Post-Colonial Theory: Frantz Fanon

POST-COLONIAL THEORY

PART TWO: FRANTZ FANON

Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth

Since the voyages of Columbus, Europeans sought out the territories of the Other, claimed the dark skinned people for slaves, and exploited the resources of those alien “virgin” lands. There are two steps to imperialism: economic imperialism in terms of a trading relationship in which the Europeans dominated the indigenous peoples of South Asia, and Asia and the Middle East and colonialism, in which colonizers are sent to these subjugated territories to either conquer and control them and keep them safe for capitalism. In this dyad of economic exploitation, the Americas were a special case: a huge continental mass supposedly “empty” and “undeveloped” through the inability of the “inferior” natives to properly put the lands to good use offended the European sensibility. Territories left in their virgin state, unclaimed and untamed cried out to be tended and in the colonial era, colonization was a migration to a permanent new home. Colonial Americans, seeing vast spaces in need of cultivation, an undertaking that required cheap of free labor, followed the lead of the British, French, and Dutch and brought in captured Africans to build the new continent.

Elsewhere, the Europeans settled in outposts that were embedded within large already established robust often urban cultures, from Hong Kong to Dubai to New Delhi. The outposts developed from trading stations to centers of conquest and rule, activities that were staffed by military and civilians shipped over from Europe. This ambiguous approach to colonialism in Africa and Asia brought a small but dominant population of Europeans into close contact with a large mass of the original inhabitants. As with American slavery, control could not be only physical–never could such a small number of people effectively control and subdue millions of human beings. As was pointed out in the last post on Albert Memmi, the problem of maintaining dominance was solved through establishing a psychological order of Master and Slave which was internalized by both the colonizer and the colonized alike.

Post-colonial writings have many points of beginning, both European and American, but among the most eloquent were the two books published by Frantz Fanon (1925 – 1960), Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961). Like Aime Cesaire, Fanon was Caribbean, born in Martinique, one of France’s “possessions,” like Albert Memmi, he studied in France but in Lyon, practiced medicine in Algeria, next door to Tunisia, and like, Memmi experienced the end of colonialism in North Africa. Fanon’s books came out of his experiences with racism as a black man and the struggle for self-determination as the colonized. Like Memmi, he attracted that positive attention and patronage of Jean-Paul Sartre. After a short life and an all-too-short career, he contracted leukemia and went to Baltimore for treatment where he died in 1961 of cancer. In his lifetime, Fanon was little noted but he would be long remembered for his anguished and emotional accounts of what it meant to be the Other. Algeria was the last major French colony to be relinquished to its “rightful owners,” after a long and bloody and repressive war.

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Frantz Fanon (1925-1961)

After the war in which they absorbed a humiliating defeat and occupation, the French viewed their former imperial empire from two perspectives–either the empire should be retained as a point of pride or, so as to not mimic the Nazis, the colonies should be set free. The French public was split, left and right, over the ethics of retaining a colony and the immorality of keeping a people in imperial bondage. The French were the colonizer and their dual positions were political ones, but Frantz Fanon viewed the struggle between Algeria and France as one of racial and not religious difference. This political contest between unequals was not just a cultural clash or a quarrel over aspirations but, on a deeper level, there was also a psychotic confrontation between two wounded souls and maimed minds. Fanon sought to analyze the combatants as one would study a patient in need of help.

Educated in the French Hegelian, Marxist, Freudian tradition/s, Fanon asked “What does the Black man want?” He relied on Georg Hegel for his answer: the Black man wants to be recognized by the White man. The problem is that the White man and the Black man are caught up in the master/slave relationship that is not mere theory but is an actual psychosis. “The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation.” Fanon wrote freely and expressively in his first book, while The Wretched of the Earth, with the preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, is more measured and clinical, a theoretical critique. The early publication date of Black Skin, White Masks–1952–is remarkable, predating the rise of the Civil Rights movement in America and the wars of independence in North Africa. But this book is a shout of anger against the regime of colonialism, a form of rule that had outlived its usefulness. Fanon understood the power of the linguistic construction of opposites, the One and the Other, in which one term subordinates the other term and renders it inferior. The linguistic construction mirrored the domination of the white man over the black man in the colonies and in America. Both sides, guilty and innocent, are trapped in a sick relationship.

Fanon also paralleled the writing of his contemporary, Albert Memmi, who wrote of the “colonizer” and the “colonized”, in appropriate Structuralist language. Fanon dealt with language and pointed out that when the black man speaks the language of the white man, the black man assumes the culture and the civilization of his oppressor. The conqueror has no interest in the culture of the conquered who are considered in need of civilizing. As a result of the civilizing mission the mask of imperialism, colonized people have been stripped of their own languages and, without their own culture, they lived with inferiority complex. The colonized individual is faced with the “superior” culture that dominates her and is “elevated” above “jungle status” only to the extent that he adopts the mother country’s standards, from language to learning.

“I ascribe a basic importance to the phenomenon of language. To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization,” he wrote. The black man who approaches the white world and attempts to fit in–to learn French, to be educated in France, to live in France–becomes “white” only to his black friends but remains irredeemably “black” among white people. Like W.E.B. DuBois, Fanon writes of what DuBois called “two-ness,” or the sense of being caught between cultures, a state that Fanon called “two dimensions” or “self-division” or what DuBois called “double consciousness.” This self-division is the result of colonialism and subjugation by the colonizer. The result is a psychotic break that is a recognizable mental illness.

Descended from slaves captured in African to work the plantations of the Caribbean, Fanon writes of the mental state of “the modern Negro” as a “clinical study.” “The black man becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle.” “The white man is sealed in his whiteness. The black man in his blackness.” The black man wants only to break through this “seal” which is the white belief in white superiority to show the richness of black culture and African intellect. In other words, the black man/slave wants recognition form the white man/master. The black man has only one way out of his inferiority and that escape route is through the white world. The result of this contact or impact of whitening is that the black man is radically changed into what Fanon refereed as an “absolute mutation” with the result of “ego-withdrawal” or “restriction” or a renunciation of authenticity to avoid the pain.

The accommodation of the black man to the white man brings no rewards, only alienation, and this alienation or de-humanization, is the object of Fanon’s study. Writing in the early fifties and early sixties, Fanon could see no way out for either of the parties. “The Negro is enslaved by his inferiority, the white man is enslaved by his superiority”. The neurotic withdrawal of the black man is a defense mechanism and the Negro become abnormal due to the trauma of his encounter with white culture. Desiring the approval of the white man, the black man becomes impaired in his development and becomes one sided. In his deeply felt book, Fanon explains, more eloquently than any Hegelian variation on the One and the Other, what it is like to be judged negatively on the color of one’s skin. Fanon combined psychoanalysis and Marxism, understanding that colonized people were traumatized and could never create their own cultures unless they were truly liberated. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon described the process of “decolonization,”

Decolonization, which sets out to change the oder of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder..Decolonization, as we know, is a historical process: that is to say that it cannot be understood, it cannot become intelligible nor clear to itself except in the exact measure that we can discern the movements which give it historical form and content. Decolonization is the meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature, which in fact, opposed to each other by their very nature, which in fact owe their originality to that sort of substantification which results from and is nourished by the situation in the colonies. The first encounter was marked by violence and their existence together–that is to say the xpoloiatiaonof the native by he settler–was carried on by dine of a great array of bayonets and cannons. The settler and the nataive are old acquaitances.

Fanon was a warrior and a healer. He actually fought against fascism in the Second World War and was disgusted with the racism of the Allies. The American military was shamefully segregated and racist elements at home in Washington D. C. plotted to prevent soldiers of color from voting in federalized elections. The British military, as well as the Free French, kept their colonials carefully separate. After the war, even the French Communist Party supported the continuation of colonialism, perhaps because to be a colonial power would still mean something to the nation’s prestige. It was his disgust that led Fanon to participate as a revolutionary in the Algerian uprising against their French masters. Fanon also participated, as a teacher, in what we would term terrorist activities. Indeed, modern terrorism has as one of its beginning moments, the war in Algeria. Fanon realized, however, that the revolutionaries were like any other revolutionary power: essentially bourgeois and wanting only to take over power from the French and to maintain the class and religious oppressions that the French had set up. As he stated, “For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white.”

Today, Algeria is a fundamentalist Muslim country, a far cry from Fanon’s Marxism vision of equality, even for women. The new interest in Fanon, for the uninitiated, can be dated back to 1995 London conference organized by the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The book published in relation to an exhibition of the same name, Mirage: Enigmas of Race, Difference and Desire is an interesting example of how a writer—Fanon—has been re-contextualized and depoliticized and appropriated for contemporary purposes. The difficulty for the post-colonial writer lies in the famous opposition between the Colonizer and the Colonized, set up in a book of the same name by Fanon’s contemporary, Albert Memmi. To speak and to be heard, it is necessary to speak “in the master’s voice” and thus lose the specificity of one’s own heritage, one’s own voice. Fanon is an interesting writer because his voice was not blunted by accommodation or co-option. Although he died decades before the literary écriture feminine movement in France, Fanon, like Luce Irigaray, was an early disrupter of the politeness of university French. Fanon concluded,

I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence. In the world in which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself. And it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental hypothesis that I will initiate my cycle of freedom.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Post-Colonial Theory: Albert Memmi

POST-COLONIAL THEORY

PART ONE: HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Albert Memmi, The Colonized and the Colonized

Just as Race is essentially an American phenomenon, Post-Colonial Theory is essentially a European phenomenon. While it is necessary to make a distinction between the very different experiences of people of color under European and American rule, it is also possible to make a more general theoretical point. Colonialism and racism are both outcomes of the concept of “the Other.” The idea of the One and the Other stems from European philosophical thinking that both pre-dated the system of European model of imperialism, which included conquest, slavery, colonialism, and exploitation of non-Europeans, and justified a set of practices based on difference. For hundreds of years, colonialism, a manifestation of imperialism, was the means whereby Europeans controlled peoples of other continents, until two World Wars gradually eroded a rule that included over ninety percent of the globe. The “post” of Colonialism is both the after-time of a historical period and the critique of the episteme or mind set that led one small part of the world to dominate the Other.

Descartes posited a separation between mind and matter, Emmanuel Kant placed a gap between the subject and the object, Georg Hegel distinguished between the master and the slave. Saussure noted that language is structured in pairs of opposites. Jacques Derrida insisted that polarities are interdependent upon each other. Whether through language or philosophical models, the point is that the subject, the thinking human being, can understand what s/he is only in terms of what s/he is not. Human consciousness comes into being through this recognition of difference and, as Hegel demonstrated, the need to be acknowledged by the Other. The germ of the problem is clear in Hegel who understood that the difference between the One and the Other constitutes inequality. Rather than a neutral “difference” that merely designates or distinguishes, “difference” is loaded with judgments: the Master is superior to the Slave, and, although they recognizes themselves through each other, this recognition favors the Master and works to the detriment of the Slave. It does not matter that the Master cannot exist without the existence of the Slave, without the presence of a “master” the “slave” would be free.

Later philosophers point out that, while language might be structured out of opposites, socially and politically the One and the Other are not “natural” events but are constructed out of the need, not just to determine differences, but to dominate. The mode of constructing the Other is a form of representation or of the One re-presenting the Other in terms that craft domination. Taken to extremes Othering others moves very quickly to dehumanization. According to Theodor Adorno, the “Identity thinking” or the concept of universality, of the Enlightenment is based upon exclusion. If certain selected elements are included within an existing structure, then certain “other” elements have to be excluded to make the initial inclusion meaningful. Post-Colonial theory is about that exclusion. However, Post-Colonial theory is about existentialism or the conditions under which one comes into existence or consciousness through the deliberate extinction of the humanity of the Other.

Exclusion and dominance began long before the philosophy of post-coloniality. Just as colonialism antedated and generated racism, sexism antedates all prejudices and establishes the primary division or the primal Othering between the genders. In isolated communities, in small tribes, the people saw only themselves and there was no other. Long before there was a need for tribes to confront each other over control of territory, the Other had already been created and that Other was Woman. When he attempted to theorize the universal dominance of women by men, Friedrich Engels reasoned that the creation of the idea of “property” or “ownership” allowed men to reduce women and cattle and land to objects to be owned. However, even if Engels was right (and we have no way of knowing that he was), the idea of the One and the Other must have already existed if only because the concept of “equality” needs “inequality” to be meaningful.

In his linking of property and inequality, Engels, along with Karl Marx, would lay the groundwork for a theory of the economy in which capitalism determines society and human relations. Marxism, therefore, was the foundation or stepping stone for Post-Colonial theory, which began to emerge in the 1970s out of traditional Marxism. Post-Colonialism was the intellectual creation of post-war immigrants or the children of immigrants who had come to the Mother Country of England or France to be educated at elite institutions. Marxism’s critique of capitalism provided a useful frame through which the capitalist thrust of imperialism and the class relations of colonialism could be analyzed. In these early years, Post-Colonial theory showed up on the theory radar as “Subaltern Studies” at the University of Sussex with the colonial subjects, the subordinated and the marginalized as active speakers. However, the position of Post-Colonial theory within Marxism was an uneasy one and there is an earlier approach that provided yet another avenue for critique, Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized published in 1957.

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Albert Memmi (1920-) is the ultimate Other, a Jew in a Muslim country, Tunisia, colonized by the French. Born in 1925 of a Berber mother and an Italian father, who passed on his Jewish identity, Memmi was able to observe the turbulent process of de-colonizaiton when Algeria and Tunisia became independence from the French in in 1956. Memmi’s contribution to the Post-Colonial conversation was that he lived within colonialism, unsure of his place: as a native of Tunisia he was colonized, as a Jew he identified with his fellow Europeans, the French. Although he certainly recognized the economic “fascism” of imperialism, Memmi placed colonialism in it more precise structure: racism. While it is correct that imperialism and colonialism were the result of the needs of capitalism to continually expand, the point is that only in territories of color did the Europeans take over and exploit (Asia and India) and exterminate the inhabitants (the Americas) and establish colonists to control their economic interests. In his remarkable book, Remarkable Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, Stephen Greenblat remarked upon the unprecedented nature of this post-Columbian imperialism.

As Memmi pointed out in the beginning of his book, the imperialist adventure was a layered one: on one hand it was a purely economic quest which was authorized as a good-hearted desire to “help” and “civilize” the poor unfortunate native through benevolent colonization. The argument for civilizing of the dark-skinned native is linked to just that—the dark skin, which is racism, which in turn is simple Othering another human being out of viable existence. Thus Post-Colonial theory became part of existentialism long before it was funneled through Marxism. It is no accident that it was Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the introduction when The Colonizer and the Colonized was published in 1957. In his opening sentence Sartre, whose companion Simone de Beauvoir was friends with American writer Richard Wright, links colonization to racism, the kind of racism flourishing in America.

Only the Southerner is competent to discuss slavery, because he alone knows the Negro; the puritanical and abstract Northerners know man only as an entity. This fine line of reasoning still has its uses: in Houston, in the newspapers of New Orleans, and in “French” Algeria—since we too are someone’s Northerners. The newspaper there tell us that the colonizer alone is qualified to speak of the colony. The rest of us, who live in the mother country do not have his experience, so we are to view the burning land of Africa through this eyes, which will just show us the smoke.

Memmi’s writing is a doubling: he is both the colonizer by dint of being a European and he is also the colonized by dint of being Tunisian. His approach is hybrid for he lives with a version of what W.E.B. Dubois called “double consciousness.” As a Jew and a Tunisian he suffered from a double anti-Semitism, both in in Tunisia and in France, where Jews had been deported to death camps. After being educated in post-war Paris, Memmi’s place in society that he has no place for he is part of the diaspora, pulled back and forth between Paris and Tunis, at home nowhere but finally settling in Paris. In 1982 he published Racism which begins with a sentence that could be written today: “There is a strange kind of tragic enigma associated with the problem of racism. No one, or almost no one, wishes to see themselves as racist; still racism persists, real and tenacious.” Memmi’s most recent book and sadly probably his last is the 2006 book, The Decolonization and the Decolonialized, which subverts the “civilizing” argument of the imperialists by asking why these former colonies have not flourished.

The answer can be found by returning to the groundbreaking The Colonizer and the Colonized where Memmi outlined the psychological effects of racism upon the One who is the colonizer and becomes morally corrupted and upon the Other who incorporated the role of the (non)Other as inferior and incapable and without consequence. The One systematically eradicated the native culture and the native language as the price for merely entering into the company of the Colonizer. The Colonized is forced to give up indigenous identification but in the process loses any meaningful identity. The process is one of psychological slavery that dehumanizes the Other and turns her into an object. The Other begins to identify with the (impossible) One but evolves into what Caribbean poet and politician, Aime Cesaire (1913-2008) called “thingification” in the 1955 book, Discours sur le colonialism. Memmi described the path of the Colonized into the exile of religion, the only remaining refuge and his discussion of the trajectory of the Colonized into religion and rebellion sheds light on the events unfolding today in the Middle East and North Africa.

Memmi’s seminal book outlined the social costs and the psychological damage a racist system of inequality does to the colonizer who enjoys unearned privilege. His portrait of the colonizer is scathing. The colonizer is pictured as a glamorous figure who is nevertheless an individual who is mediocre and who would have little future in the Mother Country. In the “colonies,” the colonizer can succeed but not in open and honest competition but at the expense of people who have been dis-empowered. Once the colonizer becomes aware of–becomes conscious of–the Other or the colonized, then the truth of the situation becomes clear. The colonizer is in charge and can write the rules and can make the laws, all of which benefit one element of the binary: the colonizer. The colonized are dehumanized, like a Slave, and exist to be exploited for the benefit of the Master. True, on the surface this exploitation is economic, the outcome of the punitive capitalistic practices of imperialism but at another level, suppressed by the colonizer, lies a narrative of oppression based solely on skin color. As Memmi wrote,

Colonialism denies human rights to human beings whom it has subdued by violence, and keeps them by force in a state of misery and ignorance that Marx would rightly call a subhuman condition. Racism is ingrained in actions, institutions, and in the nature of the colonialist methods of production and exchange. Political and social regulations reinforce one another.

The colonizer is doubly illegitimate: not only is he an interloper in a land that is not their but she is also taking away opportunities from the colonized. Making unjust laws that reinforce an unjust system only make the system doubly unjust. Both parties are entrapped in a society that harms them both but one party, the colonizer receives too many benefits to be willing to relinquish her unjust privileges and the colonized have no power to change his conditions. Aime Casaire presciently perceived that a price would have to be paid when he observed in 1955,

A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.

A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization.

A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization.

The fact is that the so-called European civilization – “Western” civilization – as it has been shaped by two centuries of bourgeois rule, is incapable of solving the two major problems to which its existence has given rise: the problem of the proletariat and the colonial problem; that Europe is unable to justify itself either before the bar of “reason” or before the bar of “conscience”; and that, increasingly, it takes refuge in a hypocrisy which is all the more odious because it is less and less likely to deceive.

Like Memmi, Cesaire laid out the charges against the colonial system during a time when the system was breaking down, bent and bowed under the weight of its own injustice. It is interesting to note that the years in which Memmi and Cesaire were writing, the mid to late fifties, were the same years that initiated the Civil Rights Movement in America. Like Memmi, Cesaire compared the rule of the French over their colonies to the rule of the Nazis over their conquered territories. In effect, in attempting to retain what is not legitimately theirs, the French have become their own worst nightmare. As he wrote,

..colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism..

Although the early critiques of colonialism predate all “posts,” Memmi and Cesaire clearly understood the interdependence of the two poles: the colonizer and the colonized, and this interdependence is the very agent that will deconstruct the binary. Memmi was aware that the colonized would demand self-determination and that war and rebellion would continue until the ties were severed.The ties between the colonizer and colonized are not just political they are psychological. The interiorization of inferiority on the part of the native would have grave consequences. Later post-colonial theorists, writing after the end of Empires would take a Post-Structuralist approach inherited from linguistic and literary theory and re-evaluate the dialectical dance between the colonizer and the colonized. Cesaire used his poetry as a political weapon, twisting Shakespeare’s Brave New World to reproach the usurper:

Prospero, you are the master of illusion.
Lying is your trademark.
And you have lied so much to me
(lied about the world, lied about me)
that you have ended by imposing on me
an image of myself.
underdeveloped, you brand me, inferior,
That is the way you have forced me to see myself
I detest that image! What’s more, it’s a lie!
But now I know you, you old cancer,
and I know myself as well.

Aime Cesaire’s version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1968)

Both authors lived long enough to engage in scholarly debates about colonialism and would see the end of the “civilizing” mission of European imperialism. Both would live in the Mother Country of France and speak and write in the mother tongue and both would live to see France changing as the colonized, the oppressed Muslim population, “come home.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

 

African-American Art: The Harlem Renaissance

AFRICAN-AMERICAN ART AND ARTISTS

The Harlem Renaissance

To ask the question: what is African-American art? is to ask what is American art? America is a nation of immigrants. The only “American” culture is that of the Native Americans and, ironically, as was pointed out earlier, this is the most marginalized of artistic expressions in America. From the nineteenth century, scholars—completely ignoring the Native Americans—pointed out that there was no such thing as an “indigenous” American culture and that American art and literature and music were all based upon European forms and precedents. In the twenty-first century, scholars are more inclusive and speak of hybrid cultures or hyphenated art.

The Chicano and Mexican-American artists based their art on precedents from Mexico and Central America. The Asians who came to the United States from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and India also arrived with their unique sensibilities. Likewise, African-American artists, descended from slaves kidnapped out of Africa, brought the culture of African tribes to America. These African forms of literature, art and music had no ties to Europe or America or Asia. It would be fair to say that “American” art is an amalgam of four continents. It would also be fair to to point out that when cultural elements though of as quintessential “American” art are listed, the origin is, in fact African.

Black culture produced several unique genres of literature, such as the slave narrative, the sermons from the African-American churches, and, of course, the Blues, the source of gospel music and jazz. Today, many people would agree that the music that is “American” is rock ‘n’ roll and jazz and hip hop, the food that is “American” is barbeque, fried chicken, and “soul food”—all of African origin. Ironically this specifically American culture developed the result of the forced slavery and segregation of the Africans who were taken from their homelands and brought to a strange new land. Even after the abolition of slavery, African-Americans were denied equality of any kind and any demands for the rights of citizenship met with violence on the part of whites.

In exchange for peace and in self-defense, Blacks withdrew from whites and formed their own separate institutions and social groups. Here, in isolation, African-Americans could be themselves, sing their own songs, maintain their African roots, make their own speeches, expressing their sense of shared struggle through sermons in the churches. While some sensitive whites were able to recognize the original qualities of African-American culture, others refused to believe that Blacks were capable of making art. Many European philosophers, including Kant and Hegel, insisted that Africans had no culture, no art forms, and were, therefore, not human, for only a fully realized human being was capable of producing art.

While the Southern churches were centers for music-making, that region of the country—an armed camp imposing white will upon the blacks by terror—had little to offer the African-Americans outside of their own marginalized culture. By the end of the nineteenth century, faced with a web of Jim Crow prohibitions, Blacks began to migrate north and one of the key destinations was New York City and the neighborhood of Harlem. In her brilliant 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson lays out a frightening historical account of “escapes’ from the South to a place of refuge in Northern cities. African-Americans were needed for their cheap labor and were not “allowed” to leave the South and were kept in their place by both legal and illegal means, much like the old slave culture. Those who managed to make it to a city like Chicago or Los Angeles or New York were brave, determined and willing to risk their lives for the American dream.

The African American artist, Jacob Lawrence, produced a remarkable suite of paintings on The Great Migration (1940-1), an exodus from the segregationist South that continued until the 1960s—fifty years to northern and western destinations. Using simple blocks of strong color, Lawrence combined figuration with Cubism to tell a visual story that is paralleled by the history later recounted by Wilkerson, a story of persecution and hardship, ending with fulfillment. Giving an account of an extreme level of segregation and lives lived in daily fear in the South, African Americans existed in near complete isolation. Wilkinson pointed out that many of these escapees had never voted, had never spoken to a white person and had never left the place of their birth. This historical background of racism in relation to the phenomenon called the “Harlem Renaissance”—the sudden flowering of art, music, poetry, literature, political philosophy in the legendary New York neighborhood—is significant because the “renaissance” was an extraordinary accomplishment from the children and grandchildren of slaves.

Understanding the incredible deprivations endured by African-Americans in the South makes the art made in Harlem more meaningful, not just in terms of paintings or sculpture, but more importantly in terms of a flowering of a glowing human-ness. The Harlem Renaissance was an attempt of African-Americans to refute the charge, leveled by whites, of being “less than human” by giving the production of culture as much importance as economic success and entry into a middle class life. To be an artist was to be a human. Being an artist requires a strong sense of self and a healthy ego, qualities not permitted for African-Americans in the South where they were indoctrinated with the propaganda that they were “inferior” in every way. And yet, once they had put distance between segregation and the closed racist society, African-Americans began to write, recount their own history, develop their own philosophy; they started to sing, to dance, to make music, to express themselves through the visual arts.

During this era important Black philosophers and cultural observers began to write seriously about what the philosopher, W. E. B. DuBois, called “the soul of black folks.” The black “soul,” DuBois stated, was divided into a “double consciousness:” on one hand, the Black was an African with the heritage of slavery, oppression, and struggle; and on the other hand, the Black was an American with all the hopes and dreams that characterized the society. The hyphenated term “African-American” reflects that dichotomy, that divided identity that has created the original art we call “American.” Many of the artists of the Harlem Renaissance practiced their craft under difficult conditions. The visual artists were supported by well-meaning but slightly condescending white patrons who disappeared with economic hard times. The musical artists performed for white patrons at venues such as the Cotton Club, where no African-Americans were allowed, except as entertainers.

Like Native Americans, African Americans, from the time of the Harlem Renaissance, confronted white art forms and were faced with a decision that white artists never had to consider. If an African-American artist appropriated “white art,” did she give up her own cultural identity in a quest to become accepted simply as an “artist?” Was she selling out? If, on the other hand, an African-American artist maintained and developed the survivals of African culture, did he risk being marginalized as a “Black artist?” Would his art ever be seen as “art?” These questions faced the artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Painting as a form of “fine art,” was not part of an African heritage, like the music—jazz, blues, gospel—or the slave culture, like the soul food. African sculpture, however, was part of the tribal heritage and was celebrated by the European artists of the early twentieth century, who appropriated African art forms and made them their own.

For the African-American artist of the Harlem Renaissance, the appropriation would be reversed: Western style easel painting was used by Blacks to make statements that were specifically African-American. In doing so, the artists signaled by their adherence to painting both an assimilation of white art forms and a desire to use them to preserve and develop their own modes of expression. The easel painters of the Harlem Renaissance used painting to develop African motifs, such as Lois Mailou Jones, or to show life in Harlem, such as Palmer Hayden, or the culture of New Orleans, such as Archibald Motley. Similarly, sculptor, Richmond Barthe, used Greco-Roman forms to celebrate African life.

The hybrid art of African Americans is hybrid because these artists are, first and foremost “American” and are part of the larger American society. “African” is a statement of pride and distinction and expressions of “African-ness” are American-style survivals of tribal culture, a culture from which they have been separated for centuries. The result, as with all American art, all of which is hybrid, is a rich mixture of histories and traditions and inheritances. One of the most famous works of visual art of the Harlem Renaissance were the murals of the New York Public Library branch in Harlem. These murals, telling the story of Africans who came as slaves to America and suffered and endured and final triumphed, were the masterworks of Aaron Douglas.

However, the Harlem Renaissance was part of the jazz age, the Prohibition, and was dependent upon a prosperous bubble economy. After the Crash on Wall Street in 1929, the Great Depression devastated all of America and, as usual, the African-Americans were especially hard hit. America did not recover from the collapse of the economy until World War jump-started the stalled economy and offered hope, once again, to African-Americans. The photographer who recorded the Harlem Renaissance, its people and its places, James Van Der Zee, lived long enough to photograph the second coming of African-American art when he made a portrait to the Puerto-Rican-Haitian-American artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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