Two iconic African American intellectuals, W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes respectively share individual ideals about the African American experience pertaining to art and culture. The African American race during the 1920’s was radically developing and going through a major shift in mindset and philosophy. The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, a piece by Langston Hughes in 1926, deals with the complex mentality at the time. He gives the example an African American poet who essentially wants to be white. At this time, black people were becoming culturally aware of the meaning to be a Negro artist versus an artist. Within the black community at the time, black artists were looked down upon. The road for a black artist to be taken seriously at the time was very difficult resulting in a steep mountain of obstacles to surpass.
Hughes, in his piece, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, argues that that Negro artists should not run away from the spirituality and culture of their race. Moreover, black people should not try to resemble the white race in art and in culture, which is the racial mountain that black people must overcome. Artists should reveal their individuality, differences in technique and should not be pressured into assimilation. He in turn says that black people must explore and seek to fully understand the over and undertones that encompass their relationship with white people. Hughes attempts to send a message to the black community to avoid assimilation and not learn the ways of white America, which is the mountain or struggle black intellectuals face at the time. “The mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America--this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible” (Hughes 52). Hughes wrote during the New Negro Renaissance, and Great Migration where 500,000 black people moved from the south to the north establishing themselves in culturally aware centers like Harlem, Pittsburgh and Cleveland. This was a time of overwhelmingly literate and skilled people. In his essay, Hughes argues that the race is both “Beautiful but ugly as well” (Hughes 52). The mountain that all black people at the time faced acknowledges the beauty of the race, but society does not accept art of black people. “A very high mountain indeed for the world- be racial artist to climb in order to discover himself and his people” (Hughes 53). The desire of black people to be white is not only a mental gesture, but must manifest itself through art now as well, which is the opposite of Hughes’ philosophy. “An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid too what he might choose...We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either” (Hughes 57). Hughes argues that people are too concerned about what others are thinking, the policing within the black community is overwhelming, and therefore there is controversy about what is acceptable. W.E.B. Du Bois takes a different approach to black art of black people in his famous piece Criteria of Negro Art published in The Crisis Magazine in 1926, arguing that the art black people produce should always have a political agenda behind it. He is first concerned with the idea of beauty, not as that which is in the eye of the beholder, but what can be considered classical or universal, or historical. In Du Bois’ opinion regarding black music he says, “It has been neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood;