By Josef Sorett
In Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, 2016), Josef Sorett offers a retelling of African American literary history across two of the most celebrated moments in the tradition; from the Negro Renaissance of 1920s to the Black Arts movement of the 1960s. Exploring the work and lives of the some of the most celebrated black artists and intellectuals—including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Lorraine Hansberry; Ralph Ellison, Roi Ottley, Ann Petry and Richard Wright; Gwendolyn Brooks, James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka—from a new angle, Sorett reveals the complicated, and at times contradictory, ways that religion shaped their literary visions. Ultimately, Spirit in the Dark captures a spiritual impulse at the center of the black literary imagination.
The following essay is a slightly revised excerpt from Chapter 1—titled “The Church and the Negro Spirit”—of Spirit in the Dark, which focuses on tensions between religion and aesthetics as they informed debates about black art and culture during the 1920s.
THE SPIRITUAL POLITICS OF NEGRO ART
Ninety years ago last month the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) publication, The Crisis, printed an essay by its editor-in-chief, W.E.B. Du Bois. While Du Bois’s commentary often graced the pages of the Crisis, this time was slightly different. Four months earlier Du Bois had taken the stage at the NAACP convention in Chicago to deliver a speech that he later titled, “Criteria of Negro Art.” He had been asked to speak at a ceremony awarding Carter G. Woodson the organization’s highest honor, the Spingarn Medal. Owing to popular demand, The Crisis printed Du Bois’s speech in its entirety in October of 1926.
Like Du Bois, Woodson was a Harvard-trained historian; and he was being honored for, among other contributions in the field of history, founding “Negro History Week” in February of that year. Yet Du Bois made the arts, and not history, his primary topic. To be clear, his decision to take the arts as his subject at the convention was no spontaneous gesture. By 1926 talk of a “Negro Renaissance” abounded; and although it was most commonly associated with Harlem, Chicago played a significant role in this nascent black literary movement. Alain Locke’s The New Negro, commonly considered the movement’s bible, was published in 1925. Crisis had since begun sponsoring a dialogue on race and literature on its pages. And, most recently, two of Harlem’s rising literary stars—George Schuyler and Langston Hughes—had just finished debating the idea of “Negro art” on the pages of The Nation. In fact, as a rebuttal to what Schuyler identified as “The Negro Art-Hokum,” Hughes’s now famous essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” appeared in The Nation on the same day that the NAACP opened its seventeenth national convention.
Du Bois’s speech observed that the accomplishments of New Negro artists had created a whisper across society: “Here is the way out. Here is the real solution of the color problem.” But he was skeptical of the suggestion that the mere recognition of Negro artists was an adequate resolution. He intended to impose more specific criteria on racial aesthetics: Negro artists ought to represent the race in a positive light. Not to neglect a historian’s perspective, Du Bois explained that standing narratives of Africa and the United States portrayed black people as little more than the spoils of European conquest and the mules of American slavery, respectively. In light of this history, the recent memory of minstrelsy, and a marketplace ever willing to serve such popular imaginings, Du Bois called on Negro artists to provide images of black heroism.
After all, documenting the details of such heroism was a theme in much of Du Bois’s historical work. Similarly, Du Bois asserted that Negro artists should offset racist stereotypes with their creative work. “I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda,” Du Bois confessed. “But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.” Decrying those whom he described as “purists,” he explained further, “I am one who tells the truth and exposes evil and seeks with Beauty and for Beauty to set the world right.” In his estimation, all art was necessarily implicated in a political order. All art was propaganda, either in service to, or against the best interests of, the race. So Du Bois self- consciously sought to direct the energies of Negro artists in accordance the aims of race politics. With regard to the color line, Negro art either supported social change or endorsed the status quo. Du Bois cast his vote unequivocally with the former. And the matter of religion was deeply entangled with his vision for the arts.
Two years before delivering his “Criteria of Negro Art” speech, Du Bois had published The Gift of Black Folk. In the book’s final two chapters, he argued that the contributions of black people to American society were uniquely aesthetic and religious. To be sure, such claims adhered to common caricatures of “the Negro” as both overly emotive and naturally religious. However, Du Bois’ discussion of religion in “Criteria of Negro Art” two years later revealed him to be more than simply a romantic racialist. Though religion was not the main theme of his speech, he offered a distinctive, if contradictory, account of the impact of Afro-Protestantism on black cultural production during the 1920s.
Similar to what Alain Locke claimed in his introduction to The New Negro, Du Bois observed in these novel “stirrings” the signs of a “new spirit” coming into sight. Although he and Locke seemed to agree on a basic spiritual assessment, Du Bois parted company with Locke in his interpretation of the conditions under which Negro art was produced as well as the direction it should take. Locke suggested that the emerging “race- spirit” apparent in the arts was rapidly supplanting religion’s hold over black life. Du Bois, however, complicated this secularizing teleology of racial progress. He also appeared to contradict his own insistence, earlier in the essay, concerning the necessarily political function of art. On one hand, “the white public” interpreted all Negro art through a distorted “racial pre- judgment.” On the other hand, Du Bois explained, the “black public still wants our prophets almost equally unfree.” Negro artists were constrained by race politics within and without, which made the “catholicity of temper” required for creative freedom a tall order.
Given that he was addressing the NAACP, Du Bois devoted more time to the challenges imposed by black audiences. In this regard, he singled out religion as one source preventing the full development of a racial aesthetic:
We are bound by all sorts of customs that have come down as second- hand soul clothes of white patrons. We are ashamed of sex and we lower our eyes when people talk of it. Our religion holds us in superstition. Our worst side has been so shamelessly emphasized that we are denying that we have or ever had a worst side. In all sorts of ways, we are hemmed in and our new young artists have got to fight their way to freedom.
Although Du Bois started to disaggregate the problem into black and white, his reference to religion acknowledged the degree to which the two were always entangled. Sex was taboo and religion (presumably the Negro Church) was, in effect, a talisman. As these two things coalesced, the black public embraced what historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham has identified as a “politics of respectability.” However, while this politic was encoded within institutional Afro- Protestantism, it was, in fact, inherited— the “second- hand soul clothes” of whites. Indeed, the guiding logic of race politics had been formed in the likeness of American Christianity, specifically Puritanism. Du Bois explained that a “still young black public” was, by default, both unreasoning and overly emotional and opposed to all forms of pleasure such as dancing, drinking, and sex.
Interestingly, here Du Bois appeared to endorse artistic freedom rather than a program of racial propaganda. To be sure, Negro artists ought to direct their efforts toward countering harmful racial stereotypes. Yet he also acknowledged that one side effect of the racist ideology that justified slavery and segregation was that, in response, black people had begun to deny “that we have or ever had a worst side.” In the face of white supremacy, the Negro often overemphasized the positive, Du Bois observed. In this way the black public kept its “prophets”— that is, young Negro artists— “unfree.”
This argument represented a departure for Du Bois. In both The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and The Gift of Black Folk (1924), he had lauded the cultural ingenuity apparent in black artistic and religious practices. In the first of these two books, he devoted an entire chapter to providing a historical account of the emergence of Afro- Protestantism. In “Of the Faith of the Fathers,” Du Bois highlighted the “the preacher, the music, and the Frenzy” (i.e., ecstatic worship) as the pillars of the Negro Church. It was a celebrated, if complicated, first black institution on American soil. In the latter, he referred more broadly to a capacious— vague yet generative— “gift of the spirit.” Now, however, he singled out churches as impinging upon aesthetic freedom. Under the best of circumstances, religion might be overtaken by the rise of a racial spirit, as Locke argued. At worst, Du Bois suggested, religion remained a repository of cultural superstitions that inhibited the creative flourishing of the race.
For Du Bois and Locke alike, a nascent racial spirit presented the prospect of different political possibilities for black people, even if the sources and substance of that politics were debatable. The arts might provide the occasion for spiritual rebirth, and vice versa. In this way, Du Bois’s “Criteria of Negro Art,” essay illustrated the competing demands placed on Negro artists: the urgency of the “problem of the color line” (i.e., politics) and the presumably universal aspirations of true art (i.e., culture). This was a predicament that would be inherited by generations of black artists and intellectuals in the years to come. In many ways, Du Bois’s “Criteria of Negro Art,” revisited and synthesized several of the arguments and tensions that defined the debate about race and art, but also religion, during the 1920s. The Negro Church— in all of its institutional and cultural diversity—at once harbored aspirations toward middle- class respectability (or whiteness), and was the marker of a distinct racial aesthetic. Afro-Protestantism, then, encapsulated the very complexities and contradictions that enlivened the idea of Negro art, and the racial spirit that many suggested was increasingly apparent during the heyday of the New Negro.
- E. B. Du Bois described the most recent generation of Negro artists as “prophets.” Arguing against popular opinion that the arts were ephemeral and detached from social concerns, he insisted that the arts served a practical purpose that was not at odds with the NAACP’s civil rights platform. Both were concerned with the creation of a more beautiful world. Du Bois explained that the demands of modern society made it nearly impossible for most people to appreciate the mundane beauty in everyday life, such as a sunset. Such decline was akin to spiritual disenchantment, which by all accounts was a “universal failing.” His prognosis and prescription again paired ethics (politics) and aesthetics (art). “We black folk may help for we have within us as a race new stirrings, stirrings of the beginning of a new appreciation of joy, of a new desire to create, of a new will to be,” Du Bois told his audience. Enter here New Negro artists: “The Negro Youth is a different kind of Youth, because in some new way it bears this mighty prophecy on its breast, with a new realization of itself, with new determination for all mankind.”
Josef Sorett is an Associate Professor in the Religion Department and the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, where he also directs theCenter on African-American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice (CARSS). As an interdisciplinary scholar of religion and race in the Americas, Josef employs primarily historical and literary approaches to the study of religion in black communities and cultures in the United States. His first book, Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, 2016) illumines how religion has figured in debates about black art and culture across the 20th century. Josef’s second book – The Holy Holy Black: The Ironies of an African American Secular – is forthcoming, also with Oxford UP. Additionally, Josef is editing an anthology tentatively titled The Sexual Politics of Black Churches. Josef’s scholarship has been published in academic journals and anthologies; and his writing and commentary have also appeared in a range of popular media outlets, including ABC News, the Huffington Post, New York Times, and the Washington Post, as well as on the BBC and NPR.