Black Arts Movement

The Black Arts Movement was the artistic expression of the Black Power movement. The artistic revolution lasted from 1965 to 1975 but is generally recognized as a 1960s movement. The assassination of Malcolm X sparked the fire for the African-American community, specifically in Harlem, propelling artists to break away from the dominating American culture. There was a tremendous breakthrough in literature, drama, poetry, music and dance. The movement has been criticized for being misogynistic, racially exclusive and anti-Semitic. Yet the Black Arts Movement inspired other minorities in America, such as Native Americans, Latinos and gay and lesbian groups, to explore their ethnic backgrounds through art and literature.

The Black Arts Movement was strongly based on the Black Power movement. Larry Neal, in his 1968 essay "The Black Arts Movement," saw the cultural and political revolutions as "the necessity for black people to define the world in their own terms." In response to the death of Malcolm X, Neal determined that "Malcolm's ideas had touched all aspects of contemporary black nationalism: the relationship between black America and the Third World; the development of a black cultural thrust; the right of oppressed peoples to self-defense and armed struggle; the necessity of maintaining a strong moral force in the black community; the building of autonomous black institutions; and finally, the need for a black theory and social change."

As a result of the civil rights movement, African Americans needed to find their own venue for artistic expression in defiance against the oppression of white culture. Enforcers of the cultural revolution claimed that "Art is the Arm of the Revolution." Black art was meant to depose the white aesthetic and was utilized as a propaganda tool. Larry Neal specified the aims of the emerging black aesthetic: "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."

Ron Karenga, in his 1968 essay "Black Cultural Nationalism," claimed that "all Black art, irregardless of any technical requirements, must have three basic characteristics which make it revolutionary. In brief, it must be functional, collective and committed." All black artists had an all-encompassing, motivating agenda: to assert the cultural heritage of African Americans and direct the black community toward a meaningful future.

The Black Arts Movement was most active in the Northeast, specifically in Harlem. Many associate the birth of the Black Arts Movement with Amiri Baraka's (formerly known as LeRoi Jones) move from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Harlem. Baraka was an influential poet, dramatist, essayist and music critic. His work was often controversial; his poetry emphasized the need to resort to violence in order to "establish a Black world." Baraka viewed poetry as a powerful weapon, thereby defining the cultural revolution as a militaristic artistic movement. Baraka opened the Black Arts Repertoire Theater School (BARTS) in New York City. Other important poets of the Black Art Movement included Gwendolyn Brooks, Haki R. Madhubuti, Gil-Scott Heron and Eldridge Cleaver, and there are many others.

The proliferation of the movement toward the West and Midwest depended largely on mass publications of newspapers and literary journals. The Umbra magazine broke away from the dominant white literary presence and focused mainly on poetry. The Harlem Writer's Guild dedicated itself to fiction. The guild included writers such as John O. Killens, Maya Angelou, Jean Carey Bond, Rosa Guy and Sarah Wright. The San Francisco Bay Area was a primary location for jazz and poetry enthusiasts. Other movements that directly affected the Black Arts Movement were the Revolutionary Action Movement and the Nation of Islam led by Elijah Muhammad in Chicago. Student protests in favor of the Black Power movement broke out in African-American schools, particularly in the South and Washington, D.C.

Despite its controversies and the fact that it rejected the more pacifist approach of the civil rights movement, the Black Arts Movement left a lasting imprint not only on African-American culture, but on all American cultures. Ishmael Reed, an important African-American author and poet, described the influence of the Black Arts Movement: "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."

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement
Lisa Gail Collins; Margo Natalie Crawford.
Rutgers University Press, 2006
The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s
James Edward Smethurst.
University of North Carolina Press, 2005
A Sourcebook of African-American Performance: Plays, People, Movements
Annemarie Bean.
Routledge, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Part I "Theatrical In(ter)ventions of the Black Arts Movement"
African-American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader
Harry J. Elam Jr.; David Krasner.
Oxford University Press, 2001
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "The Black Arts Movement: Performance, Neo-orality, and the Destruction of the 'White Thing'"
Gender and the Poetics of Excess: Moments of Brocade
Karen Jackson Ford.
University Press of Mississippi, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "The Black Arts Movement: We Survive in Patches...Scraps"
The Black Arts Movement and Hip-Hop
Gladney, Marvin J.
African American Review, Vol. 29, No. 2, Summer 1995
Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word
Charles Bernstein.
Oxford University Press, 1998
Language and Literature in the African American Imagination
Carol Aisha Blackshire-Belay.
Greenwood Press, 1992
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "The Blue/Black Poetics of Sonia Sanchez"
Foundations in Africana Studies: Revisiting Negro Digest/Black World, 1961-1976
Semmes, Clovis E.
The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 25, No. 4, Winter 2001
Tom Feelings: A Black Arts Movement
Steele, Vincent.
African American Review, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring 1998
To Raise, Destroy, and Create: The Poetry, Drama, and Fiction of Imamu Amiri Baraka (Le Roi Jones)
Henry C. Lacey.
Whitston, 1981
"Pat Your Foot and Turn the Corner": Amiri Baraka, the Black Arts Movement, and the Poetics of a Popular Avant-Garde
Smethurst, James.
African American Review, Vol. 37, No. 2-3, Summer-Fall 2003
All the Birds Sing Bass: The Revolutionary Blues of Jayne Cortez
Bolden, Tony.
African American Review, Vol. 35, No. 1, Spring 2001
"Classical Jazz" and the Black Arts Movement
Thomas, Lorenzo.
African American Review, Vol. 29, No. 2, Summer 1995
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