Criteria of Negro Art
by W.E.B. Du Bois
Published in The Crisis of October 1926, DuBois initially spoke these
words at a celebration for the recipient of the Twelfth Spingarn Medal,
Carter Godwin Woodson. (The specific citation is The Crisis, Vol. 32,
October 1926: pp. 290-297).
I do not doubt but there are some in this audience who are a little
disturbed at the subject of this meeting, and particularly at the
subject I have chosen. Such people are thinking something like this:
"How is it that an organization like this, a group of radicals trying to
bring new things into the world, a fighting organization which has come
up out of the blood and dust of battle, struggling for the right of
black men to be ordinary human beings -- how is it that an organization
of this kind can turn aside to talk about art? After all, what have we
who are slaves and black to do with art?"
Or perhaps there are others who feel a certain relief and are saying,
"After all it is rather satisfactory after all this talk about rights
and fighting to sit and dream of something which leaves a nice taste in
Let me tell you that neither of these groups is right. The thing we are
talking about tonight is part of the great fight we are carrying on and
it represents a forward and an upward look -- a pushing onward. You and
I have been breasting hills; we have been climbing upward; there has
been progress and we can see it day by day looking back along
But as you go through the valleys and over the foothills, so long as you
are climbing, the direction -- north, south, east or west -- is of less
importance. But when gradually the vista widens and you begin to see the
world at your feet and the far horizon, then it is time to know more
precisely whether you are going and what you really want.
What do we want? What is the thing we are after? As it was phrased last
night it had a certain truth: We want to be Americans, full-fledged
Americans, with all the rights of other American citizens. But is that
all? Do we want simply to be Americans?
Once in a while through all of us there flashes some clairvoyance, some
clear idea, of what America really is. We who are dark can see America
in a way that white Americans cannot. And seeing our country thus, are
we satisfied with its present goals and ideals?
If you tonight suddenly should become full-fledged Americans; if your
color faded, or the color line here in Chicago was miraculously
forgotten; suppose, too, you became at the same time rich and powerful
-- what is it that you would want? What would you immediately seek?
Would you buy the most powerful of motor cars and outrace Cook County?
Would you buy the most elaborate estate on the North Shore? Would you be
a Rotarian or a Lion or a What-not of the very last degree? Would you
wear the most striking clothes, give the richest dinners, and buy the
longest press notices?
Even as you visualize such ideals you know in your hearts that these are
not the things you really want. You realize this sooner than the average
white American because, pushed aside as we have been in America, there
has come to us not only a certain distaste for the tawdry and flamboyant
but a vision of what the world could be if it were really a beautiful
world; if we had the true spirit; if we had the seeing eye, the cunning
hand, the feeling heart; if we had, to be sure, not perfect happiness,
but Plenty of good hard work, the inevitable suffering that always comes
with life; sacrifice and waiting, all that -- but nevertheless lived in
a world where men know, where men create, where they realize themselves
and where they enjoy life. It is that sort of a world we want to create
for ourselves and for all America.
After all, who shall describe Beauty? What is it? I remember tonight
four beautiful things: the cathedral at Cologne, a forest in stone, set
in light and changing shadow, echoing with sunlight and solemn song; a
village of the Veys in West Africa, a little thing of mauve and purple,
quiet, lying content and shining in the sun; a black and velvet room
where on a throne rests, in old and yellowing marble, the broken curves
of the Venus de Milo; a single phrase of music in the South -- utter
melody, haunting and appealing, suddenly arising out of night and
eternity, beneath the moon.
Such is beauty. Its variety is infinite, its possibility is endless. In
normal life all may have it and have it yet again. The world is full of
it; and yet today the mass of human beings are choked away from it, and
their lives distorted and made ugly. This is not only wrong, it is
silly. Who shall right this well-nigh universal failing? Who shall let
this world be beautiful? Who shall restore to men the glory of sunsets
and the peace of quiet sleep?
We black folk may help for we have within us as a race new stirrings;
stirrings of the beginning of a new appreciation of joy, of a new desire
to create, of a new will to be; as though in this morning of group life
we had awakened from some sleep that at once dimly mourns the past and
dreams a splendid future, and there has come the conviction that the
youth that is here today, the Negro youth, is a different kind of youth,
because in some new way it bears this mighty prophecy on its breast,
with a new realization of itself, with new determination for all
What has this beauty to do with the world? What has beauty to do with
truth and goodness -- with the facts of the world and the right actions
of men? "Nothing," the artists rush to answer. They may be right. I am
but an humble disciple of art and cannot presume to say.
I am one who tells the truth and exposes evil and seeks with beauty and
for beauty to set the world right. That somehow, somewhere eternal and
perfect beauty sits above truth and right I can conceive, but here and
now and in the world in which I work they are for me unseparated and
This is brought to us peculiarly when as artists we face our own past as
a people. There has come to us -- and it has come especially through the
man we are going to honor tonight -- a realization of that past, of
which for long years we have been ashamed, for which we have apologized.
We thought nothing could come out of that past which we wanted to
remember; which we wanted to hand down to our children.
Suddenly, this same past is taking on form, color, and reality, and in a
half shame-faced way we are beginning to be proud of it. We are
remembering that the romance of the world did not die and lie forgotten
in the Middle Ages; that if you want romance to deal with you must have
it here and now and in your own hands.
Have you heard the story of the conquest of German East Africa? Listen
to the untold tale: There were 40,000 black men and 4,000 white men who
talked German. There were 20,000 black men and 12,000 white men who
talked English. There were 10,000 black men and 400 white men who talked
In Africa then where the Mountains of the Moon raised their white and
snowcapped heads into the mouth of the tropic sun, where Nile and Congo
rise and the Great Lakes swim, these men fought; they struggled on
mountain, hill and valley, in river, lake and swamp, until in masses
they sickened, crawled and died; until the 4,000 white Germans had
become mostly bleached bones; until nearly all the 12,000 white
Englishmen had returned to South Africa, and the 400 Frenchmen to
Belgium and heaven; all except a mere handful of the white men died; but
thousands of black men from East, West and South Africa, from Nigeria
and the Valley of the Nile, and from the West Indies still struggled,
fought and died.
For four years they fought and won and lost German East Africa; and all
you hear about it is that England and Belgium conquered German Africa
for the allies!
Such is the true and stirring stuff of which romance is born and from
this stuff come the stirrings of men who are beginning to remember that
this kind of material is theirs; and this vital life of their own kind
is beckoning them on.
The question comes next as to the interpretation of these new stirrings,
of this new spirit: Of what is the colored artist capable? We have had
on the part of both colored and white people singular unanimity of
judgment in the past.
Colored people have said: "This work must be inferior because it comes
from colored people." White people have said: "It is inferior because it
is done by colored people."
But today there is coming to both the realization that the work of the
black man is not always inferior. Interesting stories come to us....
"With the growing recognition of Negro artists in spite of the severe
handicaps, one comforting thing is occurring to both white and black.
They are whispering, "Here is a way out. Here is the real solution of
the color problem. The recognition accorded Cullen, Hughes, Fauset,
White and others shows there is no real color line. Keep quiet! Don't
complain! Work! All will be well!"
I will not say that already this chorus amounts to a conspiracy. Perhaps
I am naturally too suspicious. But I will say that there are today a
surprising number of white people who are getting great satisfaction out
of these younger Negro writers because they think it is going to stop
agitation of the Negro question.
They say, "What is the use of your fighting and complaining; do the
great thing and the reward is there." And many colored people are all
too eager to follow this advice; especially those who weary of the
eternal struggle along the color line, who are afraid to fight and to
whom the money of philanthropists and the alluring publicity are subtle
and deadly bribes. They say, "What is the use of fighting? Why not show
simply what we deserve and let the reward come to us?"
And it is right here that the National Association for the Advancement
of Colored People comes upon the field, comes with its great call to a
new battle, a new fight and new things to fight before the old things
are wholly won; and to say that the beauty of truth and freedom which
shall some day be our heritage and the heritage of all civilized men is
not in our hands yet and that we ourselves must not fail to realize.
There is in New York tonight a black woman molding clay by herself in a
little bare room, because there is not a single school of sculpture in
New York where she is welcome. Surely there are doors she might burst
through, but when God makes a sculptor He does not always make the
pushing sort of person who beats his way through doors thrust in his
face. This girl is working her hands off to get out of this country so
that she can get some sort of training.
There was Richard Brown. If he had been white he would have been alive
today instead of dead of neglect. Many helped him when he asked but he
was not the kind of boy that always asks. He was simply one who made
There is a colored woman in Chicago who is a great musician. She thought
she would like to study at Fontainebleau this summer where Walter
Darnrosch and a score of leaders of art have an American school of
music. But the application blank of this school says: "I am a white
American and I apply for admission to the school."
We can go on the stage; we can be just as funny as white Americans wish
us to be; we can play all the sordid parts that America likes to assign
to Negroes; but for anything else there is still small place for us.
And so I might go on. But let me sum up with this: Suppose the only
Negro who survived some centuries hence was the Negro painted by white
Americans in the novels and essays they have written. What would people
in a hundred years say of black Americans? Now turn it around.
Suppose you were to write a story and put in it the kind of people you
know and like and imagine. You might get it published and you might not.
And the "might not" is still far bigger than the "might." The white
publishers catering to white folk would say, "It is not interesting" --
to white folk, naturally not.
They want Uncle Toms, Topsies, good "darkies" and clowns. I have in my
office a story with all the earmarks of truth. A young man says that he
started out to write and had his stories accepted. Then he began to
write about the things he knew best about, that is, about his own
people. He submitted a story to a magazine which said, "We are sorry,
but we cannot take it."
"I sat down and revised my story, changing the color of the characters
and the locale and sent it under an assumed name with a change of
address and it was accepted by the same magazine that had refused it,
the editor promising to take anything else I might send in providing it
was good enough."
We have, to be sure, a few recognized and successful Negro artists; but
they are not all those fit to survive or even a good minority. They are
but the remnants of that ability and genius among us whom the accidents
of education and opportunity have raised on the tidal waves of chance.
We black folk are not altogether peculiar in this. After all, in the
world at large, it is only the accident, the remnant, that gets the
chance to make the most of itself; but if this is true of the white
world it is infinitely more true of the colored world. It is not simply
the great clear tenor of Roland Hayes that opened the ears of America.
We have had many voices of all kinds as fine as his and America was and
is as deaf as she was for years to him. Then a foreign land heard Hayes
and put its imprint on him and immediately America with all its
imitative snobbery woke up. We approved Hayes because London, Paris and
Berlin approved him and not simply because he was a great singer.
Thus it is the bounden duty of black America to begin this great work of
the creation of beauty, of the preservation of beauty, of the
realization of beauty, and we must use in this work all the methods that
men have used before.
And what have been the tools of the artist in times gone by? First of
all, he has used the truth -- not for the sake of truth, not as a
scientist seeking truth, but as one upon whom truth eternally thrusts
itself as the highest handmaid of imagination, as the one great vehicle
of universal understanding.
Again artists have used goodness -- goodness in all its aspects of
justice, honor, and right -- not for sake of an ethical sanction but as
the one true method of gaining sympathy and human interest.
Truth as it relates to the artist and to the (social) scientist: Is
DuBois referring to two different spheres, each with its own particular
methods of discovering and/or portraying truth? Does he imply that the
two realms are made distinctive because of their different tools?
Yet, we may muse, how similar are the 2 spheres of truth? There is
indeed a commonality: namely, the artist and the scientist both
implicate in their respective works the "subject matter" of humans.
The apostle of beauty thus becomes the apostle of truth and right not by
choice but by inner and outer compulsion. Free he is but his freedom is
ever bounded by truth and justice; and slavery only dogs him when he is
denied the right to tell the truth or recognize an ideal of justice.
Thus all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the
purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have
for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of
black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is
not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to
one side while the other is stripped and silent.... "Thus all art is
propaganda and ever must be...."
You know the current magazine story: a young white man goes down to
Central America and the most beautiful colored woman there falls in love
with him. She crawls across the whole isthmus to get to him. The white
man says nobly, "No." He goes back to his white sweetheart in New York.
In such cases, it is not the positive propaganda of people who believe
white blood divine, infallible, and holy to which I object. It is the
denial of a similar right of propaganda to those who believe black blood
human, lovable, and inspired with new ideals for the world.
White artists themselves suffer from this narrowing of their field. They
cry for freedom in dealing with Negroes because they have so little
freedom in dealing with whites. DuBose Heywood [sic: Heyward] writes
"Porgy" and writes beautifully of the black Charleston underworld.
But why does he do this? Because he cannot do a similar thing for the
white people of Charleston, or they would drum him out of town. The only
chance he had to tell the truth of pitiful human degradation was to tell
it of colored people.
I should not be surprised if Octavius Roy Cohen had approached the
Saturday Evening Post and asked permission to write about a different
kind of colored folk than the monstrosities he has created; but if he
has, the Post has replied, "No. You are getting paid to write about the
kind of colored people you are writing about."
Dubose Heyward's Porgy (1925) is available as a hypertext version,
edited by Kendra Hamilton, at the University of Virginia's American
Studies Web site.
In other words, the white public today demands from its artists,
literary and pictorial, racial pre-judgment which deliberately distorts
truth and justice, as far as colored races are concerned, and it will
pay for no other.
On the other hand, the young and slowly growing black public still wants
its prophets almost equally unfree. We are bound by all sorts of customs
that have come down as second-hand soul clothes of white patrons. We are
ashamed of sex and we lower our eyes when people will talk of it.
Our religion holds us in superstition. Our worst side has been so
shamelessly emphasized that we are denying we have or ever had a worst
side. In all sorts of ways we are hemmed in and our new young artists
have got to fight their way to freedom.
The ultimate judge has got to be you and you have got to build
yourselves up into that wide judgment, that catholicity of temper which
is going to enable the artist to have his widest chance for freedom. We
can afford the truth. White folk today cannot. As it is now we are
handing everything over to a white jury.
If a colored man wants to publish a book, he has got to get a white
publisher and a white newspaper to say it is great; and then you and I
say so. We must come to the place where the work of art when it appears
is reviewed and acclaimed by our own free and unfettered judgment. And
we are going to have a real and valuable and eternal judgment only as we
make ourselves free of mind, proud of body and just of soul to all men.
And then do you know what will be said? It is already saying. Just as
soon as true art emerges; just as soon as the black artist appears,
someone touches the race on the shoulder and says, "He did that because
he was an American, not because he was a Negro; he was born here; he was
trained here; he is not a Negro -- what is a Negro anyhow? He is just
human; it is the kind of thing you ought to expect."
I do not doubt that the ultimate art coming from black folk is going to
be just as beautiful, and beautiful largely in the same ways, as the art
that comes from white folk, or yellow, or red; but the point today is
that until the art of the black folk compels recognition they will not
be rated as human. And when through art they compel recognition then let
the world discover if it will that their art is as new as it is old and
as old as new.
I had a classmate once who did three beautiful things and died. One of
them was a story of a folk who found fire and then went wandering in the
gloom of night seeking again the stars they had once known and lost;
suddenly out of blackness they looked up and there loomed the heavens;
and what was it that they said? They raised a mighty cry: "It is the
stars, it is the ancient stars, it is the young and everlasting stars!"
In his 1906 "Address to the Country", DuBois wrote this last paragraph
for his exhortatory Niagara Movement address:
"Courage brothers! The battle for humanity is not lost or losing. All
across the skies sit signs of promise. The Slav is raising in his might,
the yellow millions are tasting liberty, the black Africans are writhing
toward the light, and everywhere the laborer, with ballot in his hand,
is voting open the gates of Opportunity and Peace. The morning breaks
over blood-stained hills. We must not falter, we may not shrink. Above
are the everlasting stars."