The Black Arts Movement
or BAM is the artistic branch of the Black Power movement. It was started in Harlem by writer and activist Amiri Baraka (born Everett LeRoi Jones). Time Magazine describes the Black Arts Movement as the "single most controversial moment in the history of African-American literature-- possibly in American literature as a whole. The Black Arts Repertory Theatre is a key institution of the Black Arts Movement.
The movement was one of the most important times in the African American literature. It inspired black people to establish their own publishing houses, magazines, journals and art institutions. It led to the creation of African American Studies programs within universities. The movement was triggered by the assassination of Malcolm X Other well-known writers that were involved with this movement included Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Maya Angelou, and Rosa Grey. Although not strictly involved with the Movement, other notable African American writers such as novelists Toni Morrison and Ishmael Reed share some of its artistic and thematic concerns. Although Ishmael Reed is neither a movement apologist nor advocate, he said:
I think what Black Arts did was inspire a whole lot of Black people to write. Moreover, there would be no multiculturalism movement without Black Arts. Latinos, Asian Americans, and others all say they began writing as a result of the example of the 1960s. Blacks gave the example that you don't have to assimilate. You could do your own thing, get into your own background, your own history, your own tradition and your own culture. I think the challenge is for cultural sovereignty and Black Arts struck a blow for that.
BAM influenced the world of literature, portraying different ethnic voices. Before the movement, the literary canon lacked diversity, and the ability to express ideas from the point of view of racial and ethnic minorities was not valued by the mainstream.
Theatre groups, poetry performances, music and dance were centered around this movement, and therefore African Americans were becoming recognized in the area of literature and arts. African Americans were also able to educate others through different types of expressions and media about cultural differences. The most common form of teaching was through poetry reading. African American performances were used for their own political advertisement, organization, and community issues. The Black Arts Movement was spread by the use of newspaper advertisements. The first major arts movement publication was in 1964.
The Black Arts movement, usually referred to as a "sixties" movement, came together in 1965 and broke apart around 1975/1976. In March 1965 following the 21 February assassination of Malcolm X, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) moved from Manhattan's Lower East Side uptown to Harlem, an exodus considered the symbolic birth of the Black Arts movement. Jones was a highly visible publisher (Yugen and Floating Bear magazines, Totem Press), a celebrated poet (Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, 1961, and The Dead Lecturer, 1964), a major music critic (Blues People, 1963), and an Obie Award-winning playwright (Dutchman, 1964) who, up until that fateful split, had functioned in an integrated world. Other than James Baldwin, who at that time had been closely associated with the civil rights movement, Jones was the most respected and most widely published Black writer of his generation.
Although Jones' 1965 move uptown to establish the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS) is considered the formal beginning (it was Jones who came up with the name "Black Arts"), the Black arts movement grew out of a changing political and cultural climate in which Black artists attempted to a place for themselves amidst remaining ideologies of the Cold War, decolonization, and the civil rights movement. Black artists and intellectuals like Baraka made it their project to reject older political, cultural, and artistic traditions.
In his seminal 1965 poem "Black Art," which quickly became the major poetic manifesto of the Black Arts literary movement, Jones declaimed "we want poems that kill." He was not simply speaking metaphorically. During that period armed self-defense and slogans such as "Arm yourself or harm yourself' established a social climate that promoted confrontation with the white power structure, especially the police (e.g., "Off the pigs"). Indeed, Amiri Baraka (Jones changed his name in 1967) had been arrested and convicted (later overturned on appeal) on a gun possession charge during the 1967 Newark rebellion. Additionally, armed struggle was widely viewed as not only a legitimate, but often as the only effective means of black liberation. Black Arts' dynamism, impact, and effectiveness are a direct result of its partisan nature and advocacy of artistic and political freedom "by any means necessary." America had never experienced such a militant artistic movement.
Although the success of sit-ins and public demonstrations of the Black student movement in the 1960s may have “inspired black intellectuals, artists, and political activists to form politicized cultural groups,” many Black Arts activists rejected the non-militant integrational ideologies of the Civil Rights Movement and instead favored those of the Black Liberation Struggle, which placed an emphasis on “self-determination through self-reliance and Black control of significant businesses, organization, agencies, and institutions.” According to the Academy of American Poets, “African American artists within the movement sought to create politically engaged work that explored the African American cultural and historical experience.” The importance that the movement placed on Black autonomy is apparent through the creation institutions such as the Black Arts Repertoire Theatre School (BARTS), created in the spring of 1964 by Amiri Baraka and other Black artists. The opening of BARTS in New York city often overshadow the growth of other radical Black Arts groups and institutions all over the United States. In fact, transgresional and international networks, those of various Left and nationalist (and Left nationalist) groups and their supports, existed far before the movement gained popularity. Although the creation of BARTS did indeed catalyze the spread of other Black Arts institutions and the Black Arts movement across the nation, it was not solely responsible for the growth of the movement.
While it is easy to assume that the movement began solely in the Northeast, it actually started out as “separate and distinct local initiatives across a wide geographic area”, eventually coming together to form the broader national movement. New York City is often referred to as the “birthplace” of the Black Arts Movement, because it was home to many revolutionary Black artists and activists. However, the geographical diversity of the movement opposes the misconception that New York (and Harlem, especially) was the primary site of the movement.
In its beginning states, the movement came together largely through printed media. Journals such as Liberator, The Crusader, and Freedomways created “a national community in which ideology and aesthetics were debated and a wide range of approaches to African American artistic style and subject displayed. These publications tied communities outside of large Black Arts centers to the movement and gave the general Black public access to these sometimes-exclusive circles.
As a literary movement, Black Arts had its roots in groups such as the Umbra Workshop. Umbra (1962) was a collective of young Black writers based in Manhattan's Lower East Side; major members were writers Steve Cannon, Tom Dent, Al Haynes, David Henderson, Calvin C. Hernton, Joe Johnson, Norman Pritchard, Lenox Raphael, Ishmael Reed, Lorenzo Thomas, James Thompson, Askia M. Touré (Roland Snellings; also a visual artist), Brenda Walcott, and musician-writer Archie Shepp. Touré, a major shaper of "cultural nationalism," directly influenced Jones. Along with Umbra writer Charles Patterson and Charles's brother, William Patterson, Touré joined Jones, Steve Young, and others at BARTS.
Umbra, which produced Umbra Magazine, was the first post-civil rights Black literary group to make an impact as radical in the sense of establishing their own voice distinct from, and sometimes at odds with, the prevailing white literary establishment. The attempt to merge a Black-oriented activist thrust with a primarily artistic orientation produced a classic split in Umbra between those who wanted to be activists and those who thought of themselves as primarily writers, though to some extent all members shared both views. Black writers have always had to face the issue of whether their work was primarily political or aesthetic. Moreover, Umbra itself had evolved out of similar circumstances: In 1960 a Black Nationalist literary organization, On Guard for Freedom, had been founded on the Lower East Side by Calvin Hicks. Its members included Nannie and Walter Bowe, Harold Cruse (who was then working on Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, 1967), Tom Dent, Rosa Guy, Joe Johnson, LeRoi Jones, and Sarah Wright, among others. On Guard was active in a famous protest at the United Nations of the American-sponsored Bay of Pigs Cuban invasion and was active in support of the Congolese liberation leader Patrice Lumumba. From On Guard, Dent, Johnson, and Walcott along with Hernton, Henderson, and Touré established Umbra.
Another formation of Black writers at that time was the Harlem Writers Guild, led by John O. Killens, which included Maya Angelou, Jean Carey Bond, Rosa Guy, and Sarah Wright among others. But the Harlem Writers Guild focused on prose, primarily fiction, which did not have the mass appeal of poetry performed in the dynamic vernacular of the time. Poems could be built around anthems, chants, and political slogans, and thereby used in organizing work, which was not generally the case with novels and short stories. Moreover, the poets could and did publish themselves, whereas greater resources were needed to publish fiction. That Umbra was primarily poetry- and performance-oriented established a significant and classic characteristic of the movement's aesthetics. When Umbra split up, some members, led by Askia Touré and Al Haynes, moved to Harlem in late 1964 and formed the nationalist-oriented "Uptown Writers Movement," which included poets Yusef Rahman, Keorapetse "Willie" Kgositsile from South Africa, and Larry Neal. Accompanied by young "New Music" musicians, they performed poetry all over Harlem. Members of this group joined LeRoi Jones in founding BARTS.
Jones's move to Harlem was short-lived. In December 1965 he returned to his home, Newark (N.J.), and left BARTS in serious disarray. BARTS failed but the Black Arts center concept was irrepressible mainly because the Black Arts movement was so closely aligned with the then-burgeoning Black Power movement. The mid- to late 1960s was a period of intense revolutionary ferment. Beginning in 1964, rebellions in Harlem and Rochester, New York, initiated four years of long hot summers. Watts, Detroit, Newark, Cleveland, and many other cities went up in flames, culminating in nationwide explosions of resentment and anger following Martin Luther King, JR. April 1968 assassination.
Nathan Hare, the author of The Black Anglo-Saxons (1965), was the founder of 1960s Black Studies. Expelled from Howard University, Hare moved to San Francisco State University where the battle to establish a Black Studies department was waged during a five-month strike during the 1968-1969 school year. As with the establishment of Black Arts, which included a range of forces, there was broad activity in the Bay Area around Black Studies, including efforts led by poet and professor Sarah Webster Fabio at Merrit College.
The initial thrust of Black Arts ideological development came from the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), a national organization with a strong presence in New York City. Both Touré and Neal were members of RAM. After RAM, the major ideological force shaping the Black Arts movement was the US (as opposed to "them') organization led by Maulana Karenga. Also ideologically important was Elijah Muhammad’s Chicago-based Nation of Islam These three formations provided both style and ideological direction for Black Arts artists, including those who were not members of these or any other political organization. Although the Black Arts movement is often considered a New York-based movement, two of its three major forces were located outside New York City.
As the movement matured, the two major locations of Black Arts' ideological leadership, particularly for literary work, were California's Bay Area because of the Journal of Black Poetry and the Black Scholar, and the Chicago-Detroit axis because of Negro Digest/Black World and Third World Press in Chicago, and Broadside Press and Naomi Long Madgett's Lotus Press in Detroit. The only major Black Arts literary publications to come out of New York were the short-lived (six issues between 1969 and 1972) Black Theatre magazine published by the New Lafayette Theatre and Black Dialogue, which had actually started in San Francisco (1964–1968) and relocated to New York (1969–1972).
Although the journals and writing of the movement greatly characterized its success, the movement placed a great deal of importance on collective oral and performance art. Public collective performances drew a lot of attention to the movement, and it was often easier to get an immediate response from a collective poetry reading, short play, or street performance than it was from individual performances.
In 1967 LeRoi Jones visited Karenga in Los Angeles and became an advocate of Karenga's philosophy of Kawaida. Kawaida, which produced the "Nguzo Saba" (seven principles), Kwanzaa and an emphasis on African names, was a multifaceted, categorized activist philosophy. Jones also met Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver and worked with a number of the founding members of the Black Panthers. Additionally, Askia Touré was a visiting professor at San Francisco State and was to become a leading (and longlasting) poet as well as, arguably, the most influential poet-professor in the Black Arts movement. Playwright Ed Bullins and poet Marvin X had established Black Arts West, and Dingane Joe Goncalves had founded the Journal of Black Poetry (1966). This grouping of Ed Bullins, Dingane Joe Goncalves, LeRoi Jones, Sonia Sanchez, Askia M. Touré, and Marvin X became a major nucleus of Black Arts leadership.
As the movement grew, ideological conflicts arose and eventually became too great for the movement to continue to exist as a large, coherent collective.
The Black Aesthetic
Many discussions of the Black Arts movement posit it as the “aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept.” The Black Aesthetic refers to ideologies and perspectives of art that center around Black culture and life. This Black Aesthetic encouraged the idea of Black separatism, and in trying to facilitate this hope to further strengthen black ideals, solidarity, and creativity.
In his well-known essay on the Black Arts Movement, Larry Neal attests, “When we speak of a 'Black aesthetic' several things are meant. First, we assume that there is already in existence the basis for such an aesthetic. Essentially, it consists of an African-American cultural tradition. But this aesthetic is finally, by implication, broader than that tradition. It encompasses most of the usable elements of the Third World culture. The motive behind the Black aesthetic is the destruction of the white thing, the destruction of white ideas, and white ways of looking at the world.”
Effects on society
According to the Academy of American poets, “many writers--Native Americans, Latinos/as, gays and lesbians, and younger generations of African Americans have acknowledged their debt to the Black Arts movement.”
The movement lasted for about a decade, through the mid 1960s and into 1970s. This was a period of controversy and change in the world of literature. One major change came through the portrayal of new ethnic voices in the United States. English language literature, prior to the Black Arts Movement, was dominated by white authors.
African Americans became a greater presence not only in the field of literature, but in all areas of the arts. Theater groups, poetry performances, music and dance were central to the movement. Through different forms of media, African Americans were able to educate others about the expression of cultural differences and viewpoints. In particular, black poetry readings allowed African Americans to use vernacular dialogues. This was shown in the Harlem Writers Guild which included black writers such as Maya Angelou and Rosa Guy. These performances were used to express political slogans and as a tool for organization. Theater performances also were used to convey community issues and organizations. The theaters, as well as cultural centers, were based throughout America and were used for community meetings, study groups and film screenings. Newspapers were a major tool in spreading the Black Arts Movement. In 1964, Black Dialogue was published making it the first major Arts movement publication.
The Black Arts Movement, although short, is essential to the history of the United States. It spurred political activism and use of speech throughout every African American community. It allowed African Americans the chance to express their voices in the mass media as well as becoming involved in communities.
It can be argued that “the Black Arts movement produced some of the most exciting poetry, drama, dance, music, visual art, and fiction of the post-World War II United States” and that many important “post-Black artists” such as Toni Morrison, Ntzoake Shange, Alice Walker, and August Wilson were shaped by the movement..
The Black Arts movement also provided incentives for public funding of the arts, and increased public support of various arts initiatives.
Key writers and thinkers of this movement
Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka (Born Everett LeRoy Jones.) Jean Carey, Bond Walter Bowe Gwendolyn Brooks, Ed Bullins, Steve Cannon, Harold Cruse, Tom Dent Ray Durem Addison Gayle Nikki Giovanni Rosa Guy Lorraine Hansberry Al Haynes David Henderson Calvin Hicks Marvin X (known as Marvin Jackson) Ron Karenga Adrienne Kennedy Keorapetse John O. Killens Robert MacBeth Haki Madhubuti "Willie" Kgositsile Nannie Larry Neal Yusef Rahman, Sonia Sanchez, Barbara Ann Teer, Lorenzo Thomas, Askia M. Touré
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