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Langston Hughes’s ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ by Griffin Shiel

lhughesLangston Hughes was one of the most prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Remembered primarily as a pioneer of jazz poetry, Hughes also wrote several plays, novels, short stories and essays. In 1926 Hughes wrote ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’, an essay which offered a strong critique of the upper and middle class blacks and their contribution to Harlem Renaissance art whilst praising that of the lower working class blacks. Hughes sees a fundamental difference between these distinct class groups; the ‘low folk’ embrace their heritage whereas the ‘“high-class” Negro’ rejects it in favour of white standards of aesthetic.

The central argument of his essay is coloured by class-based antagonisms. Upper and middle class blacks have distanced themselves from their African heritage because of their upbringing and thus have an appreciation of white culture over black culture. Hughes recounts two anecdotes to demonstrate this. The first, a conversation with a young, middleclass, African-American poet who told Hughes ”I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet.”2, which Hughes analyses as a desire to be white. In the other incident, Hughes talks of ‘a prominent Negro clubwoman in Philadelphia’ who paid to see a white musician but would not do the same to see a black woman sing which demonstrates class based elitism with racial implications. From these isolated experiences, Hughes makes critical inferences about middle and upper class black Americans and how they view their own race. Laurie F. Leach, a biographer of Hughes, analyses Hughes critique of black elites as such; ‘Hughes argued that the black middle class is the source of this desire to be white and accepted by whites. In middle-class homes, the children are taught to hold themselves superior to those of their race with less education, money and social status.’ In Leach’s view, Hughes saw race and class as inextricable from one another; the way in which one saw themselves in economic terms defined the extent to which they chose to assimilate themselves into white society.

Hughes’s idea of the ‘racial mountain’ essentially entails that black Americans have been socialized to hold up white culture as superior to their own. In doing so they have constructed obstacles to creating authentic representations of black cultural heritage; …this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness’ . This remains an issue in contemporary discussions on the relationship between race and culture. High profile black artists, notably Michael Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Whitney Houston, have been accused of ‘whitening up’. In his article ‘Whitney Houston Critics called her “too white”’ Larry Elder notes; “Houston struggled with drug and alcohol problems for years …” But Houston also struggled with something else…ridicule and ostracism for “selling out,” or “acting white,” or not being “black enough.” This shows that the idea of racialized culture is still relevant today. Hughes criticised his Harlem Renaissance peers for writing in a way that pandered to white aesthetic values. Over half a century later, musicians were being judged according to race-based expectations.

Hughes was one of the younger generation of renaissance figures who looked disparagingly at the ‘The Nordicized Negro Intelligentsia’ . Claude McKay was another prominent Harlem writer who saw the working class as possessing a greater, more authentic black culture notably in his seminal novel Home to Harlem (1928), which focuses on the grimier, working class side of Harlem. Furthermore, in his autobiography ‘A Long Way from Home’ McKay emphasises the detrimental effect that black elites have on the Harlem Renaissance movement as a whole; ‘…among the Negro artists there was much of that Uncle Tom attitude which works like Satan against the idea of a coherent and purposeful Negro group. Each one wanted to be the first Negro, the one Negro and the only Negro for the whites instead of for the group.’

Hughes’s description of working class blacks’, stands in stark contrast to his scorn for black elitism. Leach notes; ‘Hughes celebrates the “low-down folks” … These people do not waste time imitating whites or feeling ashamed of themselves.’ Hughes’s admiration comes across clearly; he praises their unashamed pride in their African heritage, and sees them as the ones to produce art which truly reflects the black culture and experience; ‘perhaps these common people will give to the world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself.’ His antipathy towards the intelligentsia who strive to assimilate into white society, combined with his enthusiasm for the potential of “low-down folk” to produce authentic representations of black art leads Hughes to assign a socio-cultural responsibility to working class black artists to break down the ingrained perceptions that black culture is of lesser value;

‘…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”?

For all its virtues and significance, Hughes’s essay does have a level of hypocrisy which cannot be ignored. He devotes much of the article to praising the new generation of black artists for their individuality and embracing their heritage; ‘We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.’12 And yet, he also states ‘An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.’ This implies that Hughes sees the expression of African-American heritage as the only option for emerging black artists, which conflicts somewhat with his emphasis on individual expression.

langstonhughesIn spite of this contradiction, ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ serves as one of the most important essays of the Harlem Renaissance era, and as an unofficial manifesto for the younger generation, of Harlem Renaissance figures. It serves as an effective portrayal of the complexities and conflicts between the different artistic circles of the movement. In addition, the essays represents a turning point for Hughes. Dolan Hubbard emphasises the significance of this essay in terms of Hughes’s within Harlem; ‘It was the publication of The Negro Artist…that signalled Hughes’s transformation from a promising writer of nonfictional prose to one of America’s most engaging essayists.’ This essay marks Hughes out as one of the exceptional figures of the movement and demonstrates the endurance of his ideas is evident from their appearance in contemporary debates on race issues.


Elder, Larry, ‘Whitney Houston’s Critics Called her “too white” — Black Republicans Can Relate’
(, 2012) ‘The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader’ (London: Penguin Books, 1995)

Hubbard Dolan and Hughes, Langston, ‘The Collected Works of Langston Hughes: Essays on art, race, politics, and world affairs’ (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2002)

Hughes, Langston, ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ in ‘The Nation’ (June 23 1926)

Leach, Laurie F. ‘Langston Hughes: A Biography’ (Westport Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing, 2004)

McKay, Claude, ‘A Long Way From Home: The Harlem Intelligentsia’ in Levering Lewis, David ed.,


Bessie Smith’s ‘’aint Nobody’s Bizness if I do’ By Emily Smith

BessiesmithThis song was recorded by many blues singers, with Bessie Smith recording her version in 1923 and the song itself becoming the biggest selling race record of 1949. Bessie herself was an incredibly popular singer, selling more records and earning more money than any other blues performer at the height of her popularity: She produced her first album in 1923 and sold a million copies, an incredible success for a black women from a poor background.. She achieved all of this success without compromising her individuality: she often performed wearing elaborate costumes with fringed shawls and dresses, heavy headdresses and jeweled caps, which at the time were deemed inappropriate for black women to wear by many prominent members of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Marcus Garvey . This integrity and refusal to conform to standards set by others is what I think makes Bessie Smith such an important and inspiring artist of the Harlem Renaissance.

The first verse of this song contains the lyrics “There ain’t nothing I can do or nothing I can say/ That folks don’t criticize me/ But I’m going to do just as I want to anyway/ And don’t care if they all despise me. These lyrics show a response to the constraints which were placed on black women during the time of the Harlem Renaissance, both by white and black society. Negative stereotypes of black women had long pervaded American society since the beginnings of slavery, and still carried on at this time. The main trope urban black women were often placed into at this time was ‘the Jezebel’: a sexually promiscuous women. This trope is particularly relevant to Bessie Smith as female blues singers were a key target for being assimilated into this trope, as blues lyrics often contained sexually charged references, and dance halls and cabarets, where blues was performed, were viewed, in the words of William H. Jones as nothing more than ‘sexual pantomimes… similar to many of the ancient and primitive methods of publicly arousing human passion in preparation for lascivious orgies. Female members of the black middle class sought to ‘protect’ working class black women through organisations such as the Phillis Wheatley Association, founded by Jane Edna Hunter , who described the association as “an instrument for the social and moral redemption” of young black women. This quote shows that black women were seen even by members of their own race as inherently corrupt and immoral, in need of redemption. Hazel V. Carby notes that working class black women “could be variously situated as a threat to the progress of the race; as a threat to the establishment of a respectable black middle class; as a threat to congenial black and white middle- class relations…” The tone of this song, however, seems to reject the idea that an individual is responsible for anyone other than herself, and as such organisations like the Phillis Wheatley Association who viewed it as their responsibility to shape the lives of young black girls to fit a certain mold were trespassing onto territory of lives that were not theirs, even if they belonged to the same race.

BSmithThe idea of a collective race responsibility was prevalent during the Harlem Renaissance. W.E.B. DuBois saw black art as “a new way to challenge Jim Crow” and that through “supporting their (black artists) striving and their achievements” it would give “the lie to the racism that underpinned segregation.” As a result a responsibility was placed on black artists to use their art as a vehicle for black activism. This is problematic as it left black artists in the position of creating their art with the standards and tastes of white society in mind, and placed limitations on what was deemed acceptable to produce. The fear of failing to live up to white standards and forever being condemned to being seen as a stereotype is perhaps what is responsible for the creation of organisations like the Phillis Wheatley Association, yet rather than freeing black women it placed further restrictions on their behaviour and stripped them of their own agency. Bessie Smith refused to take into consideration both the wants of black and white society when it came to the production of her own art. Openly bisexual, known for being drunk, boisterous and openly engaging in casual sex, I believe that through acting for herself and refusing to owe anyone anything, Smith forwarded the cause for the empowerment of black women. I don’t think this advancement would have been possible, or possible so soon, had her and other similar characters of the Harlem Renaissance acted in accordance with W.E.B DuBois’s view, that African Americans must essentially be on their best behaviour; behaviour as deemed acceptable by whites, at all times whenever in front of a white audience. DuBois and Smith, as members of the middle-class and working class, respectively, differed in their attitudes on how to combat the racism of American society possibly due to their class differences. While middle class black men like DuBois often mixed with white middle class society, and placed great importance on intellectualism, Smith avoided this mixing as much as possible, even avoiding actually living in Harlem, and instead living in Philadelphia where the colour line was much more defined. It is likely that as a poor black women Smith faced much more abject cruelty from whites than DuBois did, and this may be why DuBois was much less resistant to white ideals than Smith.

As it can be seen that different individuals in the Harlem Renaissance had different priorities and goals which they sought to gain from the renaissance, it raises the question of whether the concept of the ‘New Negro’ was inclusive enough and able to fit all types of black identity. In some ways Smith can be seen to fit into the concept of the ‘New Negro’ and the lyrics of this song can be seen to express some of the attitudes believed to be held by the ‘New Negro’ as in J. A Rogers view that “The New Negro wastes no time worrying about his colour” , which, as much as was possible, Bessie Smith did not. Yet it seems as if the New Negro is not a concept which allows much room for women, as many influential people of the Harlem Renaissance seemed to create a separate confine of identity for women, as seen in the aims of the Phillis Wheatley Association, and the Black Cross Nurses. While many themes may be found in this song, I think the main tone of the lyrics rejects the idea of placing constraints upon the behaviour of black women, and urges the listener to do as she pleases. Smith’s legacy has influenced many famous singers throughout generations, such as Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin, and she still holds cultural relevancy today as the policing of black women’s body still exists, as can be seen in the non infrequent number of cases where black girls have been threatened with expulsion if they refuse to change their natural hairstyles.


Alberston, C (2008). Bessie . New Haven: Yale University Press.

Carby, H. (1992). Policing the Black Woman’s Body in an Urban Context. Critical Inquiry. 18 (4), 738-755.

DuBois, W.E.B.. (2004). XIV. In: Gates JR, H. and McKay, N. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: Norton. 758-765.

Hunter, A. (2013). Vanessa Van Dyke Could be Expelled After Having Her Hair Mocked. Available: Last accessed 4th March 2015.

Leeuwen, D. (2000). Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Available: Last accessed 4th March 2015.

Rogers, J, A. (1927). Who Is the New Negro and Why?. The Messenger Reader. 11 (1), 308-312.

Sage, A. (2007). Bessie Smith: ‘Down Hearted Blues’ and ‘Gulf Coast Blues’ Revisited. Popular Music. 26 (1), 117-127.

Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing’ by Katie Ward

photo_9149_wide_largeDuring the 1920s, New York City became the destination for many African Americans. Their progression in its society led to the Harlem Renaissance in arts, politics and culture. Into this community Nella Larsen released her second novel, ‘Passing,’ the story of mixed-race Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. Old childhood friends, the pair meet in a white restaurant on a hot summers day where it is revealed that Clare chose to secretly ‘pass’ for white. A controversial topic of focus, which received a mixed reception, with some accusing Larsen of promoting racial passing and notable figures such as W. E. B. Dubois declaring it was “one of the finest novels of the year.” After its feminist revival in the 1970s, its contemporary audience has highlighted elements of gender and sexuality, linking its themes to the “Queer Harlem” that also emerged during the Renaissance. Often included in the canon of African American female literature, the novel remains powerful and relevant when evaluating many major themes of Harlem society.

Passing is an ambiguous term that applies to various social transgressions, but primarily Larsen’s novel addresses racial passing. Larsen, as a mixed race woman, offers a perspective that “few purely Negro or white writers can hope to attain.” Consequently, her apparent ambiguous position is reflected in the character of Irene. She views Clare’s “breaking away” from the familiar black community into “another community” as not just “strange” but “not entirely friendly.” This expresses not only deep contemplation of the situation in which Clare has placed herself, but also reflects the engrained differences between the black and white communities at that time. This indeed makes it seem like Clare is part of a completely different society, and therefore would explain Irene’s confusion at their interaction, and her thinking that she may have been an acquaintance from Europe. However, Heidi Durrow suggests that Irene, and Larsen’s, ambiguity could be a contemporary construct due to the inability to “understand the problem of the colour line in the same way” as Larsen. Certainly, in ‘Beyond the Colour line’ (1929) Larsen is accused of making passing an admirable trait. Clare is said to be “a little too beautiful to be true,” and an “apotheosis of halfe-caste loveliness.” This view may be more suited to the Black Nationalism of Garvey’s UNIA, but the argument is problematic. Clare is described as beautiful with “bright lips” and radiant “happy eyes;” but this is arguably a representation of the fascination of her as an exotic object. However, the issue with Larsen’s portrayal of passing also highlights the problematic nature of Harlem’s “New Negro” and its roots in the individual’s perception of African American racial progression. Therefore, due to it not being a societal image of progression, some could see racial passing as problematic, and Larsen’s ambiguity could be misconstrued.

Nonetheless, the feminist revival of ‘Passing’ suggests, not only that Larsen was a credible female writer, but also that there was significance in how Larsen portrayed women. It is notable that the text focuses on the life of three middle class African American women, and that the novel only addresses the issue of female racial passing. When presented with a man who has transgressed slightly due to his choice to become a Jew, the women see this as a source of ridicule and hilarity. Therefore, this would suggest that the common gender for racial passing would be female; which would conform to the strict gendered lines of 1920s American society with women being more dependent on men to determine their social situation. This is problematic, and it may highlight also an issue within the renaissance. Many of its leaders were men, with many females being entertainers rather than intellectuals. Also, although Irene is depicted as a strong female character within the community, she is somewhat polarised by the character of Gertrude. Gertrude chose not to actively pass and is often described as being quite “mammy”-like, with a “broad, fat” body and “stout legs in sleazy stockings.” This would suggest that the Harlem Renaissance, although viewed as liberating, could have also added to gender constraints. This would be further supported by the high commentary on prostitution in other popular novels such as Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928). However, this appears to be a view held by a contemporary reader, as a mentioning of gender does not tend to appear in the reviews of the book at its time of release. Therefore, it could be argued that the expectations of gender were so engrained during this time that it is only a prevalent issue to the contemporary reader.

Finally, a contemporary reading can identify the transgressive aspects of sexuality evident in the novel. This homosexual feeling is primarily between Clare and Irene, and is evident in Irene’s sensual descriptions of Clare. Irene takes care to describe Clare’s “wide mouth like a scarlet flower against the ivory of her skin,” the contrasts of red and white indicate a presence of desire and lust. By describing Clare as ivory it not only indicates exoticness, but also value. Furthermore, Clare’s letter to Irene speaks of “longing to be with you again, as I have never longed for anything before.” The “ache and the pain” that Clare speaks of seems to mirror a love letter, not friendly correspondence. Although, this element of the book is easily overlooked, it seems that Larsen is also hinting at the other movement included in the Harlem Renaissance. “Queer Harlem” acknowledged that many African American artists and intellectuals were in fact also homosexuals, and that this was socially acceptable. However, the homosexual elements of the book are easily overlooked, it is not clearly stated that Clare and Irene are just not really good friends. Leaving the situation to the discretion of the reader reveals more about Larsen as an ambiguous person. Nonetheless, it is commonly perceived by the contemporary reader that this novel, and the Renaissance’s primary struggle for racial equality, is paralleled to the homosexual struggle for equality that continues today.

Larsen’s conclusion to the novel as described in ‘Beyond the Color Line’ as “utterly unconvincing.” The death or murder of Clare arouses suspicion and shock, questioning Larsen’s ability to offer an active solution to the Renaissance’s social issues. It could be that Larsen could not envisage a solution, as she was merely a documenter of this progressive time in African American history. Nonetheless, Passing’s ability to transgress not only social issues, but time, appear to be one of the endearing strengths of the novel as it remains a staple aspect of the American Female literary cannon and Harlem Renaissance study.


Anonymous. “Beyond the Colour Line.” In Passing, Nella Larsen, edited by Carla Kaplan, 85-87. New York: Norton, 2007.

Blackmer, Corinne E. “The veils of the law: race and sexuality in Nella Larsen’s passing.” College Literature 3 (1995): 50. Literature Resource Centre, EBSCOhost (accessed February 14, 2015).

Dubois, W. E. B. “Passing.” In Passing, Nella Larsen, edited by Carla Kaplan, 97-98. New York: Norton, 2007.

Durrow, Heidi, W. “Nella Larsen’s Passing: Authoritative Text Background and Contexts Criticism.” Callaloo 31:2 (2008): 613- 617.

Field, James A. “The Progress of Eugenics.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 26:1 (1911): 1-67. Business Source Complete. EBSCOhost (accessed February 14, 2015).

Griffin, Mary. “Novel of Race Consciousness.” In Passing, Nella Larsen, edited by Carla Kaplan, 96-97. New York: Norton, 2007.

Labbe, Jessica. “Death by misadventure: Teaching transgression in/through Nella Larsen’s Passing.” College Literature 4 (2010): 120-145. Literature Resource Center, EBSCOhost (accessed February 27, 2015).

Larsen, Nella. Quicksand and Passing. London: Serpent’s Tale, 2001.

Pelak, Cynthia Fabrizio. “Feminism and Women of Colour.” Encyclopaedia of American Studies (2015). Accessed: February 9, 2015. DOI:

Jacob Lawrence’s ‘Migration Series’ by Janet Son

1152w_0Jacob Lawrence was perhaps the most highly acclaimed African American artist of the twentieth century. Several of his paintings can be found in the collections of renowned art museums throughout America, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He is best known, however, for a group of sixty panels he created in 1941 titled the Migration Series. As a collective whole, the panels depict the exodus of African Americans from the South during and after World War I, along with the benefits and hardship they experienced after they arrived in the North.

Although Lawrence never lived in the South nor was part of the Great Migration himself, “the stories he heard while growing up […] afforded him an intimate picture of the South that he did not know from personal experience”[1]. His parents, for example, were part of the first wave of the Migration and met coming up north from Virginia and South Carolina. Historians now agree that the Great Migration was one of “the largest and most rapid mass internal movements of people in history”[2]. Lorensen estimates that “between 1910 and 1970 approximately six and a half million African Americans left the South for a ‘Promised Land’ of mainly large urban centers—Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, New York, Pittsburgh, among others—where they could escape from the vicious cycles of the southern sharecropping economy and the legal and social strictures of Jim Crow”[3].

They made this journey primarily in search of economic freedom and social equality that could not be found in the South. The demand for factory workers in the North increased as European immigration diminished and white American men went off to World War I, causing a shortage of labour back home. Furthermore, in 1915, “drought, floods, and a boll weevil infestation […] destroyed crops and resulted in no harvests for two successive years”[4] making it even harder for African American workers to survive in an impoverished South. They also wanted to come north in order to escape from a harsh reality in which lynchings were common and exploitation of Blacks was frequent due to the Jim Crow laws. Thus, African Americans living in the South envisioned the North as a haven where they would be able to escape segregation and be economically self-sufficient, even though they found this not to be completely true once they arrived in the urban cities of the North.

Lawrence was already an established artist by the time he created the Migration Series and had previously steeped himself in knowledge of African American history. For his Migration Series, he chose to paint with tempera on hardboard. Lawrence described his style of art as “dynamic cubism” and placed an emphasis on movement in his paintings, as he “[equated] migration with movement”[5]. His figures are two-dimensional, geometric, and express a clear message. Lawrence also included a short description at the bottom of each panel in order to reiterate their individual importance. He chose to paint all sixty panels at once in order to unify them as being several parts of one single work, and in order to create colour consistency. Lawrence contrasted bright pigments with muted, dark shades in order to guide the viewer’s eyes towards specific areas of the panels that required attention. He may have also done this in order to show that despite the innumerable hardships African Americans faced in the North, they had access to opportunities and benefits that were nonexistent in the South. Despite their simplistic appearance, Lawrence’s works are highly sophisticated as they “[suggest] a single, narrative strain, uncomplicated by subtle variations of shade, light, or interpretation”[6].

Jacob-Lawrence-Migration-at-MoMA-SwipeLife-4In each individual panel, Lawrence documents a different aspect of African American life before and after making the migration north. The first half of the paintings depicts “day-to-day struggles with poverty, natural disasters, lack of educational opportunity, unjust courts, prejudicial law enforcement, segregation, and harsh and unfair treatment at the hands of employers and landowners”[7] – all parts of daily life for African Americans living in the rural South. Mixed in with these scenes of racial injustice are panels which show African Americans receiving letters from relatives who have moved up north telling them about how their lives have improved; communication served as the primary catalyst which caused the Migration to rapidly expand and increase in numbers.

The latter half of the panels shows the lives of African Americans after they have reached the North; they found jobs in industrial factories, were able to vote, and their children had access to better educational opportunities. However, Lawrence was also aware of the negative changes that came as a result of overpopulation in the cities. His very last panels deal with segregation, race riots, and the spread of illnesses such as tuberculosis. Lawrence did not aim to glorify the Great Migration, but to accurately “convey the energy and hopes of the migrants as well as their struggles”[8]. It is also worth noting that the series begins and ends with panels depicting African Americans leaving for the North in crowded train stations, emphasising the fact that the Great Migration was not a single historical event, but a process that took several years and involved millions of people from different backgrounds. Thus, the Migration Series is a collection of stories from these African Americans and their experiences in two different sides of America.

As a member of the younger generation living in Harlem, Lawrence was aware of Harlem’s status as the Black mecca of the North. Therefore, rather than carving out a definition of the New Negro as previous artists of the Harlem Renaissance had done, Lawrence reflected on the successes and hardships that the older generation had to face in order to create these opportunities for their children; thus, “the Migration Series is not a series of ‘history paintings,’ […] but […] a text of remembrance”[9].

[1] Jutta Lorensen, “Between Image and Word, Color and Time: Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series”, African American Review, 40.3 (2006), 571-586 (p. 572).

[2] Nicholas Lemann, Quoted in Ibid., p. 571.
[3] Ibid., p. 571.
[4] James D. Laney, “Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series: Art as Narrative History”, The Social Studies, 98.4 (2007), 131-134 (p. 132).

[5] Ibid., p. 132.
[6] Martha Jane Nadell, Enter the New Negroes: Images of Race in American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Universtiy Press, 2004). p. 144.

[7] Laney, pp. 132.
[8] Jacqueline Francis, “The Make of the Modern”, Callaloo, 17.4 (1994), 1269-1272 (p. 1271).
[9] Lorensen, pp. 572.

William Grant Still’s ‘Symphony No. 1 – Afro-American’ by Natty Sikand-Youngs


‘The American Negro had made an unrecognised contribution of great value to American music’ declared the black composer William Grant Still in a retrospective interview in 1968. In this assertion, his career itself was his best proof: his symphony and opera were both performed by leading musical groups in the United States, he conducted a ‘major’ orchestra in the Deep South, and his works were included in the International Composers’ Guild and the American Composers’ Concerts. Still was the first American with black skin to have accomplished each of these feats. While his successes were thus a great proof of the artistic and intellectual capabilities of African-Americans, the content of his work itself is far more complex and ambiguous in its treatment of black culture and identity. There is no richer example of this than his most famous composition, the Symphony No. 1, simply and aptly named Afro-American. Written in 1930, it strove to ‘elevate the blues [to] a dignified position in symphonic literature’. With this melding of two distinctly black and white musical traditions, the work engages with some of the most contested debates of the Harlem Renaissance. By using contemporary African-American thought and writing as a lens with which to examine the musical content of the composition, Still’s ‘Afro-American’ symphony proves to be as much a political and cultural exploration of the black experience as it does a modernist experiment in cultural hybridity.

As with European classical traditions, the symphony’s opening movement serves to introduce the core themes that underpin the entire work. Still begins with a simple and contemplative flute solo that pivots on the flat-seventh and flat-third – the two defining tonalities of the blues. By adding more instruments and counter-motifs, this initially simple blues melody is woven with the complexity and diversity of character required for an entire symphonic movement. Doing so not only demonstrates the musical possibilities contained within this one particular melody, but also signifies the broader cultural value and merit of black art; it is itself a ‘New Negro’ movement, growing from its timid opening as if triumphantly responding to W. E. B DuBois’ demand in the Crisis magazine in 1926 – ‘of what is the colored artist capable?’. Yet closer analysis of the first movement challenges the extent to which the music actually contests the perception of African-American art forms as primitive. Still’s motivic development – the crux of his demonstration of the value of black music – is built upon two central practices of white European classicalism: firstly, a more polyphonic texture compared to the often strict division between lead and accompaniment parts found in blues and jazz; and secondly, a triadic structure that resembles the sonata form. Such a fundamental reliance on the techniques of white classicalism reflects Still’s specific ambition to ‘elevate’ – rather than to celebrate – the blues.


The political ambiguity of the work thus hinges on whether it succeeds in endowing African-American music with the complexity and artistry of European classical traditions, or whether Still merely reinforces the hegemonic dichotomy of blackness as primitive and whiteness as the aspirational ideal. Many figures in the Harlem Renaissance warned of such perils when engaging with white culture. Langston Hughes’s famous article ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ identified a ‘Nordicized Negro intelligentsia’ who failed to ‘express [their] individual dark-skinned sel[f]’. Alain Locke certainly regarded Still as one such artist, describing his music as ‘ultra-modernistic and too sophisticated for the laity’. Initially, these critiques seem to become ever more applicable to the Afro-American symphony after the first movement. The ‘Adagio’ (slow) second movement evokes as much European modernism as black American blues: it departs from the twelve-bar form, relying instead on the non-diatonic chromaticism which musicologist Carol Oja identifies as being typical of Still’s distinctive modernism. So too in the final movement, where a blues theme is embedded in the sorts of tonally disorientating themes that have come to define the experimental practices of contemporary composition. This assimilation of blues, jazz and modernism, however, is not just the racial integration of black and white; rather, it is also the stylistic amalgamation of the musical time and place out of which the symphony was written. Engaging with a range of contemporary music regardless of racial provenance allows the symphony to evoke the aesthetic of that moment in history – the ‘structure of feeling’ as Raymond Williams put it. Still’s articulation of black identity, particularly the black experience, thus recognises that racial constructions are inseparable from their broader cultural contexts. Although it dilutes the symphony’s African-American identity in a purely stylistic sense, it is this musical integration that allows Still to ‘express his individual darker-skinned self’.

Ironically, this synthesis of different musical styles – divided by “race”, yet united by time – serves to better situate the Afro-American symphony as a product and representation of the Harlem Renaissance, even at the peril of clashing with many of the movement’s artists and writers (like Hughes and Locke, but also the broader ideological black nationalism of the likes of Marcus Garvey). As demonstrated by Claude McKay’s use of the sonnet in his poetry, Archibald Motley’s inspiration from the “Old Masters” of European painting, or even the financial support provided by white patrons, the African-American writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance were not independent of “white” America. As Nathan Irvin Huggins summarised, contemporary African-American artists were ‘bound up in a more general American experience than a “Harlem Renaissance” would suggest’. Yet more crucially, the Afro-American symphony highlights a shared ideal in otherwise conflicting perspectives on the Harlem Renaissance. In the closing sections of the Criteria of Negro Art, DuBois hopefully anticipates that ‘as soon as true art emerges, […] someone touches race on the shoulder and says, “[the black artist] is not a Negro […] he is just human”’. Hughes’s The Racial Mountain, despite its disputation with DuBois’s view, concludes on a similarly humanistic note, declaring that ‘we [African-American artists] know we are beautiful. And ugly too’. The diversity of character and emotion conveyed by the Afro-American symphony is fundamentally constructed from this parallel in the politics of DuBois and Hughes. Still uses music to evoke not only the idealised attributes of the ‘New Negro’ – pride, exaltation, resilience – but also real, lived feelings: vulnerability, despair, and loneliness. It is a work that prioritises the expression of a black experience over a black identity. Rooted in this premise, William Grant Still’s Afro-American symphony continues – just as it did at the height of the Harlem Renaissance – to resonate in both dissonance and harmony with the countless voices of the black experience in America.


Motley, Archibald. Interview at his home in Chicago, Illionis. 23 Jan. 1978. ‘Oral history interview with Archibald Motley, 1978 Jan. 23 – 1979 Mar. 1.’ Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institute. Archives of American Art. Web. 12 Feb. 15. <;.

Still, William Grant. Interview by R. Donald Brown for the Oral History Program, California State University at Fullerton. 13 Nov. and 4 Dec. 1967. Qtd in Judith Anne Still Headlee. ‘William Grant Still: A Voice of High Sounding’. Music Educators Journal 70.6 (Feb. 1984): pp. 24-30. JSTOR. Web. 01 Mar. 2015. <;.

______. Symphony No. 1 in ¬A-Flat – ‘Afro-American’. Fort Smith Symphony Orchestra cond. by John Jeter. Naxos, B0007ORDYU, 2005.

Bibliography of Critical Material

Arvey, Verna. ‘Memo for Musicologists’ in R. B. Hass ed. William Grant Still and the Fusion of Culture in American Music. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1975: pp. 88-93.

DuBois, W. E. B. ‘The Criteria of Negro Art’. The Crisis 32 (Oct. 1926): pp. 290-297. Web. 2 Mar. 2014. <;.
Huggins, Nathan Irvin. The Harlem Renaissance. 2nd Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Hughes, Langston. ‘The Negro and the Racial Mountain’ in Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay eds. The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature. 2nd Ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004: pp. 1311-1314.

Locke, Alain. The Negro and his Music. Washington, D.C.: Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1936.

Oja, Carol J. ‘“New Music” and the “New Negro”: The Background of William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony.’ Black Music Research Journal 12.2 (Autumn, 1992): pp. 145-169. JSTOR. Web. 01 Mar. 2014. <;.

Smith, Catherine Parsons. William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Williams, Raymond. The Long Revolution. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2001.

Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing’ – By Ellen Musgrove

NellaLarsen3Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) is an exploration of racial identity in 1920s America. In particular the novel concentrates on the phenomenon of “passing,” or posing as a member of a social group to which one has not been assigned. Larsen focuses on two mixed­race people who “pass” as white: the protagonist, Irene, narrated in third person omniscient form; and her childhood acquaintance Clare Kendry. The two meet by chance at the novel’s opening whilst “passing” in Chicago’s Drayton Hotel, and their reignited connection highlights their different experiences of race. Clare was raised by white relatives and married a white man, whereas Irene has married into, inhabits and associates with the African American middle­class of Harlem. Clare misses this community and attempts to re­assimilate unbeknownst to her racist husband Jack.

Irene, however, begins to see Clare’s return as a threat to her own ordered life. She becomes jealous and obsessive, even concluding that her husband is in love with Clare. She considers removing Clare by revealing her race to Jack, which is achieved during an accidental encounter with him. At the novel’s end he intrudes on a party attended by Clare and the Adlers, infuriated by his realisation. Confusion follows, in which Clare falls from a high­rise window to her death, possibly pushed by Irene, whose erratic mental state allows no clarification of these events.

As a specific part of the broader African American experience, Larsen uses the phenomenon of “passing” to highlight the performativity of race, class, sexuality and gender, and the potentially dangerous implications of an intersectional existence. The identity of African Americans was highlighted as a vital discussion point by Larsen’s contemporaries, primarily those of the Harlem Renaissance seeking to define the ‘New Negro’. Living in New York City, Larsen became involved with this black bourgeoisie and exposed to their attitudes towards racial identity. The ‘New Negro’ was educated, culturally productive, racially proud and equal to any white counterpart. Larsen herself was held up as a specific example of this social and cultural advancement though her acceptance to the Library School of the New York Public Library (Ibid, p. 151). However, this advancement ideology sometimes blurred into an ‘inverted racialistic nationalism’ using whiteness as an aspirational measure. This features in Passing, with Larsen’s characters inhabiting a materialistic socialite world displaying a ‘capitalist ethos’, far superior to the black working classes and the inferiority associated with them via racist stereotypes. Larsen uses this to expose the shaping of racial identity by the ‘political economy of capitalism’ (Dawahare, p.24).

By focusing on complex characters, Larsen also complicates the “tragic mulatto” trope found in literature of this period and prior to it (Tate, p. 142). This literary image was created primarily to appeal to a white audience, and painted a picture of a mixed­race individual inspiring pity and sympathy through their heroic struggle with the consequences of their racially mixed parentage. Their whiteness was emphasised above their blackness,


Tate, Claudia, ‘Nella Larsen’s Passing: A Problem of Interpretation’, Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Winter, 1980), 142­146, p. 142.

Anthony Dawahare, ‘The Golden Standard of Racial Passing in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and
Passing’, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 52.1 (Spring, 2006), 22­41, p. 22.

Holmes, Eugene C., ‘Alain Locke and the New Negro Movement’, Negro American Literature Forum, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Autumn, 1968), 60­68, pp. 65­66.