“Suppose the only Negro who survived some centuries hence was the Negro painted by white Americans in the novels and essays they have written. What would people in a hundred years say of black Americans?” This is the question posed by W. E. B. Du Bois in his lecture “Criteria of Negro Art.” The remarks were made at the 1926 NAACP annual meeting in Chicago and later published as part of a multi-issue series titled “The Negro in Art” in The Crisis, the NAACP’s official magazine. Du Bois gave the speech at a ceremony honoring the contributions of the eminent author, editor, and historian Carter G. Woodson. Woodson had made it his life’s work to document the positive cultural, social, and political contributions black Americans had made to the development of the United States. He did so in an effort to combat the empty but popular rhetoric of those who suggested that black people had no history, no culture, and had nothing to add to the country beyond the labor of their bodies. That same year, Woodson developed Negro History Week, the precursor to what would eventually become Black History Month, an extension of his effort to illuminate black contributions to the American project. And while Du Bois sought to honor Woodson in his remarks, he also used the opportunity to espouse his own beliefs regarding the role and importance of black artists as America wrestled with the evolution of white supremacy only a generation after the end of slavery.
I was thinking of Du Bois and the concerns he raised when I entered the theater to watch Black Panther. I was thinking of what he might make of the scene unfolding across the country: sold-out cinemas with lines snaking out the door and around the block; the intergenerational thrill experienced by families of every hue ornamented in African garb, an array of spectacular patterns and colors exploding across theater lobbies from Atlanta to Oakland. I imagine Du Bois and his distinctive handlebar mustache, its thick, curled edges accentuating his smile as he observes black children and adults dressed as a cast of characters too often unseen in a mainstream cultural production.
Du Bois’s query is an important one. What would it mean to live in a world where depictions of black people were left to those whose very identity as white people relied on the fiction of racecraft? Put differently, what happens when black people don’t have control over the art that portrays them? It is not improbable that this was on the minds of former president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama, when they commissioned Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively, to paint their official portraits, making them the first black recipients of commissions from the National Portrait Gallery. As Doreen St. Félix writes in The New Yorker, the paintings, both of which represent aesthetic departures from previous portraits, captured something we had not seen of the Obamas before, despite each being among the most photographed people in the world. It is not to say that a white artist could not have painted the Obamas and done it well, but it is to recognize that Wiley and Sherald bring to the project a lens that both observes and portrays a subject a white artist could not.
History has proven that art depicting black people cannot be disentangled from the political implications that such art has on their lives. As Africans were being stripped from the continent and sailed across the Atlantic to the Western world, depictions of black people in Western art changed in order to further render them racialized caricatures. In The Image of the Black in Western Art, a ten-volume collection of work edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., David Bindman, and Karen C.C. Dalton, scholars and artists investigate the evolving manner in which black subjects were depicted across a range of mediums. In her essay, Deborah Willis explores nineteenth-century anthropological photography that, she says, “was not intended to represent individuals but instead to classify and deem ‘the black body as inferior and at the same time desirable.’ ” This variety of artistic rendering was not an isolated incident and illuminates what Bindman calls “the overwhelming presence in all Western countries of demeaning images of black people.” Photography, sculpture, and painting were wielded as cultural weapons over the course of generations to substantiate the idea that black people were inherently subordinate beings; they were used to make slavery acceptable and to make black subjugation more palatable.
Du Bois is wary of the continuation of the phenomena in which black people exist in white art only as a means of advancing the complexity and the individuality of white people forward. “They want Uncle Toms, Topsies, good ‘darkies’ and clowns,” he says in his lecture. In such stories, there is no room for black characters to be complicated and multidimensional; they serve only as rudimentary foils to white heroes.
With Black Panther, black artists were provided with the opportunity and agency to create art that captures the full range of their imaginative possibilities. It matters that Chadwick Boseman is the protagonist and is supported by a cast of nearly all black characters. It matters that Lupita Nyong’o exists as the moral foundation of the film. It matters that Ryan Coogler is the director. It matters that Douriean Fletcher designed the jewelry. It matters that Kendrick Lamar curated the soundtrack. It matters that Ruth E. Carter designed the costumes. Marvel and Disney may have produced the film—Jack Kirby and Stan Lee may have invented the character—but it is impossible to deny the formative role that black artistic and intellectual agency played in making it the cultural, and political, phenomenon it has become. “Our aesthetic was always to bring about positive visuals to the African diaspora in this country,” Carter said in an interview, echoing (and amplifying) Du Bois’s sentiments. “And to dispel stereotypes. To be about a forward-thinking community that empowered the Black community, women, and even natural hair.” In her costumes, Carter sought to capture the aesthetic essence of the diaspora’s attire as something that exists in tandem, rather than at odds, with her political commitments. For Carter, being true to the artistry and elegance of African garb and pushing back against the stereotypes black people have been subjected to through historical depictions of Africa were not mutually exclusive.
But to what extent is black art responsible to the broader mission of black liberation and the pursuit of social change? This was a question Du Bois took seriously and one that has enlivened discussion and debate around Black Panther. To be fair, the question of political and social responsibility has long animated concerns of art more broadly. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu thought of art primarily as a means of class reproduction, in which art is used as cultural capital that reifies and exacerbates social stratification rather than mitigating it. Du Bois, however, perceived a difference between the role and responsibility of black art and that of art in general; he believed that black artists had an obligation to use their work to fight racial stratification and to resist allowing themselves to be a part of its expansion. “All Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists,” he wrote in 1926. “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.”
Yet only a year later, Du Bois appears to contradict himself. In the April 1927 issue of The Crisis, he writes, “First of all, art must have freedom. It must not be hampered … by the preconceptions of the white audience and its desire for silly and lewd entertainment … It must not be shackled by the sensitiveness and natural recoil of black folk from the past and from their caricature at the hands of whites.” One has to wonder if the very freedom Du Bois suggests artists need in order to flourish is not hampered by the demands he makes of them in his 1926 lecture. His remarks in a 1921 issue of The Crisis confuse the matter even further: “We are seriously crippling Negro literature by refusing to contemplate any but handsome heroes, unblemished heroines, and flawless defenders; we insist on being always and everywhere all right and often we ruin our cause by claiming too much and admitting no fault.”
There is, perhaps, a more generous reading. It is possible that Du Bois did not mean propaganda as the term is contemporarily understood, and instead as an attempt to capture a sense of fearlessness in the face of the white gaze, a fearlessness that he felt should inform a black artist’s work. Still, if we are to understand propaganda more as a tool for moral persuasion rather than for misrepresentation, Du Bois is imposing a set of political expectations on black artists that he himself suggests would restrict their creative freedom. This is a tension that has long animated not only the political dynamics of black art but its aesthetic ones, too. As Vinson Cunningham wrote in 2015, in the New York Times Magazine, “There exists—there has always existed—a tragic conundrum in the making of black art. The qualities most closely associated with high aesthetic accomplishment, at least in the West—transcendence, a preference for the beautiful over the blunt—are in some ways irresolvable with the details of black life.” The power of Black Panther, of course, is that like other Afrofuturist projects, it is not limited to depicting the realities of black life as it currently exists; it imagines an entirely different world of possibilities for our existence—above all, what would have happened had Africa not been subjected to colonization and exploitation by Western nations?
Du Bois’s complicated feelings on the role of black art mirror the tension that exists today with regard to the question of whether the work of black artists should directly address current political issues. To be sure, creating complex, thoughtful art is by no means mutually exclusive from work that hopes to serve, in some capacity, as a catalyst for social change. But what constitutes social change? Black Panther will not reduce the racial wealth gap; it will not solve the crisis of public education; nor should it be responsible for fixing either of these problems. Black artists deserve the opportunity to create work without the burden of alleviating the social ills plaguing many black communities. This is not to say that the film should not be subject to critique. Christopher Lebron offers a thoughtful, provocative piece in the Boston Review. I don’t agree with many of Lebron’s assessments of the film—I don’t believe, for instance, that it devalues black American men or treats Erik Killmonger “as a receptacle for tropes of inner-city gangsterism”—yet his is a critique that stems from a space of good faith rather than one that imposes a set of expectations no work of art can adequately fulfill.
Change manifests in myriad ways, both subtle and explicit: we should not confuse representation with political power, nor should we discount it. I know that black people, black children in particular, from across the country, and the world, seeing themselves on-screen as characters who have never before been depicted in film will have an impact that cannot be quantified. “I do not doubt that the ultimate art coming from black folk is going to be just as beautiful, and beautiful largely in the same ways, as the art that comes from white folk, or yellow, or red,” Du Bois said. He may have wrestled with the purpose black art should serve, but he was always clear that when given the resources and opportunity, black art could thrive. Wakanda may be fictional, but its impact is most certainly real.
Clint Smith is a writer and a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University whose work has appeared in publications including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The New Republic. He is the author of the poetry collection Counting Descent.