February 19, 2016
“There is the nobleness of the human spirit...despite it all...
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave
I am the hope and the dream of the slave.” Maya Angelou, “And Still I Rise”
In 1926, Langston Hughes published a short essay in The Nation titled, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”. In this essay, he gives advice to aspiring African American writers, artists, actors and singers. Everyone may carry some form of creativity within themselves, but the trick that Hughes uncovers in his essay is that an unconscious understanding of virtue and beauty may be layered over our own internal understanding. We may interpret beauty through a cultural understanding that has been taught, rather than our own. And not seeing self-worth can cause an individual to despise themselves. Hughes writes, “And so the word white comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all the virtues. It holds for the children beauty, morality, and money. The whisper of 'I want to be white' runs silently through their minds. This young poet's home is, I believe, a fairly typical home of the colored middle class. One sees immediately how difficult it would be for an artist born in such a home to interest himself in interpreting the beauty of his own people.” Instead of asking the critics to change their understanding of beauty, Hughes asks the future creatives to begin by constructing their world in a way that will explain their perspective. How else can we, as a whole society, understand beauty? He wants his own community to understand that they already are beautiful. That they already are artists. But his message is both difficult and powerful: he asks his own families, communities, neighbors and artists to honestly assess themselves. He continues, “[I]t 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!'”
Maya Angelou, born just two years after the publication of Hughes' essay, seems to inherently know that she is beautiful. From her biography to her books, she shouts confidence and pride. Angelou wrote, performed and dreamed from within. Angelou had the audacity to claim something beautiful inside of herself, and by doing so, she linked many voices and communities together. Hughes writes, “We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.” And Angelou wrote about both the ugliness and beauty. She rose up out of her own ugly truth, proud, strong, and resilient. Angelou, an African American female, described the human spirit through the darkness and light of her own story. She described the world from her perspective, paired beauty with grace and audaciously, unapologetically described the ugliness too. She says, “Everybody born comes from the Creator trailing wisps of glory.” Wisps of glory. And some paint the heavens.
Fast forward nearly one hundred years, and Hughes' words still resonate. Beauty generated from within is true and honest and should be communicated. He writes, “An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.” From I know Why the Caged Bird Sings to “Harlem Hopscotch”, Angelou proves that she has accepted Hughes' appeal. Perhaps he would applaud the progress, and still always hope for more: more voices, more beauty, more truth. Hughes concludes his essay with an impassioned plea, appropriate for any peoples and any age: “We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”
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