The Black Arts Movement has been portrayed in the secondary literature as violent revolutionaries at war with whiteness, racism, and racist white-controlled institutions of power. However, this narrative overlooks the constructive nature of the Black Arts project. Instead of viewing the movement as an isolated period constrained by conflict, the Black Arts Movement is more properly understood as having played a pivotal role in constructing a “Black World” that could exist outside of hegemonic whiteness. The tension inherent in these two readings is no more apparent than when Black Artists attempt to appropriate cultural forbearers into the Black World, like Langston Hughes, who both nurtured and sharply criticized the Black Artists. Under this analysis, Black Arts poetry should not be read as the violent outbursts of misguided revolutionaries, but rather as object lessons in the existential struggle for meaning within frameworks for liberation that necessitate some form of denying foundational cultural and literary inspirations. Therefore, this paper will first propose a theoretical framework, influenced by the existential and psychoanalytic theories of Hans Loewald and Jonathan Lear, for understanding the existential tension inherent in the Black Arts Movement. Second, the paper will utilize this framework to understand the relationship between Black Artists and Langston Hughes. By exploring the Black Artists’ self-conscious efforts at appropriating the life and meaning of Hughes, there is evidence that the Black Artists’ claims for a Black World, self-determination, and truth-telling have remained and are constitutive of contemporary claims for Black Liberation and freedom for oppressed peoples.
Ivan Parfenoff is a graduate of the Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago and is currently in his first year at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. His interests include psychoanalysis, phenomenology, Black Liberation, and revolutionary cultural production. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mourning the Black Arts Movement: Black Liberation and Moral Psychology
“The Black Artist’s role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it…if [the readers] are white men, tremble, curse, and go mad, because they will be drenched with the filth of their evil” (Jones 1965, 65). This manifesto was written by one of the leading poets of the Black Arts Movement (approx. 1965-1975), Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), in response to a symposium on “The Role of the Negro Writer as Artist” in the nationally-circulated Negro Digest/Black World magazine. Not surprisingly, then, Black Arts Movement poets like Amiri Baraka have often been portrayed as violent revolutionaries at war with whiteness, racism, and racist white-controlled institutions of power. However, this narrative overlooks the constructive nature of the Black Arts project. Instead of viewing the movement as an isolated period constrained by conflict, the Black Arts Movement is more properly understood as having played a pivotal role in constructing a “Black World” that could exist outside of hegemonic whiteness. By Black World, I mean a liberational framework for understanding the world outside of white-dominated traditional canons and institutions. Black Artists approached liberation by positing a positive black history, an enriched understanding of black cultural tradition, and a black moral psychology that no longer relied on Western, white value systems that represented black people as damaged or broken. Within this framework, a Black World founded on a black ontological framework, a positive black psyche, and black structural and material institutions could survive the violence of white supremacy.
Black Artists marked this revolutionary transformation with the self-identifier “black,” as opposed to “Negro.” Negro ethics required accepting and promoting white violence against black communities, from integration to Uncle Tomisms, to apolitical academia, to modernist poetry. (Smethurst 2005). Black ethics represented the violence necessary to eliminate white influence and defend black communities, involving various forms of self-determination, Pan-Africanism, Socialism, armed self-defense, Black Arts poetry, and separate black nationhood. While this is only a brief and cursory discussion of various Black Arts’ ontological and ethical claims, I believe it is enough evidence to claim that Black Artists were promoting a moral psychology that could awaken Negroes from their fantasy America—where Civil Rights could successfully achieve integration between white and black communities—to the reality of America, which necessitated the destruction of white values systems and integration into the emerging Black World.
For the Black Artists, merely stating the task of becoming black and existing in a Black World did not accomplish this destruction. First, an entire Black World required its own cultural forbearers, cultural and social history, community values, aesthetic standards, and institutions. Second, to become black and exist within a Black World, Black Artists had to, within their own psyche, destroy their old worlds. This existential-liberational process was demanding because it required both creative and destructive impulses. The tension inherent in this process was no more apparent than when Black Artists attempted to appropriate cultural forbearers into the Black World, like Langston Hughes, who both nurtured and sharply criticized the Black Artists. Under this analysis, Black Arts poetry should not be read as the violent outbursts of misguided revolutionaries, but rather as object lessons in the existential struggle for meaning-making within frameworks for liberation that necessitate some form of self-denial. Therefore, this paper will first propose a theoretical framework for understanding the existential tension inherent Black Arts Movement. Second, the paper will utilize this framework to understand the relationship between Black Artists and Langston Hughes.
In order to reconstruct the existential process of world-making as experienced by Black Artists, I rely on Hans Loewald’s and Jonathan Lear’s theories of generational cultural appropriation, or “mourning,” and so I will take a quick detour in order to establish this framework before returning to my discussion of the Black Arts Movement (Lear 2017; Loewald 1980). Loewald argues that psychoanalysts have consistently mischaracterized ego-development as a series of defensive strategies against an intruding reality that cannot bend to the wishes of the id, the Freudian concept of the psychological source of human desires and needs according. In this characterization, one of the essential functions of the ego is repression or fantasy, whereby the psyche can retreat into the imagination in order to protect itself against a hostile reality.
Loewald’s intervention comes at the level of the ego development of infants in the earliest stages of the parent-infant dyad, where the infant develops both their psyche and their sense of reality within the context of a nurturing and loving parent. The world of the parent-infant dyad is small and not necessarily complex. However, it is a fairly intuitive and compelling claim that reality develops from such foundational longings as hunger. From this perspective, hunger begins internally with a pain in my stomach that is satisfied by nourishment from an external parent figure. By recognizing that I have pain inside me that can be ameliorated by taking in something from the outside, I begin to establish internality and externality, as well as to make identifications with these emerging objects.
It is at this point precisely that mourning is involved. Mourning recognizes that this process involves loss. The introduction of externality and internality necessarily requires a loss of complete identification between parent and child, as the child recognizes that the nurturing parent exists outside them. However, the introduction of externality and internality also involves the integration of new objects and object-relations. The child comes to recognize the parent as a separate subject (effectively gaining a parent as such), comes to recognize themselves as possessing feelings of their own, and then has to improvise strategies that can deal with these repeating losses and reformations. Thus, mourning is the successful integration of new objects and object-relations in the psychological constitution of objectivity and subjectivity. One of the most relevant implications of this argument is that one of the first experiences the infant has of reality is that of a loving and nurturing parent that the infant must learn to successfully mourn and adapt to living without (Loewald 1980, 257-277).
As Loewald explores, there are complex ways in which this initially nurturing reality can manifest as hostile, specifically as threatening to overwhelm the child and thereby stunt their growth towards independence. The important movement is from a hostile reality and damaged ego to a nurturing reality and dynamically free ego. I propose to make a similar intervention within Black Arts literature, arguing that Black Artists inaugurated a black ontology whereby the black psyche no longer had to be damaged by a hostile white society. Black Artists attempted to posit a black psyche that could be dynamic and free by a nurturing a Black World, and black community ontology. Thus, my argument and Hans Loewald’s arguments are similar in a poetic and instructive sense more so than in the same objective of reorienting Freudian analysis. The history of the Black Arts Movement should be understood as positing a black existentialist philosophy whereby black people, on their own, could assert the wholeness of their being in the face of a white society that saw various visions of damaged black psyches requiring therapeutic intervention from forces outside the emergent Black World.
Jonathan Lear, in his chapter “Mourning and Moral Psychology” from Wisdom Won from Illness, extends Loewald’s concept of mourning to help explain psychic development generally. To quote Lear directly: “In effect, [Hans] Loewald extends the concept of mourning to cover the major moments of psychological development. The human psyche, he stresses, is itself a psychological achievement, and its development consists in a series of losses and reformations” (Lear 2017, 194). It is important to realize that mourning is how to properly say goodbye to someone or something, which thereby allows for the saying hello to new ways of thinking and being in the world. Thus, for Black Artists with cultural parents like Langston Hughes, mourning is the process by which they could say goodbye to, and live without the Langston Hughes who was a sharp cultural critic who condemned the violence of the Black Arts Movement, and thereby only hold onto the Langston Hughes who nurtured the early careers of the Black Artists, and provided them with one of their first visions of a successful black poet.
For Lear and Loewald, mourning is not just an early childhood phenomenon. Rather, it occurs throughout life. Mourning occurs in such obvious places as in the death of loved ones, where one must forever say goodbye to the beloved, and therefore must fully and finally integrate them into one’s psyche. However, the process can also be seen in major moments of personal and psychological development. For instance, in transitioning from high school to college, one must transition from old forms of thinking and living in order to accept the necessary conditions of the new reality. College demands certain ways of living that are incompatible with high school life. Someone who has successfully mourned their now-ended time in high school will be open to the new ways of living that college affords—from utilizing free time well, to experimenting with new friends and social groups, and to open oneself up to more rigorous self-examination. However, not all transitions go well. For example, someone might continue to understand their new college friends as their old high school friends, thus limiting their modes of living and being. This is unsuccessful mourning, and it points to another valuable psychoanalytic contribution, which is that of psychological structures. People who have not fully mourned certain relationships effectively will often substitute new objects into old object-relations. In this case, a person’s psychological rigidity keeps them from seeing who this new person is and what they actually contribute to life.
Under a theory of mourning, if Black Liberation means rejecting old ontological claims and old ways of life in favor of new claims and new ways of life, then such work will likely involve confronting anxieties, trauma, rigid psychological structures, and other conscious and unconscious thought processes that are the legacy of limiting and damaging forms of white violence. This type of claim, while not verbatim, should ring familiarly with the Black Arts Movement. The philosophy of the Black Arts Movement was plagued with difficulties in mourning, particularly its cultural parents. The theory of mourning allows me to explore the lasting legacy of the movement, providing a lens through which I can critically assess certain failures and limitations of the movement, while also allowing me to point to those same failures as moments of lasting triumph. While most activists today advocating for Black Liberation or liberation of communities of color would not advocate for violence in the same manner of the Black Artists, I argue that there is evidence that the Black Artists’ claims for a Black World, self-determination, and truth-telling have remained, and are constitutive of contemporary claims for Black Liberation and freedom for all oppressed peoples.
Mourning Langston Hughes
Baraka’s vitriolic, militant call that began this essay stood in an obvious battle for supremacy against the man who shared a page with him in the magazine’s symposium, Langston Hughes. Hughes, in a more balanced tone, argued: “The Negro image deserves objective well-rounded…treatment…The last thing Negroes need now are black imitators of neurotic white writers who themselves have nothing of which to be proud” (Hughes 1926, 75). Whether or not such “objective” treatment was possible, Langston Hughes’s call to speak the truth was a lasting lesson for Black Artists who played an integral role in the construction of the Black World.
On the occasion of the death of Langston Hughes in 1967, the national periodical Negro Digest published an anthology of elegiac poems by prominent Black Artists (Fuller 1967). Negro Digest was the national epicenter for the Black Arts world, and mourning Hughes, whose image was appropriated by Black Artists in disparate and contradictory ways, was marked by traumatic divisions among the Black Artists themselves. In this context, a Negro Digest special issue honoring the death of Hughes was a significant milestone because it reflected a self-conscious effort at understanding and institutionalizing Hughes’s role as the cultural forbearer to, and interlocutor with the Black Arts Movement.
Hughes was one of the guiding elders to the Black Arts Movement both as one of the earliest examples of a successful black-oriented poet, and in his support of the publication of the younger poets’ works. He was, in other words, a father-like figure to many of the Black Artists because of the ways in which his writing was an early example of asserting the validity of black experience. And, as I will show, it is clear that many Black Artists recognized that Hughes was attempting to teach black people to speak the truth of black existence, the ways in which they failed to fully appropriate this lesson are also apparent. Hughes publicly denounced the radical and violent rhetoric of the militant Black Nationalists, yet, as the Black Arts poems in the Negro Digest memorial show, few Black Artists honestly confronted this fact in the wake of the older poet’s passing.
Following Loewald’s theory, if this is a failure to successfully mourn Hughes as cultural-parent, then it might reveal an unconscious recognition of the impossibility of the Black Artists’ stated goal to destroy white America—a desire for destruction that was far from anything advocated by Hughes. As W.E.B. Du Bois argued, black Americans are plagued by double-consciousness—one from white America and one from black America: One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two reconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder…In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn’t bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world (Du Bois 2008, 3).
Within this oft-quoted framework, the Black Arts appropriation of Hughes’s lifelong effort to write the beauty of the black experience is, in part, a success because Black Artists captured an essential beauty of the black cultural tradition, or what a Black World had as “a message for the world.” However, it simultaneously reveals certain failures, because the call for founding a Black World required destroying America. Hughes, for all his support, rejected the Black Arts call to destroy white people and Western culture. Hughes, as cultural-parent, could guide Black Artists in living and working as poets writing about the beauty of black experience, but he could not fully approve of, or at the very least guide, violent fantasies of completely severing ties with white culture and society.
One example of the positive appropriation of Hughes is the Black Artist Haki Madhubuti’s poem to the late poet. Madhubuti characterized Hughes as calling on the Black Arts generation of artists to create as dynamically and originally as possible, but also to remain as truthful as possible to the reality of their experience as black Americans. This was an important role for a black writer in a culture where few to no positive images of black life existed, a concern that is reflected in Madhubuti’s tribute:
The time has come
is not he
who is abundant
with heroic deeds
Bravery is that
little black man
surrounded by people
bravery lies in his
he’s telling the
(Fuller 1967, 40).
Written specifically for the Hughes memorial issue of Negro Digest, Madhubuti’s poem puts an emphasis on truth-telling even over the act of producing poetry itself. This reflects Hughes’s demand that black poets should emphasize presenting the reality of black life over “pure art” or poetry for poetry’s sake, which is a lesson Black Artists were attempting to realize in their own works that rejected universality, apoliticism, and non-black poetic themes. According to Madhubuti, the lesson to learn from Hughes is that even as poets, there is always a higher priority to search for and to reveal the truth of black experience, especially as black people living in a society in which access to professionalized forms of truth-production (i.e., white literary establishment, scientific study, university positions, government representation, etc.) is denied. Furthermore, to do this is courageous—for Black Artists working within a revolutionary environment (almost as soldiers), courage was an important value to appropriate.
With his Socratic-like argument, Madhubuti claims that Hughes’s courage is something beyond what people might generally think courage entails—courage is not fighting and dying for the United States government. It is speaking black truth to those who need to hear it, even when one is a “little black man” before a growing crowd. When we put this in context with what we understand about early childhood development from psychoanalysts like Loewald, we would have to agree that it takes a great deal of courage to confront truth, especially when it means proclaiming the beauty of black existence to a crowd that might not agree. The crowd surrounding Hughes, a “little black man” speaking against the amassed people, evokes both the dangerous act of political organizing during the Civil Rights era, as well as the white mobs that assassinated black truth-tellers.
Madhubuti’s emphasis on Hughes’s truth-telling gives the appearance of a Black Artist successfully mourning Hughes. Truth-telling, after all, seems like an especially appropriate theme to focus on when mourning a father figure to a cultural movement whose aim was to create a Black World that could support a positive black moral psychology. Within a psychoanalytic framework, as Loewald notes, a good parent encourages the child towards self-sufficiency—towards being able to effectively reason and to be responsible for actions taken in the social world. Apply this general (and admittedly loose) paradigm of the parent-child relationship to the sphere of cultural production, and one could imagine what a good parent to a cultural tradition could be (given that parents should encourage their children to possess the ability to reason and to accept responsibility). A good “parent” to a cultural tradition encourages artists to be free and dynamic in creating original works, while at the same time remaining truthful to the conditions of lived experience. In this way, young artists working in a cultural tradition can feel free to create, while also taking social responsibility for their cultural production.
Sigmund Freud provides some important clues to understanding what constitutes successful mourning in his essay, “Mourning and Melancholia”. In distinguishing between healthy (mourning) and unhealthy (melancholia) responses to death, Freud comments: “In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty,” as opposed to melancholia in which the Ego becomes poor and empty (Freud 1964). One important implication of this initial description is that death involves a loss of a particular object and object-relation. The death of Langston Hughes meant the loss of the Harlem Renaissance poet as a leader and interlocutor in the field of defending the positive aspects of black life and experience, and this loss certainly made the world poorer and emptier for Black Artists as they confronted the difficult work of carving out a space for themselves in black cultural consciousness. Successful mourning would, in part, involve accepting the fact that Hughes had passed, and that it would no longer be possible to turn to him for new insight in transitioning to a black psychological structure. Thus, initially, Black Artists’ attempts to mourn Hughes by attributing to him the importance of truth-telling appear successful, given Hughes’s history of speaking black truth to power with poems like “I, Too Sing America” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
Fidelity to the life of the lost beloved is part of what constitutes successful mourning, as it is important to remember and to appropriate real or symbolic elements of the lost loved one—this is especially true in the case of Hughes, where his memory was appropriated to defend and to promote black experience as a valid standard of truth-telling. Hughes’s concern with elaborating a theory of black truth-telling is apparent in his 1926 essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (Hughes 1926). In this essay, Hughes argued that Negro artists must eschew white literary standards in order to create black literary standards that could accurately reflect black life. This example is one of many in which Hughes encouraged black writers to avoid the pitfalls associated with appropriating writing styles that limited black writers’ ability to speak to black existence. Black Artists expanded on this call, both in theories explicating what black poetry could mean in terms of a comprehensive Black Aesthetic as well as in their writing styles for representing the move away from Western writing to black writing. Langston Hughes’s life and thought provided a powerful foundation on which to build a social and cultural history that could ground the emerging black psyche in a comprehensive, historically-situated black ontology.
Yet, where Hughes looked to a future in which black poets and writers could write about the beauty of black experience freely and alongside white culture, the Black Artists of the 1960s-1970s were attempting to create and sustain a Black World that annihilated white influence. Thus, while Hughes’s call to create black literary standards has affinities with the Black Artists’ literary project, there is a key difference: Hughes openly appreciated Western literary forms. Where in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” Hughes argues that black cultural temples can exist alongside white cultural temples, Black Artists were creating a world in which only black temples could exist. Black Artists understood themselves as creating a Black World outside of a Westernized society that denied or rejected claims for positively viewing black life and experience.
Within the black cultural tradition, it became necessary to assert one’s right to truth. While one can argue over what might constitute taking responsibility for truth, for Black Artists, truth remained and remains a fraught political field. Even to this day, many established avenues for exposure and cultural production are inaccessible to black communities. Hughes came to understand himself as a “literary sharecropper,” a reference to the post-Emancipation, slave-like practice of sharecropping (Rampersad 1988, 428). Hughes used the term to evoke writers who, because of the color of their skin, were unable to secure stable and lucrative writing positions. Hughes was passed over in favor of less experienced white writers for radio, television, opera, and other writing jobs more times than may be counted (Rampersad 1988, 428-462). For Black Artists, Hughes not only symbolized a call to truth-telling, but also someone who won the right, even if only as a foot in the door, for black people to speak their truth in a white-dominated America. For many Black Artists, Hughes was the first poet to help them to realize that not all poets had to be white, and that therefore they themselves could be poets.
This is not to prioritize the right of truth (i.e. the material and political conditions necessary to have one’s voice heard) over the psychological and philosophical conditions necessary to meet the challenge of being honest and truthful. Rather, this is to argue that to properly mourn Hughes, one must appropriate both his call to speak truth and the historical fact that he was integral to the foundation of a black cultural tradition in which Black Artists recognized a possibility of supporting their revolutionary project. Langston Hughes was a poet to whom Black Artists could turn both for material support in getting published, as well as for moral support in justifying their claims of a Black World that the white world could no longer suppress through silence and violence.
The discussion up to now has refrained from fully defining “truth-telling” as it appears to have been understood by Black Artists. While the Black Artists could have successfully mourned Hughes by transforming his call to truth (i.e., Black Artists could have contributed to the project of telling black truth by altering but remaining within his standards), reflecting on certain misfired attempts at mourning Hughes shows otherwise. One such misfire is the short essay “Langston,” by Black Arts literary critic Julian Mayfield (Fuller 1967, 34-35). In this essay, Mayfield uses Hughes’s history of supporting the publication of other black writers to argue that Black Artists should stop competing with one another, lest their “real enemies” continue to thrive: “[Langston] knew that the longer we kept at each other’s throats, our real enemies would have nothing to worry about” (Fuller 1967, 35). Claiming that Black Artists should avoid criticizing one another makes sense as a Black Arts project. Looking back on the history of black cultural production and Black Liberation, one gets a sense of major moments of intra- and-inter-generational conflict, such as the famous conflicts between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. However, Black Artists themselves took on an adversarial voice when discussing the failures of most black writers in the United States. In this way, desiring to claim unity against a history of in-fighting feels both like an important goal for a movement attempting to create a unified Black World, as well as an overcompensation by a group that was actually rejecting many more figures than they were bringing into their ranks.
It is true that, later in life, Hughes often put younger writers ahead of himself. Having benefited from the help of famous white and black literary figures earlier in his own life, Hughes took the time to encourage young black writers in whom he saw potential. However, Hughes just as often criticized black writers. He criticized his contemporaries, Countee Cullen and Jean Toomer, whom he saw as escaping black life by writing in strictly white literary forms (Rampersad 1986). Later, Hughes criticized the Black Arts Movement for inaccurately portraying the reality of black existence. To recall the words of Amiri Baraka, Black Artists were tasked with destroying America as they knew it (Fuller 1965, 65, 75). With this statement, Baraka was responding to Hughes who, at the 1965 symposium on “The Role of the Negro Writer as Artist” had observed, “Contemporary white writers can perhaps afford to be utterly irresponsible in their moral and social viewpoints. Negro writers cannot. Ours is a social as well as literary responsibility” (Fuller 1965, 75). Fuller, by placing Hughes and Baraka on the same page of the symposium, highlighted the difference between the two generations of writers. Hughes attacked Black Artists for their absolute rejection of whiteness and Western literary styles—calling such a move “utterly irresponsible” and “neurotic” (Fuller 1965, 75). Thus, not only was Hughes perfectly comfortable with criticizing other black writers, he often placed the Black Arts Movement in particular on the receiving end of his searing critique.
It is the tension between the words that Black Artists were using to mourn Hughes—speaking the truth of black experience and aiding one another in getting black artists published—and the fact that they were failing to fully appropriate Hughes’ lessons in their promotion of violence and a separate Black World—that highlights their failure to properly mourn Hughes. Hughes, by calling on Black Artists to appreciate and exist beside white artists and writers, advocated for a far more balanced approach to whiteness and the white literary establishment than the Black Artists. In this vision of the Black World, to use Hughes’ words, the temple to black culture could stand on its own foundation, even if it remained connected to white culture and politics. This is not to argue that the Black Artists failed in their project by not fully appropriating Hughes’s legacy. Rather, this is evidence of the difficulty of appropriating a positive black moral psychology when one is living in a world that demands a damaged psyche. Langston Hughes absolutely can be appropriated in supporting a black culture that defines its own standards for beauty outside of the white establishment, as the Black Artists attempted. However, he cannot be appropriated for a project that requires destroying whiteness in that process of culture making. That the Black Artists had such trouble navigating these issues shows how important and constitutive was Hughes’ symbol for visions of Black Liberation. Perhaps it was easier for Black Artists to imagine that racism could be annihilated, rather than to continue to confront its lasting, invidious influence.
One possible explanation for this gap between the life and words of Hughes and his Black Arts appropriation may be explained by the psychological and political rigidity of the Black Artists. Despite Amiri Baraka’s initial vehemence against white America and poets like Langston Hughes, twenty years later, Baraka conceded to Hughes. Where Baraka had originally rejected Hughes’s call for racial balance in favor of poetry that could “kill” white America, he realized that what he had missed in Hughes was actually the older poet’s contribution to the emerging black cultural tradition—a contribution that could help sustain a positive black psyche for generations (Rampersad 1988). Hughes’ balanced approach to the black cultural tradition could be more dynamic in response to the call of truth telling that the Black Artists had originally overlooked. For Baraka, as for other Black Artists, appropriating Hughes’s life and thought began a process of understanding the nature of a revolutionary black psyche that could shape the goals and limits of American cultural production.
Concluding a Black World and Mourning the Black Arts Movement
In the Black Arts Movement, Black Artists were presented with various examples of what it meant to be a black poet, and the life of Langston Hughes, one of the leading poets of the Harlem Renaissance, was one standard by which Black Artists measured and appropriated their own poetical being. Mourning was the process by which Black Artists could say goodbye to the Hughes who spilled much ink in his criticism of the cultural aims of the Black Arts Movement, in order that they might greet a now-ancestral Hughes, whose death allowed Black Artists to appropriate his image without his protest.
The complex and contradictory reverence afforded to Hughes is representative of a Black Arts community that was consciously and unconsciously struggling with fully appropriating their vision of a positive black psyche. In attempting to replace a “white-structured” culture that was damaging and limiting to black people, with a “black-structured” culture that could allow for black flourishing, the artists of the Black Arts Movement moved towards a psychological structure far too rigid to actually achieve their stated goal.
An important aspect of reality that appears to be missing from the Black Arts ontology is reflected in W.E.B. Du Bois’s theory of double consciousness (Du Bois 2008). Black Artists were attempting to destroy white America—their American selves—so that they could live in a reality governed by their African selves. Black Artists were attempting to destroy an abhorrent reality in favor of a more manageable new reality. However, if Black Artists were truly committed to this project within the parameters set in the Black Arts era, they would not have appropriated Hughes’s death at all—as we have seen, there are many instances where Hughes’s vision of black culture was at odds with the Black Arts vision.
Instead of seeing Black Artists as ignoring what Hughes was actually articulating about black cultural production in order to fit him neatly within their ideological arrangements, one might see these memorials as instances of what Jonathan Lear calls “psychological break,” in his work Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of Life (Lear 2000, 114-15). Psychological break occurs when an individual’s psychological structure for understanding the world and its objects is so rigid that it cannot remain intact in the face of reality. For the Black Artists, psychological break could have occurred when the reality of Hughes could not neatly fit into their need to appropriate him for destructive purposes. As a major cultural-parent, Hughes’s lifework was so compelling, was so constitutive of Black Arts identity, that he could not convincingly be brought into a Black Arts psychological structure that demanded destruction of father-figures who would not support their violent fantasies (Baraka 1979). Recognizing how easily Black Artists rejected other father figures, such as NAACP leaders and MLK, Jr., it is curious that Hughes was not only left unscathed, but was revered in his death. (Smethurst 2005). The Black Arts treatment of Hughes does not fit neatly into any given narrative of Black Arts psychology, either coming from Black Artists themselves or from subsequent scholars. For these reasons, Hughes’s death is an inadequately explored moment of psychological break. If Black Artists had been more open, perhaps they could have heard Hughes warning them of their misdirected desire to kill a part of themselves. The death of Hughes was a moment in which Black Artists could have recognized the psychological and ontological limitations of their Black National project, and adjusted to more freely and powerfully confront the realities of a violently racist white society.
My claim that the Black Arts Movement might represent a moment of cultural psychological break is supported by the example of Haki R. Madhubuti’s 2011 collection of essays and poems on Black Arts participant and forbearer, Gwendolyn Brooks, entitled Honoring Genius: Gwendolyn Brooks, The Narrative of Craft, Art, Kindness and Justice. Where once Madhubuti had warned of white boys carrying .357 magnums, by 2011, he was bringing white figures, including Weather Underground founder William Ayers, white poet Robert Bly, white historian Howard Zinn, corporate leader Steve Jobs, and white documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, into conversation with Brooks’s legacy (Madhubuti 2011). Far from fearing the destructive effects of white influence on the authenticity of his blackness, Madhubuti effectively integrated the influence of white elements in his life. This is an acknowledgement of the ways in which segments outside of the black community could and have contributed to sustaining black life.
These changes reflect even newer ontologies and Black Worlds more in line with the critiques that many had leveled against the Black Arts Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In a lecture given at Robert Bly’s Minnesota Men’s Conference in 2008, Madhubuti identified 1969 as the year he decided to never again work with whites, and 1990 as the year he began to collaborate with whites once again (Madhubuti 2008, YouTube Video). This shift was marked by a poem entitled “White People are People Too (For Mead, Hillman, Bly, Densmore, and Multicultural Men’s Work)” in Claiming Earth (Madhubuti 2009, 330). In this poem, Madhubuti admits some of the pitfalls of his Black Arts struggle: “race struggle can be blinding and self-righteous/race struggle seldom separates the evil from the ignorant/…/race struggle minimizes intrarace struggle” (Madhubuti 2009, 330). The violent and stark divisions drawn between black, Negro, and white acted as psychologically rigid structures that could not allow for free and dynamic interactions with others.
Madhubuti’s judicious inclusion of supportive whites into the Black World starting in 1990 is evidence of a veteran black revolutionary who is confident of maintaining the integrity of his black moral psychology while in intimate contact with white people. The Black Artists were forced to confront America according to its true merits (or demerits) as well as on their own terms. Because the Black Artists of the 1960s-1970s held on to their destructive fantasies of purifying their souls in the destruction of Western culture, it was difficult for them to honestly confront the history of race relations in the United States. However, the Black Artists did succeed in constituting an enduring Black World that has been able to withstand the pressures of shifting political realities. This marks the Black Arts Movement as more than an isolated moment of black cultural production.
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