McKay, DuBois, and Hurston On Art, Politics, Propaganda, and Culture During the Harlem Renaissance

Three of the largest writers of the literary and political movement known as The Harlem Renaissance comment in their writing implicitly and polemical works explicitly on the role of culture, art, politics, and propaganda. W.E.B. Du Bois, perhaps the most famous writer on black intellectualism during The Harlem Renaissance, writes in his polemical works about the social position of black people in aspiration of and argument for equity. This equity, for Jamaican exile Claude McKay, is one of socio-political or tactile action. As affiliated with the international communist party, McKay sought international social change and progress through art and revolution. Du Bois, as a public intellectual, however, promotes a quieter revolution, one of thought. Whereas Du Bois is concerned with historicizing the displacement of black bodies from equity and presenting the black intellectual as an identity brought into equity, McKay, as an artist, is concerned with the visceral representation of black life and thereby an acceptance into equity of a more ordinary, Everyman blackness by the white left. Finally, Zora Neale Hurston’s words on propaganda combine McKay and Du Bois both by suggesting art itself, as machinery of vivid life, performs an action-based propaganda. This paper seeks to explicate these intellectuals’ work in order to understand their intersections, dissonances, and ultimately to problematize any normative notions of the constellations of thought that come out of the Harlem Renaissance.

In 1922, Claude McKay gives a speech at the Comintern in which he says white communists in America must “emancipate [themselves]” from their preconceived notions of blackness (16). Slavery’s descendant, he says, is “wage slavery,” the stagnant socio-economic position of blacks in America (17). He argues the very laborer revolution of the Marxist fight is the same of the black man in America, encouraging therefore communists to recognize that any talk about critical revolution can only come to fruition in America through black Americans’ hardship and experience. McKay’s political views exist explicitly for historians. Perhaps his connection to the communist party has deleted him from the canon of American letters, his name only uttered in the classrooms of African-American fiction. The Jamaican exile’s anti-colonial and revolutionary struggles come through in his fictional character of Ray, who appears in his first and second novels, Home to Harlem and Banjo. In each of his novels, Ray represents the despair of the black intellectual given the horror and inequity for his social position. In Home to Harlem, in an opiate-induced dream sequence, Ray questions race altogether and talks through color’s social representation (Home to Harlem 151-155). The novel itself is aesthetically concerned with color in many ways, often pinpointing specific shades of black and brown to describe the characters’ diversity of color.

W.E.B. Du Bois writes Black Reconstruction thirteen years later and begins his book with an explication on the black worker. This chapter historicizes the social position of blacks in America, particularly focusing on the fomenting of racism in the wider American consciousness. The capitalist need for domination, Du Bois seems to argue, not only creates socio-political plight in post-Civil War America, it also creates the systemic oppression of blacks by whites by pitting working class whites against newly freed blacks. The economic system ‘disrupted’ by the emancipation of slavery is stabilized, Du Bois argues, by poor whites placing themselves above blacks in the economic hierarchy. Their systematic creation of this social, political, and economic stature reinforces what had been known as slavery. In other words, slavery had merely been transformed into socio-political hierarchy based on race in the economic structure of America after the Civil War. The exploitation of black bodies for the gain of white control of the market and wealth was done so by pitting poor whites against blacks. This process foments a hatred of the black race in America (Du Bois).

Where Du Bois and McKay agree, therefore, is that the social and political position of black Americans can be historicized and therefore changed. Their prognosis for this change is, however, different. While Du Bois would go on to attack McKay’s work as “dirt” and “filth,” filled with “drunkenness,” “fighting,” and “lascivious sexual promiscuity,” McKay would argue his work does so to show the vivid actuality of ordinary black life  (Letter from Claude McKay… 3). McKay, in other words, understands Du Bois arguments toward equity to be uppity and lacking in the viscerality of the ordinary black man. McKay has his characters Jake and Ray struggle side-by-side in Home to Harlem, Lee M. Jenkins argues, as a means to explain this quarrel between elitist black intellectualism and ordinary black life (Africa 743-745). McKay addresses his critics in “A Negro Writer to His Critics,” and suggests the difference between propaganda and art is that the task of propaganda is much clearer whereas art may present itself as ars artis gratia, art for art’s sake. The “lonely, homely things” of everyday life can be represented in art and is left out of his critics’ elitist polemical movement. Finally, in a letter to Du Bois himself, McKay goes as far as to says “No where in your writings do you reveal any comprehension of esthetics and therefore you are not competent or qualified to pass judgment upon any work of art” (Letter from Claude McKay… 3). Thus, prognosis for change for Du Bois’ art is to present art as elevated. For McKay, it is to present it as truth and therefore as ordinary. McKay and Du Bois therefore also disagree on the position of art in culture.

Zora Neale Hurston did not write much if any literary criticism, yet her anthropological work and fiction does represent blackness in the public and private sphere, particularly black femininity. Hurston “dissolved the opposition between art and propaganda” that McKay drew explicitly in “A Negro Writer to His Critics” and which Du Bois drew implicitly in his criticism of Home to Harlem (Litz 178). African-American dialect and speakers have the ability to create “vivid and actual” stories such that they become propaganda by becoming action (ibid. 178). Hurston’s formulation of social action “raised criticism to the highest level, until it was in a sense synonymous with the verbal culture of the race” (ibid. 178). In other words, while Du Bois finds McKay’s vivid dialect and representation of ordinary blackness too filthy to bring about change in the social position of blacks, and while McKay grants art its own place as the platform for a debate on representation and politics, Hurston’s formulation combines them. She combines the dialect and representation of the ordinary man from McKay’s and her own work with the desire for socio-political equity that she, McKay, and Du Bois all share.

Works Cited

  • Africa and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History, edited by Noelle Morrissette, and Richard M. Juang, ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/nu/detail.action?docID=305238.
  • Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America: an Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. New York: Harcourt, 1935.
  • Litz, A. Walton, and George Alexander Kennedy. The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. vol. 7, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • McKay, Claude. Letter from Claude McKay to W. E. B. Du Bois, June 18, 1928. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries
  • —. “Report on the Negro Question: Speech to the 4th Congress of the Comintern, Nov. 1922.” International Press Correspondence, v. 3, Jan. 5 1923, pp. 16-17.
  • —. Home to Harlem. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1928. Northeastern UP, 1987.

Explaining “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh)” by Fred Moten

Fred Moten begins his “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh)” by praising Afro-pessimism in the work of Frank B. Wilderson III and Jared Sexton. He moves to agree that scholarship cannot be divorced from a hatred of blackness, yet acknowledges tension remains in his love for Sexton and Wilderson’s work. Moten says he plans to stage his position not in opposition to Sexton and Wilderson’s, but alongside them.

Given critical attention to the ship hold, Moten argues that a point of view from the hold is no point of view or standpoint at all, but is rather “refusal of standpoint” (738). Moten says he plans to explore how blackness precedes ontology and thus is not lived in social death as Sexton would have it, but is irreducibly social. To deny sociality exists within the hold of the ship would be, Moten says, to deny value to the terror of that position (a position which, in being a refusal of standpoint is also not a position). Given this, the black, individual standpoint is impossible and thus blackness, Moten asserts, is nothing—not even social death, as Sexton and Wilderson would have it.

Moten, as if to perform his own relation to the work of Sexton and Wilderson and their relation to Du Bois and Fanon, brings up Orlando Patterson’s work as a bridging piece (an image Moten later picks up) between Arendt, Moten, and the Afro-pessimists. This is to say that while Moten’s diction is closely concerned with the subtleties of word difference—like “social poetics” and “aesthetic sociology” (742), “fugue” and “fugitive” (743), “afro-pessimism” and “optimism” (742), “present” and “unmade in presence” (743), “inside” and “outside” (740), “elsewhere” and “elsewhen” (746), “on hold but not in the hold” (750)—his syntax argues that blackness is not a dialectic, but rather it opens up into a constellation: “I plan to stay a believer in blackness, even as thingliness, even as (absolute) nothingness, even as imprisonment in passage on the most open road of all, even as…fantasy in the hold” (742-3). This substitutive nature of subtly different—or vastly different—words pushes Moten’s argument for sociality further: namely, in suggesting that words in their Derridean form (which is to say, meaning nothing while signifying something) are also social: “What is the nothingness, which is to say the blackness, of the slave that it is not reducible to what they did, though what they did is irreducible in it?” (744). In what Moten explains Sexton and Wilderson see as difference between his argument and theirs is, and this is his term, “apposition.” In other words, their theories are subtly different yet have an inherently social relationship between one another in the same valence that the words themselves in his form have sociality.

Moten points out that by maintaining a position of both non-relationality and non-communicability, Wilderson creates a contradiction in terms, for it is only through acknowledging a possible communicability can its negative (non-communicability) be present. Thus, non-relationality is simultaneously impossible, because communicability (or its negative) recognizes intersubjectivity (748-9). Moten later poses this as the key to understanding the difference between pessimism and optimism, namely that the gap between “an assertion of the relative nothingness of blackness and black people in the face, literally, of substantive (anti-black) subjectivity and of an inhabitation of appositionality, its internal social relations, which remain unstructured by the protocols of subjectivity” (750). Moten, again, distinguishes his own theory and that of Wilderson and Sexton not as oppositional but appositional.

Moten agrees with Wilderson’s seemingly paradoxical notion that between blackness and antiblackness is “the unbridgeable gap between Black being and Human life” (749). However, he says what remains is the divorce of blackness from blacks and vice versa: “the necessity of an attempt to index black existence by way of … paraontological, rather than politico-ontological, means” (749). Blackness is required to “serially commit” this act of detachment (749). In this detached state, blackness (rather than blacks) is “unsettlement” (750). Moten makes use of Nathaniel Mackey’s mu from Splay Anthem to serially perform the centrifugal and spiral nature of returning to the sociality of the ship hold. The detachment, then, is a repetitive dissociation from subjectivity “so that what’s at stake … is a certain black incapacity to desire sovereignty and ontological relationality” (750). This incapacity either enables or is itself the stage for sovereignty’s brutal materiality, which Moten brings forth after quoting Kitarō Nishida’s “echoing [of] a traditional Buddhist teaching” (750). Nishida helps Moten to argue also that blackness is a place which has no place. This recalls his earlier figure of nothingness, “the rich materiality of … emptiness” (745), but takes it a step further in the direction of the dialectic: “Things are in, but they do not have, a world, a place, but it is precisely both the specificity of having neither world nor place and the generality of not having that we explore at the nexus of openness and confinement, internment and flight” (751). Moten argues that the hold, in being the place which is a no-place, dissolves sovereignty, and in being “the social life of black things, which passeth understanding” allows for blackness and imagination within the hold to become one (752).

After assessing blackness, Moten turns to nothing, which in its fullness (and thus in its relation to blackness) can be called “fantasy in the hold” (752). Before this, though, he returns to mu, from which issues concentration to the “social materiality of no place, of Having No Place,” in the hold (752). Within the hold remains sociality, even via physical touching, but Moten, in reading Foucault and Deleuze-reading-Foucault, understands the inside of the hold as also a fold of the outside of the hold, the no-place that is also a place. Moten insists this rhetorical move is not a dialectic one, but one which opens up the in-betweenness of the passage, of the in-and-outness of the hold. This brings Moten back to the Afro-pessimists and the question of nothing being with nothing again, a question asked to be unasked, he says. This unasking, Moten argues, “is mu … because nothing (this para-ontological interplay of blackness and nothingness, this aesthetic sociality) remains to be explored” (755-6). Thus, Moten is serially performing, almost spirally within his text, the very thing for which he argues: mu, or “repeatedly circling or cycling back” (747). In returning to the question of nothing, Moten also returns to the notion of standpoint or position. He questions whether the sharing of life within and out of the hold can create sociality for the sake of “extra-phenomenological poetics of social life” (756). Out of the emptiness and nothingness comes, in exhaustion, friendship. This life is derived outside of being (given the detachment of blackness from being or the para-ontology of blackness).