Alain Locke: Our Little Renaissance

15 Apr


Now that the time has come for some sort of critical appraisal, what of our much-heralded Negro Renaissance? Pathetically pale, thinks Mr. Mencken, like a cradle in the sunlight. It has kindled no great art; we would do well to page a black Luther and call up the Reformation. Fairly successful, considering the fog and soot of the American atmosphere, and still full of promise – so ‘it seems” to Mr. Heywood Broun. I wonder what Mr. Pater would say. He might be even more sceptical, though with the scepticism of suspended judgment, I should think; but one mistake he would never make – that of confusing the spirit with the vehicle, of confounding the artistic quality which Negro life is contributing with the Negro artist. Negro artists are just the by-products of the Negro Renaissance; its main accomplishment will be to infuse a new essence into the general stream of culture. The Negro Renaissance must be an integral phase of contemporary American art and literature; more and more we must divorce it in our minds from propaganda and politics. Otherwise, why call it a renaissance? We are back-sliding I think, into the old swamp of the Negro problem to be discussing, as we have been of late, how many Negro artists are first-rate and second-rate, and how many feet of the book-shelf of leather-bound classics their works to date should occupy. According to that Hoyle, the Grand Renaissance should have stopped in the Alps and ought to have effected t he unification of Italy instead of the revival of Humanism.
To claim the material that Negro life and idiom have contributed to American art through the medium of the white artists may seem at first unfair and ungracious; may even be open to the imputation of trying to bolster up with reenforcements a ‘wavering thin line of talent” But what is the issue – sociology or art – a quality of spirit or complexions? The artists in question themselves are gracious enough, both in making their acknowledgments to the folk spirit, and in asserting the indivisible unity of the subject-matter. Only recently, confirming her adaptation of Negro material as her special field, Mrs. Peterkin has said: “I shall never write of white people – to me their lives are not so colorful. If the South is going to write, what is it they are going to write about – the Negro, of course.” Still more recently, the distinguished author of Porgy applauds shifting the stress from the Negro writer to the “the Negro race as a subject for art” and approves of “lifting the material to the plane of pure art” and of making available to the American artist, white or Negro, “as native subject-matter.” And if there is any meaning to the term universal which we so blithely and tritely use in connection with art, it must be this. There is no other alternative on the plane of art. Indeed, if conditions in the South were more conductive to the development of Negro culture without transplanting, the self-expression of the “New Negro” would spring up just as one branch of the new literature of the South, and as one additional phase of its cultural reawakening. The common bond of soil and that natural provincialism would be a sounder basis for development than the somewhat expatriated position of the younger school of Negro writers. And if I were asked to name one factor for the anemic and rhetorical quality of so much Negro expression up to the present, I would cite not the unproved capacities of our authors but from the pathetic exile of the Negro writer from his best material, the fact that he cannot yet get cultural breathing space on his own soil. That is at least one reason for the disabilities of the Negro writer in handling his own materials with vivid and intimate mastery.
More and more the younger writers and artists are trekking back to their root-sources, however. Overt propaganda now is as exceptional as it used to be typical. The acceptance of race is steadily becoming less rhetorical, and more instinctively taken for granted. There was a time when the only way out of sentimental partisanship was through a stridently self-conscious realism. That attitude stripped the spiritual bloom from the work of the Negro writer; gave him a studied and self-conscious detachment. It was only yesterday that we had to preach objectivity to the race artist to cure the pathetic fallacies of bathos and didactic approach. We are just beginning perhaps to shake off the artifices of that relatively early stage; so to speak the Umbrian stiffness is still upon us and the Florentine ease and urbanity looms just ahead. It is a fiction that the black man has until recently been naïve: in American life he has been painfully self-conscious for generations – and is only now beginning to recapture the naiveté he once originally had. The situation is well put in the stanza of Mae Cowdery’s poem – “Goal”

I must shatter the wall
Of darkness that rises
From gleaming day
And seeks to hide the sun.
I will turn this wall of
Darkness (that is night)
Into a thing of beauty.

I will take from the hearts
Of black men –
Prayers their lips
Are ‘fraid to utter,
And turn their coarseness
Into a beauty of the jungle
Whence they came.

So in the development of the materials of Negro life, each group of artists has a provincialism to outgrow; in the one case narrowness of vision, in the other, limiting fetters of style. If then it is really a renaissance – and I firmly believe it is, we are still in the hill-town stage, and the mellowness of maturity has not yet come upon us. It is not to escape criticism that we hold it thus; but for the sake of a fair comparison. The Negro Renaissance is not ten years old; its earliest harbingers cannot be traced back of the beginning of the century; its representative products to date are not only the work of the last three or four years, but the work of men still in their twenties so far as the producing artists are concerned. Need we then be censured for turning our adjective into an affectionate diminutive and for choosing, at least for the present to call it hopefully “our little renaissance”?

Taken from ‘The Negro Heritage Library’, Negro Heritage READER for Young People – Edited by Alfred E. Cain, Published by Noel N. Marder. (1965) Educational Heritage Inc., Yonkers.

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Posted by on April 15, 2016 in Uncategorized


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