"Pat Your Foot and Turn the Corner": Amiri Baraka, the Black Arts Movement, and the Poetics of a Popular Avant-Garde

By Smethurst, James | African American Review, Summer-Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

"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


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

"Pat Your Foot and Turn the Corner": Amiri Baraka, the Black Arts Movement, and the Poetics of a Popular Avant-Garde
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.