Black Arts Movement

views updated May 21 2018

Black Arts Movement

The Black Arts movement (BAM), which could be dated roughly to 1965 through 1976, has often been called the "Second Black Renaissance," suggesting a comparison to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s. The two are alike in encompassing literature, music, visual arts, and theater. Both movements emphasized racial pride, an appreciation of African heritage, and a commitment to produce works that reflected the culture and experiences of black people. The BAM, however, was larger and longer lasting, and its dominant spirit was politically militant and often racially separatist.

To specify the exact dates of cultural movements is difficult and, given the amorphous nature of complex cultural phenomena, may appear arbitrary. In 1965, however, several events occurred that gave direct impetus to the movement: the assassination of Malcolm X, which prompted many African Americans to take a more militantly nationalist political stance; the conversion of the literary prodigy LeRoi Jones into Imamu Amiri Baraka, the movement's leading writer; the formation of the musically revolutionary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago; and the founding of Broadside Press, which became a leading publisher of BAM poets, in Detroit. Each of these events galvanized black artists.

While the movement had no specific end point, certain events and works decisively marked shifts in the cultural climate. For example, the decision in 1976 by Johnson Publishing to discontinue Black World effectively silenced the most important mass-circulation periodical voice of the movement. Furthermore, works published in 1976, such as Ntozake Shange's for colored girls , Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada, and Alice Walker's Meridian, spoke critically and retrospectively of the movement. The major figures of the movement became less prominent in the late 1970s as new, different African-American voices began to emerge. Thus, while no one can specify when the movement ended, there was a consensus in the late 1970s that the movement was indeed over.

The BAM was fundamentally concerned with the construction of a "black" identity as opposed to a "Negro" identity, which the participants sought to escape. Those involved placed a great emphasis on rhetorical and stylistic gestures that in some sense announced their "blackness." Afro haircuts, daishikis, African pendants and other jewelry, militant attitudes, and a general sternness of demeanor were among the familiar personal gestures by which this blackness was expressed. In many cases these activists dropped their given "slave names" and adopted instead Arab, African, or African-sounding names, which were meant to represent their rejection of the white man and their embracing of an African identity. Such gestures, as they became popularized, rapidly degenerated into clichés, which have subsequently become easy targets of satire for the movement's many detractors. Depicted in extreme forms, Afrocentric dress, soul handshakes, and other affectations of blackness appear ludicrous. Facile parodies, however, should not blind us to the serious social, cultural, and political yearnings that common gestures of personal style reflected but could not adequately express. Silly fads as well as profound art derived from this impulse to discover and create black modes of self-expression.

The BAM is often but inadequately conceived of as a poetry and theater movement that articulated in literary terms the militant, separatist, social, and political attitudes of the 1960s Black Power movement. While the BAM had direct links to the Black Power movement, both movements derived from complex historical legacies and cannot be understood simply in the context of the black community or the 1960s. The BAM, in particular, drew inspiration from numerous sources and manifested itself across the spectrum of aesthetic modes, casting its influence far beyond the black community and the tumultuous 1960s. To understand the BAM adequately, we must consider its manifestations in literature, music, dance, visual arts, theater, and other modes. Ultimately, this movement represented an evolving consensus about the nature and sources of art and the relationship of art to its audience.

The movement is often attacked or dismissed by subsequent artists and critics as having been dogmatically polemical. Since the movement generated a great deal of polemical and theoretical writing, this criticism does have a basis in fact. For example, many poems of the movement contain attacks on white people and "Uncle Tom Negroes"; many plays pontificate about the proper relationship between black men and black women (often asserting male primacy and advocating female submissiveness); musical compositions often incorporate rambling monologues of "relevant" poetry or invoke ancient African kingdoms or Malcolm X; and the images of Malcolm X and the American flag recur incessantly in the visual arts of the movement. To recognize that the movement has its clichés, however, is not to suggest that cliché typifies all or even most of its works.

It is also important to acknowledge that the BAM did not encompass every African-American artist who was active during the 1960s and '70s, nor did all of the artists within the BAM agree with each other on every social and aesthetic issue. The consensus that characterized the movement represented a very broad set of attitudes and principles that participants in the movement understood in varying ways and shared to varying degrees. At the same time, sharing these general principles and attitudes did not necessarily entail the acceptance of the agendas or judgments of those who articulated or advocated these principles. Establishing these distinctions allows us to understand that the movement reflects both strong agreement and acrimonious dissent.

The shared agenda of the movement was commonly described as the quest for a black aesthetic. Despite constant efforts, the term "black aesthetic" never acquired a precise definition, and it is better understood as the symbol of a shared aspiration than as a descriptively accurate label for a fully elaborated mode or theory of art. Nevertheless, "black aestheic" does clearly indicate the attempt to create art with African-American cultural specificity. What this might mean is surprisingly difficult to ascertain.

One aspect of it is obviously social. The most concise statement of this social dimension of the black aesthetic appears in "Black Cultural Nationalism," an influential 1968 essay by Ron Karenga (who later adopted the name Maulana, meaning "teacher"). Citing Leopold Senghor, Karenga asserts that "all African art has at least three characteristics: that is, it is functional, collective, and committing." By this Karenga means that "black art must expose the enemy, praise the people, and support the revolution." Karenga's influence became pervasive in part because his theories were embraced and promulgated by the influential Imamu Amiri Baraka. This view of art, arguably more Marxist-Leninist than African, became the dominant view of the social function of black art: It should expose the enemy and raise black consciousness.

This narrowly pragmatic conception of black art worked against another major concern of the black aesthetic: to connect with black cultural traditions. Ironically, many of the black aestheticians spurned significant aspects of genuine African-American culture, such as the blues. Karenga, for example, complained that the blues enabled an acceptance of existing realities, while Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti) remarked in his poem "Don't Cry, Scream": "All the blues did was / make me cry." In such instances, black aesthetic ideology severed black art from black traditions. Regarding actual African-American culture, the movement was often divided against itself.

"The Black Arts and the Black Power concept both relate broadly to the Afro-American's desire for self determination and nationhood. Both concepts are nationalistic. One is concerned with the relationship between art and politics; the other with the art of politics."

larry neal "black art is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the black power concept" (1968). schomburg center for research in black culture, new york public library.

The most important legacy of the Black Arts Movement was its quest for new modes of expression based on African-American traditions. The sentiment of black solidarity provided a fundamental premise of the movement. Practically speaking, this sentiment led to the formation of artists' organizations, schools, and publishing ventures located in and directed to the black community. In order for black art to flourish, these activists believed, black artists must control the means of production. Needless to say, such principles had always been operative in black cultural institutions, and some precursors of the black arts, such as the Karamu Playhouse in Cleveland, had been active for decades. One of the earliest 1960s black arts groups was the Umbra Writers Workshop, founded in New York's Greenwich Village in 1963 by Tom Dent, Calvin Hernton, and David Henderson. Although political and aesthetic disagreements soon caused Umbra to implode, it provided an important model for subsequent groups, and several of its members were among the most innovative and influential figures of the BAM. These include Ishmael Reed, Roland Snellings (Askia Touré), Henry Dumas, Norman Pritchard, and Steve Cannon.

Even before Umbra, the National Conference of Artists (NCA) had been founded in 1959. While a few visual artists, among them Joe Overstreet, and even some musicians, such as Sun Ra (who was also a poet), had been involved with Umbra, NCA was strictly a visual artists' organization. Though conceived as a professional organization rather than a workshop, NCA shared with subsequent black arts organizations the broad objectives of "preserving, promoting, and developing the creative forces and expressions of African-American artists." Its activities included annual conferences, a newsletter, a journal, regional meetings, exhibitions, lectures, workshops, placement services, and scholarships. The national scope and professional orientation of this group, however, distinguish it from most BAM institutions. The differences between NCA and AfriCobra, reflect, as we shall see, the particularity of the BAM.

Though much of the Black Arts activity occurred on the East Coast, Chicago incubated two of the most influential and enduring of the movement's institutions: the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), founded in 1967, and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) founded in 1965. Also notable among Chicago institutions are Third World Press and the Institute for Positive Education, founded in 1967 by OBAC members Haki Madhubuti and Johari Amini. OBAC was originally conceived as an umbrella group, comprising workshops in literature and visual arts, as well as a politically oriented community workshop. In its original declaration of principles, OBAC stated its intention to encourage work based on the black experience and expressing a black aesthetic. Like NCA, it aspired to develop both artists and critics who could create and appraise black art and to develop various mechanisms for disseminating art and fostering discussions within the community.

Even the acronym OBAC was designed to reflect the high ambitions of the group. Pronounced "oh-bah-see," OBAC echoes the Yoruba word oba, which denotes royalty and leadership. OBAC aspired to spearhead the incipient black cultural revolution. Its founders included Hoyt Fuller, the editor of Negro Digest (renamed Black World in 1970) and Gerald McWorter (Abdul Alkalimat), a graduate student at the University of Chicago. The work of OBAC writers such as Johari Amini, Haki Madhubuti, and Carolyn Rodgers often appeared in Negro Digest/Black World along with the editorials and commentaries of Hoyt Fuller and quickly gained a national audience for both the art and the polemics of OBAC.

The most dramatic public statement by OBAC was The Wall of Respect, a Black Power mural painted on a building at the corner of 43rd Street and Langley Avenue on Chicago's South Side by Jeff Donaldson, Eugene Wade, Bill Walker, and other members of the visual arts workshop in 1967. The wall depicted various historical and contemporary black heroes such as Muhammad Ali, W. E. B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Nina Simone, Amiri Baraka, and Gwendolyn Brooks. This mural galvanized the imaginations of community people, and based on their comments, the artists made various revisions on the mural. The appeal of public art notwithstanding, this privately owned building was eventually razed, and The Wall of Respect passed into legend.

Despite its brief existence, the mural sparked a local and national movement. Numerous cities soon produced their own equivalents, such as The Wall of Dignity in Detroit, several murals by artists including Dana Chandler and Gary Rickson in Boston, and similar projects in New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, among others. Needless to say, the mural movement had roots going back to the 1930s in the WPA public art projects and especially in the powerful work created by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera. The Black Arts movement also echoed the 1930s in that the vogue of murals was seized upon by state and federal arts agencies. While black artists could see such murals as "committed and committing," government agencies saw them as a fine combination of public art and social control mechanisms for urban youths who could be organized into painting teams during the incendiary summers of the 1960s. Artists such as Bill Walker and Dana Chandler organized mural projects in several cities, but the political impact of these projects diminished as their frequency increased, and when government support evaporated in the arid 1970s, the mural movement withered away.

Nevertheless, the movement launched the careers of many artists. Five of the OBAC artistsJeff Donaldson, Jae Jarrell, Wadsworth Jarrell, Barbara B. Jones, and Gerald Williamsformed their own organization, COBRA (Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists) in 1968. The next year they became AfriCobra (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), adding Napoleon Henderson and Nelson Stevens to their ranks. By the time of the first AfriCobra show at Harlem's Studio Museum in July 1970, Sherman Beck, Omar Lama, and Carolyn M. Lawrence had joined the group, bringing the number to ten. For many people, AfriCobra came to epitomize the new black art. Their work used vivid, basic colors. It was representational, usually incorporating the faces of black people, and it was explicitly political. In direct rebellion against the elitist norms of establishment art, these artists endeavored to produce work that was immediately comprehensible and appealing to common people. As Jeff Donaldson put it, "This is 'poster art'images which deal with concepts that offer positive and feasible solutions to our individual, local, national, international, and cosmic problems. The images are designed with the idea of mass production." This statement captured the spirit of the black aesthetic as many artists understood it.

The music of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, was arguably even more dazzling, iconoclastic, and influential than the poetry, fiction, and art of OBAC. AACM resembled OBAC in that it was independent and community based. Both groups consisted mostly of younger artists, in college or recently graduated, but both received leadership from older, established figures. Three band leaders, Muhal Richard Abrams, Phil Cohran, and Jodie Christian, for example, conceived AACM and called its founding meeting on May 8, 1965. Abrams, a noted pianist and composer, was elected president of AACM and served in that capacity for over a decade. The initial impetus for AACM was more economic than political. By the mid-1960s most of Chicago's important jazz clubs had closed, and jazz was everywhere in decline. These musicians saw a cooperative as the best way for musicians to take control of their own professional destinies.

AACM soon attracted many of the best young musicians in Chicago. The group established an educational program (in 1967) and an AACM orchestra that met (and continues to meet) weekly to perform new compositions by AACM members. Most importantly, AACM provided a setting in which young musicians could meet, perform together, and exchange ideas. AACM members and groups performed frequent concerts around Chicago's South Side during the late 1960s and early '70s. Ensembles formed, dissolved, and reconfigured around AACM, a few of which soon distinguished themselves: the various groups led by Abrams; the Fred Anderson Quintet; the Art Ensemble of Chicago; the Creative Construction Company; and (in the 1970s) Air.

Each of these groups had its own unique character but they had some traits in common. They were profoundly influenced by the "free jazz" innovations of Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, by the intense instrumental styles of John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, by the musical eclecticism of Charles Mingus, and by the theatrical staging and grand vision of Sun Ra. Unlike the populist OBAC, AACM produced difficult, challenging, unabashedly avant-garde work. While these musicians could play blues and conventional jazz, their interests lay in extending the frontiers of musical possibility. They experimented with extended and free-form compositions, and with exotic instruments; they even tried to redefine what constitutes music. Some compositions by the Art Ensemble, for example, incorporated bicycle horns, bird whistles, street noises, poetry, sermons, screams, and nonsense conversation.

The Art Ensemble was the group that most epitomized AACM as an aspect of the Black Arts movement. The group consisted of Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, reeds; Lester Bowie (deceased), trumpet; Malachi Favors (deceased), bass; and Famodou Don Moye, percussion. While performing, Jarman, Favors, and Moye wore facial paint and African-style costumes; Bowie wore a white lab coat; and Mitchell dressed in ordinary street clothes (jeans, turtlenecks, etc.). Usually, the Art Ensemble packed the stage with batteries of standard instruments (sopranino to bass saxophones, soprano to bass clarinets, various flutes, and often bassoons); a standard drum kit, plus congas, gongs, and marimbas; and countless "little instruments" (whistles, bells, tambourines, conch shells, maracas, and various noisemakers). Art Ensemble concerts were visual spectacles and unpredictable musical events, reflecting the group's motto: "Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future." Their compositions, such as People in Sorrow (1969), exemplified the devotional parodic, evocative, experimental, lyrical eclecticism of the Art Ensemble.

In contrast to the Art Ensemble, which flourished for three decades, the Creative Construction CompanyAnthony Braxton, reeds; Leroy Jenkins, violin; Leo Smith, trumpet; Muhal Richard Abrams, piano; Richard Davis, bass; and Steve McCall, drumspersisted only for a few years. However, all of these men became major figures in the new music. Their concerts and albums were celebrated for their dazzling ensemble playing, which emphasized collective improvisation rather than solos. Both these bands developed aesthetics based upon the Black Arts precept of committed collectivity.

Chicago also developed notable and enduring black theater groups, such a KUUMBA and Ebony Talent Theater (ETT), but New York was clearly the more important city for theater and dance, and most of the famous Black Arts plays premiered there. However, the proliferation of black theater groups on campuses and in communities throughout the country guaranteed that plays by established authors, local talents, and emerging stars were quickly disseminated. Although Amiri Baraka, due to his broad range of literary and political activities, was the best known of the Black Arts playwrights, he had many talented peers. Ed Bullins, Ron Milner, Lonne Elder, Charles Fuller, Douglass Turner Ward, Adrienne Kennedy, Melvin Van Peebles, Loften Mitchell, and Ben Caldwell all wrote provocative work that challenged audiences and incited lively debate.

These authors worked in a variety of styles, and their political and cultural views differed. Nonetheless, they shared a vision of American society in crisis and a conviction that drama should challenge the complacency of audiences by exposing racism, economic exploitation, social conflict, and false consciousness. Some of these plays were satirical, while others were intensely confrontational; some relied on dialogue, while others bristled with shocking language. Furious assaults on whites were at times matched by blistering arguments between father and son, brother and sister. Black Arts theater was the theater of a people becoming aware of and rebelling against their own oppression. However, it was also a theater that sought solutions, new understandings, and transformed social relations. In keeping with the idea of an art derived from and directed to the black community, nearly all of the Black Arts theaters instituted discussion forums immediately following their productions, involving the director, cast, audience, and sometimes the author. Black art was to be educational, not just entertaining.

Black dance also proliferated during this period. The Alvin Ailey group, though founded in 1960, just before the advent of BAM, exemplified the visual and rhythmical ideals of the black aesthetic. Several other major companies were formed during the movement: among others, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company in Ohio (1968); the Dance Theater of Harlem in New York City (1969); the Philadelphia Dance Company, or Phildanco (1970); Garth Fagan's Bucket Dance in Rochester, N.Y. (1970); the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble in Denver (1971); and the Joel Hall Dancers in Chicago (1974). While all of these troupes specialize in African-American dance, most of them have been multiethnic in composition. This conflict between the nationalist impulse to form all-black companies and the pluralist impulse to include qualified people who, regardless of their background, have the talent and disposition to make a contribution reflects a larger tension in the movement. African-American culture is inherently an amalgam, including European elements as well as African. Most black artists have been trained in institutions with European orientations. How, then, can black artists come honestly to terms with the complex nature of their own cultural heritage? Dance embraced the pluralist reality of American culture more forthrightly than the other black arts generally did.

At the same time, black dance immersed itself deeply in the cultures of Africa, the Caribbean, and black America. Unlike the literary artists and theorists of the BAM, whose acquaintance with Africa was too often only through cursory reading and vigorous fantasy, dancers had a highly developed tradition of African dance technique to draw upon. Since the early 1930s, African dancers such as Asadata Dafora and Shologa Oloba had taught African dance in New York. Nana Yao Opare Dinizulu had begun teaching African dance and culture in Harlem in 1947 and founded a company in the same year. Subsequently, the companies of Charles Moore and Chuck Davis extended this tradition. African percussion masters such as Babatunde Olatunji also traveled to the United States, imparting their vast knowledge of African music and dance. African traditions as developed in Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad had been studied, adapted, and taught since the 1930s by influential dancers such as Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, and Jean-Leon Destinée. Even costuming and stage design had transcended mere ethnographic imitation and instead, borrowing the vivid colors and basic styles of African tradition, had evolvedpreeminently in the work of Geoffrey Holderinto dazzlingly imaginative modes of expression. Thus, when large numbers of dancers began traveling to study in Africa during the late 1960s and '70s, their challenge was not to introduce new forms to American dance but rather to refine and extend a firmly established tradition.

To explain companies like Bucket Dance and the Dance Theater of Harlem as products of BAM would be simplistic and inaccurate. Clearly, however, the desire to create black cultural institutions and the desire to engage artists and audiences in a rediscovery of African and African-American expressive modes links the efforts of choreographers such as Garth Fagan and Arthur Mitchell to the broader BAM. These dancers also shared the educational commitments of the movement. In addition to training young dancers for their own companies in the traditional manner of independent dance ensembles, choreographers like Fagan, Mitchell, and Davis have always maintained vigorous public outreach programs, including workshops for children. Furthermore, since dance often captured the aesthetics of the movement without its polemics, many of the works created by Ailey, Mitchell, Fagan, Talley Beatty, Eleo Pomare, and other choreographers of that period have remained fresh and compelling, while by contrast, many popular literary works of the era now seem shrill and dated. The greatest artists of BAM may not be its acknowledged spokespersons.

Similarly, many artists who came of age during the movement have continued to develop, leaving behind many of the themes, modes, and attitudes of their own earlier work. In the visual arts, for example, many artists relied on chains and distorted images of American flags to make overtly political points. The sculptor Melvin Edwards, for example, created a series of works in the late 1960s called Lynch Fragments. One installation of it appeared at the Whitney in 1970, consisting of strands of barbed wire strung from the ceiling and attached to loops of heavy chain. Such work is pointed but aesthetically limited. By contrast, Edwards's works of subsequent years are large-scale, welded-steel sculptures, often in abstract forms but sometimes incorporating chain or chainlike figures as well. The growth in imaginative complexity and aesthetic appeal is immediately obvious.

Faith Ringgold, a painter with strong political commitments, was actually convicted in 1970, along with two other artists, for desecrating the American flag. Her flag paintings such as "The Flag Is Bleeding" (1967) and "Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger" (1969) are effective polemics about American violence and racism. Nonetheless, outside the angry context of the late 1960s, these works appear strident and facile. Her later works that utilize folk-art forms (as she had begun to do even in the 1960s), textiles, quilting, and various other media embody artistic maturity, not just effective visual rhetoric. David Hammons made heavy use of both flags and chains in his works of the late 1960s. Indeed, his body prints such as "Pray for America" (1969) and "Injustice Case" (1970), the latter regarding the Chicago Seven case, are among the most memorable American art images of that era. Like Edwards and Ringgold, however, Hammons discovered profounder aesthetic possibilities and resources when he moved away from the obvious symbolism and unambiguous political sentiments of BAM. Hammon's work of the 1980s and '90s, from his spade sculptures to his basketball installations, is playful, ironic, and much more deeply grounded in African-American culture. Like many other artists of their generation, Edwards, Ringgold, and Hammons were BAM artists, but their artistic growth did not terminate at the boundaries of the movement.

Some critics of the BAM have focused exclusively on a few extremist works, artists, or tendencies of the movement, thereby defining the movement only in terms of its most egregious features. While the extremes of the movement are shocking indeed, its fecundity and diversity have not been sufficiently recognized. Much has been written, for example, about the political assertiveness of BAM works. The humor of the movement, in all of its genres, has not generally been acknowledged. Much of Baraka's work is bitingly satirical. Douglass Turner Ward's Day of Absence, a coon show performed in whiteface, is slapstick comedy in the ministrel tradition. Cecil Brown, Sam Greenlee, and Ishmael Reed are all comic novelists. David Hammons, the Art Ensemble, and Garth Fagan have made humor a major element of their works. Haki Madhubuti and Nikki Giovanni, even at their most earnest, are playful and witty poets.

Despite the stern dogmatism of some Black Arts theory, the movement always encompassed diverse voices and perspectives. Some critics have dismissed the BAM as a sexist outpouring, dominated by misogynistic men. Actually, many of the iconic BAM figures were women, such as Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Carolyn Rodgers, Audre Lorde, Toni Cade Bambara, Faith Ringgold, June Jordan, and Adrienne Kennedy. These and other women within the movement vigorously debated gender issues among themselves and with their male counterparts, in their works, in public forums, and in organizational meetings. The common claim that women's voices were suppressed by the BAM is belied by a reading of the anthologies, periodicals, museum show catalogs, playbills, and other documents of the period.

In fact, one might argue that the most direct literary legacy of the BAM was the explosion of black women's writing in the late 1970s and '80s. For instance, while Ntozake Shange's play for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (1976) anticipates in its themes and attitudes the feminism and womanism of the 1980s and '90s, its aesthetic rootsespecially its use of vernacular language, color, music, and danceare clearly in the BAM tradition. Toni Cade Bambara's intricate masterpiece The Salt Eaters (1980) is certainly the most sophisticated and probing book yet written on how this black nationalist political and aesthetic movement shaped the lives of its participants. Finally, womanist critics of the BAM have rejected many aspects of the movement, including some of its fundamental social values. Nevertheless, their conception of art, especially literature, as a tool of consciousness raising and community building is a direct echo of Black Arts theory.

BAM even had within it a vigorous multiculturalist tendency, which was most forcefully represented by Ishmael Reed and his San Francisco Bay Area cohorts, such as Al Young. In his poems, essays, and novels, Reed advocated a vision of multicultural pluralism, social freedom, and political tolerance. Spurning the dogmatic nationalism of many BAM adherents, Reed declared himself a multicultural artist more than a decade before the idea of multiculturalism became fashionable. Through his editing of periodicals such as Yardbird Reader, Y'bird, and Quilt, which published writers of numerous ethnic backgrounds and his leadership in multicultural collectives such as the Before Columbus Foundation, Reed acted decisively to implement his pluralist commitments. Furthermore, Reed has written devastating satires on and criticisms of Black Arts dogmas and excesses. Yet as an alumnus of the Umbra Workshop, Reed is himself a foundational figure of the movement. Clearly, the BAM was large enough, in the best Whitmanesque tradition, to contain contradictions and multitudes.

See also Afrocentrism; Autobiography, U.S.; Biography, U.S.; Black Power Movement; Drama; Feminist Theory and Criticism; Literary Criticism, U.S.; Last Poets; Literary Magazines; OBAC Writers' Workshop


Baraka, Amiri. The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones. New York: Freundlich Books, 1984. Rev. ed., Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1997.

Brooks, Gwendolyn, ed. A Broadside Treasury: 19651970. Detroit: Broadside, 1971.

Clarke, Cheryl. "After Mecca": Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005.

Collins, Lisa Gail, and Margo Natalie Crawford, eds. New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2006.

Donaldson, Jeff. "Ten in Search of a Nation." Black World 19, no. 12 (October 1970); 8089.

Fabre, Geneviéve. Drumbeats, Masks, and Metaphor: Contemporary Afro-American Theatre. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Fine, Elsa Honig. The Afro-American Artist: A Search for Identity. New York: Hacker Art Books, 1982.

Fowler, Carolyn. Black Arts and Black Aesthetics: A Bibliography. Published by author, 1981.

Gayle, Addison, ed. The Black Aesthetic. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971.

Jones, LeRoi, and Larry Neal, eds. Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing. New York: Morrow, 1968.

Lewis, Samella. African American Art and Artists. 3d ed., rev. and updated. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Long, Richard. The Black Tradition in American Dance. New York: Rizzoli, 1989.

Parks, Carole, ed. Nommo: A Literary Legacy of Black Chicago (19671987). Chicago: Oba House, 1987.

Redmond, Eugene B. Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1976.

Sell, Mike. Avant-garde Performance and the Limits of Criticism: Approaching the Living Theatre, Happenings/Fluxus, and the Black Arts Movement. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Smethurst, James Edward. The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

Smith, David Lionel. "The Black Arts Movement and Its Critics." American Literary History 3, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 93110.

david lionel smith (1996)
Updated bibliography

Black Arts Movement

views updated Jun 27 2018

Black Arts Movement


Characterized by African American poet, activist, and theorist Larry Neal as the aesthetic sister of the Black Power concept (Neal 1989, p. 62), the Black Arts Movement (BAM) is one of the most controversial cultural movements of the modern era due to its racialist intellectual bases; its commitment to economic, political, and cultural autonomy for African America; and its overtly revolutionary intentions. It carried through the African American educator and writer W. E. B. Du Boiss 1926 call for art about us, by us, for us, and near us (Du Bois 1926, pp. 134136). It was, in poet Kalamu ya Salaams words, the only American literary movement to advance social engagement as a sine qua non of its aesthetic (Salaam 1997, p. 70). Initiated in the early 1960s, though rooted in a radical tradition dating back at least to the Haitian Revolution of 1791, it flourished, suffered setbacks in the mid-1970s from federal government harassment via the FBIs counterintelligence program and from economic downturn, and continues in the early twenty-first century. Such continuity challenges the African American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.s contention that the BAM was the shortest and least successful cultural movement in African American history (Gates Jr. 1994, pp. 7475).

Although other media such as painting, poetry, dance, and music were significant, theater and drama played a preeminent role due to their communal nature, focus on transformation, and institutional, organizational, and economic demands. Neal writes, Theater is potentially the most social of all the arts. It is an integral part of the socializing process (Neal 1989, p. 68). Especially influential were Amiri Barakas Dutchman (1964) and the institution he co-founded in 1965, Harlems Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. This focus on aesthetic innovation within institutional development reflects the thinking of social scientists such as John Henrik Clarke, C. Eric Lincoln, and Harold Cruse. A generation of artists was fostered in organizations such as BLKARTSWEST, the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, Spirit House, and the New Lafayette Theatre, and in the many black studies programs created in universities and colleges across the United States in part due to the actions of BAM artists and intellectuals.

Other significant influences can be identified. First, within the movement there was a focus on popular and folk culture via Du Bois (18681963), the African American educator and critic Alain Locke (18861954), the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci (18911937), the black Trinidadian historian and activist C. L. R. James (19011989), the African American writer and ethnographer Zora Neale Hurston (19031960), and the Chinese theorist of cultural warfare Mao Zedong (18931976). The Black Muslim leader Malcolm X (19251965) was perhaps the most influential in the formation of the movement: Our cultural revolution must be the means of bringing us closer to our African brothers and sisters (Malcolm X 1970, p. 427). This is a matter of content, but also production conditionswhere, by whom, and for whom the art is created. It is also a matter of technique: In Performing Blackness: Enactments of African-American Modernism (2000, p. 28), Kimberly Benston argued for the primacy of methexis (communal helping-out of the action by all assembled) over mimesis (the representation of an action). In practice, this meant: (1) participatory works such as the National Black Theatres A Revival! Change! Love! Organize! (1969) or Sonia Sanchezs a/coltrane/poem (1970), which supplies directions such as sing loud & long with feeling (Sanchez 1991, p. 184); (2) a call to action, as in the agitation-propaganda poetry of Don L. Lee or Nikki Giovanni or the revolutionary commercials of Ben Caldwell; and (3) invitation to the audience to discuss and criticize, most notably the public discussion panel convened at the New Lafayette Theatre in the fall of 1968 to discuss its controversial production of Ed Bullinss We Righteous Bombers, a play that scathingly critiques those who advocate revolutionary violence.

A second influence was radical theology, the assumption being that the most invidious effect of slavery and colonialism was spiritual. As James T. Stewart asserted, [E]xisting white paradigms or models do not correspond to the realities of Black existence. It is imperative that we construct models with different basic assumptions (Stewart 1968, p. 3). Ritual dominated the stages and periodicals of black theater in the late 1960s. Religious content was a constant in the visual arts, as in Margo Humphreys Afrocentric take on The Last Supper, The Last Bar-B-Que (19881989). That said, religion was not universally appreciated; Caldwell showed no sympathy for the theologically minded in Prayer Meeting, or, The First Militant Minister (1969). It depicts a hilarious bit of subterfuge by a quick-on-his-feet burglar and a hopelessly gullible liberal preacher who mistakes the intruder for God. Likewise, Joyce Green criticized her compatriotsespecially menfor their tendency to cloak misogyny in metaphysical vestments.

Finally, musicpopular and avant-gardeenabled the dynamic of tradition and innovation called for by cultural revolutionaries such as Amilcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah, Mao, and Malcolm X. Blues, rhythm-and-blues, gospel music, and jazz were considered the key, as Neal put it, to expanding the movements connections to local, national, and international currents (Neal 1968, p. 653). Studied with an eye to their aesthetic, conceptual, and communal dimensions, traditions such as the blues were understood to be modes of critical discourse whose contours could be mapped onto other aesthetic and critical-theoretical forms.

Too often, as Cedric Robinson demonstrated in his Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983), the continuity of the black radical tradition has been obscured. As in music, such continuity exists not only between BAM artists and critics and their forebears, but also to the post-BAM generation. To adequately account for the success or failure of the BAM, one must understand it as merely the epiphenomenon of a history that preceded it and continues in the twenty-first century.

SEE ALSO Black Power; Blackness; Culture; Social Movements


Benston, Kimberly. 2000. Performing Blackness: Enactments of African-American Modernism. New York: Routledge.

Cruse, Harold. 1967. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. New York: Quill.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1926. Krigwa Players Little Negro Theatre. The Crisis 32 (July): 134136.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. 1994. Black Creativity: On the Cutting Edge. Time, October 10.

Gayle, Addison, Jr., ed. 1972. The Black Aesthetic. Garden City, NY: Anchor.

Kelley, Robin D. G. 2002. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon.

Malcolm X. 1970. The Organization of Afro-American Unity: For Human Rights and Dignity. In Black Nationalism in America, ed. John H. Bracey Jr. et al. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.

Neal, Larry. 1968. And Shine Swam On. In Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, ed. LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal. New York: William Morrow.

Neal, Larry. 1969. Any Day Now: Black Art and Black Liberation. Ebony, August.

Neal, Larry. 1989. The Black Arts Movement. In Visions of a Liberated Future, ed. Michael Schwartz. New York: Thunders Mouth. (Orig. pub. 1968).

Robinson, Cedric J. 1983. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. London: Zed.

Salaam, Kalamu ya. 1997. Black Arts Movement. In Oxford Companion to African American Literature, ed. William L. Andrews et al. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sanchez, Sonia. [1970] 1991. a/coltrane/poem. In The Jazz Poetry Anthology, ed. Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Sell, Mike. 2005. The Black Arts Movement: Text, Performance, Blackness. In Avant-Garde Performance and the Limits of Criticism: Approaching the Living Theatre, Happenings/Fluxus, and the Black Arts Movement. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Stewart, James T. 1968. The Development of the Black Revolutionary Artist. In Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, ed. LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal. New York: William Morrow.

Mike Sell

Black Arts Movement

views updated May 18 2018

Black Arts Movement

Hailed by its practitioners, pundits, and critics as the cultural "aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept" (Neal 1989, p. 62), the Black Arts Movement marked black Americans' turn away from a white, Western paradigm to embrace their own "Black Aesthetic" during the tumultuous era of the 1960s. Perhaps the Black Arts Movement, like its political double, is rooted in U.S. blacks' collective exasperation with the perceived inadequacy of nonviolence as a response to the vicious persistence of violent racism in the "dominant American culture" (Heacock 1995, p. 34). Amiri Baraka says that the 1964 Broadway play Blues for Mr. Charlie by James Baldwin (1924–1987) "announced the Black Arts Movement" (1996, p. 96). Critic Houston Baker Jr. (1994) cites Baraka himself as its progenitor, stemming from Baraka's unsparing and scathing critique of the middle-classness of "Negro literature" in his 1962 article, "The Myth of a Negro Literature." Early on, when he was still LeRoi Jones, Baraka had termed the West "a grey, hideous space" (Jones 1964, p. 62), and thus a bankrupt model to which black writers should owe no allegiance. Henry Louis Gates Jr., no lover of Baraka, says it is Baraka's founding of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem in 1965 that ignites this movement for a Black Aesthetic (1987, p. xxvii). This period, both for the Black Arts and Black Power movements, is as crucial to the politics of U.S. black culture as the modernist Harlem Renaissance, because of its rate of cultural production and because of its role in transforming the consciousness of a whole generation of post-World War II African-American women and men.

Poetry was the cultural engine of change for the Black Arts and Black Power movements. Dudley Randall (1914–2000), who was dubbed the "father of black poetry" by Black Enterprise Magazine in 1978, established Broadside Press in 1965 in Detroit. Between 1965 and 1984, Broadside Press published the poetry of more than two hundred black poets in broadsides, individual collections, anthologies, records, and tapes, including Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Danner, Haki R. Madhubuti, Etheridge Knight, Carolyn Marie Rodgers, Everett Hoagland, Stephany, Melvin W. Dixon, as well as Baraka, and many other less well-known writers during the period. "Broadside Press [was] a cultural marker of an epic generation" (Clarke 2005, p. 172), and it cornered the market on the publication of Black Arts Movement poetry.

The Black Arts Movement is also marked by critical innovations in jazz, notably in the music of Sun Ra (1914–1993), John Coltrane (1926–1967), and Pharoah Sanders (b. 1940), among many others. During the late sixties, poet Jayne Cortez (b. 1936) also became well known for combining her lyric verse and jazz music in explosive critique and exhortation of the black world, as did the immortal Last Poets collective; both are progenitors of the spoken word genre (Nielsen 1997, p. 221).

Even though the first books of Nikki Giovanni (Black Feeling, Black Talk, 1968), Audre Lorde (The First Cities, 1968), Carolyn M. Rodgers (Paper Soul, 1968), and Sonia Sanchez (Homecoming, 1969) are each synonymous with Black Arts aestheticizing, the Black Arts Movement was still a story of black heterosexual manhood's coming of age, with black womanhood standing at the edges of the birthing stool, greeting the entry of the angry infant, hollering down the birth canal of the new blackness. Yet each of the afore-named books attests to black women's vibrant militant literacy. Giovanni's critique of the "nigger" in black people and Sanchez's cautionary censure of the West and its cultural inventions were as strong and strident as the work of any black male poet of the time.

Gwendolyn Brooks, upon witnessing students' adulatory responses to the poetry of Baraka at a black writers' conference at Fisk University in 1967, decided that she must stand in blackness with her poetry. Her 1968 book In the Mecca marked her final publication with Harper's, her press for twenty-five years. This collection was also Brooks' swan song to the lyric (i.e., the sonnet). Her subsequent collections were published by Broadside Press and then, after 1985, Haki Madhubuti's Third World Press.

Cortez's first book of poems, Pissstained Stairs and the Monkey Man's Wares, was self-published in 1969, and uttered profane critiques of racism and colonialism with vatic intensity.

With the publication of The Black Woman, An Anthology, Toni Cade Bambara's 1970 anthology of writings by black women, readers began to notice black women's contributions as writers, revolutionists, and theorists of this militant turn of cultural events in the black American world. Emergent black feminism influenced the understanding of black women's role in leading and endorsing this hallmark period of black American creativity.

Lesbian feminist poet Audre Lorde's third book, From a Land Where Other People Live (1973), was published by Broadside and nominated for a 1974 National Book Award along with those of two other feminist poets, Adrienne Rich's Diving into the Wreck and Alice Walker's Revolutionary Petunias. Rich's book won, but she demanded that Lorde and Walker share the award. Alexis Deveaux, in Warrior Poet, her biography of Lorde, reveals that Randall requested that Lorde omit "Love Poem" from this collection, because of its explicit reference to sex between women. Lorde acquiesced, feeling betrayed by her desire for the "prospect of another published book" and "her own need for the black community's embrace" (p. 131). This is an indication of how proscribed were gender and sexuality within the Black Arts Movement. Yet the sharp angle of the period's critique of the racism and colonialism of the West still continues to influence black cultural production.


Baker, Houston A., Jr. 1994. "Generational Shifts and the Recent Criticism of Afro-American Literature." In Within the Circle, ed. Angelyn Mitchell. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. (Orig. pub. 1981.)

Baraka, Amiri. 1996. Eulogies. New York: Marsilio.

Clarke, Cheryl. 2005. "After Mecca": Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Deveaux, Alexis. 2004. Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde. New York: W. W. Norton.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. 1987. Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self. New York: Oxford University Press.

Heacock, Maureen Catherine. 1995. "Sounding a Challenge: African American Women's Poetry and the Black Arts Movement." Ph.D. diss., Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

Jones, LeRoi. 1964. "Black Dada Nihilismus." In The Dead Lecturer. New York: Grove Press.

Jones, LeRoi. 1966. "The Myth of a Negro Literature." In Home: Social Essays. New York: William Morrow.

Neal, Larry. 1989. "The Black Arts Movement." In Visions of a Liberated Future: Black Arts Movement Writings. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press.

Nielsen, Aldon Lynn. 1997. Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

                                              Cheryl Clarke