“We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too…”Langston Hughes, Excerpt from “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926)
In the 1920s, Black creatives thrived within African-American communities throughout the United States, specifically in Harlem. This New York City neighborhood housed Black poets and scholars, and many people owned businesses, which helped grow their small neighborhood. This was a time when notable people like W.E.B Du Bois, Angelina Weld Grimké, and Langston Hughes gained recognition for their intellectual work.
Literature during this time reflected Black American issues regarding white suppressors, racism, and social injustice. For instance, Langston Hughes addresses in his 1925 poem “I, Too,” how Black Americans seek inclusion in American culture. W.E.B. Du Bois also addressed this during the Harlem Renaissance when he coined the term, “double consciousness.” This term relates to Black people having two identities: a Black person and an American. Hughes ties double consciousness to his poem by stating to White Americans that African-Americans are just as American like them.
Frankly, this has been a recurring theme throughout history.
African-American creatives and intellectuals have yearned for inclusion in America and these issues have persisted for decades. Now, Black writers and intellectuals are increasingly gaining recognition.
Like the Harlem Renaissance, modern-day writers like Danez Smith and Hanif Abdurraqib also write about the Black experience. Smith’s award-winning poetry collection, Don’t Call Us Dead, focuses on how the Black experience can be multi-dimensional. This book draws our attention towards topics like the afterlife, love, and living with HIV.
Hanif Abdurraqib also writes about the Black experience in his collections The Crown Ain’t Worth Much (2016) and A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance (2021). In his most recent work, Abdurraqib explores how Black culture intertwines with American history and how Black achievements are frequently disregarded:
“I typed ‘dance marathons, black dancers’ into a Google search bar, and all of the results returned with a disclaimer tacked to the bottom. ‘Missing:Hanif Abdurraqib, “On Marathons and Tunnels”
Black.’ The results asked if the term ‘Black’ must be included. And at least here, it must.”
Even when talented Black people seek inclusion, Abdurraqib explains that, unfortunately, many people approach us with hesitancy.
Our words will change the world.
Even though there’s hesitancy and discrimination around the world, many artists still work to increase their visibility. For instance, Barry Jenkins directed Moonlight (2016), a coming-of-age film about an African-American man who tackles identity and sexuality. Until 2016, Hollywood rarely hired Black men to play LGBTQIA+ characters. Even so, positive LGBTQIA+ representation was very minimal. This movie became the first LGBTQIA+ film to win an Oscar for Best Picture. Even so, Moonlight was the first film to win with an all-black cast.
Similarly, in 2017 Ava DuVernay became the first Black woman nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for her film, 13th. This documentary focuses on the 13th amendment and how its abolishment led to the criminalization of Black individuals. 13th allowed millions of people to have a conversation about incarceration and educate themselves on racial oppression in America.
Thousands of Black creators continuously show the world that their tremendous work will no longer be ignored. These artists are continuing the work of Harlem Renaissance artists by showcasing the Black experience and why it matters in today’s America.
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