Zina Hanna SWC 100 July 24, 2009 KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) Langston Hughes helped shape the
Harlem Renaissance by surrounding himself with what proves to be some of the most influential artists today. While claiming he was not necessarily black, he aligned himself as a black artist in close association with these thinkers and the “new age” of the Black Community in which they thrived, afforded Hughes the opportunity to experience some of the revolutionary attitudes towards artists and ultimately redefining the black culture. Hughes utilized his experiences in this unique environment and reflected them directly in his work. Similar to Hughes although representing very different circumstances Muhammad Ali, and Jean-Michel Basquiat are examples of influential individuals shaping and impacting their environment. In “Banquet of Honor” Langston Hughes addresses a very personal, yet, universal and troublesome issue that jeopardizes an artist’s freedom of creative expression. Hughes tackles a complex issue through a character named Simple. For Hughes, it is simple and Simple is Hughes. It is his attempt to point out and strip away all the trappings that may be put upon an artist by a community or other external expectations. Simple is uncultured and an embarrassment to his wife Joyce. She tells him that it isn’t important what is being said, “it’s in Italian” (Hughes 45). While Joyce knows her cultural position in the community, Simple’s innocent inquiries’ reveals that it all doesn’t matter and he just wants to know what is being “said”. Simple (Hughes) prefaces the discussion regarding the angry honoree by stating, “ But he bit their hand, although he ate their chicken” (Hughes 44). Hughes is pointing out that he is aware of the adage you do not bite the
hand that feeds you, but sometimes the meal comes at a price, and sometimes an artist must get angry. Hughes in his autobiography states, “I am not black. There are lots of different kinds of blood in our family. But here in the United States, the word "Negro" is used to mean anyone who has any Negro blood at all in his veins” ("The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain"), however, he emphasized his black heritage in his work throughout his career. Regardless of this duality Hughes is claiming first and foremost that an artist must be free and only then can he truly speak to the condition of the community. He again states, "We younger Negro artists now intend to express our individual darkskinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they aren't, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too... If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, as strong as we know how and we stand on the top of the mountain, free within ourselves." ("The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain") for Hughes this is playing the race game straight. With this claim it is evident that this is a universal condition for artists and to quote Shakespeare “To thine own self be true” (Shakespeare Act I). Although Hughes was specifically referring to artists’ struggles during the Harlem Renaissance there is evidence of the same problem in other periods by other artists. One tragic example in the 80’s, which was made into a film, was the story of Jean-Michel Basquiat. In the film Basquiat, we follow Jean-Michel Basquiat’s short life and the troubles he encounters as an artist. Starting out as a street artist, living in Tompkins Square Park in a cardboard box, Jean-Michel is "discovered" by Andy Warhol's art world and becomes a star, however, the condition of his existence is drastically altered by his
stardom. While he is quickly experiencing monetary success, he also quickly realizes that his art is no longer in his own hands. In his first encounter with Warhol, Andy describes Basquiat’s work as “primative” and Basquiat corrects him and states that ”it’s not primative art, it’s ignorant art”. Later in the film he tells Warhol “they won’t even look at my new work, they only want me to do the same old shit ” ("Basquiat "). This is where Basquiat no longer experiences his own freedom as an artist and is at the mercy of the hand that feeds him his success. At one point he complains to Andy about a review of his recent exhibition where the writer talks about Basquiat being the voice of the Black Community. He addresses the issue to Warhol by stating, “I am an artist not a black artist” ("Basquiat "). Playing the race game straight proved to be much more destructive for Basquiat, although it is exactly the point that Hughes is referring to. While Basquiat’s work is extremely successful today the external pressures imposed upon him was not simple and proved to be costly in his struggle to remain true to himself and to be a free artist. Striking a balance between playing the race game straight (keeping it simple), and being true to oneself is not always easy and is not limited to traditional artists. Specifically, Muhammad Ali is a perfect example of a man that was constantly met with adversity and expectations as to who he should be. Ali remained true in every respect of the meaning. He stated, “I know where I'm going and I know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want” ("Ali"), but he also believed, “I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin' hell, but as long as they ain't free, I ain't free” ("Ali"). Ali was the golden era heavyweight champion of the world, joined the Nation of Islam, and a defender of the black community. At the height of his boxing career Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam War claiming, “I ain't got no quarrel with those Vietcong" and "no Vietcong ever called me nigger” ("Ali"). In
reference to Langston Hughes, you can’t get much straighter than that. However strong Ali’s convictions may have appeared he still teetered between the beliefs of Martin Luther King Jr. civil rights and Elijah Muhammad separatist ideals. Ali received criticism for his dual consideration and at the end of the day his decision was personal and in the best interest of the black community where he sated, “Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn't matter which color does the hating. It's just plain wrong” ("Ali"). As a boxer there was no room for teetering with Ali and he knew exactly where he stood. He was the greatest. Ali said “It's hard to be humble, when you're as great as I am, it's not bragging if you can back it up” ("Ali"). Regarding playing the race game straight he also knew “Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up” ("Ali"). Ivory Erkerd claims “Langston Hughes was criticized by his peers for perpetuating low-life by illuminating seamy sides of Black Life as well as it’s acceptable sides”("The stranger Redeemed: A Portrait of a Black Poet"). Hughes on the other hand claimed to not be black and yet was right in the middle and a defining figure of the Black Harlem Renaissance. Hughes struggle, just like Basquiat and Ali with playing the race game straight but he knows what it means to do so. Hughes defines playing the race game straight as keeping it simple, being true to yourself, and by stripping away external expectations to know what’s being said and as an artist to know how to say it.
Works Cited Ali. Dir. Michael Mann. Perf. Muhammad Ali. DVD. Empire, 2001. Film. Basquiat . Dir. Julian Schnabel. Perf. Basquiat. DVD. Arthouse Films, 1996. Film. Erkerd, Ivory. "The stranger Redeemed: A Portrait of a Black Poet." Yale-New
Haven Teachers Institute. 2009. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Web.26 Jul 2009. <http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1979/1/79.01.03.x.html>.
Hughes, Langston. “Banquet of Honor” The Best of Simple. 1961. New York: Hill and Wang, 1992. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. 8. New York: Norton, 2001. Print. Simkin, John. "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." Spartacus Educational . 2009. Web.26 Jul 2009. <http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAlangston.htm>