February 22, 2014

Hello! As promised, Esquisses reports on The Black Arts Movement or BAM.

I’ve heard about the Harlem Renaissance, but not the Black Arts Movement. Described by Time magazine as the “single most controversial moment in the history of African-American literature-possibly in American literature as a whole.”

If Harlem Renaissance was the tip of the iceberg, the Black Arts Movement was an explosion. It gave African-Americans even more power to fully express themselves and they began to get more creative in literature and art….creating their own magazines, journals, art institutions and publishing houses, literary and theatre groups. Black Arts is the artistic branch of the Black Power movement.

After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, a man by the name of Everett LeRoi Jones, who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka in 1967, an activist, poet, and playwriter moved to Harlem. Jones became very critical of the of pacifist and integrationist attitudes of the  Civil Rights Movement.  His poem, 1965’s  “Black Art“, was considered to be the major poetic manifesto of the Black Arts Literary Movement.  Because of the changing political and cultural climate happening at that time, Black Arts started to grow, giving black artists a voice, a platform for making their own impact to reject older political, cultural, and artistic traditions.  Baraka stated that “we want poems that kill.” Baraka’s works brought praise, as well as controversy. He was arrested and convicted of arm possession during the Newark Riots in 1967.  The Black Arts was a result of the movement’s partisan nature or attitude, along with advocacy of artistic and political freedom, by any means necessary. Harlem or New York was considered to be the birthplace of the Black Arts Movement, but it didn’t really matter because, it was actually becoming a national movement.

Amiri Barak, poet and activist, during the 1972 Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana.

Black arts activists rejected the intergrational ideologies of the Civil Rights movement. Instead, according to Academy of American Poets, they embraced “to create politically engaged work that explored the African-American cultural and historical experience.” Through magazines and journals such as The Crusader, Freedomways, and Liberator, Black Dialogue published in 1964, and others published works, the movement started grow. There were some feathers ruffled with controversy of course.

Literary groups such as Umbra or Umbra Workshop, founded in 1962 two years before the Black Arts Movement, On Guard for Freedom, Harlem Writers Guild, and Uptown Writers Movement were booming under the influence of Black Arts. Harlem Writers Guild did not have the massive appeal, focusing only on fictional work and Umbra Workshop was no more. The former members moved to Harlem to create the Uptown Writers Movement. Black Arts also started to become influential in performance art and education.

The Black Arts not only was a platform for literature, but also in politics, stirring activism through all African-American communities. Theater groups, poetry performances, music and dance became part of that platform.

The reason for the movement was not only the removal or destruction of white ideals, but the white ways and views of the world. Many writers, gays, lesbians, Hispanics, Native Americans, and so on, according to the Academy of American Poets, have acknowledged and were influenced by the Black Arts Movement. Younger generations have become influenced as well.

The writers and thinkers from this movement: Baraka, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Henry Dumas, Lorraine Hansberry, Lorenzo Thomas, Etheridge Knight, Rosa Guy, and others were part of the movement.

The movement lasted a period between the mid 1960’s into the 70’s, pretty much a decade, but the influence is still there. To me the movement created a lasting foundation for future generations.