Du Bois and Propaganda from Swiatkowski, Jean-Paul
The propaganda W. E. B. Du Bois denounces in “Criteria of Negro Art” is of two types: first, the propaganda of aestheticizing art (871-72), and, second, the propaganda of racism in America (872-77). In turn, he wishes to use the power of propaganda against such propaganda: “I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent” (875). He asks, “After all, who shall describe Beauty? What is it?” (871). He demands, “What has Beauty to do with Truth and Goodness—with the facts of the world and the right actions of men?” (872). His questions reference nineteenth-century aesthetes from Percy Bysshe Shelley (595-613) to Matthew Arnold (695-721), Walter Pater (724-30), and Oscar Wilde (790-807). Such poets and critics placed high value on art as an exceptionalist endeavor which impels the individual critic-artist to live as a bulwark of culture and which aggrandizes art itself as a perfected form of being-in-itself. To these sympathies, Du Bois urges artists, especially black artists, to modify the old form aestheticized “Truth” to make it become “one great vehicle of universal understanding,” thereby negating art and the artist’s ethereal detachment from the world. As for the old form sense of “Goodness,” Du Bois posits its value should be revised “not for the sake of an ethical sanction but as the one true method of gaining sympathy and human interest” (875). This sense of “human interest” is set against the continued promulgation of white superiority that is propagandized to such an extent that even black artists are ashamed of themselves and their art, going so far as to pose as being white in their work (874-75). It is to these ends that Du Bois avers, “Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists.” In sum, Du Bois’ call demands that art and literature must be employed “always for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy” (875). Two later theoretical writings that exemplify Du Bois’ call are found in Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” and Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Why Write?”
Langston Hughes’s propagandistic course of action is to discredit black artists who do not embrace their blackness. In consonance with Du Bois’ recounting of a black writer passing off his work as if he was white, Hughes observes that “the word white comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all the virtues” (1193), and he also describes the commonality of self-loathing among many blacks in America (1193-95). In order to build up propagandistic pride in black culture, Hughes praises jazz. He affirms jazz as a prominent source for his own poetry: “In many of [my poems] I try to grasp and hold some of the meanings and rhythms of jazz” (1195). Then, clearly aiming for Du Bois’ “great vehicle of universal understanding” (875), he writes: “But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America: the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world” (1195). He also, throughout his essay, propagandizes by naming black luminaries throughout American culture, including among them Charles W. Chesnutt and Paul Laurence Dunbar (1194), Jean Toomer and Paul Robeson (1195), as well as Bessie Smith, Rudolph Fisher, and Aaron Douglas (1196). Therefore, based on all these accomplished individuals, Hughes sets forth his challenge to the next generation: “But, to my mind, it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering: ‘I want to be white,’ hidden in the aspirations of his people, to ‘Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro—and beautiful!’” (1195-96). In this single last expression, “and beautiful,” Hughes answers Du Bois’ summons to redefine beauty in an unevenly propagandized culture.
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Jean-Paul Sartre’s propagandistic agenda works on two levels—first, in general, to assert human freedom then, in particular, to assert African American freedom. In keeping with existentialism, Sartre characterizes the interface between writer and reader by maintaining that the notion of an objective “text” is nothing more than an essence dependent upon human existence: “[T]he literary object is a peculiar top which exists only in movement. To make it come into view a concrete act called reading is necessary…. Beyond that, there are only black marks on paper” (1200-01). Therefore, asserting human action as authentic and concrete, he maintains, “There is no art except for and by others” (1202). In effect, the exchange between writer and reader is dialectical and brings the text into being as a uniquely human action, a confluence of writer and reader in action (1200). However, reading is possible only through human freedom, existential freedom: “Thus, the writer appeals to the reader’s freedom to collaborate in the production of his work” (1203). This human freedom, propagandistically, poses an ethical challenge that is similar to Du Bois’ call for “the one true method of gaining sympathy and human interest” (875)—that is, individual responsibility: “You are perfectly free to leave that book on the table. But if you open it, you assume responsibility for it. For freedom is experienced not in the enjoyment of free subjective functioning, but in a creative act required by an imperative” (1204). Redefining beauty as Du Bois suggests, Sartre proclaims human freedom as the true beauty that holds sway over “natural beauty” (1207).
Additionally, Du Bois’ redefinition of truth as “one great vehicle of universal understanding” (875) is echoed in Sartre’s injunction that “the writer chooses to appeal to the freedom of other men so that, by the reciprocal implications of their demands, they may re-adapt the totality of being to man and may again enclose the universe within man” (1209). The “reciprocal implications” are likened by Sartre to a gift, a form of human generosity, and this universal generosity from human-to-human must be dignified in “a world to be impregnated always with more freedom” (1211). This human generosity between writer and reader that mandates “more freedom,” then, allows Sartre to particularize the issue of racism in America and to justify the propagandistic worth of a book by a black American author, “even if hatred of the whites were spread all over it.” This black writer’s hatred is existentially valid “because it is the freedom of his race” that encodes his writing, and, as readers, we are responsible “to assume the attitude of generosity” and act to defy and refuse “to identify … with a race of oppressors” (1212).
Through direct and indirect redefinitions of truth, beauty, and propaganda itself, Langston Hughes and Jean-Paul Sartre, consciously or not, commit themselves to W. E. B. Du Bois’ invocation for propagandistic art that fights “for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy” (875) their uniquely human and creative freedoms. Hughes’ writing in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” is urgent and direct and filled with the specific struggles and triumphs of African Americans. Sartre’s “Why Write?” in its existential humanism eventually leads itself in the end to the particularity of African American struggles and demands a universal recognition of human dignity, specifically against racism in America and against anti-Semitism in Europe (1212). Both pieces advocate “with the facts of the world and the right actions of men” (Du Bois 872) in the foreground, and both successfully exemplify twentieth-century writing as propaganda that supplants the detached aestheticism of the nineteenth-century.
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