Hughes, Langston

Assigned: Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1140-44). Also read the editors’ introduction (1138-40).

“The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926)

1. On 1140 (“One of the most promising…”), Langston Hughes defines what he calls “the racial mountain” that black artists must climb in order to realize their full potential. What is that “mountain,” and why is it so hard to make one’s way to the top of it and look beyond? (In responding to this general question about difficulty, you may want to refer to later passages in the essay as well.)

2. On 1140-42 (“But let us look at the immediate…”), Hughes anatomizes the three classes of black America: the middle class or bourgeoisie, the upper class, and the poor or working class. Which of these classes does he criticize most heavily, and why? Which does he favor as both the best source and beneficiary of African-American art and literature, and why? What kind of art is Hughes thereby calling for?

3. On 1142-43 (“The present vogue in things…”), Hughes addresses the issue of assimilationism, or the temptation for black artists to give in and pander to white aesthetic and racial expectations. In spite of this temptation, what black art forms does he think have most flourished, and which ones still need to be fully developed? With regard to jazz, how does Hughes delineate and expand on the significance of this key form of African-American art?

4. On 1143-44 (“But jazz to me…”), Hughes sums up his call for the development of black art forms. What key points does he make at this final juncture of his essay? In responding, consider what he says about the “duty of the younger Negro artist” (1143) as well as his conclusion on 1144 about the extent to which the art he calls for will please either black or white audiences. In sum, what is the primary responsibility of the black artist, according to the argument that Hughes has been making all along?

5. General question: In “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Langston Hughes assesses the state of African-American art production and issues a call for the kind of creativity and subject matter that he believes would be most productive. For this class, we will most likely have already read W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Criteria of Negro Art” (Leitch 841-53), so how do the points that Hughes has made stack up in comparison to what Du Bois prescribed? What are the main similarities between the two authors, and what important differences can you find?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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