Alain Locke (1925), portrait by Winold Reiss from The New Negro: An Interpretation. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library.
From the first issue of Harlem magazine, November 1928
Artistically it is the one fundamental question for us today.—Art or Propaganda. Which? Is this more the generation of the prophet or that of the poet; shall our intellectual and cultural leadership preach and exhort or sing? I believe we are at that interesting moment when the prophet becomes the poet and when prophecy becomes the expressive song, the chant of fulfillment. We have had too many Jeremiahs, major and minor;—and too much of the drab wilderness. My chief objection to propaganda, apart from its besetting sin of monotony and disproportion, is that it perpetuates the position of group inferiority even in crying out against it. For it lives and speaks under the shadow of a dominant majority whom it harangues, cajoles, threatens, or supplicates. It is too extroverted for balance or poise or inner dignity and self-respect. Art in the best sense is rooted in self-expression and whether naive or sophisticated is self-contained. In our spiritual growth genius and talent must more and more choose the role of group expression, or even at times the role of free individualistic expression,—in a word must choose art and put aside propaganda.
The literature and art of the younger generation already reflects this shift of psychology, this regeneration of spirit. David should be its patron saint: it should confront the Philistines with its live smooth pebbles fearlessly. There is more strength in a confident camp than in a threatened enemy. The sense of inferiority must be innerly compensated, self-conviction must supplant self-justification and in the dignity of this attitude a convinced minority must confront a condescending majority. Art cannot completely accomplish this, but I believe it can lead the way.
Our espousal of art thus becomes no mere idle acceptance of “art for art’s sake,” or cultivation of the last decadences of the over-civilized, but rather a deep realization of the fundamental purpose of art and of its function as a tap root of vigorous, flourishing living. Not all of our younger writers are deep enough in the subsoil of their native materials,—too many are pot-plants seeking a forced growth according to the exotic tastes of a pampered and decadent public. It is the art of the people that needs to be cultivated, not the art of the coteries. Propaganda itself is preferable to shallow, truckling imitation. Negro things may reasonably be a fad for others; for us they must be a religion. Beauty, however, is its best priest and psalms will be more effective than sermons.
Alain Locke (1885–1954) was an writer, philosopher, educator, patron of the arts, and early chronicler of the Harlem Renaissance. This essay appears later this month in The New Negro Aesthetic, an anthology of Locke’s writing for Penguin Classics edited by Jeffrey C. Stewart, whose book Alain Locke: The New Negro won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2018.
Also in Book Post: Read “What Shall We Do with the White People?” by pastor and abolitionist James W. C. Pennington (Anglo-African Magazine, January, 1860), from another recent Penguin Classics anthology, Unsung: Unheralded Narratives of American Slavery and Abolition.
Happy New Year friends!
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