Sunday, December 11, 2011

Black Art ≠ Protest Art: A Contrarian View, Indeed

In the 2 months that my book Living with Lynching has been in print, readers have asked questions that have stayed with me, partly because I wish I had given more complete answers in the moment. One such question came from Mark Anthony Neal, Duke University professor of African and African American Studies and host of the weekly webcast Left of Black. Because I insist that protest is too limiting a framework for understanding the lynching plays that I examine, he asked why I think scholars so often use a protest literature lens. My answer was way too tentative and vague. I have very clear ideas about why this pattern persists. In short: because it has become “common sense” to think of black art as a reaction.

However, what parades as “common sense” sometimes creates a barrier to critical thinking. Michael Omi and Howard Winant have shown this very clearly regarding race in the United States. Because ideas supporting the racial status quo pass as common sense, certain assumptions and conclusions seem natural, despite not being even close to accurate. This has certainly become the case with approaches to black art.

The degree to which “black art = protest art” has become the kind of common sense that hinders critical thinking is perhaps best exemplified by the disproportionate attention that Kenneth Warren’s What Was African American Literature? has received. Somehow, it works for Harvard University Press, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The LA Review of Books, and respected scholars, such as Werner Sollors, that Warren defines a vast body of literature as simply a “response to the disfranchisement of blacks in the south, which set the stage for the consolidation of Jim Crow segregation.” Warren claims that resisting oppression was the only reason that countless literary works emerged, and too many have accepted this as a legitimate assertion. Of course, many have done so with the understanding that this overstated rhetoric simply makes his polemic possible, but even that acknowledgment (and the recognition that Warren's stature gives him cultural capital within the publishing industry), does not fully explain the solemnity with which this book is being engaged. I therefore humbly submit that an important reason for this book’s existence, and people’s willingness to have earnest discussions of it, is this: most in the United States accept as common sense that black artists who embrace that identity can only respond.

The tagline for Mark Anthony Neal’s show Left of Black is "A Contrarian View of Blackness," and thinking about his question has reminded me that a similar perspective produced Living with Lynching. I argue that lynching plays were not so much responses to white-authored violence as they were efforts to preserve community insights. These playwrights worked to equip African Americans to continue to believe in what they already knew about their communities, that they were made up of men and women who lived according to the standards that the nation claimed to respect. Even though these dramas acknowledge that the mob is a threat, they are not about convincing white people that racial violence is wrong. Contrary to what so many believe, not everything that black artists, philosophers, and even activists do is about white people.

Unfortunately, this is an argument that americans seldom hear and that few feel empowered to make. In fact, while writing this book, I kept encountering people who not only had trouble accepting my claim, but they also feared for my career because I was making it. With my best interests at heart, one colleague warned, “Well, we’re talking about lynching, Koritha. Can you really say that it’s not about responding to whites?”

There is no doubt in my mind, though: blacks who lived and wrote in the midst of mob violence do not simply teach us about anti-lynching efforts; they teach us a great deal about lynching itself. If you want to understand lynching, you cannot just look at the evidence that perpetrators left. You also need to pay attention to what targeted communities had to say. And one of the things that they said, if we will only listen, is that mob violence was a response to black achievement.

The plays show that African Americans were busy minding their own business, and sometimes, this led them not only to survive but also thrive in the “Progressive Era.” When they achieved certain kinds of success, white supremacists reacted violently. So, the literature preserves evidence of black community activities, but because those activities beckoned the mob, most scholars now claim that the art itself was a response to the mob. Not so! And, as my book demonstrates, lynching playwrights were not the only ones who made this clear.

I allowed myself to be tentative and vague regarding these issues on Left of Black, and I am haunted by what I did not say while being interviewed. So, I will now be bold enough to reveal the loftiest goal I had while writing this book. I hope that Living with Lynching will do for the study of lynching, racial violence, and the Jim Crow Era what books like John Blassingame’s The Slave Community (1972) did for the study of “the peculiar institution.” Blassingame’s research, and the work of those inspired by it, made it unacceptable to teach slavery using only documents produced by slave masters and other whites. Historians began recognizing that understanding the institution required new methodologies that allowed them to engage the perspectives of the enslaved.

If readers are at all convinced by what I present in Living with Lynching, it should be very hard to claim that you understand racial violence unless you can see black art as much more than protest.


@DrJamesPeterson said...

Wow. Powerful insights well articulated here. Looking forward to your interview on LOB!

Tony Green said...

I have been looking for someone who articulated these ideas! How can I subscribe to your blog?

Koritha Mitchell said...

Thanks so much, Tony. When you're on the blog, the word "Follow" should be in the top left corner, just right of the space for searching. Clicking "Follow" should do the trick. I appreciate your interest!

Koritha Mitchell said...

Okay, the elaboration that this blog post offers is worthwhile. (I appreciate the many people who have written me to say so.) Still, I am relieved to see that my answer when I was being interviewed wasn't as "tentative and vague" as I had convinced myself it was. Left of Black: Season 2, Episode 14 located at

AmericanStudier said...

Dear Dr. Mitchell,

Late to this post, but wanted to say first that I really appreciate your thoughts here and look forward to getting and reading your book soon.

Also, I think another great case study for your points in this post would be the kind of Af Am writer who sometimes seems to be responding to white voices or actions but often has entirely different motivations or goals or purposes. I'm thinking for example of Langston Hughes--sure, "Theme for English B" is driven in part by what that white professor asked of him; but so many of his poems, include most all of _Montage_, are much more about expressing communal identities and experiences in the ways you're describing here.

Anyway, great stuff. Take care,

Koritha Mitchell said...

Dear Ben/AmericanStudier:

Thank you for this feedback. I totally agree. Especially when an artist was as prolific and complex as Hughes, these easy categories are especially dangerous. But even for writers who weren't/aren't as prolific, I think readers and cultural critics could do a better job of really seeing what our writers are giving us. We sometimes need different lenses to do that, so we have to be willing to give different approaches serious consideration. Glad to know others who are moving in this direction with me!

Courtney Baker said...

Another wonderful, insightful post, Koritha. I wonder if the protest art equivalency you allude to in your title and discuss in your post isn't an effective haunting by Richard Wright (whose "Blueprint for Negro Writing" really limited the terms for African-American literature and for which James Baldwin took him to task) and W.E.B. DuBois's very early (1926) separation of Art from Propaganda in his "Criteria of Negro Art". To quote: "all [black] Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists". Truly, these are very old notions, but I sense they are strong ones to shake off. After all, they inform the very origins of a workable African-American literary criticism!

All of this is not to devalue or deflate the argument you are making in Living with Lynching. To the contrary: I think your book is teaching us anew how to read. I see you as doing no less than continuing the complex and vital work of Baldwin, my friend. Power and praise to you and your project.

Koritha Mitchell said...

Dear Courtney,

I'm not sure how privy you are to my deep love for James Baldwin, but you simply could not have paid me a bigger compliment. Yes, you are right to suggest that the protest lens that I find problematic has come from more than one source. Yes, early black critics can be read to have advocated it at various points. I wouldn't put Du Bois in that category as much as I would Wright, though. Nevertheless, yes, I'm more in line with Baldwin's investment in warning us against narrow configurations. (I say that even as I believe that Baldwin sometimes proved to be more like Wright than he wanted to admit.) My thoughts on all of this are too much for this space. Just know that Baldwin is a LIGHT on the path that I'm trying to walk!

Truly humbled,