“And so the word white,” Langston Hughes writes, “comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all virtues. It holds for the children beauty, morality, and money.”
These words, written nearly 100 years ago, establishes an American perspective that hasn’t vanished. In 1926, the poet Langston Hughes wrote the essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” a beautiful declaration critiquing America’s relationship to the Black voice.
The essay’s center is Hughes’s theory of an anonymous African-American poet’s wish to be respected as a “poet” as opposed to a “Negro poet,” and Hughes decoding that poet’s emotion as a more profound wish to be white.
Hughes elaborates, “This is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America — this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.” According to Hughes, race endures as both a repressed and calculated experience.
Skin color corresponds to treatment, forcing human beings to create an identity from the mixture. Supported by this nation’s history, whether we choose to adopt traditional understandings of race or not, the lure to understand race and racism will remain. Defining race’s impact on everyday life, however, is an elaborate voyage often simplified for easy digestion.
This country’s central issue is not that all white people are bad, but how whiteness has been the metric to describe normal. Hughes criticized America and told Blackness to stand on differences, hoping we maximize the cultural qualities that make the African-American “African,” not what makes the African-American “American.”
Hughes’s mountain looms in our background, but a few new revelations arrive, allowing us to build on his initial premise. His metaphorical mountain has become something more stringent since 1926. The segregated America Jim Crow created proliferates through Hughes’s verbiage in the past, echoing covertly into the present.
Everything under Jim Crow was about race, finding a single drop of it to assign value to specific groups according to their placement in a state-sanctioned system of racial discrimination.
As the United States touts a more color-blind society today, race is more unstable and dynamic than initially imagined, appearing to manifest like an avalanche, rolling toward Blackness in an attempt to consume it whole.
For many, to survive the oncoming whiteness, Blackness is forced to exist while compelled to abandon it.
Abandoning Blackness means being absorbed by the snow, swallowed by the chilling white wave. The racial avalanche’s primary focus is consumption through communication methods, using art and media to get the job done.
Americans’s willingness to hear Black perspectives doesn’t translate to progressive policy, only tokenized embodiments of approved rhetoric. By any measure, people of African descent remain disproportionately clustered at the bottom of the social hierarchy, regardless of the number of Black men and women we have speaking on behalf of the disenfranchised.
Because of the avalanche, communicating race’s nature contains questionable beneficiaries, inevitably placing society at an impasse. Writing pieces on the state of Black America pushes the American conversation forward, highlighting and celebrating this nation’s areas of improvement. On the contrary, though, our voices function as caplets for whiteness to consume, feeding the United States an herbal remedy to heal its most ancient disease.
Our medicine heals the beds of unearthed racism that may arise from ignorance. White readers ought to hear voices who challenge their idealistic understanding of America. Otherwise, they are bound to remain unenlightened, doomed to repeat past mistakes, falling ill to the same sickness as their ancestors.
However, at some point in this country’s history, it became Black America’s responsibility, through the Black intellectual, to articulate whiteness’s nuances, an exercise benefiting whiteness more than Blackness.
A Black voice never exists in isolation. Each sentence we write today contributes to a long legacy of truth tellers: W.E.B Du Bois, Jean Toomer, Ida B.Wells, Ralph Ellison, Martin Luther King Jr.. The words we write exist next to whiteness’s willingness to consume them.
Our inability to help our people address white supremacy’s psychological damage without whiteness listening to the conversation is the primary characteristic of the racial avalanche.
A writer and thinker like Du Bois can’t ignore race in his work when, despite speaking several languages, holding a doctorate from Harvard University, and writing his impressive study, The Philadelphia Negro, the University of Pennsylvania refused to offer him a faculty position.
The relationship between knowledge, acceptability, and infrastructure categorizes the Black voice. The Black voice remains within an existential quandary, wrestling allegiance between approved messages or truth telling, both sometimes feeling mutually exclusive.
Critiquing this American existence from a Black perspective is only allowed a certain amount of room.
Black intellectuals who become champions of African-American issues risk being accused of an inability to see beyond their own particular interests, creating a schism between an activist and an intellectual, allowing for some ideas to be marginalized by society while others deemed beneficial.
Within that same paradigm, a Black intellectual espousing conservative values is often regarded as anti-Black, a sellout, or a traitor to their race. As President-elect Joe Biden said in an interview with Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club, “If you have a problem figuring out if you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”
The avalanche of race shifts and moves, creating captives in a society that names whiteness the steward. Whiteness manages to craft the rules, norms, and mores in its image, limiting motion and expression, reasons behind Frederick Douglass not being officially considered a Founding Father of this nation, or Malcolm X not receiving his own nationally recognized holiday.
Included within Black America’s output is whiteness’s input, allowing whiteness to define the relationship between the creator and the consumer. The relationship’s standards are not Blackness’s invention, yet Blackness is forced to regard it as such, as the eyes of whiteness peek into Black American homes, bending the blinds of our windows to formulate opinions through the slivers.
Mass media contributes to the racial avalanche’s complexity today. Because we are believed to live in a post-racial society, Blackness must demonstrate the alleged color blindness of societal progress.
America’s obsession with meritocracy requires Blackness to prove the absence of racial discrimination, as the total absence of Black people would signal the failure of color blindness. The inclusion of a few hypervisible African Americans hides the exclusion of the far larger group.
Visible Blackness must be contained and stripped of meanings that threaten elites, though. Under this allegedly post-racial facade, the Black voice operates, being bought, sold, and rented for widespread consumption.
Whiteness has always desired a window into Black life. During the Harlem Renaissance, on segregated stages, white actors donned blackface to depict their perception of American “Negro” life. Cartoonish looks were accompanied by gleeful all-white audiences. These minstrel shows weren’t the Black experience, but the audience didn’t mind.
The Jim Crow persona was a theatre character created by Thomas Dartmouth Rice. With skin darkened by shoe polish, greasepaint, or burnt cork and painted enlarged lips, the portrayal became most popular during an era when civil rights attempted to tear down the previous status-quo of America’s racial hierarchy.
These performances became an outlet for white viewers to stabilize their understanding of America and their relationship to their home. The time was coming for America to contend with shifting racial politics. Thomas Dartmouth Rice, an actor born in New York, traveled to the South to observe slaves, developing his stage character over the years.
Thomas Rice didn’t go to the South to observe the inhumane conditions of slavery and find a way to liberate his fellow Americans. No, he learned how to best mock them in their condition for the benefit of white consumption.
The avalanche of race chains Blackness to white eyes, ears, and expectations, as we are never speaking only to our community when we speak of America’s mistakes; instead, we are interacting with a historical tradition of consumption.
As a result, the Black voice must always be aware of who they are writing to and who will subsequently absorb it, making it hard to speak from an unfiltered, unabashed sense of justice — or creativity without sociopolitical ramifications.
Black thinkers devising intellectual work for Black audiences of Black-controlled media are minimal, making media an arm of a machine existing to merely use our messaging for entertainment, not directly expressing the African-American communities’ needs.
The anointed speakers can never become white, and, more important, white audiences do not want them to be white. It’s a paradox. Black artists and Black public intellectuals often cross over from race’s particularism into a universal space, carrying ideas valued in a post-racial society, like racial harmony, meritocracy, capitalism, and so on.
Black thinkers and artists are trapped. Rarely allowed a general complexity but rather reduced to sell them and their ideas to a mainstream audience, who have never thought of Blackness as beautifully complex.
Hughes’s anonymous poet couldn’t outrun the avalanche. He sought to abandon Blackness, aiming to be absorbed safely into the rolling white mass. As Hughes’s “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” provides, discussing race in its fullness challenges the United States’s habitual deconstruction of the Black identity. With great clarity and recognition, the essay reveals a feeling deeply profound about this country’s history: the Black experience and her people are as American as apple pie, not a strange phenomenon outside of this country’s culture.