To Be an Individual and to be Black: FIRE!! And the Younger Negro Artists of the 1920s From the very beginning of an African presence in America, there has been a deluge of propaganda concerning the nature and condition of being black in the American context. In concert with the abolition movements of the nineteenth century, African Americans of this period began to respond to the centuries of stereotypes that built the discursive foundation for the racist and class biased society that America becomes.
By: Regina Hamilton
Often the response of free and educated African Americans, particularly in the early years of the twentieth century, was to prove that the intelligence and comportment of African Americans could equal (and at times surpass) those of white Americans, and to craft an alternative image to counter the negative stereotypes of blacks that were such a pervasive part of American culture. The image of the intelligent and austere American black person became popularized by the first generation of the African American intelligentsia, known most commonly through the writings of W.E.B. Dubois as the “talented tenth.” Though a powerful counter-image to the prejudicial discourses that were most prevalent, this rigidly constructed image of blackness became just as constrictive and propagandistic as the stereotypes it was meant to oppose.
In this restrictive climate, a younger generation of African American artists, of which the most well-known are Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Wallace Thurman, decided that the humanity and artistry of African Americans could transcend the propaganda and the restrictions of racialization. This younger generation of artists believed that the power of African American artistry rested in the truth of the African American experience, and these artists committed themselves to creating and distributing art that was faithful to the needs, aspirations, and lives of early 20th century African Americans.
One of the most provocative and timely pieces of art to come out of this period was, FIRE!! A Quarterly Devoted to Younger Negro Artists, which was published in November of 1926 and edited by Wallace Thurman. FIRE!! featured short stories, poetry, and plays that openly discussed topics such as homosexuality, and interracial relationships that were an anathema to both the white and black high society of the time. FIRE!! also included drawings by Aaron Douglas that privileged African art styles and images at a time when "high art" was still judged by the artist's mastery of styles and forms popularized by the European Enlightenment. The radical nature of the pieces within FIRE!! required that these young African American artists publish this magazine themselves; another way in which these artists tried to mitigate the censorship and control others might try to levy over the particular forms of the art. In true AfroPunk fashion, these "younger Negro artists" of the 1920s believed fiercely in individuality, and in the inability of racial stereotypes to portray the full range of African American experiences. For these artists there was a value in allowing African Americans to be as fully human as any other person, and the perfect way to start the project of changing the discourses was with FIRE!!.