Academic journal article Chicago Review

Between the World and Nommo: Hoyt W. Fuller and Chicago's Black Arts Magazines

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Between the World and Nommo: Hoyt W. Fuller and Chicago's Black Arts Magazines

Article excerpt

On October 27, 1969, the scholar and literary critic Stephen E. Henderson commended his friend Hoyt W. Fuller on a run of recent issues of Negro Digest. Henderson was impressed with the magazine's coverage of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), and he surmised that Fuller was "probably closer to having a comprehensive view of the whole thing than anyone in the country, including the writers themselves." He paid Fuller an even greater compliment by comparing him to Alain Locke, vaunted dean of the Harlem Renaissance. Fuller, like Locke, might not have been a notable author or poet, but his behind-the-scenes work with publishers was the fuel that kept the cultural fire burning. Both men championed their respective movements as erstwhile editor-critics. There was, of course, one major difference between them: "The center of the movement [today] is not Harlem, nor even San Francisco, but Chicago." (1) Henderson recognized Fuller's cultural influence, yes, but his statement also begged the question: if Harlem was a metonym for Black America in the 1920s, what did Chicago mean in the 1960s?

Fuller addressed a version of that very question in his manifesto of the previous year, Toward a Black Aesthetic." Originally published in spring 1968, Toward a Black Aesthetic" would have been circulating around the time of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4. That coincidence likely made the essay's opening line sound prophetic: "The black revolt is as palpable in letters as it is in the streets, and if it has not yet made its impact upon the Literary Establishment, then the nature of the revolt itself is the reason. " By representing black writers' struggle for cultural autonomy as analogous to civil unrest in cities across the country, Fuller identifies broad, meaningful stakes for what he calls "the journey toward a black aesthetic." This is not a struggle for the lone, disaffected writer, just as the urban uprisings of 1967 were not about Detroit or Newark in isolation. Rather, posits Fuller, insofar as "[c]onscious and unconscious white racism is everywhere, infecting all the vital areas of national life," it is up to BAM and its various regional manifestations--"Spirit House in Newark, the Black House in San Francisco, the New School of Afro-American Thought in Washington, D.C., the Institute for Black Studies in Los Angeles, Forum '66 in Detroit, and the Organization of Black American Culture in Chicago"--to rise up against whatever form white racism takes, in book reviews or on the streets. (2)

One can understand how "Toward a Black Aesthetic became a rallying cry for the movement. Fuller's soaring rhetoric confirms the general presumption that BAM promoted a nationalist aesthetic on the national stage. The essay, however, does not end on that note. Instead, the final quarter of it expounds on one of the aforementioned BAM groups: Chicago's Organization of Black American Culture, or OBAC. An arts collective that Fuller had co-founded the year before, in 1967, OBAC is held up as a model of how locals should define the black aesthetic on their own terms:

    Within the past few years ... Chicago's white critics have
given
   the backs of their hands to worthy works by black playwrights, part
   of their criticism directly attributable to their ignorance of the
   intricacies of black style and black life. Oscar Brown, Jr.'s
   rocking soulful Kicks and Company was panned for many of the wrong
   reasons; and Douglas Turner Ward's two plays, Day of Absence and
   Happy Ending, were tolerated as labored and a bit tasteless. Both
   Brown and Ward had dealt satirically with race relations, and there
   were not many black people in the audiences who found themselves in
   agreement with the critics. It is the way things are--but not the
   way things will continue to be if the OBAC writers and those
   similarly concerned elsewhere in America have anything to say about
   it. (3) 

Because the devil is in the details in this closing section, the prose is somewhat flat--more descriptive of things that happened and less evocative of the movement's general aims. …

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