Throughout the Black Freedom struggle, art has been a tool to both contest injustice and envision liberatory futures. In the Civil Rights era, this was the contribution of the Black Arts Movement, a project from the 1960s and ‘70s that was born in response to systemic racial inequality. According to poet Larry Neal, the Black Arts Movement was “the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept.” With its genesis in the Cultural Nationalists and the Nation of Islam, and in the aftermath of the assassinations of Black leaders like Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr., Black Arts enabled self-determination for Black people by developing spaces for cultural creation on their own terms.
The Black Arts Movement had its symbolic beginnings when poet LeRoi Jones, later known as Imamu Amiri Baraka, founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater in Harlem, which housed workshops, poetry, playwriting, music, and painting. Politically motivated artists, including poets, musicians, and writers, were calling for the creation of art that would reflect pride in Black history and elevate the beauty of Black identity. “The Black Arts Movement stands as the single most controversial moment in the history of African American literature,” read a Time Magazine editorial decades later.
Baraka would continue to hold a prominent space in the movement, as he experimented with language in both poetry and theater. His “Black Magic Poetry” anthology published in 1969 remains an exemplar of art that seeks to awaken Black consciousness and aid in liberation. Baraka described the movement’s mission as, “to create an art, a literature that would fight for black people's liberation with as much intensity as Malcolm X, our ‘Fire Prophet,’ and the rest of the enraged masses who took to the streets.” This political commitment conveyed the cultural and historical experience of Black artists through both symbolism and direct critique.
Black Arts sought a transformation in the portrayal of Black people in all artistic traditions, but it was most prominently represented in the genres of theater and poetry. While it originated in Harlem, the movement soon expanded across the country, from Chicago – with the Third World Press and the “Negro Digest” (later called “Black World”), published by Hoyt Fuller and John Johnson –to Detroit, with Lotus Press and Broadside Press, which republished lost work of Black poets. Later, Robert Chrisman and Nathan Hare founded “The Black Scholar” as the first scholarly journal focused on Black studies. Black Arts poet Haki Mdhubuti wrote, “the mission is how do we become a whole people, how do we begin to tell our narrative, while at the same time moving toward a level of success in this country and in the world?”
This artistic movement also saw fruitful collaborations with popular Black artists at the time, like jazz musicians John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. Drawing from Black vernacular speech, African folklore, sermons as free verse, experimentation with sound and musical forms, and other defiant uses of language, the movement was innovative in a way that fundamentally changed arts beyond that historical moment. Black Arts articulated early radical visions for liberated Black lives, and affirmed the autonomy of Black artists to create art in a politically militant form. Yet no legacy is uncomplicated, and later critics have pointed to some of the homophobic, sexist, and antisemitic elements of the movement. (Read more about these critiques from the lens of Black feminism here).
As state surveillance and repression of Black Power organizations increased, Black Arts began to fade. Soon, some of its members broke off from the movement in response to internal shifts from Black Nationalism to Marxism. With the increasing mainstream recognition of prominent members like Baraka, Maya Angelou, and James Baldwin, the financial revenue for the movement decreased, making it hard to sustain in the long term. Nevertheless, the movement paved the way for later forms of Black art and inspired “a whole lot of Black people to write,” said Ishmael Reed decades later. “Black people gave the example that you don’t have to assimilate. You could do your own thing, get into your own background, your own history, your own tradition, and your own culture.”
We honor the Black artists who chart the future of liberation, who unlock our radical imaginations, and who, as Toni Cade Bambara once said, “make revolution irresistible.”
--Furious Flower: African American Poetry from the Black Arts Movement to the Present
--Black Arts Movement,National Archives Collection
--Visual Art Collection, Smithsonian
--Digitized Works, Newark Collection
--Black Arts Movement Collection, Poetry Foundation.