Thursday, February 7, 2013

All Art Is Propaganda

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. ~ W.E.B DuBois

I've assigned myself the task of reading every novel my high-school sophomore is reading for her English class. Right now, it's the 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. It's an astonishing novel: poetic, gripping, raw, and provocative. Here's a flavor:

It was a spring afternoon in West Florida. Janie had spent most of the day under a blossoming pear tree in the back-yard. She had been spending every minute that she could steal from her chores under that tree for the last three days. That was to say, ever since the first tiny bloom had opened. It had called her to come and gaze on a mystery. From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously. How? Why? It was like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again. What? How? Why? This singing she heard that had nothing to do with her ears. The rose of the world was breathing out smell. It followed her through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep. It connected itself with other vaguely felt matters that had struck her outside observation and buried themselves in her flesh. Now they emerged and quested about her consciousness. 
She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid.

But as amazed as I am by the power of Hurston's prose, I'm even more amazed by how many conventions she flouted. One of the most daring of those was the artistic tyranny of her fellow African-American writers, men like DuBois and Richard Wright, who demanded black Americans be depicted in extremely narrow ways. I can sort of understand, given what people of color were going through, their point. But how confining! To make every story you write a polemic, to turn every novelist into a preacher. Here's what Wright wrote about Hurston:  
The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is 'quaint,' the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the 'superior' race.
Richard Wright
Did Wright read the same novel I'm reading? Because the one I'm reading is full of theme, message, and above all — thought. I sense that what really pisses these men off, more than Hurston's depiction of blacks, is her depiction of women. Her novel is deeply feminist, in that women are acknowledged as people. (!!!) Janie's sexual frustration at the hands of incompetent men was sure to ruffle 1930s feathers. Not only that, but women are shown to be people who suffer under an additional yoke of oppression, above and beyond racism: Janie isn't just sexually frustrated, she is belittled and patronized. Even so, I wouldn't call the novel propaganda on behalf of women. It just seems ... honest.

Can propaganda ever be honest? I think it's true that every novel has to have some sort of organizing principle ... "the moral of the story." But propaganda? Isn't it more important for a work of fiction to be honest than ideologically pure? Or maybe that's just 21st-century white me talking to 20th-century black them. Maybe I'm naive. Maybe one of the many privileges of being white is the freedom to explore ideas, in a public setting, more openly. When you're black in 1937, everything you say can and will be used against you.

Turns out George Orwell had some similar thoughts on this issue, and he's a much better writer than I am, so I'll let him speak for a moment:

The writers who have come up since 1930 have been living in a world in which not only one's life but one's whole scheme of values is constantly menaced. In such circumstances detachment is not possible. You cannot take a purely aesthetic interest in a disease you are dying from; you cannot feel dispassionately about a man who is about to cut your throat. In a world in which Fascism and Socialism were fighting one another, any thinking person had to take sides, and his feelings had to find their way not only into his writing but into his judgements on literature. Literature had to become political, because anything else would have entailed mental dishonesty. One's attachments and hatreds were too near the surface of consciousness to be ignored. What books were about seemed so urgently important that the way they were written seemed almost insignificant.
What Hurston, Wright, and DuBois were going through wasn't Fascism, but racism: another issue about which "any thinking person had to take sides." Fascism is dead and racism is (one hopes) slowly dying, but seems to me we might be living in another such age: our hatreds and attachments certainly seem closer to the surface than ever, our discourse more polarized. 

For decades, Their Eyes Were Watching God was "largely unknown and unread, and dismissed by the male literary establishment in subtle and unsubtle ways," according to the book's Foreword. If part of the job of fiction is to shape thoughts to come, another part of it is to accurately capture thoughts which are. There's a tension between honesty and propaganda. If the latter is more supported in times when "values are being constantly menaced," what voices are being silenced?

Zora Neale Hurston, 1891-1960


  1. Well put! I agree with this sentiment, and was reminded of Orwell's saying: "The statement "art is not political" is a political statement".

    Although I'd say shaping thoughts and recording thoughts are an indivisible reality, not separate things. One is influenced by reading and one writes what they hope to influence others with. Usually with unintended results.

    1. They seem to be different goals, though not completely separable in practice. What DuBois et al. did was fairly artificial: they were attempting to create a new reality. The damaging stereotypes of black life (the minstrel shows, the mammies, the happy brutes in the field) were slowing progress. They wanted to excise all of that from art; create a new "uplifting" narrative, with strict parameters. They were a little zealous about it, as ideologues tend to be, so they really vilified anyone who didn't stick to the program. Hurston, who was recording thoughts & experience in a much more organic way, wasn't sticking to the program.

  2. 'Janie's sexual frustration at the hands of incompetent men was sure to ruffle 1930s feathers.'

    I write my thoughts with a little fear and great care, just because I generally feel trepidation at entering these sorts of conversations for a million and one reasons but, here goes.

    I think a lot of legitimate contributions to any dialogue are perennially squelched when they undermine the authority of those who have it. It's a very difficult thing to wrest from any hands.

    A pre-midcentury thinking black woman with skill and grace to expose the shortcomings of any number of her contemporaries with the smallest snap of her talented wrist would mobilize the full force of another's disdain but quick.

    Anyway, I feel out of my league commenting further! That's what I've got in response to your thoughtful post, Steph. And well done, on the self-assignment. I sincerely applaud you.

    1. "A pre-midcentury thinking black woman with skill and grace to expose the shortcomings of any number of her contemporaries with the smallest snap of her talented wrist would mobilize the full force of another's disdain but quick."

      Absolutely. It was probably inevitable, really. I think she knew she'd get that reaction, which makes her even braver in my mind. I'm so glad her spirit overcame the constraints of the time, and she's being read more widely now than ever before. I just wish she'd known what an impact she'd have ... eventually.

  3. Isn't it funny how many writers have sought to control the creative output of others, to dismiss any voice daring to present a message different from their own? I believe art, no matter the medium or message, must be honest. If yours is a political cry, let her rip. To suggest any art which is apolitical is unworthy is to undermine the capacity of art in general.

    1. Completely agreed. I suppose DuBois might respond that there is no such thing as apolitical art: that whatever you create, it has a political message. That may be true (although it seems a bit of a stretch) but he and his brethren went a bit further and tried to *control* that political message.


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