One point that was commonly agreed upon during the Harlem Renaissance period is the idea that art is the only way to break down the seemingly unsurmountable barrier between black and white Americans. As some black Americans rose to prominence, however, they found that their art was stripped of its identity as African-American, either because the artist themself bowed to the whims of white society in order to achieve success, or the white majority in America simply refused to recognize it as “negro art,” saying that it was simply American art produced by black people, a trend that W.E.B. Du Bois criticizes in his 1926 essay “Criteria of Negro Art”. Du Bois asserts that, in order to truly abolish the separation of white and black people through art, the creative works of African Americans cannot lose their identity as “negro art,” because it is that very identity that must be accepted by mainstream society, and art is the only way to achieve this end. In “Criteria for Negro Art,” Mr. Du Bois argues that art is a form of propaganda, to be used for gaining sympathy with an indifferent public or for painting an image of a culture, and that this propaganda is essential in order to achieve a society that accepts all things “negro.”
According to Du Bois, “all art is propaganda, and ever must be” (103). This speaks to a longstanding dispute among artists as to whether creativity should serve only to produce beauty, or be used to further political or societal change. Du Bois’ stance on this topic is clear, since he asserts, “that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy”(103). When speaking of the uses of art in the past, he says, “artists have used goodness… as the one true method of gaining sympathy and human interest,” (103) and so claims that artistry serves a purpose that transcends aesthetics, that artistic pieces can strengthen a cause by adding emotional power to what might otherwise be dry arguments or statistics.
Langston Hughes, in his poem “I too” demonstrates Du Bois’ claim by writing in a style that allows the reader to enter into the world of the poet and view life from the angle of a black American. The poem speaks of an outcast, one who must “eat in the kitchen when company comes,” (257) but speaks of this character in the first person, enabling a white reader to step into a perspective that he or she never would have experienced. The speaker also refers to himself as “the darker brother,” promoting a feeling of intrinsic sameness and unity between white and black people. This empathetic approach, though possibly not intended to be propaganda, makes for a very effective advertising strategy for a minority attempting to gain sympathy from an indifferent public. It should be noted that Hughes agrees with Du Bois that “negro” art should never lose its black identity; in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” he sharply criticizes artists who want to be “as little negro and as much American as possible”(91).
Du Bois’ support of the use of art as propaganda is so strong that he states he is not opposed to white propaganda against black people, because he believes in freedom of expression on both sides of the spectrum: “I do not care for any art that is not used for propaganda, but I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent”(103). When speaking of racism in magazines, he boldly states, “it is not the propaganda of people who believe white blood divine… to which I object. It is the denial of a similar right of propaganda to those who believe black blood human…” and he proceeds still further to say that “white artists themselves suffer from this narrowing of their field”(103). By acknowledging that such unnecessary restrictions inhibit artists both white and black, he is able to claim that total freedom of propaganda is the path to truth and acceptance.
Such utopian ideals as these in the present might seem virtually impossible, and attempts to achieve them might seem in vain, especially to someone living in the Harlem Renaissance period, but Du Bois ratifies the importance of free expression in the face of any odds by asking the question of art in days to come: “Suppose the only Negro who survived some centuries hence was the Negro painted by white Americans in the novels and essays they have written. What would people in a hundred years say of black Americans?” (102) And so he asserts that, without a matching genre of “negro” art-propaganda, a literate society of the future would come to view negroes negatively, despite any good intentions. Langston Hughes drives this point home in “I too” expressing the black perspective to future readers, while also including himself, along with the other Americans of African descent, in American culture at large. In declaring, “I too sing America,” he attempts to shove his voice into the noisy crowd of white artists and intellectuals trying to give an identity to American culture. Hughes, in line with the ideals of Du Bois, proclaims to the masses: “I too sing America, and I sing it with my own, separate and individual yet entirely American, ‘negro’ song.”