The Black Arts movement heralded an important turn in the history of African American literature. Between 1965 and 1975, a loose confederation of African American poets, playwrights, artists, and intellectuals set out to remake the world in their own image. Fed up with what they considered to be the oppressive logic of Euro-American cultural standards, these practitioners theorized and executed a program of black aesthetic self-determination. Contemporary critics followed suit, emphasizing Black Arts’ conjoined investments in nationalist politics and radical poetics—the discursive level at which the movement reshaped African American letters. That remained the dominant way of understanding the movement until the early 21st century, when scholars began examining Black Arts’ publishing networks and institutions, or the material conditions for creative expression. Since then, scholars have shown how the movement’s effort to redefine the black voice was achieved through a concomitant effort to redesign the black text. Their research has pointed to the need for historicizing the politics of design in this moment of literary transformation. For Black Arts publishers, the work of photographers, illustrators, and graphic designers was important not only for bringing specific literary texts to life but for inviting everyday readers into a robust, race-affirming literary culture.
Christopher Buck and Derik Smith
Robert Hayden was made poet laureate of Senegal in 1966 and ten years later became America’s first black poet laureate. He was acclaimed as “People’s Poet” early in his career, but he was largely ignored by the American literary establishment until late in life. In his poetics of history and his nuanced representations of black life, Hayden’s art showed that the African American experience was quintessentially American, and that blackness was an essential aspect of relentlessly heterogeneous America. As he figured it in his late-in-life poem, “[American Journal],” national identity was best metaphorized in “bankers grey afro and dashiki long hair and jeans / hard hat yarmulka mini skirt.” Hayden’s archetypal efforts to demonstrate the kaleidoscopic quality of both black and American identity produced an art that transcended propagandistic categories of race and nation, and pathed the way for a large cadre of late 20th and early 21st century poets who, like Hayden, understand themselves to be simultaneously black and American, but ultimately human.