- In Search of Black Art(ists)On James A. Porter's Instructive Misunderstanding of Alain L. Locke
No Negro who has given earnest thought to the situation of his people in America has failed, at some time in life, to find himself at these crossroads; has failed to ask himself at some time: What, after all, am I? Am I an American or am I a Negro? Can I be both? Or is it my duty to cease to be a Negro as soon as possible and be an American? If I strive as a Negro, am I not perpetuating the very cleft that threatens and separates Black and White America? Is not my only possible practical aim the subduction of all that is Negro in me to the American?—W. E. B. Du Bois, "Conservation of the Races"
These questions, which have engaged so many, have troubled all of my work. How to be both free and situated; how to convert a racist house into a race-specific yet nonracist home. How to enunciate race while depriving it of its lethal cling? They are questions of concept, of language, of trajectory, of habituation, of occupation, and, although my engagement with them has been fierce, fitful, and constantly (I think) evolving, they remain in my thoughts as aesthetically and politically unresolved.—Toni Morrison, "Home"
What does it mean to be a "Negro" artist? What is "Negro" art?1 As W. E. B. Du Bois suggests above, these are permutations of questions that all thoughtful Black Americans—not only artists—who make contributions to culture and knowledge have asked themselves and their communities. And as Toni Morrison suggests, these questions are as relevant to the thoughtful and productive Black American in 1998 as they were in 1897. Consequently, it is no surprise that in the 1920s and 1930s, the Black philosopher and avid advocate of the arts, Alain Leroy Locke, proposed an answer. I will argue that his proposal remains useful today in 2018. It entails an appropriately strong anti-racist impulse in light of the historical and political context, while remaining sensitive to the freedom that artists reserve to follow their muses, and the historical fact that the Negro is, fundamentally, a culturally Western demographic.
At the time, however, Locke's proposal was sharply criticized by the notable artist and historian James Amos Porter. In short, Porter claims that Locke's proposal betrays an ignorance of both art history and artistic practice; Locke apparently overlooks relevant contributions from American art history and imposes academic restrictions on artistic subject-matter. I will argue that Porter's criticisms misunderstand and mischaracterize Locke's proposal. Nevertheless, the misunderstanding is instructive. Basically, what appears to be a criticism is more [End Page 1187] a function of differing disciplinary perspectives rather than ideological incompatibilities. If we reconsider Locke's proposal and Porter's criticism in the light of their methodological orientations, we can appreciate that they are not actually disagreeing that much. With regard to Porter's ire for Locke, perhaps as an artist he resented being told what to do by a philosopher—fair enough. Yet, what Porter fails to appreciate is that Locke's proposal, while directed at artists in particular, pertains to the situation of the Negro more generally and the status of our cultural productions as a whole. Just because he is not an artist specifically does not mean that he cannot speak intelligently about the contributions of Negros to American culture generally. As I will explain below, analogous questions emerge in Locke's disciplinary wheelhouse: what does it mean to be a Black philosopher? What is Black philosophy? Some of the most compelling answers are strikingly similar to Locke's proposal to the Negro artist.
First of all, what is Locke's proposal? Like a good American philosopher, Locke asks, how should we define "negro art"? What are the best criteria according to which we can identify / exclude the obvious cases, and sensibly and consistently adjudicate the ambiguous ones? In "The Negro's Contribution to American Culture" (1939), Locke asks, "What makes a work of art Negro, its theme or its idiom? What constitutes a 'Negro contribution...