I really enjoyed W. E. B. De Bois’ article Criteria of Negro Art. I love the irony surrounding the fact that he is a black man writing about the struggles of “Negro artists” in a culture and time period where the predominant thought is that white blood is divine. In discussing the racial inequalities prevalent in the creation of art as a black American, he writes:
We have, to be sure, a few recognized and successful Negro artists; but they are not all those fit to survive or even a good minority. They are but the remnants of that ability and genius among us whom the accidents of education and opportunity have raised on the tidal waves of chance. (Peters and Simonson, pg. 45)
There is more irony in the fact that De Bois is one of the artists he writes about. At the time he was one of those “accidents” prevailing in spite of the white man’s advantage – though he had to do most of his work outside the U.S. In fact, according to his biography in the book, De Bois studied in Germany, was the first African American to receive a Ph.D, and was a major player in the movement for civil rights.
De Bios writes in 1926, some 30 years before the Civil Rights movement:
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? (Peters and Simonson, pg. 45)
It’s been something like 85 years since he wrote those words. Perhaps it’s time we ask: “What ARE we saying of black Americans today?”
De Bois’ regard for resistance regarding equal rights, even this early in the civil rights game, got me thinking about something that has appeared recently in our modern media – the book “The Help” (well in my case the movie).
DISCLOSURE: I nearly always read a book before watching the movie, but I ended up watching this movie a few weeks ago – without reading the book first (gasp!!). So my comments from here on out are a bit one-sided. However, feel free to comment and correct if, by chance, you have read the book!!
FYI: For those who are unaware, this book is fiction written by a white woman – fairly recently (published in 2009). The author, Kathryn Stockett, writes about a young, educated white woman who boldly writes about black women and their struggles for equality in the South in the early 1960s during the prime of the Civil Rights movement.
This text (OK, movie) strikes me as interesting, and as a great, modern piece to examine, because it is written by a white woman, from the view point of a white woman who realizes the black woman’s struggle to gain a voice during a time when black women were not allowed to have a voice.
De Bois writes:
I should not be surprised if Octavius Roy Cohen had approached the Saturday Evening Post and asked permission to write about a different kind of colored folk than the monstrosities he has created; but if he has, the Post has replied, "No. You are getting paid to write about the kind of colored people you are writing about. …[T]he white public today demands from its artists, literary and pictorial, racial pre-judgment which deliberately distorts Truth and Justice, as far as colored races are concerned, and it will pay for no other. (Peters and Simonson, pg. 46)
It is not surprising to me that a literary/pictorial piece like this exists, and is regarded as legitimate and truthful. Several questions come to mind…
1. I wonder what De Bois would say of the distortion of the “Truth and Justice” when the voice of the black woman is through that of white women?
2. I also wonder how the story might change if a black woman wrote it.
3. De Bois regards all art as propaganda. Again, I’d like to hear his opinion on how this piece may be one that strips and silences one side. (Do you think it does?)
4. Lastly, De Bois says “In all sorts of ways we are hemmed in and our new young artists have got to fight their way to freedom.” (Peters and Simonson, pg. 46) Do you think the young black artists of today are still “hemmed in” and fighting their way to freedom?
Link to info on "The Help": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Help