My larger objective here is to engage the current cultural conversation about the nature of the Black Arts Movement and its impact on politics and culture in the United States and beyond. So while I honor the significance of Amiri Baraka's work as artist, critic, and activist, my intention is to place that work within a movement in which Baraka is but one voice among many, albeit an important one. In other words, in the spirit of Baraka's own critical and autobiographical writings, I want to emphasize, to the degree that it is possible in a short essay, the collectivity and diversity of the Black Arts Movement, and try to avoid the sort of great-man theory in which Baraka's work becomes a metonymy for all Black Arts literature, drama, criticism, and so on. (1) I also want to say that this is a small part of a larger work-in-progress designed to further conversation rather than shut it off with some gesture toward authority.
As the term suggests, avant-garde connotes a bold journey into the future that, as Ezra Pound polemicized, made things new. This newness for many avant-gardists--say, the politically very different Mayakovsky and the Russian Futurists and Marinetti and the Italian Futurists (and much of the early William Carlos Williams, for that matter)--involved some vision of modernity which required the wholesale abandonment or even destruction of existing culture. To the degree that various avant-gardists sought or claimed inspiration from or kinship to existing (or once extant) cultures, these cultures tended to be somewhere else and/or to have existed at some other time. One thinks of Picasso and Africa, Artaud and Bali, Pound and Confucian China.
However, by the late 1960s a new conception of an avant-garde found its way into American culture. This was a paradoxical conception of the avant-garde that has roots in actually existing and close-to-home popular culture and is in some senses genuinely popular, while retaining a counter-cultural, alternative stance. This is a conception that is still with us now to a large extent. One has only to consider the many "alternative" radio stations which claim to be in the vanguard of the "rock revolution" to see not only the remarkable claim to avant-garde status by such major institutions of popular culture, but also that such a claim is both palatable and plausible to millions of listeners. To this one could add the phenomenon of "alt-country," which, though less high profile than "alternative rock," involves the sales of millions of CDs. And, in many respects, the almost cliched hip hop obsession of "the real," with the term underground marking the hip hop artists and works that are most "real," expresses a similar concern with being popular, engaged, and yet formally challenging or new. (2)
This model of a popular avant-garde was significantly developed and promoted by the Black Arts Movement in the Northeast during the 1960s, in no small part through the efforts of the poet, playwright, essayist, cultural critic, and political activist Amiri Baraka, as well as in the work of Larry Neal, Askia Toure, James Stewart, and others. (3) Black Arts participants synthesized and revised a cultural inheritance derived significantly from the Popular Front, using the "new thing" jazz or "free jazz" of the late 1950s and the 1960s as a model for a popular avant-garde.
In one sense, the idea of a future society or culture rooted in some aspects of existing American culture and American realities, while simultaneously distinguishing itself from that culture, is quite old in the United States, dating back at least to Ralph Waldo Emerson. However, one significant import came to these shores in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries via the nationalist movements of the peoples of the internal colonies within the large empires of Europe: the Irish, the Finns, the Poles, the Czechs, the Hungarians, and so on. The artists associated with these nationalist movements often saw the peasant culture of their respective nationalities as containing the basis of a new national culture which could stand in opposition to imperial culture. …