- James A. Porter & Alain Locke on Race, Culture, and the Making of ArtA Roundtable
As I was preparing this special issue of Callaloo • Art, I by chance discovered James A. Porter's essay "The Negro Artist and Racial Bias" in Art Front (1937), a limited-run magazine published by the Artist Union of New York from 1925–1937. As I read Porter's article, I was all the more intrigued by his ideas and how he fluently expressed them, and then suddenly I came upon the following statement, which jarred me:
Dr. Alain Leroy Locke's recent pamphlet, Negro Art: Past and Present, is intended to bolster his already wide reputation as a champion of Africanism in Negro art. This little pamphlet, just off the press, is one of the greatest dangers to the Negro artist to arise in recent years. It contains a narrow racialist point of view, presented in seductive language, and with all the presumption that is characteristic of the American "gate-crasher." Dr. Locke supports the defeatist philosophy of the "Segregationist." A segregated mind, he implies, is only the natural accompaniment of a segregated body. Weakly, he has yielded to the insistence of the white segregationist that there are inescapable internal differences between white and black, so general that they cannot be defined, so particular that they cannot be reduced through rational investigation.
The eloquence and clarity of Porter's writing style seduced me to read on, as he built with facility a very strong and convincing argument. And I decided to reread the short essay, but when I arrived at the statement that I quote here, I again paused and asked myself how I might I use Porter's essay in this issue of Callaloo • Art. Most of what I had read as cultural or artistic criticism from the New Negro Movement had been, in the main, consensus agreements. [End Page 1169] I had never encountered such a critical dissenting voice of this kind from the movement, especially not one from the New Negro Movement that sounded like a personal assault. Because I assumed that a great number of readers might not be, as I am not, specialists in New Negro Movement discourse, they might never have the opportunity to read this very important essay. Texts by Alain Locke, especially his Negro Art: Past and Present, are easy to come by, but essays by James A. Porter are not.
To bring widespread attention to the opposing views of these two iconic figures from the New Negro Movement, I thought, would be useful and appropriate. These two contrary voices in this issue of Callaloo • Art give our readers an important dimension to the critical and creative atmosphere in which the eight featured visual artists worked. So I thought it would be appropriate to arrange for a roundtable of open and free discussion consisting of various critical and creative minds from our annual Callaloo ConferenCe group. Three of them (two critical theorists and one fiction writer) were able to join the discussion, and two (a prize-winning poet and a critical theorist in philosophy) wrote response essays. The conversation we arranged via a conference telephone call follows, along with the two essays.
—Charles Henry Rowell
Since I suggested that we might create a roundtable via a conference call recording, I have been wondering whether it is significant for us today to critique the questions implied in the indirect exchange between two Howard University colleagues back in the 1930s, during what was known as the New Negro Movement. Even though I agree with much of what he says and implies about the making of art, I consider James Porter's statement directed at Alain Locke, the person and the thinker, to be an explosive personal assault about a critical subject that was very important to contemporary New Negro visual artists, as well as to black writers, dancers, musicians, and others creating art of various kinds of the day. In fact, I want to suggest that similar concerns, as they were espoused during our more recent Black Arts Movement of the 1960s...