- James A. Porter & Alain Locke on Race, Culture, and the Making of ArtA Response Essay
Tricky as Anansi with his countless names and iterations, the question here is difficult to pin down or distill. Where does it even begin? In Negro Art: Past and Present, Locke recommends that black artists and writers shed their shame and self-loathing. Amen to that, I say. But then he predicts that once this is done, black writers and artists will produce work that bears a family resemblance to African art. Despite his insistence that we would be "foolish… to want to restrict the Negro artist to racial subject matter or to being merely an exponent of Negro art," he wants to prove the cultural patrimony of Africa was equal to that of Europe. This is where the trouble starts. The line between prediction and prescription fades when Locke assigns an African legacy to black American artists and writers.
James A. Porter recognizes the seductive power that critics like Locke have, their ability to influence younger poets and artists by endorsing a particular cultural agenda. Porter considers Locke's sway as potentially "one of the greatest dangers to the Negro artist," but Porter, too, engages in a kind of cultural bean counting to assess "the credit side of Negro cultural achievement," and prove the net worth of the race. If they disagree about, as Porter puts it, "the value of African Negro art to the American Negro artist," Porter and Locke do proceed from the shared assumption that the aesthetic direction of African American cultural production can and should serve the social and political needs of future African Americans. This was a common sentiment in the first half of the twentieth century, and has turned up regularly, congealing into dogma, in the decades since. At the core of this idea is the practically unchallenged conviction that there exists some abstract thing we can call a black aesthetic. This conviction, the true hazard in our midst, facilitates the implementation of art and literature in service of African American pride, a dubious service it should never be required to provide.
In his 1937 essay, "Legacy of the Ancestral Arts," Alain Locke argues that "even with the rude transplanting of slavery … the American Negro brought over as an emotional inheritance a deep-seated aesthetic endowment." Porter, in "The Negro Artist and Racial Bias," his response to Locke, refers to the "intrinsic racial values" he believes can be found in black art and literature. If African American artists and poets do enjoy a privileged, if not atavistic, connection to African cultural expression as these men suggest, considering that race offers no biological means of transmission, how is this birthright vested? Neither of them is claiming that, like the N-word, African diasporic cultural expression belongs to African Americans in the United States because we have the moral and political leverage to enforce such a copyright. They are not extrapolating from Fredrick Douglass's argument that white artists whose vision was distorted by racial biases were incapable of painting black figures, [End Page 1195] and that, by exclusion, "racial themes" are best explored by artists of African descent. Nor are they arguing that the "real and vital racialism" Locke champions is comprised of communal dispositions—physical, ideological, affective—acquired through the unconscious imitation of those with whom we interact regularly and intimately. Locke's argument doesn't follow any of these rational lines. Locke is suggesting that the relationship African American artists have to African cultural forms is magically proprietary and genealogical. What else could he mean in advocating black artists "com[e] home spiritually" to "familiar and well understood subject matter" such as, oddly, portraits of "Martiniquian youth"? Locke gives us a lot to unpack, but I'm especially put off by the way he invokes spirituality to mystify the creative process.
Perhaps the question is: what do we gain in the effort to distinguish African American literature and art from and within "American" cultural expression? African American poets especially (other poets of color and women writers encounter similar presumptions) get attributed a collectivized genius, and have long been expected to give voice to...