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date: 14 June 2024

Black Arts Movementfree

Black Arts Movementfree

  • William R. Nash


  • North American Literatures

The term “Black Arts Movement” describes a set of attitudes, influential from 1965 to 1976, about African-American cultural production, which assumed that political activism was a primary responsibility of black artists. It also decreed that the only valid political end of black artists' efforts was liberation from white political and artistic power structures. Just as white people were to be stripped of their right to proscribe or define black identity, white aesthetic standards were to be overthrown and replaced with creative values arising from the black community.

Larry Neal, one of the movement's founders, noted in his essay The Black Arts Movement (1968) that this agenda made the Black Arts Movement “the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept.” Like Black Power, the Black Arts ideology had roots in earlier African-American historical moments; also like Black Power, the specifics of the movement arose in response to the integrationist ethos of the late 1950s. As such, it marked an important era in the evolution of African-American artistry, a moment when black writers, visual artists, and musicians forged their own declarations of independence from white America. Because of the proscriptive nature of its tenets, it also created much controversy. Through its evocation of such resistance, the Black Arts Movement also prepared the way for subsequent black artists, who have moved away from essentialist racial characterizations to articulate a more sweeping, multifaceted understanding of racial identity.

The Black Arts Movement and the Evolution of African-American Literature

In many ways the Black Arts Movement was a lineal descendant of the Harlem Renaissance, or at least of the wing that privileged the art and experiences of “the folk” over the high art of white culture. The link is so strong, in fact, that some scholars refer to the Black Arts Movement era as the Second Renaissance. One sees this connection clearly in a reading of Neal's essay alongside Langston Hughes's The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain (1926). Indeed, “The Negro Artist” was deemed sufficiently important to the architects of the Black Aesthetic for Addison Gayle to include it among the selections in his definitive 1971 anthology of the theory of the movement, The Black Aesthetic. The Black Arts Movement overlapped with the articulation of the principles referred to as the Black Aesthetic. One might say the former is practice, the latter theory. Hughes's seminal essay advocates that black writers resist external attempts to control their art, arguing instead that the “truly great” black artist will be the one who can fully embrace and freely express his blackness. The hallmark of this, in Hughes's vision, is an artist's ability to reject bourgeois posturing and to privilege instead the more elemental experience of the black masses, those whom he refers to as “low-down folks.” This call resonates strongly with Neal's call for “a cultural revolution in art and ideas [that] speaks to the spiritual and cultural needs of Black people, regardless of whether or not whites approve.” Neal and his peers went a step farther than their predecessors, however, arguing that it was not enough to reject white aesthetic standards; instead, they claimed, white artistic standards must be destroyed.

Such extreme terminology created, or at least exacerbated, rifts within the African-American literary community. Perhaps no single break is more illustrative or more troublesome than the Black Aestheticians' rejection of Ralph Ellison. Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) set a standard for African-American fiction and established its author as a preeminent man of American letters. Although the novel challenges simplistic, white-defined portrayals of black identity, its fundamental ethos is undeniably integrationist. Furthermore, with its evocation of classic white texts like Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground (1864), Invisible Man supported the values of a traditional Western (read “white”) literary aesthetic, even though Ellison extended those standards through his concomitant celebration of black folk culture. For this, Ellison earned a number of “establishment” accolades, including the National Book Award. Also, in 1965 a group of American scholars and authors named Invisible Man the most accomplished American novel published since 1945. The 1965 designation came at the time when African-American writers were mounting the struggle to find a black literary voice that would shortly arise in the form of the Black Arts Movement; the honor only confirmed these young writers' opinions of Ellison as an assimilationist. This, by extension, also made him irrelevant to the movement and an Uncle Tom in their eyes.

Ellison was far from the only figure whose work was deemed politically inadequate by the Black Aestheticians; rather, one might best view their reaction to him as illustrative of a tendency in the movement to make restrictive pronouncements about what art by African Americans qualified as “black enough” for the movement's purposes. The profound irony of this particular case is that Ellison, like the Black Aestheticians, sought to reimagine black identity and to break it out of the strictures imposed on notions of blackness by a white majority. Recognizing this link between Ellison and his detractors proves useful, as it allows one to contextualize the Black Arts Movement in the continuum of efforts to redefine black being. Without the Black Aestheticians' call for a strict separation of black and white creative identity, African-American literature likely could not have evolved as it did. At the same time, however, the commonalties between Black Arts artists and those predecessors like Ellison, whom they so pointedly rejected, illustrate why the movement was necessarily a step in a process. Only with the expansion of notions of black identity can true creative freedom come, and real expansion by definition demands movement beyond any group's rigid definition of identity, be it externally or internally imposed.

Immediate Antecedents and the Black Arts Label

As the 1960s began, African Americans' struggle for civil rights gradually began to shift from accommodationism to militancy. This was true for literary groups just as it was for other kinds of political organizations. In 1962 the Umbra poets' workshop was founded on Manhattan's Lower East Side; this group of young black poets, which published two issues of the journal Umbra before it self-destructed, sought to define a position for itself outside the boundaries of the white aesthetic. Group members included several writers who subsequently became well-known: Ishmael Reed, Calvin Hernton, Askia Touré, Lorenzo Thomas, Tom Dent, David Henderson, Joe Johnson, and Norman Pritchard. For the first two years, Umbra was a dynamic, active organization. Eventually, however, political differences caused important rifts within it, which eventually led to its dissolution. One result of this balkanization of the group was the articulation of newer, more strictly nationalist standards for evaluating black art. Another key development that came in the wake of Umbra's collapse in 1965 was the founding by LeRoi Jones of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BART/S) in Harlem. With the founding of this group, Jones gave the nascent movement a name; he also became one of its most prominent promoters and theoreticians.

Jones began publishing poetry in the style of the Beat poets of the late 1950s and early 1960s; his first volume of poetry, Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note (1961), shows the poet seeking a new means of expressing black experience but operates within the conventions of white English usage. As Jones moved toward his Black Arts phase, he changed his name to Amiri Baraka (“blessed prince” in Bantu). He also changed the form and content of his poetry, adopting a more violent stance and adopting the vernacular of the urban community. One sees these elements in play quite clearly in Baraka's poem, “Black Art” (1969):

Poems are bullshit unless they areteeth or trees or lemons piledon a step.…Fuck poemsand they are useful, wd they shootcome at you, love what you are,breathe like wrestlers, or shudderstrangely after pissing. We want livewords of the hip world live flesh &coursing blood.

(Randall, ed., The Black Poets, p. 223) The aim of this black art is clear, as the poem explicitly equates activism and artistry; the only valid art, in Baraka's view, is art that strikes a blow against white hegemony.

For the artist, words can best be weapons when he or she uses them to create a unique black speech. In addition to using street language, Baraka also occasionally adopts nontraditional orthography, in this instance substituting “wd” for “would.” This practice of adopting alternate spellings would become a standard of the movement, especially in the work of Black Arts Movement poets like Sonia Sanchez and Haki Madhubuti. Irregular orthography has a dual purpose for the poet. First, it jolts the reader out of complacency, forcing him or her to acknowledge inherent biases about how language “should” look and work. It follows logically from this that the reader who overcomes a narrow interpretation of linguistic form will likely be receptive to similar challenges to linguistic meaning. Second, and following from that, the artist who successfully asserts his or her control of language explicitly rejects white domination. Given that language had traditionally been a tool that whites had used to define and confine black identity, black artists' seizing of the power of linguistic construction and definition is a significant blow for creative and communal freedom.

This is not to suggest that all of the poetry of the Black Arts Movement saw this differentiation from white culture in terms of violent rebellion. The poet's ability to celebrate black lives and experiences without concern for interracial inclusiveness in audience appeal is another means of differentiation that many artists of the period used. One sees this clearly in Angela Jackson's poem Second Meeting (1975), which frames an interaction between a black man and woman exclusively in terms of their common African heritage; the poet does not attempt to make the poem relevant or appealing to anyone with a European-American background.

The poem opens with an evocation of an African past, as the speaker talks to her male auditor:

memba the time…we met at homethat slow age ago.
(Parks, 1987, p. 122)

In that place, she encounters a hunter “hone / n a spear” as she moves “with a water jar balanced on my head / to fetch from the river.” They share a beautiful day, eating together and performing a “fertility dance.” Clearly, for her the first meeting was a powerful experience, an event that figures into the speaker's sense of self. Equally clearly, the event is not actual memory, but rather the dream of a former life. The Africa she sees in her mind is an idealized homeland, a place free of the corrupting Western value systems that poison interaction between black men and women.

Nevertheless, real or imagined, this is what sustains her. It also guides her thought and action in this second meeting in the subway. Teasing her male auditor for his “hey sista wuts happen / n” opening, she says “i guess / u forgot” that common past. In the moment, though, the speaker gave not rejection but a smile that prompted another line:

don't i know ufromsumwhere”

And again, her dream of the past controls her response:

I noded softly: yes.afraid I'd tipovathe water jarI always thinkisbalanced on my head
(Parks, 1987, p. 122)

In this moment, the speaker's defense against white America embraces her male companion. The message is one of possibility, an image of who these individuals can be and what kind of community they can build in a harsh urban environment.

One sees a similar range of attitudes in Black Arts drama. Baraka was as crucial to the movement for his plays as for his poems, and he worked to make the black theater a powerful political weapon. His most anthologized play, Dutchman (1964), presents a murderous confrontation between a white woman, Lula, and a young black intellectual named Clay. As Lula tries to seduce Clay (in preparation for murdering him), she pushes him into a violent rage in which he equates black art with murder. As he puts it, “If Bessie Smith had killed some white people she wouldn't have needed that music” (p. 97). In Great Goodness of Life: A Coon Show (1967), Baraka takes that violence into the black community; the play describes the trial of Court Royal, a middle-aged black man who is hauled before a white judge known only as “the Voice” and accused of harboring a murderer. In order to be free he must kill the murderer, who turns out to be his own son. As the curtain closes, Royal has apparently forgotten his actions and is heading out to go bowling, happy and secure in the knowledge that white society accepts and affirms him.

The message of these plays is clear: white America actively seeks to exterminate any blacks it sees as potentially dangerous. The goal is very much to arouse black empathy and to mobilize African Americans to resist white oppression. One finds a sharp contrast in the plays of Ed Bullins, another prominent Black Arts dramatist. In works such as Goin' A Buffalo (1968) and In the Wine Time (1968), he portrays interactions among blacks that have no real connection to white society. Rather than reacting violently against whites, the characters in Bullins's plays operate with no real sense of white presence. One might think of Baraka's and Bullins's plays as something of a continuum that, taken together, raise two crucial questions. First, Baraka asks, what can be done to destroy the white man's world; then, when that is done, Bullins wonders, what sort of world can the black community make for itself in place of the old order?

Proliferation of the Movement and The Black Aesthetic

Although Baraka and Bullins occupied such significantly different intellectual space, they both worked primarily in the metropolitan New York area. Given the high concentration of venues available in New York City, it is perhaps no surprise that many Black Arts events occurred there. Unlike the Harlem Renaissance, however, this Second Renaissance was not so localized as to be given a geographic name. Indeed, one found major Black Arts Movement workshops spread across the nation. The Bay area of San Francisco was home to Black Arts West and a prominent site for Black Aestheticians; Black Arts Midwest and Concept East were both located in Detroit. Los Angeles had at least three groups operating in the city: the Ebony Showcase, the Inner City Repertory, and the Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles. New Orleans housed BLKARTSOUTH. All were dynamic groups that promoted the values and aesthetic standards of the movement.

Perhaps the most interesting, though, was Chicago's Organization of Black American Culture. Founded in 1967, this group (whose name contains the Yoruba word for leader, “Oba”) sought to create a “leader culture” that would help it counteract the social and economic forces of racism that they saw threatening their community. As Abdul Alkalimat notes in his “OBAC Position Paper” of 1967, participants have “the job of building OBAC into an organization deeply grounded in the Black community…which far transcends individual differences…so people will have faith in themselves and the strength of self confidence” (Parks, ed., Nommo: A Literary Legacy of Black Chicago (1967–1987), p. 12). At the heart of the group's program was a belief that art could have significant social impact; one sees this clearly in the title of its journal, Nommo, which derives from the Bantu and means “the power of the word to make material change.”

This impulse toward change is part of what cofounder Hoyt Fuller called the workshop's “generative idea.” Fuller was an important figure in this era. When Addison Gayle compiled The Black Aesthetic, he selected Fuller to write the introduction; in that brief essay, Fuller explained how OBAC was founded and how it embodied and advanced the values of the Black Arts Movement. In the same statement, Fuller also noted that OBAC participants strove “to invest their work with the distinctive styles and rhythms and colors of the ghetto” and to “set in motion the long overdue assault against the restrictive assumptions of the white critics” (p. 10).

Like BART/S, OBAC was essential to the evolution of the Black Arts ethos; unlike Baraka's group, however, OBAC existed for almost twenty-five years, ceasing to function only in the 1990s. Its longevity made it unique among Black Arts era organizations. This demonstrated something crucial about both the group and the Black Arts Movement itself. OBAC survived because it evolved, moving away from the essentialist values of its early years to a broader, more inclusive understanding of blackness and the black community that was sensitive to changes in national attitudes about race and racial identity. Black Arts Movement groups that adhered strictly to the separatist ethos of BART/S and its peer institutions eventually found themselves obsolete.

Backlash Against the Black Aesthetic

In the mid-1970s artists began a serious effort to replace the essentialism of the Black Arts Movement with something more expansive. As a result, the movement foundered around 1976, leaving space for other attempts at defining black identity to come to the fore. One such effort came from a small but active group of African-American writers dissatisfied with the principles of the Black Aesthetic. Often referred to as the New Breed, these writers—including Ishmael Reed, Al Young, Cecil Brown, and Quincy Troupe Jr.—“found the Black Aesthetic too prescriptive and narrowly political” and “felt the battleground was not the street but the mind. They wanted to dethrone the Western mind from the seat of intellectual power and prestige” (Andrews, Smith Foster, and Harris, Black Aesthetic The Oxford Companion to African-American Literature, p. 69). In their work, white standards were usually not ignored; if anything, they were brought to the forefront and mocked, as in Reed's early parodies of genre fiction. In some ways, the work of this group resembled that of Black Arts Movement writers; however, as a general rule one finds less of an emphasis on violence and more of a willingness to engage creatively with the Western tradition. These variations allowed for writers and critics to expand their definitions of black arts and artistry.

In the wake of the New Breed writers, black artists and critics advanced an even broader range of aesthetic positions. Trey Ellis's suggestion that a New Black Aesthetic had grown from within the African-American artistic community was one important innovation; bell hooks's call for an “aesthetic of blackness” represented another. Challenging the values of the Black Aesthetic, hooks promoted a more diverse understanding of African-American artistry, characterized in part by a breadth of vision she said was lacking in most works identified with the Black Arts Movement. She recognized that discussions of aesthetic issues must not be cast in binary terms, pitting black against white and eliminating other sources of inspiration. Instead, hooks argued, blacks and whites alike must recognize “the need to see darkness differently” (Hooks, 1990, p. 113) and to celebrate the beauty of darkness that runs counter to conventional Western aesthetics. In some ways a modified version of “black is beautiful,” the rallying cry of the Black Arts and Black Power movements, her choice had important implications. Awareness of white art was, in her view, an entry point into the interrogation of a dominant culture; this process would lead ultimately to black empowerment.

Trey Ellis, the representative man of the New Black Aesthetic, offered another response to the Black Arts Movement. Chief among the traits of the New Black Aestheticians was an awareness and acceptance of their “cultural mulatto” status, a term recognizing their immersion in and indebtedness to “a multi-racial mix of cultures” (Ellis, 1989, p. 235). Like the New Breed artists, Ellis saw the New Black Aesthetic as a means to black empowerment, a goal he deemed attainable because “today's popular culture is guided by blacks almost across the board” (p. 237). For all of the breadth of his artistic vision, then, the goal was still the political aspiration that the Black Aestheticians and the New Breed writers shared.

Legacy of the Black Arts Movement

Ellis's and hooks's efforts to balance political activism for the community with more expansive visions of black identity mark the legacy of the Black Arts Movement. Were it not for the efforts of Baraka, Fuller, Neal, and the host of writers, visual artists, and musicians who adhered to their principles, African-American literature could not have evolved as it has. Some critics argue that the African-American tradition has always been political; one can certainly trace a tradition of political writing by African Americans back to the beginning of the tradition. What characterizes much of the early writing, however, is a tension between the desire to adhere to traditional literary forms and to present a radical message. The result is often an uneasy marriage of content and style that leads many to say that black literature was not really concerned with artistic questions until the twentieth century. With the Black Arts Movement, much of this tension was resolved, as form and content melded in the service of the common cause of black liberation. It is this ability to fuse structure and subject that gives the literature of this era significance beyond its specific historical moment and makes the Black Arts era a crucial chapter in the evolution of African-American writing.

Further Reading

  • Andrews, William L., Francis Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris, eds. The Oxford Companion to African-American Literature. New York, 1997.
  • Elam, Harry J., and David Krasner, eds. African-American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader. New York, 2001.
  • Ellis, Trey. The New Black Aesthetic. Callaloo: A Journal of African-American Arts and Letters 12 (1989): 233–251.
  • Hay, Samuel A. African-American Theatre: An Historical and Critical Analysis. New York, 1994.
  • Henderson, Stephen. Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References. New York, 1973. A standard work on the poetry of the period, it gives excellent insights into the theory and practice of Black Arts Movement authors.
  • Hooks, Bell. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Cambridge, Mass., 1990.
  • Johnson, Abby Arthur, and Ronald Maberry Johnson. Propaganda and Aesthetics: The Literary Politics of African-American Magazines in the Twentieth Century. Amherst, Mass., 1991. Paperback ed. Originally published in 1979. This volume has an excellent chapter on the literary magazines of the 1960s.
  • Lacey, Henry C. To Raise, Destroy, and Create: The Poetry, Drama, and Fiction of Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones). Troy, N.Y., 1981.
  • Parks, Carole A., ed. Nommo: A Literary Legacy of Black Chicago (1967–1987). Chicago, 1987. The definitive OBAC anthology.
  • Randall, Dudley, ed. The Black Poets. New York, 1971. An excellent collection of poems from the era.
  • Redmond, Eugene B. Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry. New York, 1976. Insightful analysis of the period and of specific writers; an excellent complement to the Henderson volume.
  • Sanders, Lesile G. The Development of Black Theater in America: From Shadows to Selves. Baton Rouge, La., 1989.