W.E.B. Du Bois


October 1, 1927

Many colored people have undertaken to answer Mr. Mencken’s remarks about Negro artists. Most of them apparently make the mistake of questioning his attitude rather than his facts. There can be no question of H. L. Mencken’s attitude toward Negroes. It is calmly and judiciously fair. He neither loves nor hates them. He has a predilection for men.

But he, like many other Americans, does not understand just where the shoe pinches. When American artists of Negro descent have work worth while he believes that they are not barred by magazines or publishers. Of course not. But the point is that the themes on which Negro writers naturally write best, with deepest knowledge and clearest understanding, are precisely the themes which most editors do not want treated. These are themes which white readers are tired of or do not wish to hear. What is the “freedom” cry to a white American or “discrimination”? He is fed up on this which is the breath of life to black folk. While the feelings of insulted men, their reaction to the color line — well this he will not read about. Consequently the chief reading public in America will not buy precisely the sort of thing that Negroes must write about if they are sincere and honest.

White Americans are willing to read about Negroes, but they prefer to read about Negroes who are fools, clowns, prostitutes, or at any rate, in despair and contemplating suicide. Other sorts of Negroes do not interest them because, as they say, they are “just like white folks.” But their interest in white folks, we notice, continues. This is a real and tremendous handicap. It is analogous to the handicap of all writers on unpopular themes; but it bears hardest on young Negroes because its bar is broader and more inclusive. It puts a premium on one kind of sadistic subject.

Despite this, Mr. Mencken does not realize all that has been done. If the really first rate books written by Negroes since the Civil War make “a shelf a foot long,” that is a matter of congratulation. Similar notable works by white Americans would be a good deal less than nine feet long. In music, Nathaniel Dett has given the Negro spiritual another form and Harry Burleigh has done more than reproduce it. W. C. Handy is father of the “Blues.” Coleridge-Taylor, if we may be permitted a journey overseas, stands manifestly the great creative artist with his “Bamboula” and “Take Nabandji”; and there is Roland Hayes—is he not an artist? There may, of course, be difference of opinion about Negro poets, but in our opinion Paul Laurence Dunbar, Claude McKay, Countée Cullen and Langston Hughes stand far above “second rate.” We are inclined too to think that Chesnutt’s novels are far above “the level of white hacks.” Jean Toomer’s work will not soon be forgotten and Booker T. Washington’s “Up From Slavery” is no ordinary biography. Jessie Fauset and Eric Walrond deserve notice. Finally, we have H. O. Tanner.

On the whole then, despite a stimulating critic’s opinion, we Negroes are quite well satisfied with our Renaissance. And we have not yet finished.


For attribution, please cite this work as:
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1927. “Mencken.” The Crisis 34 (8): 276.