A few weeks ago novelist Walter Mosley came to campus to deliver a talk and answer questions. In the process, I was introduced to an essay by W. E. B. Du Bois that I now plan to teach in my Theories of the Reader class. My colleague Colby Nelson asked Mosley to respond to the following passage from “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926):
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.
The statement seems shocking. After all, aren’t art and propaganda antithetical? Would Dubois actually countenance, say, the formulaic socialist realist art required by Stalin’s Soviet Union? Isn’t art supposed to soar above politics, not muck about in it? That’s what these wailing purists would contend.
Du Bois knows this. But he also knows something else: what passes for art amongst some purists can have a propagandistic side. Hidden within otherwise substantive works are racial messages that people of color can see, even if whites cannot, messages that validate demeaning narratives. Du Bois provides an example of two contrasting racial stereotypes:
In New York we have two plays: White Congo and Congo. In White Congo there is a fallen woman. She is black. In Congo the fallen woman is white. In White Congo the black woman goes down further and further and in Congo the white woman begins with degradation but in the end is one of the angels of the Lord.
The culture wars of the early 1990s were heated in part because women scholars, scholars of color, and others newly arrived in college humanities departments pointed out that certain works of art were not as free of bias—not as pure—as their admirers claimed. White audiences often overlooked racial stereotyping.
If Du Bois really wanted African American authors to engage in propaganda, however, he would call for them to promote, say, civil rights. Instead, he says that an artist’s “bounden duty” is to Beauty and that, to achieve that Beauty, he or she must commit to Truth. If artists do their job, they will honor “goodness in all its aspects of justice, honor and right,” thereby gaining “sympathy and human interest”:
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.
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.
This is a version of what Walter Mosley said. Before I elaborate, here’s the opening from Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, the first of the Easy Rawlins mysteries, which owe a debt to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler:
I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy’s bar. It’s not just that he was white but he wore an off-white linen suit and shirt with a Panama straw hat and bone shoes over flashing white silk socks. His skin was smooth and pale with just a few freckles. One lick of strawberry-blond hair escaped the band of his hat. He stopped in the doorway, filling it with his large frame, and surveyed the room with pale eyes; not a color I’d ever seen in a man’s eyes. When he looked at me I felt a thrill of fear, but that went away quickly because I was used to white people by 1948.
I had spent five years with white men, and women, from Africa to Italy, through Paris, and into the Fatherland itself. I ate with them and slept with them, and I killed enough blue-eyed young men to know that they were just as afraid to die as I was.
Mosley told us that his first goal was to get his characters and his milieu right. He doesn’t worry about political correctness, he said, because his first obligation is to truth.
This means that he avoids both white stereotypes of African Americans and sentimental versions that African Americans have of themselves. I could imagine him agreeing with the following Du Bois observation:
We [black readers] 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.
This passage could well have encouraged Richard Wright as he created Bigger Thomas, who at first seems just a confirmation of white fears but then becomes a three-dimensional figure in his own right. Mosley too doesn’t create pristine black characters.
The author noted that, if one respects character and milieu, Truth will have been served. What emerges is more accurate than, say, Donald Trump’s version of urban life. In this way, it can be seen as a kind of propaganda, and Mosley told us that he agreed with Du Bois. It is propaganda, however, only in the sense that Beauty and Truth are propaganda. “Negro art” undermines white versions of the world.
Du Bois asserts that art is ultimately about freedom, not constraint. When readers encounter Truth, they become “free of mind, proud of body and just of soul”:
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…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.
When Mosley spoke, he drew more African Americans that I have ever seen at a college reading. Some said they had read ever one of Mosley’s 50+ novels. Others asked detailed questions about specific characters. It was an example of a black author getting the type of recognition that Du Bois describes:
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.
Du Bois talks about “Negro art” as “propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy.” Mosley has risen to the challenge.