@Jamwanda2 on Saturday
Back in 1926, America witnessed the clash of two African-African American giants — then they were called Negroes — over the notion of Negro Art.
Was Negro Art a separate creative tradition with distinct Afro-American canons, or just a small, tender offshoot of Eurocentric artistic mainstream?
On the one side was George S. Schuyler, arguing that claims of Negro-Art “was mere hokum”, or pretentious nonsense in modern parlance.
On the other side was Langston Hughes, leader of the Harlem Renaissance who maintained that Negro Art existed, and stood apart as a distinct, independent tradition with its own laws and sensibilities.
Those denying it existence, and seeking to insert it within the Western mainstream were treacherous, and running away from themselves, hoping for acceptance in white world.
Did they not know that “no great poet has ever been afraid of himself”?
Nothing homo Africanus
This cosmic clash [in black cosmos of course] had been provoked by one Freda Kirchwey, editor of the Nation. Kirchwey had mailed to Langston Hughes a copy of “The Negro-Art Hokum”, an essay which George Schuyler had penned in the same year, then as editor of the African-American newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier.
The essay vigorously dismissed the notion of a separate African-American artistic or literary tradition and sensibility, running on its own canons. Schuyler aggressively wrote: “. . . to suggest the possibility of any such development [of Negro Art] among the ten million coloured people in this republic [United States of America] is self-evident foolishness.”
There was nothing peculiarly Homo Africanus about any form of art produced by Aframericans; in fact nothing African about it, for the “Aframerican is merely a lampblacked Anglo-Saxon”.
Just plain American
Mordantly added Schuyler: “If the European immigrant after two or three generations of exposure to our schools, politics, advertising, moral crusades, and restaurants becomes indistinguishable from the mass of Americans of the older stock (despite the influence of the foreign-language press), how much truer must it be of the sons of Ham who have been subjected to what the uplifters call Americanism for the last three hundred years. Aside from is colour, which ranges from very dark brown to pink, your American Negro is just plain American. Negroes and whites from the same localities in this country talk, think, and act about the same.”
The article was quite colourful [you can check it out on Google], and was heavily laced with examples, references and anecdotes to fortify its single-minded conclusion.
It could only trigger an equally vigorous reposte, which is exactly what Langston Hughes provided.
I want to be white
Responded Langston Hughes, in an equally acerbic tone: “One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet — not a Negro poet, “ meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.”
And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself.
And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet.
But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America — this urge within the race towards whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mould of American standardisation, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.”
Even as you read Hughes’ reposte today, more than a good century later, you still feel his seething, raw anger heaving and moving his whole torso.
Steward at a white club
Hughes went further: “But let us look at the immediate background of this young poet. His family is of what I suppose one would call the Negro middle class: people who are by no means rich yet never uncomfortable nor hungry — smug, contended, respectable folk, members of the Baptist church.
The father goes to work every morning. He is a chief steward at a large white club.
The mother sometimes does fancy sewing or supervises parties for the rich families of the town.
The children go to a mixed school. In the home they read white papers and magazines.
And the mother often says “Don’t be like niggers” when the children are bad.
A frequent phrase from the father is, “Look how well a white man does things.”
And so the word white comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all 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 coloured 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.
He is never taught to see that beauty.
He is taught rather not to see it, or if he does, to be ashamed of it when it is not according to Caucasian patterns.”
Beyond this paragraph, Hughes’ anger wells till it grows incandescent.
It burns, scalds, right through even to this day.
Taste it yourself by googling his article, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, dated 1926.
Controversy that migrated to Africa
Much later, in the mid-sixties, the same debate would reach the shores of Africa, with several artists, foremost among them Akibgo, Soyinka, Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiongo, taking divergent positions, and with no less vehement acrimony.
Actually on the African continent, the debate was even more fraught; it was both relational and linguistic.
Was there something called African Art, or just art, the latter meaning African writers had to fit within the established Western mainstream and its cannons?
Relational in the double sense of how African writers related to their white Western counterparts and, most vexatious of all, how Africans writing on the Continent related to their black brethren and kinsfolks taken and raised in captivity in the Americas and elsewhere.
Home versus away
I might not have the actual dates, but a meeting of Pan African writers, the first to be hosted on the African continent in the early sixties, highlighted the latter rupture in a very bad, divisive way which clearly showed colour alone was not enough to create a common denominator between Africans at “home” and those “away”, in what nowadays we call the diaspora.
Writers like Lamming went as far as disparaging and renouncing their African ancestry, even prayerfully urging God the Almighty to help them embrace their new “home”, in this case that of white America!
Tiger proclaims its tigritude?
To confuse what was supposed to be a clean chasm between “home” and “away” was the maverick Wole Soyinka who saw in the Sedar Senghor-led Negritute Movement — a movement ironically born “away” — another hokum, to borrow from Schuyler.
A tiger does not need to proclaim its tigritude, roared Soyinka, virtually debunking the notion of a distinct, separate and self-adulatory artistic tradition for the Continent.
Hardly surprising for an author reared in the West, and given to drawing copiously from recondite Caucasian sources and mythologies for his story-line and trope!
Angrily blowing white sax to jazz
Ngugi wa Thiongo was to complicate matters even more when he brought in the issue of indigenous languages on the one hand, and the African art and artists, on the other.
He militantly pushed for use of African languages in developing African literature, adding language was deeper than a mere expressive tool; it was a worldview, identity and self-affirmation, or the opposite, self-negation where the artist chose to express himself in a foreign tongue!
Writers like Achebe stoutly rejected this argument, often with riveting expressive colour.
Was it not true, argued Achebe, that denied his home musical instruments by his captor, true that the enslaved Negro seized the saxophone thrust on him by his slave-master, then blew it like it had never been blown before and, was the result not jazz?
The urge for whiteness
Gentle reader, my chief aim is not to trace the contours of theories of art or literature, whether over there in the West, or here in Africa.
I leave that to lecture rooms, and to sophisticated scholars.
My interest is how this debate broaches the whole issue of who a Blackman and Woman are in a world drawn and wrought by white hands, white images, white consciousnesses and white narratives.
In the words of Langston Hughes, to explore “this urge within the [black] race towards whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mould of American standardisation, [with black men and women wanting] …to be as little Negro/African and as much American/Western as possible.”
To establish how such a weird sensibility ad identity desertion arises and comes about.
Finding a new world in Independence
Of course our situation here in Zimbabwe and on the Africa Continent is peculiarly different.
We have formally emerged from colonialism, hoping to find another home, country and continent we call our own, in post-independence.
This is unlike African-Americans who were taken to another continent, then turned into slaves, before being admitted, to varying degrees, as suffered citizens/nationals of those receiving continents.
In the case of our Zimbabwe, our cut-off date for passage to that supposedly “brave new world” is 1980!
For Ghana it was 1957, while for South Africa, the last colony [South Africans never see themselves as decolonials!] to become a nation on the African continent, it was 1994.
In between these two dates lies the rest of Africa.
The passing of Monarchs
There is another thought I wish to borrow from some students of European history, specifically from Europe’s transition from the feudal age of Monarchs to the bourgeois age of Laws and Parliaments.
John B. Wolf traces this transition to rise of the modern bureaucracy, led by men of the pen, as opposed to men of the sword, we know in history as knights.
He summarises this graphically as the shift from Estate to State, with power migrating from royalty to laws, commerce, finance and to the modern military, itself a large parasitic formation fed on taxes.
Such a military was unlike knights who were called up on need.
Another writer, Kingsley Martin, took the argument a little further: “Divine Right”of kings was effectively countered by the doctrine of fundamental law.
Kings ceased to be the law.
In words of George Macaulay Trevelyan, another great student of history, “the King was now the chief servant of the law, but not its master; the executant of the law, not its source.”
This is how Parliaments became bigger than kings, thus marking the end of Monarchism.
Power versus privilege
The thought I elicit and borrow from this history gets articulated by Tocqueville, the great French scholar.
In reading the contrasting fortunes of Monarchs of France and those of England, he noted: “in France, the aristocracy lost its powers but kept its privileges, while in England, the aristocracy lost its privileges but kept its power.”
This was the contrasting story of the French Bourbons and the English Tudors in the 17th Century.
Retaining power while losing privileges; losing power while retaining privileges, that was the great question!
Who are we?
Dear reader, what does 1980 mean for Zimbabwe?
What do years between 1957 and 1994 mean for our African Continent, and for nations that make our Continent?
I am a student of Art, Literature and Culture.
I leave political, economic and sociological answers to this question to those well versed in those disciplines.
My interest is in the mind, the soul, the sensibility and the value systems which attach to this great question.
Frankly I am struck by the persistence of the debilitating binary which drained Schuyler and Hughes in the mid-1920s; which crossed the oceans to create a schism between black Africa at home and black Africa abroad, back in the 1960s.
Which divided Africa then, divides it now, and continues to divide it in the foreseeable future.
The binary seems unresolvable, poignant as ever.
Who have we been as our forebears?
Who are we as the current generation?
Who shall we be as scion of our race, our people, our nation preordained by this pervasive whiteness?
Sons of Ham
Alongside Hughes, I see an insistent and persistent call and pull “to be white”, indeed to pour blackness and African-ness into the mould of whiteness and Western and American standardisation.
To be less African, less Negro; to be as much as possible much Western, much American. Indeed to dismiss as “hokum” any pretensions to be anything but “merely a lampblacked Anglo-Saxon”.
An effort to be a plain Anglo-Saxon on the part of “sons of Ham”.
How it manifests in the everyday
Often we don’t see it.
It operates subliminally.
As when we vow readiness to go to war over rights of so-called NGOs to be, over our own.
Often — as happened a few days ago — when a Zimbabwean madly castigates Government over American sanctions that hurt him/her, his/her country and people.
Often when a Zimbabwean prefers Westerners to exploit our non-renewables to Easterners.
Prefers to be eaten by a white hyena to a yellow one.
Often when the Zimbabwean militantly asks why we will not allow Americans to do as they please in the highly mineralised, strategic corridor of Kanyemba.
All those and much more.
Rushdie’s midnight children
All these baffling loyalties to the Other largely because both or fathers and ourselves remain “chief stewards at a large white club”, while our mothers, wives and sisters do “fancy sewing or supervise parties for the rich [white] families of the towns” of Zimbabwe and Africa! Largely because, as Rushdie’s midnight children – born at midnight of years between 1957 and 1994 – we and our children went to mixed schools where we read white papers and magazines!
For that and much more, whiteness holds “beauty, morality and money”, making it harder and harder to interpret beauty of our own people, our own colour, our own culture and language.
We have to dance to, and fit within “Caucasian patterns”, beat and dance to someone else’s drum, as Charles Mungoshi would say.
Receiving racial slurs with a giggle
It’s a great pseudo-class crisis which I meet everyday in the streets of social media, often projecting itself as risible self-rejection and anti-nation sentiment.
Except for that tendency so deeply embedded and entrenched, why would any self-respecting African derive perverse pleasure and satisfaction, even generate cacophonous laughter, when some white man old enough to have served Rhodesia, nay to have defended it by arms and blood, calls a fellow African who personify the triumph of Africa’s liberation struggles “a dunderhead”?
When is this disparaging epithet an insult to a man, and when an insulting trope to a whole people, race?
Disparagingly throws such an epithet to a person symbolising a generation which is synonymous with founding processes of this land, this Nation?
We don’t get angry; we giggle with perverse satisfaction?
Do all of the above without feeling our inner being and identities challenged and maligned, both directly and vicariously?
We internalise our own challenged and denied humanity; even repeating and throwing it at ourselves through our own.
So, we virtuously call our brethren “baboons”, itself a loaded trope from an era we all thought we had overthrown; we all thought we had rejected and cast off the bruised backs of our collective consciousness as a people?
How does the language and metaphor of a defeated era still reflect and refract in our politics, issue from out black tongues, pass through our thick, Negro lips? Is this where Smith-was-better refrain has taken us?
To that level where the racist white man no longer needs to say it to us, because we say it on ourselves for him? In his language: unbroken and exquisite, and to uproarious cheer from ourselves?
Power versus privilege, again
In times of change, an overlording race may lose power while retaining privileges, language and trope, all of which it weaponises against the same underdog.
Or the obverse, where the underdog gains political power, without retrieving privilege, the narrative, the language and the trope with which to describe and fortify new, changed power relations and semantics. African-Independence Hokum, they now yell, to great Negro acclaim!
Except there is no Langston Hughes to give a strong, stinging reposte.
That is the mountain standing in the way of true Independence for black humans on our African Continent.
We donkeys fare better, infinitely better, with our four legs, long ears and braying mouths.