The Black Arts movement was a controversial literary faction that emerged in the mid-1960s as the artistic and aesthetic arm of the Black Power movement, a militant political operation that rejected the integrationist purposes and practices of the Civil Rights movement that preceded it. The Black Arts movement was one of the only American literary movements to merge art with a political agenda. Because poems were short and could be recited at rallies and other political activities to incite and move a crowd, poetry was the most popular literary genre of the Black Arts movement, followed closely by drama. Poet, playwright, activist, and major figure of the Black Arts movement, Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) coined the term Black Arts when he established his Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in New York City’s Harlem. Although the Black Arts movement began its decline during the mid-1970s, at the same time as the Black Power movement began its descent, it introduced a new breed of black poets and a new brand of black poetry. It also inspired and energized already established poets like Gwendolyn BROOKS and Robert Hayden. The Black Arts movement created many poetic innovations in form, language, and style that have influenced the work of many of today’s spoken word artists and socially conscious rap lyricists.
The poets most often associated with the Black Arts movement include Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Etheridge Knight, Nikki Giovanni, Larry Neal, Mari Evans, Don L. Lee (now known as Haki Madhubutti), Carolyn Rodgers, Marvin X, Jayne Cortez, Askia Toure, and June Jordan. A number of important African-American playwrights, fiction writers, and scholars also made significant contributions to the Black Arts movement, creatively as well as philosophically and theoretically, by defining and outlining the objectives and criteria of the movement and its “black aesthetic.”
Several publishing houses and workshops were founded during the period of the movement, and several magazines and journals emerged, all of which provided a vehicle for the literary work of Black Arts poets. Literary publications, such as Freedomways, Negro Digest (later renamed Black World), the Black Scholar, the Journal of Black Poetry, and Liberator, brought Black Arts movement poets to a larger audience when more established publications rejected their work. Two important publishing houses—Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press in Detroit and Madhubuti’s Third World Press in Chicago—were also instrumental in helping to introduce new poets and to disseminate their work. Umbra Workshop (1962–65), composed of a group of black writers, produced Umbra Magazine and gained significance as a literary group that created a distinct voice and often challenged mainstream standards concerning literature. Lastly, Baraka’s Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School, founded in 1965, brought free plays, poetry readings, and musical performances to the people of Harlem, thereby carrying out the idea of art as a communal experience.
The Black Power movement, from which the Black Arts movement derived, sought to empower African- American communities economically and politically by relying solely on resources within the black community. It also sought to celebrate blackness and restore positive images of black people from the negative stereotyping that took place in the larger society. Thus slogans, such as “Black Is Beautiful,” were prominent during the time. Members of organizations, such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Panther Party, founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, demanded racial equality, not through the methods of passive resistance associated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but “by any means necessary” (a slogan of the party), including “violent revolution,” as stated by Malcolm X. Moreover, “black cultural nationalism,” the belief that blacks and whites had two separate worldviews and outlooks on life, was a prominent idea in both the Black Power and the Black Arts movements. As a result, Black Arts movement writers experimented with methods of artistic expression that were characteristic of African-American culture and experience. First all of the poetry was infused with a certain level of black consciousness, meaning that its subjects and themes reflected the quality and character of black experience. In form, Black Arts movement poets often rejected standard English in favor of Black English, a more colloquial and vernacular language and syntax. They peppered it with street slang and idiomatic phrases that were simple, direct, explicit, and often irreverent. In addition the poetry borrowed greatly from black music, using rhythmical effects from jazz and blues, as well as from other forms of black oral speech, such as sermons, folktales, signifying (an intricate, humorous language style that uses indirection, innuendo, puns, metaphors, and other wordplay to persuade, argue, send a message, or insult), and the dozens (a form of signifying that involves trading insults, primarily about a person’s relatives). Other common features of the poetry include free verse, short line lengths, call-and-response patterns, chanting, and free rhyming.
The Black Arts movement had much in common with another period of increased artistic production among African-American writers—the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. During both periods, there was an increased interest in establishing a more assertive black collective identity than had previously existed (during the Harlem Renaissance, it was called “the New Negro”) and in searching for ethnic identity and heritage in folk and African culture. Thus poets from both periods experimented with folk elements, such as blues, spirituals, and vernacular idioms in their poetry, and venerated Africa. However, despite these similarities, many Black Arts movement writers were critical of the objectives of the Harlem Renaissance, believing it had failed to link itself concretely to the struggle of the black masses. Adherents of the Black Arts movement were also critical of Harlem Renaissance writers’ reliance on white patronage, as well as their tendency to esteem Western art, to desire mainstream recognition, and to write with a white audience in mind. They felt that this compromised black writers’ ability to be completely honest in their depiction and expression of black life and struggle.
The Black Arts movement established a number of objectives and criteria for its creative artists to follow. Primary among them was to persuade African Americans to reject the mainstream culture and the process of Americanization and assimilation, instead encouraging them to embrace a “black aesthetic,” whereby black people would look to their own culture and aesthetic values to create and evaluate African-American literature. The three major criteria of the Black Arts movement, established by Ron Karenga, were that all black art must be “functional, collective, and committed” (33). The functional nature of black art meant that the literary work must serve a purpose larger than merely the creation of art. It had to be connected to the social and political struggles in which African-American people were engaged. The second criterion, that black art must be “collective,” meant that it must serve the people; it must educate, inspire, and uplift them. Reciprocally, the artist must learn from and be inspired and uplifted by the people. The artist must be prepared to sacrifice her or his own individuality and, instead, always write with the good of the people in mind. Third and lastly, black art must be committed to political and social reform and supportive of the revolution that will bring this about. In essence the Black Arts movement’s objectives were to reach the masses of black people, to make them understand their message of self-sufficiency and dignity, and to inspire them to act upon it.
Many of the criteria and objectives of the Black Arts movement are discernible within the poetry itself. For example, in “From the Egyptian” in his 1966 collection Black Art, Baraka makes clear that violent confrontation with the oppressors of black people is an imminent reality as he asserts that he is prepared to murder “the enemies / of my father.” Likewise, in “The True Import of Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro” in Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968), Giovanni tells black people: “We ain’t got to prove we can die / We got to prove we can kill.” Giovanni also demonstrates the criterion of commitment with “My Poem” (1968), when she writes in support of the revolution and its enduring nature, stating that “if i never do anything / it will go on.” The didacticism of much Black Arts poetry is visible in Baraka’s “A School of Prayer” (1966). In this poem, Baraka tells his black audience: “Do not obey their laws.” “Their,” of course, refers to white society. Essentially Baraka urges black people to rebel against white authority and be wary of the words spoken by those who seek to oppress them because their purpose is to deceive black people and curtail their advancement. The celebration of blackness is also noticeable in Black Arts poetry. Sanchez, perhaps the female poet most closely identified with the Black Arts movement, reclaims the dignity of black womanhood in an unnamed poem in her volume We a BaddDDD People (1970), when she links herself as a black woman to a regal African queen who will, “Walk / move in / blk queenly ways.” Similarly, in “Ka Ba” (1969), Baraka affirms the uniqueness of black expressive culture and of black people, whom he describes as “full of masks and dances and swelling chants / with African eyes and noses and arms,” despite the present condition of oppression and degradation under which many African Americans live. In both of these poems, Sanchez and Baraka seek to restore to black people a positive representation of blackness and raise their collective sense of identity.
Many of the poems in Sanchez’s collection We a BaddDDD People exemplify experimentation with language. In “indianapolis/summer/1969/poem,” Sanchez provides a new spelling of the words mothers (“mothas”), fathers (“fathas”), and sisters (sistuhs”); the word about becomes “bout,” the word black becomes “blk,” and the word I becomes “i.” The changes in spelling, as well as the use of nonstandard English in Sanchez’s poems, are meant to capture the syntax and vernacular speech of many within the black community, while the abbreviated spelling of “blk” and the lower case “i” are part of Sanchez’s refusal to adhere to the rules of standard English. Many Black Arts poets perceived language to be a tool of the oppressor and therefore sought ways to make it their own. Lastly, the use of pejorative terminology and irreverent language was also common among Black Arts poets. The police were often referred to as “pigs,” and white people were termed “honkies” or “crackers.”
Several criticisms have been leveled against the Black Arts movement. One was that it tended only to address issues of race and to promote racial hatred. Also the functional aspect of the Black Arts movement came to be denounced by newly emerging black literary critics who claimed that the literature itself was often subordinate to the political or social message of the movement. These critics saw this as detrimental to black literature, creating a narrowness of focus that creatively limited the artist and the kinds of literature he or she could compose. In addition there was a tendency in the Black Arts movement to devise theories prior to the creation of an actual body of literature that would prove the theory. Therefore the literature was driven by the theory rather than the other way around. Lastly, some Black Arts movement writers were known to judge harshly any black writer who did not conform to the criteria and objectives of the movement. Even black writers of the past were not exempt from being maligned, and Black Arts movement writers often did criticize them without always taking into consideration the historical period and context in which these past writers were composing their literature.
Still the Black Arts movement’s influence and contributions to American poetry were far reaching. It made literary artists rethink the function and purpose of their work and their responsibility to their communities and to society. It also influenced and continues to inspire new generations of poets to experiment with a variety of artistic forms to refuse the pressure to conform to Western standards of art and to write, embrace, and derive their art from within their own expressive culture
Baraka, Amiri, and Larry Neal, eds. Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing. New York: William Morrow, 1968.
Gayle, Addison. The Black Aesthetic. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971.
Henderson, Stephen. Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic Reference. New York: William Morrow, 1973.
Karenga, Ron. “Black Cultural Nationalism.” In The Black Aesthetic, edited by Addison Gayle. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971, pp. 32–38.