“We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs.”––Langston Hughes
Among the superstars who recently joined late-night television talk show host Arsenio Hall on the set of his newly-revived program was hip-hop pioneer and mogul Russell Simmons. In addition to expressing enthusiasm over sharing meditation with his children and exploring new film opportunities in Hollywood, Simmons spoke briefly and somewhat reservedly about a recent controversy involving artistic freedom versus social responsibility.
Without going into details about the scandal-plagued “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape” video that he posted on, and then quickly removed from, his All Def Digital YouTube channel, Simmons admitted the backlash it created prompted the only instance where he felt compelled––after being pressured by different civil rights organizations––to withdraw artistic content from public access.
After making a move that he felt demonstrated exceptional sensitivity and social awareness, Simmons was discouraged when those who had criticized the parody video failed to acknowledge his corrective actions. His response to their lack of one illustrated a dilemma with which African-American creative artists have had to grapple ever since the Harlem Renaissance. The quandary is one which forces black artists to confront the question of which is more important: freedom of expression as an artist, or social and political responsibility to one’s community as an African American?
In regard to the hip-hop artists with whom he works, and those he admires, Russell stated this in an interview with Huffington Post’s Brennan Williams:
“I would love for all the rappers to talk about civil rights, animal rights, gay rights. I would love for them all to become progressive voices… But I've learned to accept people as they are… I want to nurture them. I'm not going to judge them and be heavy handed. Because it's a waste of time.”
Chatting with Arsenio Hall, Simmons did not express regret over his choice to remove the ill-conceived Tubman parody. However, his reference to those who had pressured him to do so, and then seemingly dismiss him, as “do-nothing negroes” indicated he did not appreciate the perceived trade-off of disrespect. One of the first American authors to tackle this issue of individual creativity versus accountability to the public was Langston Hughes in his classic essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.”
Genius versus Genius
Initially published in the ever-progressive The Nation magazine on June 23, 1926, Hughes’ The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain was written in response to another great author’s essay, specifically George S. Schuyler’s “The Negro Art Hokum.” The exchange was not completely unlike that of contemporary rap artists who call each other out in recordings. The major difference–– aside from the fact that one medium is literary and the other musical––is that in Hughes’ and Schuyler’s case the attack was launched against assumptions and ideas rather than against individuals.
Simmons identified those who caused him to think twice about the responsibilities that come with artistic license as civil rights leaders. Hughes identified those Blacks whom he believed were suppressing authentic African-American artistic expressions as “Nordicized Negro intelligentsia.” The differences and similarities between their experiences make an interesting study in paradigm dancing because both reflect challenges to what it has been, and what it remains, to be black in America.
Writing just as the Harlem Renaissance was shifting into high gear, Hughes expressed disdain for those African-American creative artists unwilling to draw on the raw material of their own individual and cultural experiences to produce notable literature, visual art, music, or theatrical drama. Yet it was only by doing so, he noted, that the Harlem Renaissance produced the exceptional works of authors like W.E.B. Du Bois and Jean Toomer. In regard to the latter’s classic literary montage, Cane, generally described as a novel, he noted the following:
“Most of the colored people who did read Cane hate it. They are afraid of it. Although the critics gave it good reviews, the public remained indifferent. Yet (excepting the work of Du Bois) Cane contains the finest prose written by a Negro in America.”
NEXT: Text and Meaning in Langston Hughes’ The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain Part 2 of 2
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
and ELEMENTAL the Power of Illuminated Love
More from the Text and Meaning Series by Abejhani
Supporter of principles advocated by PEN American Center and the Academy of American Poets, Aberjhani is also the Choice Academic Title Award-winning co-author of the world's first Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.