Henry Gate’s composition of the Black American Literature Forum held during the Spring-Summer of 1987 examined how Black Americans are portrayed in art. The five respondents to W.E.B Du Bois 1926 questions about African American portrayal within art each have vastly different answers, but one significant point in almost all of the five responses is clear: truth. Each respondent may have different interpretations of the truth or what is factual and what is not, regardless they all seem to find it important that all truths of Black American’s be accurately portrayed within art. It’s difficult to define what truth is. The philosophical question to this day remains a difficult one to interpret. In terms of racial identity, portraying the truth of a race is extremely necessary in order for other races and ethnicities to understand it. There are a lot of different kinds of truths, especially when it comes to the depiction of the Black American. It is difficult to reveal some facts to the world that may result in racist criticism. Black artists, unlike most white artists, are constantly critiqued because of their race alone not necessarily because of the art itself. Discovering what the truth is and how to convey it in art is the most challenging part. The five respondents attempt to answer Du Bois’ questions in how they view what their own truth is and what they think should be displayed as the truth to the public.
Barbara Smith’s response focused a lot on the sexual oppression and the lack of female representation in black art. Not only female representation but also the portrayal of the LGBTQ-A members within the black community. She emphasized how important it is for everyone to know all of the truth and not just parts of a whole truth that is more liked and accepted by the community. She referenced Alice Walker’s The Color Purple which attempts to expose how some women are treated in the black community. “Unlike white racists our motivation in revealing what we have experienced is not to downgrade the image of the race, but simply tell the truth, and by doing so to bring enlightenment and much needed change especially in relationships between Black women and men (p. 6).” This is important to note because it is not about the race being portrayed as a whole but more about revealing what is true even if it is not so pleasant to the public. By revealing the truth, negative stereotypes may either be strengthened or begin to disappear.
Of course there are always negative responses to revealing the whole truth, like Ishmael Reed. He denounces the portrayal of Black men in art and does not like the idea of revealing the truth about some Black relationships. Instead he focuses on the problems within the feminist communities and the racist undertones within literature. His truth is that Black women tend to play the victim card within Black art, however in many cases critics who view his opinions as misogynistic are hypocrites who fail to truly give leadership and representation of Black women. He also focuses on the problems within the feminist movement between black and white feminists.
Blyden Jackson and Jack White discuss the power of a writer/journalist. Jackson claims that “Philosophically I take the position that writers should be bound by nothing except their independently conceived creative urges in the selection of the characters they choose to write about (16).” Interestingly, he is saying that any writer or artist rather has no obligation to portraying anything in a certain way. This is to say that no Black artist has a obligation to portray a Black woman or man in a certain way, they are free to do whatever they please. His truth is connected to freedom. Simply having the ability to freely choose how to express a character is enough. Similarly, journalist Jack White emphasizes freedom and truth: “If they cannot believe me when I deal with the unpleasant, how can they trust me when I write about the pleasant? (21)” Finally, Richard A. Lang sums everything up by saying in the long run, is change actually possible? Does it really matter if the truth is revealed about a race or culture? He leaves us with these questions, but the truth is not always pleasant but as MLK once said in order to fix and end negative stereotypes you have to expose those ugly truths and attempt to explain them.