Art is a form of self-expression. Many use it a way of expressing a range of feelings and emotions, from turmoil to happiness or exasperation- feelings that every person has within their souls. When it comes to Black literature, however, self-expression is heartfelt. Some artists often proclaim, as first stated by Edgar Allen Poe “L’art pour l’art”; that is, “art for art’s sake”. This, however, is not only shallow but has no merit of truth when it comes to art that is soulful, has depth and meaning that is found in Black literature. The horrible facts of history such as slavery, Jim Crow Laws, and oppression have forced artists to create “art for life’s sake.” Because of this, Black American writers, ranging from Phyllis Wheatly to Jerome Dickey, from the 1920’s though the 1980’s and today, have always told a story with a message. James Baldwin concurs when he tells an interviewer, “you can’t write a line without a message”. This statement rings true for all Black writers and artists; “after all, what have we who are slaves and Black to do with art?”(WEB Du Bois). Du Bois answers this question from a writer’s point of view by affirming something that most Black people already know, “we who are dark can see America in a way that white Americans can not.” Through art, Blacks depict what they know and see in life occurrences and turn them into written works to share with the world. Writers take various issues and skew the image so that a reader of any ethnic background can see through the same lens. This way, both the reader and the writer are blinded by the realities of America’s socio-economic class, gender, race, and a system of social stratification- the other end of the scope. This need to alert the masses is imbedded into the mindset of the Black Community. Through art, Blacks have found an outlet to find truth through beauty, not simply for the sake of art, but for life’s sake.
To write for life’s sake, Black writers must be conscious of the issues that surround them. Novelist Ann Petry agrees when she states that a “conscious novelist is merely a man or woman with a conscience”. Not only must a writer be race conscious, and politically conscious, but he or she must also to write about abuse, lifestyles, and everything in between. Through this type of conscious literature Black writers are ensuring that people of other races and communities cannot turn their backs away from things they don’t want or are afraid to see. An example of this is shown through James Baldwin’s life. After he wrote the book, Go Tell it On the Mountain, a conflict arose between Baldwin and his publishers. The publishers wanted Baldwin to write more stories such as that. It was a story that both Whites and Blacks alike could identify with. With Whites buying as many copies as Blacks, publishers did not want to loose their business if Baldwin happened to write a novel that was less appealing to White audiences. In addition, the publishers were aware that one of his later novels, The Fire Next Time -described as an attack on liberalism- would be extremely difficult for the White readers to swallow.
“Art for life’s sake” is a motto that should be attached to all art; art that has style, depth, poignant, and touching. The literature is not about what the author can get out of it, prestige or being recognized in pretentious circles as a “novelist”. Most Black writers of this era (the twentieth century) pushed the envelope and challenged the status quo, publishing works that decades before would have never entered the printing press. These writers defied the current paradigm to build a story that meant something for their community. James Baldwin widens the spectrum when he writes the play Blues for Mr. Charlie, a Black theatrical play that depicts black people in politics. “Do you ever write without a message?”, is the question posed to Baldwin by a reporter. However, this would have been impossible for Baldwin or any writer to accomplish if under the same circumstances. Baldwin was Black, gay, and unattractive in a society that prizes whiteness, heterosexuality and European beauty. Therefore, Baldwin had no choice but to use his writing to lend voice to the negative labels and bias hurled at him by traditional American society. His personal philosophy was built in and unfolded around the confines of the Black community. This can be seen in Baldwin’s short story, Sonny’s Blues, a story based around two Black brothers in Harlem.
The characters in this story are Sonny and his brother, with the focal point of the story being Sonny’s struggle to find his niche in the world. Sonny’s brother, on the other hand, struggles to simply understand Sonny. This story is layered with emotional complexities and harsh realities. The first conflict was Sonny’s struggle with drugs. This issue is profound because it is a sensitive subject for many. It shows how Black men can get caught in the lifestyle of drugs, alcohol, and hustling. It gives a taste of what others may not understand and unable to identify with: the fact that not all Black men are criminals, however some do not have the option to turn away from this life that Sonny found himself leading. The story of Sonny’s life in jail, on the streets, or how he found himself in the life of drugs was not told in a dramatic fashion. Instead, it was kept simple and realistically paralleled many situations. The next issue imbedded in the story was Sonny’s life after jail, his fight to stay away from his old lifestyle, and how he kept himself from regressing. This and many other aspects, such as death of a child, parents, marriage, the military, war, and racism: all of these are subjects that are not forgotten, but given their time within the story. These factors remain real problems in lives of everyday Black people, as well as the lives of the fictional characters that encompass Sonny’s Blues.
Ann Petry’s work is described as “offer[ing] penetrating glimpses into the ways that race, class, and gender can collide, often tragically.” This statement alone displays a perfect example of the affect that she has on her readers and the stories she tells. Like Baldwin she writes for life’s sake, not arts sake. In her article, The Novel as a Social Criticism, Petry says she “find[s] it difficult to subscribe to the idea that art exists for art’s sake.” Petry argues this by reflecting on the fact that books and novels are depicted with political, social, and sometimes economic constructions of the time. With this in mind, it would be difficult for a writer to write a book or novel without trying to accomplish his or her own vendetta of social change, no matter how small or grandiose. It is impossible for anyone to write without leaving in her own person beliefs, perceptions and understanding of the socio-political environment.
This belief of art for life’s sake is seen throughout her work both in the short story, Like a Winding Sheet as well as the novel entitled, The Street. In her literature she tells the truth about the lives of Blacks in America and the struggles and hardships that must be endured, simply because of skin color. These difficulties are a given for anyone with a skin tone other than white, especially when reflecting upon the history of the world and what is associated with brown skin in America. Unlike traditional stories, such as those told in faerie tales, hers often end with emotional destruction, with the characters desperately trying to make a way for themselves in the world. In Like a Winding Sheet, the reader follows the narrator through a Friday. We witness his hardships and his frustration with the people around him, specifically the white women who have power over him, and are able to make his life a living hell. These people consist of his boss and a waitress that he interacts with at a local diner. He spends his entire day abiding by the rule of common decency and chivalry: that he will never hit a woman. But at the end of the night, he ultimately breaks his silent oath: he not only hits a woman, he hits his wife. This is an example of him taking out his frustration over the lack of control he has in daily life, by trying to have power over the only part that he can. He uses his wife as an outlet for his impotent rage, trying to show his strength and power over her through violence and fear. This is the perfect example of art for life’s sake. The main character’s fate is tragic because as readers we know he is a good man, but one who has been finally broken by the white power structure. It is not a happy ending, and as art for life’s sake, it should not be. Life does not always have a happy ending.
Petry states, “the idea that a story should point a moral, convey a message, did not originate in the twentieth century; it goes far back in the history of man.” The messages and images that are disseminated in all books ranging from novels, children’s stories, folklore, and nonfiction are the same morals that are seen in nursery rhymes and ancient faerie tales. Morality and social criticism are basic themes that have always been necessary ingredients in the art of storytelling, and will continue to exist as long as literature is written. Even though this is a tradition that has been around since the beginning oral stories, the customs of ancient African folklore has developed into something that is an integral and profound characteristic of Black writing today. Conveying a message of morality and becoming a better person to benefit society and oneself is a part of the Black mindset and is embedded into our culture as Africans and as Black Americans.
Through our stories, we teach about life, culture, history, and our collective futures. This is part of a growing and dynamic community, as well as the hardships, and cruel realities that face those we love everyday. As in Ann Petry’s story, Like a Winding Sheet, self -destruction, emotional, or physical, is a terrifyingly real experience. Black writing is an outlet to express perceptions of society through fictional characters that can show the undeniable truth of life all people, no matter what race. Our literature is more than art, it is a justification of life, bringing beauty to the harsh realities we face and reaching out to other societies and communities. It forms a connection, a sort of information super highway which will bring truth to the masses. As Du Bois wisely says, to “dimly mourn the past and dream[s] a splendid future.” He goes on to state, “we have within us a race new stirrings; stirrings of … a new desire to create, of a new will to be”. Du Bois wants Blacks to find beauty in all parts of life, negative and positive. This is an old custom within the Black structure. Finding beauty in hell is how we survived slavery, Jim Crow laws, and push through the violence that whites inflicted upon participants in civil rights movement of the sixties. It is the unstated duty of Black writers to “tell the truth and expose[s] evil and seek[s] with beauty and for beauty to set the world right.”(W.E.B. Du Bois)
Baldwin, James. Sonny’s Blues. African American Liturature, All Young, Harper Collins
College Publishers, 1996.
Du Bois, W.E.B.The Alain Locke-WEB Du Bois Debate on the Theory of Black Art
NAACP address Chicago. African and African American Literature, BLS 411. ed. Tsuruta.
Petry, Ann. The Novel as Social Criticism. African and African American Literature,
BLS 411. ed. Tsuruta.
Petry, Ann. Like a Winding Sheet. African American Liturature, All Young, Harper
Collins College Publishers, 1996.
Petry, Ann. The Street. 1993.
The Price of the Ticket, documentary film on James Baldwin.