The Realm of African-American Literature

In the realm of African-American literature, poet and writer Langston Hughes is considered one of the primary proponents that gave birth and development to the genre of Harlem Renaissance. This genre, which enjoyed popularity and support in the late 1920s until mid-1930s, was a cultural movement that depicted the life of “new Negros,” second-generation black Americans and direct descendants of African slaves in America. Harlem Renaissance was known for its incorporation of music, particularly jazz and the blues, in its everyday mirroring of African-American life through literature.
Hughes as a major proponent of the Harlem Renaissance movement created literary pieces that sought to express his thoughts and feelings as an African-American artist while at the same time, providing social criticism against the oppressive nature of the predominantly white American society. His literary works, in effect, became channels through which he was able to artistically express his and his fellow African-Americans’ sentiments about the realities they face in American society.
Among Hughes major works of literature, the short story “The Blues I’m Playing” depict the dynamics that both white and black Americans experienced during the early 20th century. In this period, there was still evident division and discrimination between white and black Americans, with the black Americans gradually emerging as a major force in American society through their unique culture. “Blues” effectively illustrated the dynamics among Americans, white and black alike, as they struggled to assert the superiority of their respective race, culture, as well as gender.

It is then this paper’s main thrust to discuss and analyze “Blues” in the context of three prevalent themes illustrated in the story: friction between white and black Americans through conflicting views about each group/sector’s race, culture, and viewpoints about gender roles. More specifically, the analysis involves a character analysis of Oceola Jones and Mrs Dora Ellsworth, a black American and white American, respectively. The character analysis centers on the presence or absence of change in the life of Oceola as she delved herself deeper into white American culture, and how, despite Mrs Ellsworth’s efforts to “acuulturate” her in white American society, Oceola’s roots and inherent ‘black Americanness’ prevailed. In the end, Oceola ended up being more triumphant, cultivated, and artistic than her patron Mrs Ellsworth.
In illustrating the changes that occurred to Oceola during her process of acculturation to the white American elitist society, it is vital to demonstrate these changes through the themes of conflict between her and Mrs Ellsworth in terms of their respective race, culture, and gender.
Noticeable throughout the story was Oceola’s seemingly passive attitude towards Mrs Ellsworth pretentious belief that she was, indeed, one of the few people who truly recognize art in its purest form. In contrast to Oceola, Mrs Ellsworth, because of her wealthy stature, took an active role in pursuing and creating what she called “pure art” through the proteges she had recruited through the years.
The first theme of racial conflict emerged when Mrs Ellsworth expressed her traditional and prejudiced views about Oceola and black Americans in general. Though Mrs Ellsworth was congenial towards Oceola, her persistence to cling to society’s prejudice against black Americans was immediately demonstrated through her desire to educate Oceola on the principles of pure art, avoiding, the best she can, to acknowledge the fact that she was a black American. Her attitude was reiterated once again in her insistence to acknowledge the genius of one of her Jew proteges, even though she held prejudiced views against Jews.
Racial conflict emerges with Mrs Ellsworth apparent showing of her discrimination and prejudice against non-white peoples. Even the very act of recruiting talented young people and finance their education to music and the arts was her way of creating a distinction between her and her young, poor yet talented artists. By financing the education of these talented artists, she directly controls the kind of education they will receive, thereby controlling also the kind of art that they will produce. It is through art, then, that Mrs Ellsworth “oppress” her proteges like Oceola: by controlling the art that they produce, she holds the power to suppress the protege’s desire to pursue his/her art simply because Mrs Ellsworth financed his/her education.
Le Blanc’s analysis of the racial conflict extant between Oceola and Mrs Ellsworth echoed the dynamics of racial conflict between them. While Mrs Ellsworth actively expressed discrimination and prejudice against people who belong to a particular race other than white American, Oceola’s passive response towards her financer’s behavior showed that racial conflict was a sublime one. Indeed, as Le Blanc explicated in his study of both women characters in “Blues” (16).
Of course, in her paternalism, Mrs Ellsworth does not quite view Oceola as her equal. Despite the young woman’s superior talent, Mrs Ellsworth persistently believes that Oceola lacks not just money, but certain cultural and emotional advantages. The older woman looks down upon her protege’s attachment to the physical and sensual world. This sensual world is manifested in jazz, Harlem, and Pete, and all these represent her connection to her black community and culture.
Apart from the presence of racial conflict in “Blues,” a more apparent theme demonstrated was Oceola and Mrs Ellsworth’s conflicting views towards art per se. Oceola, exposed with Harlem culture, associated her music and art with the people she had been with, particularly her Harlem community and the church choir she used to teach prior to her being a protege under Mrs Ellsworth financial support. Mrs Ellsworth went through great lengths in order to assert the fact that the art she preferred, the art of elite people liker her, was truly American society’s superior culture.
But Oceola remained passive to Mrs Ellsworth’s active advocacy to promote what she perceived as her “superior art.” Being the woman’s mere protege, she expressed kept her own thoughts and feelings about the issue of “art for art’s sake.” Interestingly, Oceola’s honest view of art made more sense than Mrs Ellsworth learned viewpoints about it. At one point, Hughes voiced out through the character of Oceola the real nature and function of art to human society: “Why did they or anybody argue so much about life or art? Oceola merely lived-and loved it…If you wanted to play the piano or paint pictures or write books, go ahead! But why talk so much about it?”
This honest view of art in Oceola’s terms was the author’s way of expressing his disagreement to the dichotomy of superior culture and inferior culture. African-Americans, who gave birth to Harlem culture, as well as contributed significantly to the world of art through the music genres of jazz and the blues, created art based on their experiences as an African-American and with their community. Art for art’s sake was a credo not subsisted to in a collectivist culture like African-American’s; art was created as a result of the people’s interaction with each other, the product of harmonious unity and interconnectedness as peoples of a particular race, with specific traditions and heritage.
In Mrs Ellsworth attempt to expose Oceola to Western (European) art in order to ‘forget’ her Harlem roots and influence, she only reiterated her perceived superiority. She was a woman who held herself in high-esteem because she believed that she was promoting a noble cause, preserving pure, untainted art-art that merely exists for itself, an art that is autonomous to its creator and devoid of any other human element or influence in it.
Mrs Ellsworth’s perception of art was a “separation of art from life” (Bone, 23). In her failure to acknowledge art as the work of an individual and as devoid of any meaning nor influence, Mrs Ellsworth was indirectly destroying the concept of culture altogether, in the same way that she tried to change Oceola by ‘destroying’ her strong Harlem roots, influence, and culture. Hughes’ villainous portrayal of Mrs Ellsworth showed that an attempt to bridge “the gap between the two races by means of art” (1062). Unfortunately, Mrs Ellsworth’s insistence to hold on to her prejudiced beliefs and perceived superiority became hindrances that led to the eventual deterioration of her relationship with Oceola.
The issue of degradation was also reflected in the conflict that Mrs Ellsworth wanted to create as she took in Oceola as her protege (1060). It is inevitable that Mrs Ellsworth should compare herself against Oceola, who, despite the lack of opportunities and privileges in life, was able to create beautiful music without the proper training or education. Mrs Ellsworth tried to assert her superiority by indirectly assuming the persona of Oceola, whom she believed she owns and can control. That is, by supporting Oceola, she indirectly fills in the ‘gaps’ in her life. Oceola remained unrestrained and free to express herself through her music; she was also able to produce beautiful art through music. These are the qualities that Mrs Ellsworth sought to have, and believed she had, by financially supporting Oceola.
Thus, gender conflict emerged with the “contrasting meaning and significance and music to each woman” (Brent, 11). As Brent discussed in her analysis of Mrs Ellsworth and Oceola, the former’s art was an “abstraction,” ‘rising above the banalities of everyday life.’ Oceola’s music, however, “music is a living, breathing practice which is fully integrated with her personal, everyday experiences.” These distinctions between the two women reflect the kind of society and reality they lived in: Mrs Ellsworth lived not for anyone nor herself, but on art alone.
Oceola, meanwhile, preferred to liver her life not only with Pete, but with her Harlem community as well. Characterizing white and black American differences and conflict through the two women characters provided the in-depth look that Hughes wanted to show to his readers. It is through the characters of Oceola and Mrs Ellsworth that readers were able to witness the persistence and pervasiveness of prejudice and discrimination, regardless of one’s gender or socio-economic status in life.

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