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Glitter, pageants, pom-poms, ballet shoes, and batons: what is a girl to do when these are the highest expectations of her peers? In the school system where I grew up, these were the expectations for girls who wished to be popular and accepted. From the time I was in kindergarten, soccer was what I loved to do, however, I constantly felt the urge to conform to the norms set in place by my peers. After reading four pieces of literature by Baraka, Hughes, DuBois, and Lorde, I was reminded of when I felt the pressures to be like everyone else. Baraka, DuBois, Hughes, and Lorde incorporate similar ideas into their literature about the issue of artists failing to stay true to their identity because of the urge toward popular culture. These ideas are still relevant today and not just to artists but to every person who feels the urge to conform to social norms and abandon their individuality.
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The fear of being oneself in American society presents itself as an issue for artists in all four pieces of literature, and this fear is still relevant today. In Hughes’s essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, he begins by criticizing a young poet who desires to suppress his blackness in an effort for his art to be socially accepted. Hughes goes on to say that he was “sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself” (Jarrett 210). Audre Lorde makes a similar point about overcoming fear in her essay Poetry is not a Luxury. Lorde wrote that women are often silent because of fear, but poetry can help women move past that fear (Jarrett 762). Audre Lorde’s essay contrasts with Hughes’s in that she is mainly addressing black women while Hughes addresses black artists as a whole. Nevertheless, the underlying meaning of these essays proves to be quite similar. Hughes and Lorde are basically saying that artists need to accept who they are without the fear of cultural expectations. Tyler, The Creator, an African American rapper and music director mentioned in a 2015 interview that “today’s artists are afraid to be themselves when they write music” (Walsh). W.E.B DuBois also brings in the issue that black artists tend to have a fear of being themselves in Criteria of Negro Art. The criteria that he writes about can be interpreted as truth; he believes that all black art has to be truthful. Negro artists are afraid to truly be themselves because they fear that their art will be rejected. It is from this fear that Negro artists feel pressure to conform to the standards of white art, but it is only when they are completely truthful with themselves and resist the urge to conform to the American standard that they produce art that is true to themselves. Similar to the previous artists, Baraka discusses this issue in his essay The Myth of a Negro Literature. His argument regarding black artists is that they will never succeed as long as they fail to accept who they are as Negroes. I believe that these Negroes that Baraka mentions are so adapted to being like white people that they fear any true black part of themselves will never be accepted. Although I am not a black artist, I personally understand the pressures that American society puts on any given person and the constant self-examination required to stay true to yourself. Growing up, I always felt the pressure to participate in “girly” activities such as cheerleading, twirling, or dance. It was what the “popular” girls at my school did, so naturally I felt led to participate. However, I knew that this was not my true self because I had a love for playing soccer. Even though I recognized my love for soccer, I still felt the fear of not being accepted thus resulting in a fear of being myself.
Although the authors’ main focuses in their literature is to lament the fact that artists were not staying true to themselves, they mention ways that artists can produce art that reflects their identity. Amiri Baraka said that Negro music “has been able to survive the constant and willful dilutions of the black middle class” because “it drew its strengths and beauties out of the black man’s soul” (Jarrett 616). In other words, art is true and everlasting when it comes from an artist’s soul. Audre Lorde wrote that “as we come more in touch with our own ancient, non-European consciousness of living”, we are able “to respect those hidden sources of our power” (Jarrett 763). The hidden sources of power that Lorde mentions are one’s ability to create that comes from the inner spirit. I believe Lorde is saying that an artist can produce art that it true to themselves by becoming more in touch with their ancient culture and by letting their art come from their spirit. In Criteria of Negro Art, W.E.B DuBois states that “all art is propaganda and ever must be” (Jarrett 161). Here he is telling Negro artists that their art must serve as an advocate for social reform. To me, the creation of beauty from within oneself naturally becomes propaganda for influencing others. In addition, Hughes also states a way that an artist can produce art that is true to himself: artists stay true to their identity by overcoming the racial mountain, but what is this racial mountain? It is “the urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible” (Jarrett 210). If a Negro artist gives up the race toward whiteness that Hughes mentioned, he or she is able to stay true to their identity as a Negro. In my life, I have learned that staying true to yourself takes appreciation for one’s family, culture, and history, similar to what these authors conveyed.
As previously mentioned, artists abandoning their originality has always been a matter worthy of discussing because of its continued relevancy in America. I believe that every American has personally faced this issue and felt the fear of letting their true self show, therefore every American citizen can relate to the similar ideas of the identity crisis in the mentioned literature. Although the authors do not give a step by step process of how to be true to yourself, they each address a specific way in which artists and everyone can be true to themselves. Baraka says to let art come from the soul. Lorde says to appreciate culture and let creativity come from the spirit. DuBois says to make all art propaganda so that it reflects personal desires for social reform. Hughes says to give up the urge to conform to the popular patterns of society. In all, these four pieces of literature similarly discuss an issue that will most likely never disappear from our country. It is disheartening to realize that most people will never have true self allegiance because of the nature of American society.
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