A Black Mass as Black Gothic
Myth and Bioscience in
Black Cultural Nationalism
In "The Black Arts Movement," the defining and definitive manifesto of the radical current of African American arts and letters that fl ourished in the 1960s and 1970s, Larry Neal famously described the era's cultural activism as the "aesthetic and spiritual sister" of black power political insurgency.1 United in the shared goal of black liberation, the twinned movements differed in emphasis: black power activism centered on the "art of politics," while the performers, poets, playwrights, and novelists of the Black Arts Movement were dedicated to forging the "relationship between art and politics."2 Neal declared the task facing the latter group as nothing less than "a radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic," a creative revolution aimed at redirecting the impetus of African American art, raising political consciousness, and rousing racial pride.3
Neal's essay identified Amiri Baraka's play, A Black Mass, as one of a small number of works that exemplified the ideal form of Black Arts Movement cultural praxis and politico-aesthetic philosophy. A Black Mass is a moral narrative that, in Neal's words, dramatizes the costs of "the aesthetic impulse gone astray" and puts forth a black creative demiurge as salvation and substitute.4 Gathering influences from African American folklore, religious cosmology, and popular culture together,5 Baraka portrayed scientific and artistic experimentation as analogous generative principles that emerge from opposite political imperatives—the former stemming from ambition unmoored from social sanction and racial purpose, the latter organically rooted and crafted solely for the good of the black nation.
First performed in the spring of 1966, with accompaniment from experimental jazz musician Sun Ra and his Myth-Science Arkestra, and subsequently presented at community centers throughout the United States, A Black Mass