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Characterized by African American poet, activist, and theorist Larry Neal as “the aesthetic sister of the Black Power concept” (Neal 1989, p. 62), the Black Arts Movement (BAM) is one of the most controversial cultural movements of the modern era due to its racialist intellectual bases; its commitment to economic, political, and cultural autonomy for African America; and its overtly revolutionary intentions. It carried through the African American educator and writer W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1926 call for art “about us,” “by us,” “for us,” and “near us” (Du Bois 1926, pp. 134–136). It was, in poet Kalamu ya Salaam’s words, “the only American literary movement to advance ‘social engagement’ as a sine qua non of its aesthetic” (Salaam 1997, p. 70). Initiated in the early 1960s, though rooted in a radical tradition dating back at least to the Haitian Revolution of 1791, it flourished, suffered setbacks in the mid-1970s from federal government harassment via the FBI’s counterintelligence program and from economic downturn, and continues in the early twentyfirst century. Such continuity challenges the African American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s contention that the BAM was the “shortest and least successful” cultural movement in African American history (Gates Jr. 1994, pp. 74–75).
Although other media such as painting, poetry, dance, and music were significant, theater and drama played a preeminent role due to their communal nature, focus on transformation, and institutional, organizational, and economic demands. Neal writes, “Theater is potentially the most social of all the arts. It is an integral part of the socializing process” (Neal 1989, p. 68). Especially influential were Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman (1964) and the institution he co-founded in 1965, Harlem’s Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. This focus on aesthetic innovation within institutional development reflects the thinking of social scientists such as John Henrik Clarke, C. Eric Lincoln, and Harold Cruse. A generation of artists was fostered in organizations such as BLKARTSWEST, the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, Spirit House, and the New Lafayette Theatre, and in the many black studies programs created in universities and colleges across the United States in part due to the actions of BAM artists and intellectuals.
Other significant influences can be identified. First, within the movement there was a focus on popular and folk culture via Du Bois (1868–1963), the African American educator and critic Alain Locke (1886–1954), the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci (1891– 1937), the black Trinidadian historian and activist C. L. R. James (1901–1989), the African American writer and ethnographer Zora Neale Hurston (1903–1960), and the Chinese theorist of cultural warfare Mao Zedong (1893– 1976). The Black Muslim leader Malcolm X (1925– 1965) was perhaps the most influential in the formation of the movement: “Our cultural revolution must be the means of bringing us closer to our African brothers and sisters” (Malcolm X 1970, p. 427). This is a matter of content, but also production conditions—where, by whom, and for whom the art is created. It is also a matter of technique: In Performing Blackness: Enactments of AfricanAmerican Modernism (2000, p. 28), Kimberly Benston argued for the primacy of methexis (“communal helpingout of the action by all assembled”) over mimesis (“the representation of an action”). In practice, this meant: (1) participatory works such as the National Black Theatre’s A Revival! Change! Love! Organize! (1969) or Sonia Sanchez’s “a/coltrane/poem” (1970), which supplies directions such as “sing loud & long with feeling” (Sanchez 1991, p. 184); (2) a call to action, as in the agitation-propaganda poetry of Don L. Lee or Nikki Giovanni or the “revolutionary commercials” of Ben Caldwell; and (3) invitation to the audience to discuss and criticize, most notably the public discussion panel convened at the New Lafayette Theatre in the fall of 1968 to discuss its controversial production of Ed Bullins’s We Righteous Bombers, a play that scathingly critiques those who advocate revolutionary violence.
A second influence was radical theology, the assumption being that the most invidious effect of slavery and colonialism was spiritual. As James T. Stewart asserted, “[E]xisting white paradigms or models do not correspond to the realities of Black existence. It is imperative that we construct models with different basic assumptions” (Stewart 1968, p. 3). Ritual dominated the stages and periodicals of black theater in the late 1960s. Religious content was a constant in the visual arts, as in Margo Humphrey’s Afrocentric take on The Last Supper, The Last Bar-B-Que (1988–1989). That said, religion was not universally appreciated; Caldwell showed no sympathy for the theologically minded in Prayer Meeting, or, The First Militant Minister (1969). It depicts a hilarious bit of subterfuge by a quick-on-his-feet burglar and a hopelessly gullible liberal preacher who mistakes the intruder for God. Likewise, Joyce Green criticized her compatriots— especially men—for their tendency to cloak misogyny in metaphysical vestments.
Finally, music—popular and avant-garde—enabled the dynamic of tradition and innovation called for by cultural revolutionaries such as Amilcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah, Mao, and Malcolm X. Blues, rhythm-andblues, gospel music, and jazz were considered the “key,” as Neal put it, to expanding the movement’s connections to local, national, and international currents (Neal 1968, p. 653). Studied with an eye to their aesthetic, conceptual, and communal dimensions, traditions such as the blues were understood to be modes of critical discourse whose contours could be mapped onto other aesthetic and critical-theoretical forms.
Too often, as Cedric Robinson demonstrated in his Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983), the continuity of the black radical tradition has been obscured. As in music, such continuity exists not only between BAM artists and critics and their forebears, but also to the post-BAM generation. To adequately account for the success or failure of the BAM, one must understand it as merely the epiphenomenon of a history that preceded it and continues in the twenty-first century.
- Benston, Kimberly. 2000. Performing Blackness: Enactments of African-American Modernism. New York: Routledge.
- Cruse, Harold. 1967. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. New York: Quill.
- Du Bois, W. E. B. 1926. Krigwa Players Little Negro Theatre. The Crisis 32 (July): 134–136.
- Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. 1994. Black Creativity: On the Cutting Edge. Time, October 10.
- Gayle, Addison, Jr., ed. 1972. The Black Aesthetic. Garden City, NY: Anchor.
- Kelley, Robin D. G. 2002. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon.
- Malcolm X. 1970. The Organization of Afro-American Unity: For Human Rights and Dignity. In Black Nationalism in America, ed. John H. Bracey Jr. et al. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.
- Neal, Larry. 1968. And Shine Swam On. In Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, ed. LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal. New York: William Morrow.
- Neal, Larry. 1969. Any Day Now: Black Art and Black Liberation. Ebony, August.
- Neal, Larry. 1989. The Black Arts Movement. In Visions of a Liberated Future, ed. Michael Schwartz. New York: Thunder’s Mouth. (Orig. pub. 1968).
- Robinson, Cedric J. 1983. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. London: Zed.
- Salaam, Kalamu ya. 1997. Black Arts Movement. In Oxford Companion to African American Literature, ed. William L. Andrews et al. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Sanchez, Sonia.  1991. a/coltrane/poem. In The Jazz Poetry Anthology, ed. Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Sell, Mike. 2005. The Black Arts Movement: Text, Performance, Blackness. In Avant-Garde Performance and the Limits of Criticism: Approaching the Living Theatre, Happenings/Fluxus, and the Black Arts Movement. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
- Stewart, James T. 1968. The Development of the Black Revolutionary Artist. In Black Fire: An Anthology of AfroAmerican Writing, ed. LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal. New York: William Morrow.
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