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The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Community

Langston Hughes and George Schuyler
Race as Community
- George Schuyler, "The Negro-Art Hokum," essay, The Nation, 16 June 1926
- Langston Hughes, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," essay, The Nation, 23 June 1926
- E. Franklin Frazier, "Racial Self-Expression," essay in Ebony and Topaz: A Collectanea, ed. Charles S. Johnson, National Urban League, 1927 (PDF)

Harlem and Boley, Oklahoma, represent, in geographic terms, the separationist-integrationist tension that runs through the discourse on the place of blacks in American life (see #1: Community as Place). As we saw in the Du Bois-Locke debate on the political role of African American writing (see Theme III: PROTEST), the Harlem Renaissance, with its insistence upon creating distinctively black art from distinctively black experience, brought this tension into sharp focus. For African American artists and intellectuals, the challenge and freedom of self-definition was at stake. How should individuals define, build, and sustain black community and culture? Should African American artists strive to join the broader American culture or engage in voluntary separation, commemorating a unique heritage? This debate, echoing today, transcends art, for it raises fundamental questions about the black community. What defines it? Who is in it, and who is not?

In 1926 the debate coalesced around two articles published in The Nation. George Schuyler (1895-1977) fired the first shot in "The Negro-Art Hokum." Born in Providence, Rhode Island, Schuyler grew up in Syracuse, New York. After a stint in the Army, he moved to New York City, where he developed socialist leanings and began a career as a journalist, eventually becoming associate editor of the Philadelphia Courier. Over time he moved from the political left to the extreme right. He published his autobiography, Black and Conservative, in 1966. In "The Negro-Art Hokum" Schuyler argues that much of what proponents of the Harlem Renaissance identify as distinctively Negro art is either based on white models or heavily shaped by white influences. According to Schuyler, this is precisely what one would expect from the American Negro, who is "just plain American" after three hundred years of socialization in this country. When Negro art seems to derive exclusively from African American sources, it is so specific to "a caste in a certain section of the country" that it cannot be ascribed to the Negro race as a whole. "[T]he Aframerican is subject to the same economic and social forces that mold the actions and thoughts of white Americans," he wrote. "He is not living in a different world."

In "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," published in The Nation one week after Schuyler's article, Langston Hughes (1902-1967) fired back. The "racial mountain" is the "urge . . . toward whiteness," nurtured within the race by the "Negro middle class," for whom "the word white comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all virtues." Thus in a sense Hughes agrees with Schuyler, at least where the black middle class is concerned. Its members are deeply shaped by white influences. But, Hughes asserts, there is a mode of experience that is distinctively black, a "racial world" different from that inhabited by whites, and it is found among "the low-down folk, the so-called common element." There the Negro artist will find "a great field of unused material" to which he can bring his "racial individuality."

In "Racial Self-Expression," E. Franklin Frazier (1894-1962) turned to anthropology and sociology to contextualize the two sides of the debate, one seeking "to efface Negroid characteristics," the other to glorify "things black." Frazier graduated from Howard University and received an M.A. in sociology from Clark University and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. From 1934 to 1959 he led the sociology department at Howard. During a distinguished career he published important research that challenged racial stereotypes. Frazier locates the source of the "effacement-glorification" conflict in the typical behavior of nationalistic groups. "At first the group attempts to lose itself in the majority group, disdaining its own characteristics," he writes. When that fails, the group places "a new valuation" on the "very same characteristics." He acknowledges that "group experience" can be a source for artistic inspiration and "group tradition" but cautions against seeking identity in "the biological inheritance of the race," which "those who stand for a unique culture among the Negroes" seem to be doing. While he praises the value of community, he remains dubious of it when it results in cultural isolation. (10 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. How does Schuyler define race? How does Hughes? Frazier?
  2. How does Schuyler define the black community? How does Hughes? Frazier?
  3. How does Schuyler handle the issue of racial stereotyping? How does Hughes?
  4. What are the potential costs and benefits of romanticizing the "low-down folks, the so-called common element"?
  5. What does "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" suggest about the relationship between the black community and class?
  6. According to "Racial Self-Expression," what makes the "Negro's position" unique from other nationalistic groups in the United States?
  7. What are the artist's roles both in forming and preserving community? What is the role of the intellectual?
  8. Both Hughes and Frazier allude to a generational schism. What are these differing viewpoints, and what accounts for this conflict?
  9. Arguably, Hughes sounds far more celebratory compared to Schuyler's mocking and Frazier's cautionary attitude. Why? How would you explain their differences in tone?

Framing Questions
  •  How has the African American community defined itself?
  •  How has the African American community functioned in the lives of its members?
  •  How have changing notions of African American identity affected definitions of African American community?

Schuyler:  3
Hughes:  4
Frazier:  3
TOTAL 10 pages
Supplemental Sites
Harlem Renaissance: A Brief Introduction, timeline and links, in PAL: Perspectives in American Literature, from Paul P. Reuben, California State University, Stanislaus

Harlem Renaissance: Pivotal Period in the Development of Afro-American Culture, overview and teaching resources, by Caroline Jackson, Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

George Schuyler, bibliography and biography, in PAL: Perspectives in American Literature, from Paul P. Reuben, California State University, Stanislaus

Langston Hughes, biography and links, from the Race and Pedagogy Project, University of California-Santa Barbara

E. Franklin Frazier, biography and bibliography, from Howard University Social Work Library

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Images: (1) Langston Hughes, 29 Feb. 1936; George Schuyler, 2 July 1941; photographs by Carl Van Vechten. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, LOT 12735, #540 and #1007. (2) E. Franklin Frazier, n.d., permission pending from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

1. Community as Place   2. Community on Film
  3. Community & Self-Help   4. Image, Community 1939   5. Race as Community
6. Community & the Folk   7. Community & Memory
8. Community & Culture   9. Image, Community 1968   10. Global Community

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

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