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The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Protest

Alain Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois
- W. E. B. Du Bois, "Criteria of Negro Art," essay, The Crisis, October 1926
- Alain Locke, "Art or Propaganda?" essay, Harlem, November 1928 (PDF)

Should African American writers commit themselves and their work to the social and political goals of black liberation, or should they pursue their own aesthetic ends? Should African American literature be propaganda or art? This debate has special resonance for African Americans, for in the antebellum era black writing was driven by abolitionist zeal, and in the years after the Civil War it served what the writer Charles Chesnutt called "the high holy purpose" of advancing the recognition and equality of the race (see The Making of African American Identity, Vol. II). With the advent of the New Negro Movement critics asserted that black writing should be free to abandon its explicit social and political purposes in favor of more aesthetic goals. In the 1920s this debate was conducted mainly by W. E. B. Du Bois, who argued that "All art is propaganda," and Alain Locke, who argued that "propaganda perpetuates the position of group inferiority." (For information on Locke, see Theme II: MIGRATIONS.)

Du Bois delivered "Criteria for Negro Art" to the 1926 Conference of the NAACP in Chicago. In it he argues not for narrow literature that bludgeons the reader with a social message but for art that works on behalf of racial advancement, deploying "Truth" to promote "universal understanding" and "Goodness" to engender "sympathy and human interest." In "Art or Propaganda?" Locke calls not for decadent or "over-civilized" art but for art free to serve its own ends, free to choose either "group expression" or "individualistic expression." In the end both men sought the same goal: they wanted to combat perceptions of black inferiority among both blacks and whites.

So who won the debate? The answer would depend on when you asked the question. Had you raised it in the 1920s, the answer would be Locke. The most influential critic of African American literature of the early twentieth century, he was able to publish his views widely and direct patronage and attention to writers who agreed with him. In the 1930s and early 1940s, as the nation struggled with economic depression and world war, many writers—black and white—embraced proletarian literature and social realism, bringing the Du Boisian position into prominence. One sees this trend manifested vividly in Richard Wright's novel Native Son, published in 1940. During the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, the nation's increasingly conservative political climate and the integrationist goals of the civil rights movement re-established the ascendancy of Locke's approach. To illustrate this change in direction, critics generally point to Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man, published in 1952. As the civil rights movement became more assertive in the 1960s and as African American intellectuals insisted that black art must be part of a revolutionary struggle, Du Bois's stance once again came to the fore. Since the late 1970s, with the rise of critical theories that focus on language and structure, one can say that, in general, a rather Lockean view prevails. (12 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. Why would this debate on the role of art in the African American struggle for freedom and justice arise in the late 1920s?
  2. How does Du Bois characterize the moment? How does Locke?
  3. How does Du Bois at the opening of his speech engage his politically active audience?
  4. What role does the "Lady of the Lake" episode play in his speech?
  5. Du Bois offers three stories—the story of the white daughter and the brown daughter, the story of the "colored lawyer" in the Southern town, and the story of the conquest of German East Africa—out of which black writers might create "romance." What do these stories have in common?
  6. Du Bois describes three artists—the black sculptor in New York, the writer Richard Brown, and the black musician in Chicago. What point does he make with them?
  7. According to Du Bois, what harm do stereotypes inflict upon readers and writers?
  8. What does Du Bois suggest about African American identity when he asserts that "the ultimate judge" of African American art "has got to be" African Americans themselves?
  9. According to Du Bois, how does the judgment of white critics nullify the distinctively black experience of African American artists?
  10. How, according to Locke, does propaganda perpetuate racial inferiority?
  11. What values does Locke see in propaganda?
  12. How does Du Bois recognize the social and political realities of racism? How does Locke?

Framing Questions
  •  What forms did African American protest take?
  •  How did protest strategies and goals evolve over time?
  •  In what ways was African American identity shaped in opposition to the larger American society?

Du Bois: 10 (much white space)
Locke:   2
TOTAL 12 pages
Supplemental Sites
W. E. B. Du Bois: The Activist Life, online exhibition, University of Massachusetts-Amherst Library

W. E. B. Du Bois, overview, in The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow (WNET/PBS)

Alain Locke, overview and bibliography, from Howard University Libraries

Alain Locke, overview and bibliography, in The Black Renaissance in Washington (District of Columbia Public Library)

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

-W. E. B. Du Bois, photograph, between 1910 and 1930. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, #LC-USZ62-123822.
-Alain Locke, photograph, n.d. Copyright holder unknown. Digital image from Howard University Libraries; permission pending.

1. Asking   2. Reasoning   3. Singing   4. Marching
  5. Boycotting   6. Arming   7. Voting   8. Separating
  9. Connecting   10. Writing   11. Poetry   12. Theater   13. Images

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

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