kYmberly Keeton is a young, Generation X artist with immense artistic talent and a strong appreciation for the literary and cultural history of our people. I met her when I extended an invitation to her to participate in San Antonio’s Black History Literary Weekend back in February. Since then, we have developed an uncle/niece relationship. Our age differences are quite unique in that she is post-civil rights and I am pre-civil rights. That age-gap explains the difference in our perspectives as to what should be the role or purpose of the modern day Black writer.
Often we will find ourselves immersed in telephone conversations about the nature of writing fiction (she likes experimental fiction and I prefer the conservative, time proven old style of telling a story). We also differ when discussing the function of the writer in Twenty-First Century Black America. Our conversations remind me of the differences that existed between Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes in their beliefs as to the duty of the Harlem Renaissance writer to the growth of the African American budding and definable culture. Their age differences were comparable to kYmberly and me.
Dr. Du Bois believed the writers had an obligation to write stories that uplifted the Black race. In 1926, he wrote, “Thus all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailings of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used and always for propaganda, for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy.” According to Du Bois, art must serve to advance the rights of Black Americans through the writings of the Talented Tenth. One of the goals also was for cultural improvement.
On the other side, Hughes represented the generation of avant-garde, young radicals known as the Bohemians. He articulated their position in his article in Nation Magazine, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” when he wrote, “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”
I happen to be a supporter of the Du Bois position and strongly believe that we need to write about the beauty, strength and unyielding determination of Black folk to make it in this country over the decades. We need to create heroes so that our young can have positive images to hang their hat onto. We also need to lighten up on the onslaught of writings that attack the very nature of our existence as a people, specifically much of the street fiction. We have an enormous amount of stereotypes to overcome that have plagued us as a people for a very long time. Free expression is a luxury we cannot afford at this historical juncture in our cultural existence.
My young niece and fellow writer disagrees with me. She believes that writers must have the freedom to express themselves. Do not put shackles on their right to say and be who they are. They should always be cognizant of the need to capture the African American experience in their writing. However, kYmberly believes that she has no obligation to alter her writing to meet a larger objective. If the artist is not allowed to write as they please, then they are not free within themselves. According to kYmberly, creativity loses its meaning if the writer must follow certain rules of the game, in order to fulfill only one specific goal. And the larger question is who has the right to define what those rules should be.
This seems to be the age-old question confronting African American writers. Richard Wright challenged the writers of the Renaissance. James Baldwin challenged Richard Wright and Amiri Baraka challenged Ralph Ellison. But today, there appears to be no challenge, but instead a sort of existential right for the artists to do their own thing with no questions asked. What is refreshing in my dialogue with kYmberly, is that at least we are willing to ask questions and challenge our positions, knowing all along that we do love the art and we do love the culture.
For the full text of Dr. Du Bois’s remarks please visit http://www.webdubois.org/dbCriteriaNArt.htlm
For the full text of Langston Hughes’ remarks please visit