Where Have All the Heroes Gone? or Should African American Literature serve as a vehicle to uplift the race and perpetuate a positive image of the culture?

Image Courtesy of: Studies in African American Literature core.ecu.edu
Image Courtesy of: Studies in African American Literature

In the June 1941, issue of Crisis Magazine, Langston Hughes asked the question, “Where are the Black heroes in our literature?” The greatest of all our cultural icons was alluding to the failure of Black writers to create heroes in their works. Hughes went on in that article to elaborate, “Where, in all our books is that compelling flame of spirit and passion that makes a man say, ‘I too am a hero because my race has produced heroes.’”

It is the responsibility of the artist to critique the literature of his or her time and determine if the writing will serve as a vehicle to uplift the race and perpetuate a positive image of the culture. Hughes obviously was not happy with the images portrayed through novels of his time, to include Bigger Thomas in Native Son. Even though Native Son was an excellent written novel and no doubt Richard Wright was one of the great artists of his time, it is difficult to view Bigger as anything other than a tragic depiction of the Black male.

The question then is why have Black writers failed to create positive images of the male when writing of the Black experience in this country? Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois argued that it was not the fault of Black writers but the fault of publishers not willing to publish works that portray the strong Black hero. In a speech given at the 1926 National Association for Advancement of Colored People’s national convention he raised the issue, “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?” His conclusion was that they would see only weak men and subservient women. DuBois went on to point out that, “In responding to material portraying positive images of Blacks, the publishers would often say, “It is not interesting to white folks. They want Uncle Toms, Topsies, good darkies and clowns.”

Essentially Black writers were limited in their ability to strike back at the false images painted of Black people and their culture. The only Black writers published were those willing to follow the rules established by the publishing houses. Twenty years later, Zora Neale Hurston observed that publishing companies used their control as a way to dictate the kind of stories from Black writers suitable for publication.

The constant barrage of negative portrayals of Blacks in the ante-bellum south and after the Civil War, right up to the present has had a devastating affect on the race. The irony is that segments of the Black population have internalized these images and now play them out in reality. That is clearly demonstrated through what is termed “Urban Street Fiction”. Much of the literature is nihilistic in theme and holds out no hope for the future. Writers of “Urban Street Fiction” write about the chaos with no consideration for the human dimension. The plots are built around, “you get yours and I’m going to get mine at any cost.” There is no redeeming value only an ugly reality feeding into an age-old belief system that Blacks must be contained because of their bestiality. If one reads these novels and internalizes them as a true depiction of the contemporary Black race, they would be inclined to believe the negative stereotypes painted over a hundred years ago. Many of these books are sitting on the library shelves and are available to children of all ages. How then is it possible to inculcate them with a positive and healthy image of their culture if it is depicted in such a pejorative manner? This is in no way an argument for censorship, but instead a plea for works that counter some of the negative writings.

How many times have you heard the saying, “Our youth are our future?” If then our children are our future don’t we have an obligation to give them an opportunity to succeed? But how can they possibly succeed if they are surrounded by negativity. Some of the rap music they listen to is negative. The urban fiction they read is negative. Often their home environment is negative, and their peer groups reek of negativity. Then how is it possible for them to ever enjoy a positive experience about who they are?

In that Crisis article, Hughes continued, “We have a need for books and plays that will encourage and inspire our youth, set for them examples and patterns of conduct, move and stir them to be forth-right, strong, clear-thinking and unafraid.” Consistent with Hughes’ advice, we must define ourselves for our children in order to alter the destructive direction in which our culture is going. Ralph Ellison, author of the great American classic, Invisible Man, wrote as early as 1944, “The solution to the problem confronting the Negro will be achieved when he (she) is able to define himself (herself) for what he (she) is and what he (she) desires to be.”

Prosperity Publications, an African-American owned publishing company, has taken on the tremendous responsibility to counter these negative portrayals of our race and culture through works that stress positive messages to the world. It is the company’s principal philosophy that knowledge of one’s heritage and culture is key to the sustainability of the culture. If a race has very little knowledge of their history, then they really do not know who they are and therefore are easy prey for those who produce this devastatingly dangerous literature. Again, Hughes addressed this problem, “The negative behaviors and altered mental states of lead characters in literary works (by Black authors) might leave future generations wondering if Black people lacked heroes.” Hughes’ observation in 1941 is still applicable today. A Spanish writer, Mario Vargas Llosa stated, “Literature is the window to view the soul of a people.” If much of our contemporary literature reflects the quality of our culture and our collective soul, then as publishers and writers, we have a great deal of work to do.

Prosperity Publications’ goal is to improve on images of Blacks in literature. Accepting Ralph Ellison’s challenge to define ourselves by telling our stories our way, we can begin to alter the destructive images of our race. With that as our goal, the company will publish works by and about the African American culture that accentuates the strength, beauty, and an enduring love generated by our ancestors for decades.

Please contact us at www.prosperitypublications.com

6 thoughts on “Where Have All the Heroes Gone? or Should African American Literature serve as a vehicle to uplift the race and perpetuate a positive image of the culture?

  1. Antoinette Franklin

    We as a nation have worked too hard to go back in time. The negative images are not what our children should view as a race of outstanding intelligent people. White American loves to see our people being stereo- typed as over sexed, with bad attitudes, and men who have a white woman chasing mentality. There are people with this one-sided attitude but that is only a small portion of Black America. Our families and fore-parents worked diligently to be the best and overcome racism, hatred and do not deserve to be placed in a box of ignorance. Many of our young men are in prison or bound in that direction and our young women are following the leader down the garbage path. This is still a small percentage but they reflect a senseless generation because of the stupidity that is shown. It is best to read something that is uplifting and progressive about our people not junk. We have to top the “Follow the Leader,” thought pattern and stand up for what is right.
    The goal of Prosperity Publication is to strive for the best and produce the best. The fact of making money in writing is truly great but why are our writers “selling their souls to the devil and selling their people short?” I read or tried to read a book by an erotic writer who will remain nameless, but I read from page 1 to 10 and read the last ten pages and read something the middle and knew the entire story and wasn’t impressed. You can read trash for so long and not be stimulated, you become immune and insensitive. My grandmother said, “Every generation thinks they have invented something new but they haven’t.” The foolishness has been going on for some time but now has become news to our generation and is plastered all over the networks and social media. We have to stop selling ourselves short and remember Who We Are,” and “Whose We Are. Black people are not trash and do not deserve to be falsely portrayed as such. We are strong beautiful Black men and women who are trying to raise our children, trying to do better than our previous generation and trying to survive the madness f this world and be the best nation of people. We must write better and do better because we owe a better place for our children and we must preserve our fore-parents image. We don’t want them to be ashamed. They had to endure so much and their image should not be tarnished. This is a great article and makes you think. Antoinette Franklin poet, author, educator

  2. Satia Orange

    You are so off the target. The Black women in these shows reflect the Black women I totally relate to, knowing them personally and in my career. It’s 2014. Come on, join us in the 21st century.

  3. Great post. Very thought provoking. I didn’t know that Langston Hughes made those comments. Sadly, they are true, even in 2014. I ask the same question also. Where are our heroes in literature? We are in desperate need of them. As a writer of fiction, specifically fantasy/romance, I hope to be one of those writers that help add such heroes to the pot. God bless, and good night.

  4. Pingback: Where Have All the Heroes Gone? or Should African American Literature serve as a vehicle to uplift the race and perpetuate a positive image of the culture? | Yaminatoday - A Literary Blog That Entertains & Educates

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