to highlight, ones that we now associate with an African diasporic consciousness, because in many African traditions there is also no sense that the body is inherently evil.

      To your second point, I would completely agree and I do think art does replace religion for many freethinkers. Turner discusses this a bit with his examination of the “art cults” that emerged in the late 19th century but it is only a cursory treatment. The thinkers I examined during the 1920s would also have agreed, viewing religion as having very important communal functions, just not ones they felt were necessary for them. But Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, A. Phillip Randolph and others drew from the spirituals and black religious traditions in their creative work and used religious language and institutions to great effect in their political work.

      • I forgot to mention that the quote you asked about in your first question from Pinn’s The End of God-Talk is actually the main subject of another great work by him that I highly recommend, Embodiment and the New Shape of Black Theological Thought (NYU Press, 2010).

  2. Great post. I think secularism is essential understanding Alain Locke. I am understand him as participating in a transnational project of secular cultural nationalism. In this regard, his links with Zionists were very important, especially Horace Kallen, another secularist, who I study.

  3. Thanks for the post!

    What do we know about black Christianity and the philosophy of art during this period? Is there something in particular to which secular humanist black thinkers are responding to? Or is the focus on creating a black artistic culture an attempt to create/find meaning in larger humanist endeavors outside of, and unrelated to, Black Christian churches?

    Finally, a question that likely reveals my ignorance of boundaries of black movements in this period (even if in NYC): What of Marcus Garvey and his followers (i.e. UNIA and others)? Did they attempt to foster any kind of distinctive philosophy of art in relation to the Harlem Renaissance? – TL

    • Secular humanist thinkers in the 20s and 30s, to me at least, seem to have been responding to the straw man that blacks had failed to adequately resist Jim Crow in the previous 40-50 years. The New Negro consciousness heralded a new, more militant class of black thinkers who were going to be much more vocal in responding to and combating white racism. This of course ignores the many important radical thinkers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Anna Julia Cooper, Henry McNeal Turner and others. But I do think the focus on creating a black artistic culture was part of a larger humanist endeavor that looked for meaning in life outside of churches. I can’t say much about black Christians and the philosophy of art in this period, as nearly all theorists of art I have come across were freethinkers. This is not to say they don’t exist, of course, just that I have not really been looking for them. The same holds true with the UNIA members, many of whom were either Christians, black Israelites, or followers of early black Muslims such as Wallace Fard Muhammad’s sect in Detroit. Marcus Garvey’s political philosophy did, however, inspire much of the art of the Renaissance. A speech he gave in Harlem to the Second International Convention of Negroes in 1921 comes to mind, as his internationalist perspective and arguments for black self-determination would appear in a number of freethinkers’ poems, novels, and political tracts.

      One interesting tidbit about the UNIA and the Renaissance does come to mind. While A. Phillip Randolph’s magazine The Messenger would publish the works of and support many writers of the literary movement, he pretty harshly denounced Garvey and the emigration movement, even going so far as to help get Garvey arrested in 1927. So Randolph was fairly radical in his religious views and supported a number of young, upstart writers influenced by Garveyism but when it came to the cultural nationalism and emigrationism of Garvey he was pretty conservative.

  4. What a wonderful piece this is! It is terrifically helpful to me, as I am working right now on James Weldon Johnson, and your discussion really helps to situate a number of dimensions of Johnson’s work in the 1920s–particularly what I would describe as JWJ’s radical atheist but nevertheless reverent take on African American spirituality in God’s Trombones (1927). Do you have any thoughts about where Johnson fits in here?

    • In terms of Johnson’s ideas about art, he fits right in with Alain Locke in his view that art was superior to propaganda in advancing the cause of racial justice. In fact, Johnson published an article in Harper’s in November 1928, the same time as Locke’s appeared, entitled “Race Prejudice and the Negro Artist” where he wrote that the race problem requires a newer approach “along the line of intellectual and artistic achievement of Negroes, and may be called the art approach to the Negro problem.” He thought focusing on intellectual and artistic achievement was likely to cause less friction in American society and more likely to unite blacks, who of course had been divided over political strategies for achieving equality for well over a century at that point.

  5. First, great post, very interesting! Can’t wait to read the book. Second, I was just wondering about something:

    “I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.”

    So wow, when I read that, this line from Stuart Hall on popular culture came immediately to mind:

    “… it is one of the places where socialism might be constituted. That is why “popular culture” matters. Otherwise, to tell you the truth, I don’t give a damn about it.”

    Does anyone know if Hall was referencing Du Bois here?

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