New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement

By Lisa Gail Collins; Margo Natalie Crawford | Go to book overview

14
Prison Writers and the
Black Arts Movement

Lee Bernstein

The period of the Black Arts Movement—roughly 1965 to the late 1970s— saw a dramatic turn in the cultural life of American prisons. Many people were incarcerated for crimes that were driven by their anti-war, anti-colonial, and anti-racist positions and activities. In addition, the very definition of "political prisoner" underwent radical transformation by those who argued that African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos were unfairly targeted by the criminal justice system regardless of the nature of their crime. Finally, the literary, visual, and performing arts were explicitly politicized by the Black Power Movement inside and outside prison walls just as prison authorities, universities, and government and nongovernment funding agencies began experimenting with ambitious arts and education programs in major U.S. correctional facilities. This convergence of political, cultural, and penological influences created a legacy that might fruitfully be called the "Prison Arts Movement" of the 1960s and 1970s. This movement introduced artists and writers of all races and cultures who would achieve widespread attention, impressive sales, and continuing influence: Jack Henry Abbott, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Carolyn Baxter, Claude Brown, Edward Bunker, Eldridge Cleaver, Ericka Huggins, George Jackson, Etheridge Knight, Miguel Piñero, Assata Shakur, Iceberg Slim, and Piri Thomas, to name a few.

Furthermore, artists from the Black Arts Movement took an active role in fostering the artistic and literary ambitions of incarcerated people while including the plight of prisoners as subject matter in their work. Faith Ringgold painted a mural and worked with women prisoners at New York's Riker's Island. Benny Andrews curated a show of prisoner artwork at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Poet Gwendolyn Brooks mentored Etheridge Knight when he was still writing from a prison cell. Similarly, arts organizations provided funding and

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