Raven Woods – Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926)

Abstract: Raven Woods, who gave us permission to republish the first part of her essay, ‘Langston Hughes’s ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’. It occurred to her that much of what Langston wrote in 1926 could be applied to what Michael Jackson had to endure as an African-American artist.

Essay by Raven Woods, founder of the AllForLove Blog, a unique hub for engaging discussion of Michael Jackson’s art and life. Her credentials include the W.B. Yeats Award, the International Merit Award from “The Atlanta Review,” The Hackney Literary Award, and the Albert and Elaine Borchard Fellowship. She holds an MA in English from Mississippi State University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Georgia College and State University.


Woods, Raven. “Langston Hughes’s “the Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926).” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 1, no. 2 (2014). http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/langston-hughess-the-negro-artist-and-the-racial-mountain-1926/.

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Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926)
By Raven Woods

“I know my race, I just look in the mirror; I know I’m black.”
-Michael Jackson

One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this 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.

But let us look at the immediate background of this young poet. His family is of what I suppose one would call the Negro middle class: people who are by no means rich yet never uncomfortable nor hungry–smug, contented, respectable folk, members of the Baptist church. The father goes to work every morning. He is a chief steward at a large white club. The mother sometimes does fancy sewing or supervises parties for the rich families of the town. The children go to a mixed school. In the home they read white papers and magazines. And the mother often says “Don’t be like niggers” when the children are bad. A frequent phrase from the father is, “Look how well a white man does things.” And so the word white comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all virtues. It holds for the children beauty, morality, and money. The whisper of “I want to be white” runs silently through their minds. This young poet’s home is, I believe, a fairly typical home of the colored middle class. One sees immediately how difficult it would be for an artist born in such a home to interest himself in interpreting the beauty of his own people. He is never taught to see that beauty. He is taught rather not to see it, or if he does, to be ashamed of it when it is not according to Caucasian patterns.

For racial culture the home of a self-styled “high-class” Negro has nothing better to offer. Instead there will perhaps be more aping of things white than in a less cultured or less wealthy home. The father is perhaps a doctor, lawyer, landowner, or politician. The mother may be a social worker, or a teacher, or she may do nothing and have a maid. Father is often dark but he has usually married the lightest woman he could find. The family attend a fashionable church where few really colored faces are to be found. And they themselves draw a color line. In the North they go to white theaters and white movies. And in the South they have at least two cars and house “like white folks.” Nordic manners, Nordic faces, Nordic hair, Nordic art (if any), and an Episcopal heaven. A very high mountain indeed for the would-be racial artist to climb in order to discover himself and his people.

But then there are the low-down folks, the so-called common element, and they are the majority—may the Lord be praised! The people who have their hip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round. They live on Seventh Street in Washington or State Street in Chicago and they do not particularly care whether they are like white folks or anybody else. Their joy runs, bang! into ecstasy.Their religion soars to a shout. Work maybe a little today, rest a little tomorrow. Play awhile. Sing awhile. 0, let’s dance! These common people are not afraid of spirituals, as for a long time their more intellectual brethren were, and jazz is their child. They furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardizations. And perhaps these common people will give to the world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself. Whereas the better-class Negro would tell the artist what to do, the people at least let him alone when he does appear. And they are not ashamed of him–if they know he exists at all. And they accept what beauty is their own without question.

Certainly there is, for the American Negro artist who canescape the restrictions the more advanced among his own group would put upon him, a great field of unused material ready for his art. Without going outside his race, and even among the better classes with their “white” culture and conscious American manners, but still Negro enough to be different, there is sufficient matter to furnish a black artist with a lifetime of creative work. And when he chooses to touch on the relations between Negroes and whites in this country, with their innumerable overtones and undertones surely, and especially for literature and the drama, there is an inexhaustible supply of themes at hand. To these the Negro artist can give his racial individuality, his heritage of rhythm and warmth, and his incongruous humor that so often, as in the Blues, becomes ironic laughter mixed with tears. But let us look again at the mountain.

A prominent Negro clubwoman in Philadelphia paid eleven dollars to hear Raquel Meller sing Andalusian popular songs. But she told me a few weeks before she would not think of going to hear “that woman,” Clara Smith, a great black artist, sing Negro folksongs. And many an upper -class Negro church, even now, would not dream of employing a spiritual in its services. The drab melodies in white folks’ hymnbooks are much to be preferred. “We want to worship the Lord correctly and quietly. We don’t believe in ‘shouting.’ Let’s be dull like the Nordics,” they say, in effect.

The road for the serious black artist, then, who would produce a racial art is most certainly rocky and the mountain is high. Until recently he received almost no encouragement for his work from either white or colored people. The fine novels of Chesnutt go out of print with neither race noticing their passing. The quaint charm and humor of Dunbar’s’ dialect verse brought to him, in his day, largely the same kind of encouragement one would give a sideshow freak (A colored man writing poetry! How odd!) or a clown (How amusing!).

The present vogue in things Negro, although it may do as much harm as good for the budding artist, has at least done this: it has brought him forcibly to the attention of his own people among whom for so long, unless the other race had noticed him beforehand, he was a prophet with little honour.

The Negro artist works against an undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites. “Oh, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are,” say the Negroes. “Be stereotyped, don’t go too far, don’t shatter our illusions about you, don’t amuse us too seriously. We will pay you,” say the whites. Both would have told Jean Toomer not to write Cane. The colored people did not praise it. The white people did not buy it. Most of the colored people who did read Cane hate it. They are afraid of it. Although the critics gave it good reviews the public remained indifferent. Yet (excepting the work of Du Bois) Canecontains the finest prose written by a Negro in America. And like the singing of Robeson, it is truly racial.

But in spite of the Nordicized Negro intelligentsia and the desires of some white editors we have an honest American Negro literature already with us. Now I await the rise of the Negro theater. Our folk music, having achieved world-wide fame, offers itself to the genius of the great individual American composer who is to come. And within the next decade I expect to see the work of a growing school of colored artists who paint and model the beauty of dark faces and create with new technique the expressions of their own soul-world. And the Negro dancers who will dance like flame and the singers who will continue to carry our songs to all who listen-they will be with us in even greater numbers tomorrow.

Most of my own poems are racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know. In many of them I try to grasp and hold some of the meanings and rhythms of jazz. I am as sincere as I know how to be in these poems and yet after every reading I answer questions like these from my own people: Do you think Negroes should always write about Negroes? I wish you wouldn’t read some of your poems to white folks. How do you find anything interesting in a place like a cabaret? Why do you write about black people? You aren’t black. What makes you do so many jazz poems?

But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul–the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile. Yet the Philadelphia clubwoman is ashamed to say that her race created it and she does not like me to write about it, The old subconscious “white is best” runs through her mind. Years of study under white teachers, a lifetime of white books, pictures, and papers, and white manners, morals, and Puritan standards made her dislike the spirituals. And now she turns up her nose at jazz and all its manifestations–likewise almost everything else distinctly racial. She doesn’t care for the Winold Reiss’ portraits of Negroes because they are “too Negro.” She does not want a true picture of herself from anybody. She wants the artist to flatter her, to make the white world believe that all negroes are as smug and as near white in soul as she wants to be. But, to my mind, it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering “I want to be white,” hidden in the aspirations of his people, to “Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro–and beautiful”?

So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, “I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,” as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world. I am ashamed, too, for the colored artist who runs from the painting of Negro faces to the painting of sunsets after the manner of the academicians because he fears the strange unwhiteness of his own features. An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.

Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing the Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing “Water Boy,” and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas’s drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty.
We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves. (Hughes).

Now let’s turn the spotlight some sixty years later to Michael Jackson. Being born as he was at mid twentieth century, and coming of age during the turbulence of the 1960’s Civil Rights era and Black Power Movement of the 1970’s, Michael Jackson as a performer came along at a unique time in the history of American race relations. With the rise of Motown and the crossover popularity of artists like James Brown, Jackie Wilson and the Supremes, interest in black art was at an all-time high, probably the highest it had been, in fact, since the time of Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. By the time Michael emerged as a solo artist in the late 70’s and early 80’s, his albums were as eagerly snatched up by white fans as black. Yet it was still an industry predominantly run by whites, who pulled all the strings and strove to keep the black artist “in his/her place.” Berry Gordy may have been the obvious exception, but even the legendary Motown label was primarily run as a production factory to make black artists-and black music-palatable to mass consumerism. It was the burgeoning of the era in which black male performers like Michael Jackson and Prince would become global superstars with massive interracial audiences and massive interracial demographics, while at the same time witnessing how global superstardom did not alleviate racism and prejudice-in fact, often only intensified it.

Increased global fame and an ever increasing global demographic of many fans from many races and nationalities, however, also meant another problematic issue that would often dog Michael (exacerbated, no doubt, by the onset of vitiligo and the “skin bleaching” rumors that persisted for years): Was he still “black enough” or had he, in fact, sold out his identity in the interest of his amassed, multi-cultural following? Looking at Hughes’s essay and examining it within its cultural context may provide at least some of those answers. Langston Hughes, writing in 1926, may or may not have been able to foresee that within sixty years, an African-American artist would be one of the most powerful and influential people on the planet. But he would have certainly understood both how and why such an artist could come to be so universally revered, and yet, by the same token, often most cruelly taunted and rejected by his own race. Michael was, in many ways, the embodiment of the same spirit as that of the young poet whom Hughes refers to in the early half of the essay: “I want to be a poet-not a Negro poet.” For example, after winning only a single Grammy for Off The Wall in 1980-for Best R&B vocal-Michael vowed that his next effort would not be something that could be merely relegated to a category. He rightly felt that Off The Wall deserved Record of the Year, and certainly his ultimate goal was to not be “the best r&b male singer” but to be THE BEST. PERIOD. With Thriller, he would accomplish that goal and then some. However, by 1987’s Bad, the move to bring him “back down to size” seemed to be in full swing. Though the album actually outperformed Thriller in many crucial aspects-for example, producing a total of nine hit singles and five number ones, as opposed to Thriller’s seven hit singles and two number ones-it only won a total of one Grammy, for Best Engineered Recording. This, despite having been nominated in every major category for which it was eligible.

Granted, there is the old adage that just being nominated is-or should be- honor enough. But Michael had values that had been instilled in him from a very young age by his father Joe Jackson, to never settle for being second best. Michael was never especially known for being a gracious loser. When he knew he had given something his all, he expected to be recognized for that fact-and was often crushed when such recognition didn’t meet up to his expectations. We could say that 1987 was an especially competitive year at the Grammy’s-among the nominees were U2’s The Joshua Tree, Prince’s Sign o’ the Times and Whitney Houston’s debut album Whitney, but many saw the snub as the beginning of the industry’s attempt to “de-throne” Michael Jackson. Also interesting that although albums by three major black artists were nominated, the committee chose to bestow the honor upon the very Irish U2. Of course, one could argue that after showering Michael with so many accolades in 1984, that should prove that this was not about racism. But not so fast. Yes, if Bad had come along merely a year later, I could then somewhat understand the committee’s reluctance to bestow him more awards, lest accusations of politics and favoritism come into play. It’s a given fact, for example, that the Academy Awards will usually attempt to spread things out a bit. If an actor or director has won multiple awards in a given year, it may be reasonably assumed that they will not be awarded the following year, even if they did outstanding work. (It’s not fair, but politics is politics). I would imagine that the Grammys do not operate that much differently. However, four years had elapsed since Michael’s mega coup with Thriller; certainly more than enough time to alleviate any concerns of Jackson saturation. We cannot. of course, point fingers and say beyond a doubt that Michael’s 1988 Grammy snub was racially motivated. But then, racism these days is seldom that overt, and many have rightfully pointed out that Michael’s expressions and body language that night clearly tell the story-he knew what was going down.

Michael’s desire to always be “The Best” or “The Greatest” of ALL categories-rather than being relegated to “Best R&B this or that” (which, as we know, essentially translates to “Best BLACK performer” or “Best BLACK album” )was both a blessing and curse. It was a blessing in that it motivated him to reach for those heights and to transcend those barriers. This is what Joe Vogel wrote in his excellent 2011 book Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Works of Michael Jackson:

His success, of course, wasn’t only meaningful to African-Americans. ‘Even though rooted in black experience,’ writes cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson, “he felt it would be a crime to limit his music to one race, sex, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or nationality. Michael’s art transcended every way that human beings have thought of to separate themselves, and then healed those divisions, at least at the instant that we all shared the music.’ It was a boundary-less universality Jackson always aimed for: ‘From a child to older people,’ he explained, ‘from the farmers of Ireland to the lady who scrubs toilets in Harlem…I want to reach every demographic I can through the love and joy and simplicity of music.” (Vogel 18)

Copyright, (Vogel 18). .

But it may also have been a curse in that it instilled in him a deep rooted sense of failure when he did not, or could not, manage to transcend those barriers-those times when, try as hard as he might, he simply could not succeed in ascending that racial mountain.

We continue to see evidence of this even now. For example, even though Xscape was the #1 album on Billboard’s R&B/Hip Hop chart for two weeks and #1 on the R&B album chart (only this week dropping to #4 and #2 on those charts, respectively), you will not see this fact quoted in any mainstream article that writes about the album in the U.S. Rather, U.S. journalists will usually cite that it peaked at #2, its highest position on the Billboard Top 200-the mainstream chart that includes all musical genres. And, in some cases, the more sarcastic of these articles have been rather gleeful in rubbing it in that the album did not reach #1 (despite the fact that #2 is hardly shabby). But such articles usually fail to mention that it DID peak at #1 in over fifty other countries worldwide, including the U.K. This highlights both a very problematic U.S.-centric view, as well as one that is just plain racist. The subtle message that is conveyed-especially by those snarkier journalists who seem to gloat over its peak #2 position-is that it doesn’t matter if Michael Jackson has the best selling “BLACK” album in America. In failing to note the album’s achievement as a a #1 R&B album on what is arguably the most prestigious chart in the U.S. is essentially the same as saying that the black charts don’t matter in America. He has “failed” in their estimation because Xscape only achieved-gasp!-#2 on the “mainstream” (let’s translate: WHITE) chart. Never even mind the worldwide vs. U.S.-centric issue, which is another topic for another day.

The R&B and Urban charts essentially grew out of a less politically correct time when the records on such charts were referred to as “race records” and the respective artists as “race artists.” In those days, the popular music charts-like so many other things-were strictly segregated. The highest achievement possible for a record by a black recording artist was to chart on the “race charts” but, with few exceptions, it was not expected that a black artist would successfully cross over, or that black and white artists would compete on the same chart. It was only in 1949 that Billboard began publishing “R&B” charts as opposed to “Race” charts, presumably due to the suggestion of Jerry Wexler. And it would still be several years hence before the marketing of “R&B” records and of black artists to mainstream consumers (i.e, “the white market”) would become standard.

The timing of Michael’s birth and the era in which he came of age no doubt played a role in shaping his deeply embedded competitive streak. It is something that younger generations of black artists, coming up in a time when hip hop has dominated the cultural landscape for over two decades, may take for granted. These days, there may be less incentive to prove that a black artist can achieve the same level of success as a white artist. But there is still a lingering sense that the black artist may have to struggle harder to maintain that success, without eventually being torn down. (Even the Illuminati conspiracy theories, as ridiculous as they are,seem to most frequently target successful black entertainers in the business). But for the black artists of Michael’s generation, there was always a deeply acute awareness that one would have to work twice as hard to achieve mainstream, crossover success-and, once having achieved it, would have to then work three times as hard to keep it-while at all times, being super conscious of the image one projected, and in making certain only the “right” words were said in interviews-after all, you were constantly being judged. One hint of being too “ghetto” (or as we would put it today, too “thug”) might be enough to kill your career, at least in the mainstream market. I have often said that I believe this was one reason Michael tended toward overkill in dropping lots of big, long words in his interviews. Sure, he was smart and well-read. But it always struck me as a kind of over compensation; he often, for example, would use a very elaborate word when a simple one would have been just as effective, if not moreso. (A great example: When he said that the sight of Joseph would make him “regurgitate” rather than simply saying it made him “vomit” or “throw up.”). While I have always found this to be one of his more endearing traits (especially when he sometimes used malapropisms like “oratory ears!”) I do sometimes wonder if there were insecurities that lay at the root cause of it. I have often wondered if it was not because at some point he had been made to feel inadequate; as someone “less than.” Thus, the constant need to over compensate; to sound “educated” rather than to be perceived as just some poor kid who grew up on the streets of Gary. It is interesting, especially if you compare his word choices, speech patterns and diction in his very youthful interviews at Motown, as opposed to his later interviews as an adult. But again, we have to understand Michael in the context of his own time, as a black artist who understood that appearing as articulate, soft-spoken and non-threatening as possible was vital to maintaining success in a desegregated market. In fact, as we will see later, it was only when he began to assert himself and his power that the whole game changed.

In this sense, Michael would seem not unlike the young poet whom Hughes so snidely referred to in his essay. And, in fact, this was exactly the theme that Michael explored in his landmark 1987 short film “Bad,” in which a returning student (Daryl) is bullied by his old neighborhood friends for not being “Bad” enough (or, in other words, no longer “Black” enough). The breakdown call-and-response sequence that Michael added near the end of the short film was very much a reaffirmation of who he was. Music journalist Danyel Smith said it best in the segment of Spike Lee’s Bad 25 documentary where she is interviewed about the breakdown segment of “Bad”:

Oh my god, it was church; it was James Brown. If any place reaffirmed him, or if he was trying to reaffirm to people who he was and where his roots were, and the soulfulness that he had and, frankly, the blackness that he was, it’s those last thirty seconds.Danyel Smith.

Copyright, Danyel Smith.

A few things we already know about Michael Jackson that we can all agree on. He was a musical genius, and his ability to entertain and mesmerize audiences the world over knew no boundaries. Knowing that he had this gift, was it so very wrong to want to be acknowledged as “THE Best” and not just as “The Best Black Entertainer?” Michael grew up adoring black entertainers like James Brown and Sammy Davis, Jr. But we also know his admiration and unquenchable desire to learn did not end there. He also admired, studied, and emulated white greats like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Charlie Chaplin. To quote his own composition, it truly did not seem to matter to him if the greats were black or white-he loved them equally, and found in all of them qualities to admire and emulate. He loved classical music as much as he did r&b, and the influences of many styles, both with African as well as European roots, infiltrated themselves into his music. This reminds me, in fact, of a debate that is often brought up among my own students at the predominantly African-American university where I teach: Does a love of Beethoven somehow make one “less” black than a love of P. Diddy or Jay-Z and Beyonce? (Or whatever current name they care to throw into the mix). Of course, that such debates even exist at all is ridiculous, but the fact that they do still says much about the complexities of a culture whose racial identity was for so long oppressed, or merely held up for ridicule and mock entertainment (as in the case of the nineteenth century minstrel shows).

Is it possible that the young man whom Hughes scoffed in his essay-the young man who dared to say he wanted to be “THE” best poet, and not merely the “best Negro” poet-could have been misinterpreted by Hughes? That maybe this was not, strictly speaking, a young man ashamed of his race, but rather someone with all the fire of a young MJ who simply dreamed of a world where one could be the “best” of anything without having it necessarily defined by a label or an identity? And, in accomplishing such a goal, does it necessarily mean that one sacrifices their identity in the process? Indeed, this seemed to be the foregone conclusion that Hughes had arrived at, as if to say “there is only one way to be black, and only one way to be a black artist.” But again, we have to assess Hughes’s essay both within the cultural context of its time, and with the understanding of just what a deep and tangled web is the issue of race and art.

For Caucasion artists, it’s a ridiculous question, as identity never even enters the equation. One is simply a poet, or a painter, or a writer, or a singer and dancer. But for artists of color, there is always “the racial mountain.” How much responsibility does an artist really owe his or her own race? Especially if this comes down to a choice between racial identity vs. being true to self. The artist cannot separate themselves from their race, sex, or social class, no more than any human being can climb out of their own skin and become another. But who is to judge whether an artist’s vision and work is “black enough” or “brown enough” or “yellow enough” to allow them to maintain their cultural identity? How do we even begin to define what that “identity” is? The Native American author Sherman Alexie has said it quite well; that the biggest dilemma of being a successful Native American author is realizing that your success is owed to a European art form.

But let’s go back and examine where Hughes was coming from.

Langston Hughes wrote the piece from personal experience. Often criticized most sharply by his own people for creating “negative” or “degrading” portrayals of blacks (his characters, for example, tended to be poor or lower class characters who spoke in dialect; he freely employed the lingos of jazz and the rhythms of blues) Hughes would also come to resent that most of his fame was built on the support of white liberals. Art, after all, can only truly be appreciated by those with the luxury of time and money, and this was doubly true in the early twentieth century when Hughes rose to prominence. As I’ve often said, the “starving artist” is certainly a myth. Anyone who is starving is in survival mode. They aren’t going to be worried about painting or creating. It takes the comfort of a full belly for the brain to be able to turn to such diversions as words and music. Thus, for Langston Hughes, it meant that the very people he was celebrating in his works-the lower class working blacks; the drug addicted street musicians; the evicted and jailed tenants; the mothers weary from laboring all day in some white woman’s kitchen, would most likely never read them. This meant that the African-Americans who did read him would be those affluent enough to afford books, and literate enough to understand-and being literate in and of itself would have been most likely the result of having certain advantages-namely, money and education. In early twentieth century America, this usually meant being in some ways indebted to white society. These were the very African-Americans most apt to criticize Hughes (and artists like him) for creating work that was “too Black” and in so doing, setting the black race back. In turn, these were the African-Americans that Hughes criticized so sharply in his manifesto-as people who had, in essence, abandoned their own race and all of its uniqueness. It is a complex issue, of course, for what Hughes laments as a loss of cultural identity is merely what most black citizens considered at the time as achieving social and economic equality. Being “just like them”-achieving that desired level of standardization-was, after all, the whole idea behind the great American myth of the melting pot. Except that most African-Americans, then as now, are not here in America by their ancestors’ choice, but, rather, by the fact that many of their ancestors were brought here in chains. Keeping that dark history in mind, the whole concept of the “melting pot” and the idea of achieving status and equality by adopting all of the ways and customs of the dominant culture, cannot apply to African-Americans in the same way that it might apply to the millions of Irish, Italian, and east European immigrants whose ancestors came here by choice, with the ultimate goal in mind of becoming a part of that melting pot. Nevertheless, it was an unavoidable truth that if one wanted to do more than just survive-if one wished to prosper and achieve respectability-it would have to come down to being as much “like them” as possible. No minority race in America was truly immune to this phenomenon. In the early 1800’s, Native Americans-having long resigned themselves to the fact that “we can’t beat the whites; might as well join them”-established entire communities and government systems modeled on what they had witnessed from their European neighbors. In the Southeast, a thriving Native American economy was built on the commerce of European goods. Printing presses sprang up, as well as Baptist and Methodist churches. Children went to schools, where they learned from (usually) mixed blood instructors how to read, write, and cipher-in English (after all, it was the language they would need to know in order to survive in this new world). Surely, they thought, we can be left alone to prosper, now that the whites will see how much like them we can actually be; how “civilized” we are! History, of course, would teach them a very cruel lesson, as well as a crushing dose of reality.

Langston Hughes would come to resent that his fame and reputation, at least in the early days, was less from the acceptance of Black America, and moreso from the white liberals whom, as he stated, would read his books because it was the “in” thing to do; who would want to shake his hand at a party, but would never want to be his friend. This reminds me similarly of something that was once said of Michael, which is that he was loved as long as he was just a song and dance man (another way to say, “as long as he was “in his place”) and despised as soon as he acquired the ATV catalog and became one of the most powerful players in the industry.

This “tribute” article from June of 2009 exemplifies that idea exactly. Although the article did make a few good points here and there, it is very typical in its dismissal of Michael’s own contributions to his success. Note that it is exactly the time of the “Bad” album-when Michael finally really began to assert his independence as a songwriter and as a man very much in control of his career-that this writer portrays him as someone on a downward trajectory. The opening sentence is the ultimate admission and ultimate summation of the snobby and typical attitudes of most white journalists: We can give it to Michael that he entertained us, but we must stop short at placing him into the pantheon of “true” genius.

Michael Jackson: The ultimate song and dance man

Perhaps he couldn’t lay claim to genius. But he was, quite simply, an incredible entertainer, who redefined pop stardom and whose influence remains impossible to ignore. Simon Price pays tribute.

Late last Thursday night, amid the chaos and chatter of the midnight vigil which arose on the internet as news of Michael Jackson’s death began to break, I bid the online world goodnight by pleading for a moment’s calm. My plea, directed at anyone who happened to be reading, was, with the greatest respect, to shut up for a moment. I begged them to mute the television, put down the phone, stop typing, be still for a minute, and just listen to something I’d found on YouTube.

It was a vocal track of the young Michael singing “I’ll Be There” a capella, accompanied by footage of The Jackson 5 performing the song on The Jim Nabors Hour, an American variety show, in 1970. Have a look: it may still be there, unless some joyless Universal Music drone has had it removed.

“I’ll Be There” is a song which, in even the happiest of times, can send shivers through your body. On a night like Thursday, as an oasis of beauty among all the ugliness and ghoulishness, it had the power to spear through your skin, rip out your heart and nail it to the wall.

At the age of nine, 10, 11, Michael Jackson had the uncanny ability to deliver vocal performances which combined the purity of an infant with the emotional experience of an adult. At the turn of the 1970s, when The Jackson 5 were turning out single after killer single for the Motown label, nobody knew the price he’d already paid behind the scenes, sacrificing his childhood in Gary, Indiana, at the hands of a harsh and abusive father.

And yet… what utter joy The Jackson 5 produced in those early years under the wing of The Corporation team, with their own cartoon series to spread their popularity: “ABC”, “The Love You Save”, and every DJ’s emergency floor-filler, “I Want You Back”. Michael, although the youngest, had emerged as lead singer. Berry Gordy knew the kid has something special, and soon he was a solo artist, putting down extraordinarily mature vocals on cuts such as the chart-topping “Got to Be There”, Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine”, Stevie Wonder’s “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day”, the gorgeous ballad “One Day in Your Life”, and even on trite trash such as “Rockin’ Robin” and “Ben” (an improbably moving paean to a pet rat).

In 1976, The Jacksons, now microphone-headed teenagers, jumped ship to CBS/Epic minus Motown loyalist Jermaine but plus Randy, leapt aboard the disco train with considerable success (“Blame It on the Boogie”, “Shake Your Body Down”) and looked as if they were having all the fun in the world.

It wasn’t long, though, before Michael embarked on a second solo career. Off the Wall, produced by Quincy Jones (whom Jackson had met on The Wiz, Motown’s ill-fated Wizard of Oz remake) with considerable songwriting assistance from Heatwave’s Rod Temperton, is one of the great disco albums, ranging from the effortlessly sublime soul swing of “Rock with You” to the heartbreaking “She’s Out of My Life”. Its impossibly funky title track is an anthem to the social liberation of the disco movement, and Michael’s imperative to “leave your 9 to 5 upon the shelf and just enjoy yourself” sounds remarkably authentic coming from someone who had never done a normal day’s work in his life.

But it’s the lead-off single that really stands out. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” begins with the sound of Michael chatting away to himself, sotto voce, as though completely unaware of the listener’s intrusive attentions, about how the force … has got a lot of power … and it makes him feel like … oooh!!! before the whole thing erupts into mirrorball euphoria, with Jackson’s trademark shrieks, whoops and chirrups imitated so annoyingly by the likes of Avid Merrion. “Don’t Stop…” is in with a serious shout (and a scream, and a handclap, and a pirouette) of being the greatest piece of pop music ever recorded.

The Michael of Off the Wall sounds, and looks, like a healthy, carefree, playful young man, and is unavoidably poignant in the light of what we know would happen next.

With the Thriller album of 1982, Michael Jackson didn’t only become the biggest pop star in the world. He redefined what bigness meant for a pop star. He achieved this, to a large extent, by being in the right place at the right time. The video for paternity-suit drama “Billie Jean” arrived just when MTV was making it possible for a star to cover the globe without the hard slog of touring, and at a time when globalisation of American capitalism made worldwide homogeneity of markets a desirable thing. Corporations such as Pepsi needed a face who could appeal across races and nations, and Michael Jackson fitted the bill. Thriller made him the best-known black man since Muhammad Ali, and arguably the most famous human on the planet.

Which isn’t to say that it isn’t a fine record on its own merits. The percussive epic “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” exudes sheer exuberance, and “Human Nature” is a beautiful piece of sophisticated metropolitan soul. Jones and Temperton knew what they were doing: “Beat It”, cannily, crossed over with the rock market thanks to its Eddie Van Halen riff, and “Thriller” itself redefined music video. I’m just the right age to remember sneaking into clubs and seeing the place stop dead when the 15-minute zombie flick was played on the big screen.

What Jackson wasn’t, in the context of 1980s megapop, is a “genius”. Unlike Prince or Springsteen, he wasn’t a self-sufficient auteur, and unlike Madonna, he didn’t create his persona through sheer force of will. What he was – and there’s no shame in this – was an incredible entertainer, an untouchable song and dance man.

Speaking of which, even his dance routines weren’t self-generated. He may have tried to copyright the moonwalk as his own, but anyone with a sharp memory knows it was actually premiered by Jeffrey Daniel of Shalamar on Soul Train.

Post-Thriller, the Jacksons temporarily reunited, most memorably with the video for “Can You Feel It”, on which the brothers, 100ft tall, stood atop the Golden Gate bridge, scattering fairy dust on the mere mortals below. Less celebrated, but equally great, is the rock-funk scorcher they recorded with Mick Jagger, “State of Shock”. Michael relished these celebrity duets, and his oft-overlooked Paul McCartney collaboration, “Say Say Say”, features one of his most electrifying vocals.

The unimaginable wealth which Thriller brought him led to Jackson’s mad emperor phase: the Neverland ranch, the chimpanzee companion, the diamond glove, the Moonwalker movie, the oxygen tent, the insistence on the soubriquet “King of Pop”, the facial surgery.

Five years passed before Jackson released another album. By the time of Bad, whose title track had a leather-clad Michael playing an unconvincing street thug in the video, the singer’s skin was very, very white (due, it was claimed to widespread scepticism, to the condition vitiligo). Despite some superb tracks – notably the breathless urgency of “Smooth Criminal” – the writing was, like the album’s pseudo-graffiti logo, on the wall.

As Michael’s life continued to spiral out of control, from gruesome photos in which he appeared to have no nose to the scandal involving his strange relationship with 13-year-old Jordan Chandler, so the quality of his music deteriorated.

He was still capable of putting out the occasional great record, such as “Black or White” from 1991’s Dangerous, which also featured the minimal, robotic New Jack Swing of the Teddy Riley-penned “In the Closet”, but Jackson’s 1990s were defined by the likes of the schmaltzy “Heal the World” and the pompous “Earth Song”.

His antics became increasingly bizarre, from arriving on stage via jetpack to presenting himself as a Christ figure at the Brits (prompting Jarvis Cocker’s legendary stage invasion) to the giant effigy of himself he floated down the Thames to promote 1995’s half-hits, half-new album HIStory. A second child-abuse scandal broke out in the new millennium, exacerbated by Martin Bashir’s documentary and by Jackson, unfathomably, dangling his baby out of a Berlin hotel window.

Although he was never found guilty, Jackson’s reputation never recovered among the “no smoke without fire” brigade. Much of which comes down to a simple failure of imagination. What if Michael really did pay off the Chandlers because he just wanted the whole thing to go away? What if Michael really was so innocent he merely wanted to recapture his childhood with those sleepovers? What if, when he told Bashir “when I look at children’s faces, I see God”, he was being sincere? What if, in short, Michael really was – to quote his own “Thriller” video – “not like other guys”?

The lynch mob had made up its mind, and Jackson’s audience had shrunk. And, harsh as it may sound, this was probably no great loss: 2001’s Invincible doesn’t suggest the world has lost a productive talent, and it’s perhaps for the best that we never found out what the This Is It tour would be like.

Nevertheless, Michael Jackson is still loved for what he once was, his influence impossible to ignore. Right now, the more speculation and scum-slinging I hear, the more I feel drawn back to the purity of that four-decades-old a capella vocal. “You and I must make a pact/We must bring salvation back/Where there is love, I’ll be there…” It’s hard to assimilate the knowledge that, from this moment on, he won’t. (Price).

Unfortunately, this is the all-too-typical construct that is often presented in the mainstream media. The reluctance to attribute the term “genius” to Michael is especially problematic and disturbing. Even if one is of the school that thinks Michael pretty much reached his creative peak with Thriller-as this writer seemed to be-it would still have to account for the fact that Billie Jean and Beat It rank among the greatest pop songs ever recorded. I have a feeling this same writer would have no hesitancy in referring to the “genius” of The Beatles or Bob Dylan. And if it were an article about Elvis Presley-who never composed a single note he ever sang-I can almost guarantee that any question of whether he could or could not be considered a “genius” would be an irrelevant point that wouldn’t even get mentioned. These kinds of debates are almost universally reserved for discussions of Michael Jackson’s music. And the reason is obvious, especially if you look at any poll or listing of the rock era’s “greatest” or “most influential” artists. Michael Jackson seldom tops these lists, but he is almost always somewhere in the Top 5, and usually within the Top 3. Most commonly, he is usually in the #2 position as a runner-up to The Beatles (really, a comparison that hardly seems fair considering there were four of them, and only one of Michael). It’s also interesting to note that on the VH1 list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time” he was given this #2 ranking, but it was duly noted that almost all of the African-American artists on that panel had ranked him as #1.

Such lists (usually compiled by music journalists and music industry insiders, or by fellow artists) are always arbitrary, of course, and prone to reflect the tastes of those doing the ranking. But if the same handful of artists are consistently ranking near the top, then we have to consider that these polls and surveys are a fairly consistent gauge of the artists generally conceded to be…well, “the greatest.” Thus Michael Jackson, boasting the biggest selling album of all time and almost always the lone African-American artist within the Top 5, stands within a unique position, as the only black artist of the rock era who threatens to topple or to overtake that long cherished pantheon of lauded white artists. While artists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, or even Tupac Shakur may receive critical acclaim, they do not threaten the established cultural hierarchy in the same way that Michael Jackson did. Michael threatened to-and often did-break all of the records of our most iconic white artists. He sold more records than anybody, he won more awards than anybody, and is still setting chart records even today, managing to compete quite impressively with many living, contemporary artists. On a global scale, women fainted in his presence, and world leaders called him their friend. There had been black stars before, even mega successful ones, but Michael Jackson was a unique phenomenon-our first truly global black superstar.

Michael himself spoke of this in his taped conversations with Rabbi Schmuley Boteach:

“Before me, you had [Harry] Belefonte, you had Sammi [Davis, Jr.], you had Nat King Cole. You had them as entertainers and people loved their music. But they didn’t get adulation, and they didn’t get people to cry, and they didn’t get, ‘I am in love with you, and I want to marry you.’ They didn’t get people tearing their clothes off and all the hysteria and all the screams. They didn’t play stadiums. I was the first one to break the mold, where white girls, Scottish girls, Irish girls screamed, ‘I am in love with you, I want to…’ And a lot of the white press didn’t like that. That’s what has made it hard for me, because I was the pioneer and that’s why they started the stories, ‘He’s weird. ‘ ‘He’s gay.’ ‘He sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber.’ ‘He wants to buy the bones of the Elephant Man’-anything that turns people against me. They tried their hardest. And anybody else would be dead as a junkie right now, who’d been through what I’ve been through. “-Michael Jackson, excerpted from The Michael Jackson Tapes by Rabbi Schmuley Boteach.

And it gets better. For embodied in the sinewy, whirling dervish of a being that was Michael Jackson was not only an artist capable of taking on the white establishment’s cultural darlings but even owning them outright. In fact, Michael Jackson’s song publishing empire not only acquired for him publishing rights (and royalties) to over two hundred Beatles songs, it also means that to this day his estate continues to generate millions from the song rights of many of the most legendary as well as contemporary white artists, including Elvis Presley (yes, the Sony/ATV catalog includes a goodly portion of Elvis Presley’s catalog), Taylor Swift, and Eminem (I always consider this as a bit of ironic payback for “Just Lose It”). Of course, there are also many black artists included in the Sony/ATV catalog, but for sure, the great irony of Michael Jackson ending up with partial ownership of songs by many of the most iconic and influential white establishment artists has not gone unnoticed-even if the media loves to downplay this fact by focusing, instead, on Michael’s spending habits and creating a narrative of a superstar on the brink of destruction until his assets were “saved” by the superhero white genius John Branca.

Back in 2006, freelance writer Christopher Hamilton wrote a searing piece titled “Is It Because He’s Black? What They Don’t Want You To Know About Michael Jackson”:

IS IT BECAUSE HE’S BLACK?: What They Don’t Want You to Know About Michael Jackson By Christopher Hamilton What do you think of when you hear the name, Michael Jackson? ****o? Criminal? Great Entertainer? Businessman? Whatever you think of MJ, throw all your thoughts out of the window and let’s examine some facts. For years the media has labeled him “****o *****.” What happened to MJ? Wasn’t he the biggest thing in music at one point? When did he go crazy? All anyone has to do is look when Michael started being portrayed as “Crazy.” It wasn’t during the “Thriller” years. It’s cool being a song and dance man. That’s what they want. DON’T DARE BECOME A THINKING BUSINESSMAN. DON’T DARE BUY THE BEATLES CATALOG. DON’T DARE MARRY ELVIS’ DAUGHTER. DON’T DARE BEAT THE RECORD INDUSTRY AT THEIR OWN GAME. Michael started being labeled crazy when he began making business moves that no one had been successful at doing. Michael took two cultural icons and shattered them to pieces. All our lives, we’ve been bombarded with 2 facts. The Beatles were the greatest group of all time and Elvis was the King of Rock and Roll. Michael bought the Beatles and married the King’s daughter. (if that ain’t literally sticking it to the man) If I wasn’t a cynic, I’d say Michael did the Lisa Marie thing just to stick it to the people who consider Elvis the King. The Beatles were great, but they weren’t great enough to maintain publishing rights over their own songs. Elvis was great, but he didn’t write his songs. His manager, Col Tom Parker, was the mastermind behind Elvis … keeping him drugged with fresh subscription pills and doing all the paperwork. Michael could do no wrong as an entertainer. “Off the Wall,” first solo artist with 4 top ten singles. “Thriller,” the biggest selling album of all time, with a then record 7 top ten singles. “Bad,” the first album to spawn 5 number one songs (even Thriller only had 2 number one songs). All this is cool. But that is all you better do. SING AND DANCE. Michael wanted to be greater. He bought the legendary Sly and the Family Stone catalog and no one really cared. When he bought the Beatles, people noticed. The Sony merger took the cake. Sony, in their eagerness to have a part of the Beatles catalog, agreed to a 50/50 merger with Jackson, thus forming Sony/ATV music publishing. Now, Michael co-owns half of the entire publishing of all of Sony artists. Check out the complete lists of songs at sonyatv.com. A sampling of the songs he owns the publishing rights to are over 900 country songs by artists such as Tammy Wynette, Kenny Rogers, Alabama. All Babyface written songs. Latin songs by Selena and Enrique Iglesias. Roberta Flack songs, Mariah Carey songs, Destiny’s Child’s songs. 2pac, Biggie and Fleetwood Mac songs. In essence over 100,000 songs. “What is this man doing?” None of the greats did this. Not Bono, Springsteen, Sinatra. “Who does he think he is? Get whatever you can on him.” To “get” someone, you have to attack what they love the most. I’ll say no more on that. The only man who even approaches MJ in taking on the industry is Prince and to a lesser extent, George Michael. They went after poor George Michael, publicly outing the man as a ****sexual. Prince fought hard and made his point, but nevertheless still had to resort to using a major company to distribute his materials. There is nothing wrong with that. Prince would get the lion’s share, but the result were years of being labeled crazy and difficult. The greatest moment for them was the Sneddon press conference. “We got him.” Never was such glee so evident. Who cares if we have evidence? Michael was acquitted, did not celebrate, went home and left the USA. Best move ever. Now what is there left for the haters to do? He’s gone. “Gone, what do you mean he moved to Bahrain? Well, how the hell can we get him if he’s not here? Quick, get that columnist to write a series of articles on how MJ’s teetering on the brink of destruction. Oh we did that? Well, what can we do?” On the outer surface, it appears Michael is not doing anything to make money. Don’t even count the weekly sales of his CDs. 15,000 CDs a week is nothing for Michael. The Sony/ATV catalog is money for Michael Jackson every time he breathes. Serious money. The fact that no one reports on the actual amount is proof of that. They would rather you believe he is broke than tell you the truth. Neverland is still owned by MJ. The family home in Encino is still owned by MJ. Michael still owns the Beatles songs through the merger with Sony as well as full ownership of his own songs. But, hey, that’s our little secret. Michael Jackson is literally walking in the shoes that no Black person has ever walked in before. If he ever writes an autobiography, it will be one of the most interesting ever. A Black man with no real formal education becomes the most powerful man in the industry, DESPITE hatred, racism, enemies in his own camps and a media willing to be bought to the highest bidder. If Sony had any sense, right now they should offer to continue the partnership. That’s the only way they will make future money off of Michael’s catalogue. Tommy Mattola did not lose his job with Sony because he was a bad label head. It was a casualty of war. MJ exposed him and Sony had to cut their losses. Companies do it all the time. Notice no one at Sony nor did Matolla himself ever sue MJ for slander. Michael always was loyal to his bosses at Epic/Sony. Back at the 1984 Grammys, he even brought then label head Walter Yetnikoff on stage with him at one point. He’s always thanked Dave Glew, Mattola and others at Sony in his acceptance speeches. Sony can still do right by Michael, but it may be too late. However, they still should make a goodwill gesture, but how many times do businesses do that? If I were them, I’d still want MJ as an ally, not as an enemy. It is/was a mutally profitable merger. I’d be scared as hell if I was an enemy of MJ while he is with the multi-billionaires overseas. Believe me, they aren’t just over there discussing designer clothing. A conglomerate is in the making. One last note, these facts that I write here should not be the only times you hear this, but the sad fact is it probably is. I was worried that Michael would go down because of the uncertainty of the jury. That’s playing unfair. If I’m presenting these facts here at EURweb, YOU CAN BELIEVE THE MEDIA KNOWS IT ALREADY AS WELL. They aren’t salivating over everything MJ related just because he made “Thriller.” They know what’s up. Think about it. That’s why I laugh when I see shows like BET’s “The Ultimate Hustler.” We all know who that is. (How can Damon Dash know who the ultimate hustler is anyway? He lost Roc-a-fella to Jay-Z) In the end, Michael won’t be known for being an alleged child ********. He won’t be known for “Thriller.” He will be known as the man that fought the record industry and won and lived to tell the tale. That is a book worth buying (Hamilton).

But lest we get too far astray, let’s get back to Hughes’s essay and its relevance to Michael Jackson. For sure, Michael’s singular accomplishments as a black artist and as a pioneer in the industry are to be lauded. But the question that Langston Hughes was really raising in 1926 was to ask how much does the black artist owe to his/her race? Should having an artistic talent and vision obligate one to be the “voice” of their race, or to advance the causes of their race?

For sure, this was an issue that Michael struggled with. He was a proud black man and a proud black artist who, nevertheless, desired to transcend racial barriers and to bring all races together through music. But the accusations of not being “black enough”; of somehow “selling out” would continue to haunt him throughout most of his solo career. Within the African-American community, he has been celebrated as a hero and loved like family, and yet by the same token, has also received some of his sharpest and most stinging criticisms. In Part Two, I will examine what many of the most prominent African-American writers and scholars-as well as ordinary fans- have had to say about Michael. For sure, the views and opinions of Michael Jackson from the African-American community are as diverse-and often as polarizing-as what one will find among fans, scholars, and critics of any race or nationality. There is no single consensus among African-Americans of who Michael was, or “what he meant to us.” Among my African-American colleagues and students, I still hear a myriad of opinions on Michael every day. My spring semester class, for whatever reason, was one of my most difficult yet, as I met with quite a few attitudes from some students who were convinced they knew more about Michael than I, after all my research, could possibly know. Why? Because it was what they had heard from their parents all their lives. “Michael wanted to be white.” “He bleached his skin.” “Michael was gay.” I can’t say that I blame them entirely for their resistance. After all, here was I-a mixed white and Native American-challenging everything they had been raised to believe about Michael Jackson. The hardest job any instructor faces is when it comes to challenging the notions and teachings that have been instilled in kids by their parents. In this case, it was the values and ingrained notions of an entire generation who had grown up on the tabloid myths-and had, in turn, passed them on the next generation who accepted them as unchallenged truths.

But oddly enough, these were the same students who, when asked to write an essay at the beginning of the semester on their favorite entertainer, almost unanimously chose Michael Jackson. What’s more, their words of adulation brimmed with obvious sincerity.

This seemed to me an odd contradiction of sorts. Here were many black students, typically about eighteen years of age, who freely said they believed Michael didn’t want to be black, and yet still cited him over and over as their favorite singer and greatest inspiration. What the heck was up with that?

To be sure, it’s a complex issue to unravel, but I think it goes back to the heart of what Langston Hughes wrote in 1926. Without exaggeration, Michael no doubt carried more scars from the climb up that metaphoric racial mountain than any other black artist of the twentieth century. He achieved his greatest goals and ambitions, but not without cost, and not without controversy. Like Langston Hughes, he would become both a a celebrated icon of black America and yet one whose very identity as a black American was often challenged, mocked, and ridiculed-by both whites and blacks.

To be continued…

Raven Woods is founder of AllForLove Blog, a unique hub for engaging discussion of Michael Jackson’s art and life. Her credentials include the W.B. Yeats Award, the International Merit Award from “The Atlanta Review,” The Hackney Literary Award, and the Albert and Elaine Borchard Fellowship. She holds an MA in English from Mississippi State University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Georgia College and State University.

Works Cited:

1. Bad25. Dir. Spike Lee. Perf. Michael Jackson. Epic, 2012. DVD.
2. Boteach, Rabbi Shmuley. The Michael Jackson Tapes. New York: Vanguard Press. 2009. Print.
3. Hamilton, Christopher. “Is It Because He’s Black? What They Don’t Want You To Know About”

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Woods, Raven. “Langston Hughes’s “the Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926).” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 1, no. 2 (2014). http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/langston-hughess-the-negro-artist-and-the-racial-mountain-1926/.

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