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Creativity on fire: the Black Arts Movement took root in and gave meaning to the political dynamics of an era.

GO BACK IN TIME TO 1968. BROOKLYN, NEW YORK. Chelsea Theater Center. An energetic group of black artists stages Amiri Baraka's remarkable play Slave Ship. But this performance is unlike anything seen before. The stage--if you want to call it such--is the entire theater, tricked up by designer Eugene Lee to put the audience deep in the bowels of, you guessed it, a slave ship.

Lee called Slave Ship a "historical pageant," so he wanted the audience in on the performance, in effect, deconstructing the fourth wall of traditional theater. The audience sat on hard, uncomfortable wooden planks at the center of an abstracted frigate. To the left and the right, in the front and at the rear, small stages rose at eye level so the performance took place all around.

Then the curtain parted, only there was no drape to separate audience from actor. Instead, the lights go out, leaving the seated crowd to sit in the "shapelessness" of blackness, a metaphor for the brutality of slavery and the Middle Passage. Moans cascade through the pitch. Putrid air assaults the nostrils. Clearly, this wasn't a typical Off-Broadway performance.

"When Slave Ship was first performed, I thought it was a solid production," says Baraka. "I was impressed by the director's production because at the time there wasn't much being done about slavery from that point of view, an internal point of view. We actually had people thinking they were in a slave ship, with smells, sounds and darkness."

And that's precisely the point. Slave Ship is a perfect example of the nonobjective and in-your-face-European-culture philosophy of the Black Arts Movement.

Born out of the anger toward and disaffection with the uptight boundaries of Western art and culture, the Black Arts Movement erupted from the streets, first in Harlem, but later in communities wherever there were black artists and activists seeking a new and radical way of expressing a reborn relationship with Africa and America.

Power of the Word

Bernard W. Bell writes in The Contemporary African American Novel: Its Folk Roots and Modern Literary Branches (University of Massachusetts Press, 2004) that the Black Arts Movement wound itself like a double helix around the Black Power Movement of the mid-to-late 1960s. Bell also argues the idea of "black power" in the literature produced by African American writers has a much longer history.

"In 1954, Richard Wright titled his book about Ghana Black Power, but as essays in Floyd Barbour's Black Power Revolt reveal, the concept can be traced back to Benjamin Banneker's epistolary response to Thomas Jefferson's racist comments in Notes on the State of Virginia in 1791.

As with any artistic era, dates are hard to pin down, and identifying the first person to lay claim to creating the 20th-century Black Arts Movement is impossible.

By most accounts, however, the Black Arts Movement sprang from a collection of individual activities that converged and gained power after Malcolm X's assassination in February 1965. At the time of his death, the Civil Rights Movement and its call for "Integration Now" was winding down, as the influence of the Black Panthers and cries of "Black Power" took root in the streets and the consciousness of a small but influential band of black artists, writers, intellectuals and activists.

The energies of these creative thinkers needed an outlet, and the language of Western art seemed too uptight and restrictive for their messages of Pan-Africanism and domestic liberation. In a 1968 essay, "The Black Arts Movement," writer Larry Neal, one of the leading thinkers behind the movement, pronounced it as "the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept."

So a month after Malcolm X's death, Baraka--then called LeRoi Jones--moved from Manhattan's Lower East Side to Harlem, rejecting the largely white world that celebrated his literary work, to immerse himself in an all-black world. His goal was to create a black aesthetic to express his emerging political and spiritual stirrings. In Harlem, the man who would become Baraka founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School and, for all practical purposes, the Black Arts Movement was born.

"We named the movement the Black Arts Movement; it was part of a kind of ongoing campaign to put art in the hands and minds of black people, which would also help the black liberation movement," Baraka says.

"In defining the Black Arts Movement, we wanted art that was black in form and in feeling; that was as black as Bessie Smith and Duke Ellington. We wanted art that was mass-oriented, that would not just be in schools and in arty places, but art that would come out into the community and move people. And we wanted art that was revolutionary."

Black American intellectuals and artists have renegotiated their contract with the white-controlled power structure of the country with almost clocklike precision, every generation and a half since slavery ended. For the most part, these activities, largely contained exclusively in black communities, went overlooked or ignored until reaching a tipping point at which white folks no longer could ignore what was happening on the darker sides of town. Or sought to profit from it.

Cycles of Change

The first of these movements, the Harlem Renaissance of the late 1920s and 1930s, produced an abundant output of art, literature and music. The Jazz Age was a by-product, and crusading activists like W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington were among the leading lights of the era.

More recently, the hip-hop movement has taken claim on the sense and sensibility of the post-civil rights generation. The graffiti art and bling-bling commercialism doesn't hide the fact that an up-from-the streets attitude stands in defiant contrast to the prevailing social structure of the early 21st-century America.

But the Black Arts Movement stands as the bridge between the two movements.

Despite a notable backhanded dismissal of the Black Arts Movement by Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr., the movement is an important, if overlooked, development in the cultural evolution of black life. Writing in a 1994 Time magazine article, Gates aimed his criticism to the now-discarded notions of cultural nationalism that seemed so promising to some in the late '60s as reasons for saying the Black Arts Movement was "erected on the shifting foundation of revolutionary politics, this 'renaissance' was the most short-lived of all."

True, the Black Arts Movement didn't last long. It's always troubled existence ended some time in the early 1970s, and it was effectively over by 1975. By then, the Black Power Movement had run its course; its surviving leaders were on to other--often-commercial--interests.

Still, for the brief moment, the Black Arts Movement was a glowing and landmark expression of what pride in being black and American could be. Indeed, the writing, art and drama of that short era were significant in that it unleashed a heretofore unknown power of blackness.

What's more, as Bell accurately points out, the Black Arts Movement spawned an explosion of black expression, criticism and art of many stripes.

" ... Black art groups soon sprang up on campuses and in cities across the nation. At the same time, black musicians like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, James Brown, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix, Issac Hayes, and the Supremes became national and international style setters. Black actors and actresses such as Sidney Poiter, James Earl Jones. Cicely Tyson, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Harry Belafonte, Clarence Williams, and Bill Cosby became highly visible in major roles in the movies and on television. And mass periodicals such as Essence, Encore, Black Collegian, Black Enterprise and Black World; small presses like Broadside and Third World; and journals like Umbra, Black Dialogue, Liberator, Journal of Black Poetry and Black Scholar were born.... "

Down with the People

Before Black Power--and the artistic expression of it through the Black Arts Movement--black people didn't fully realize or appreciate how much their behavior frightened white people. And it was just this sense of power by being black that fueled the artists and activists of the '60s to seek and to find what were the core concepts of a black aesthetic.

Writing in a 1967 issue of Liberator, Charles H. Fuller Jr., one of the leading lights of the Black Arts Movement, explained that black art was political empowerment and didn't derive its strength from white art forms. "How do we reach the Black community?" he wrote. "We use anything in that community that is easily identifiable--landmarks, ideas, dances--anything. Only when Black writers relate their work to easily recognized symbols and ideas can any hope of realistic dialogue between writer and community occur."

This was scary stuff to an intelligentsia that presumed the only art of value came from the Western/European tradition. Or as Ron Karenga wrote in an essay titled "On Black Art;' from the journal Black Theater. "Black art must be for the people, by the people and from the people. That is to say, it must be functional, collective and committing."

By contrast, the Harlem Renaissance, the previous moments of black Literary and artistic outburst, wasn't intended to scare whites. It was ornamental and not functional in any sense of the word, especially in terms of politics. Its protagonists and supporters had little sense of how (or whether) white people paid attention to its broader implications for nation building within black communities.

All that changed during the late 1960s. The Black Arts Movement was all about politics. It was a liberation art, one that can be seen in the intellectual footing of contemporary black youth culture.

To be sure, James Edward Smethurst makes this point in The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (University of North Carolina Press, 2005), one of the few serious and scholarly examinations of the movement. "The Black Arts movement made a considerable impression on artists and intellectuals too young to remember its events firsthand," Smethurst writes. "Many of the more explicitly political hip-hop artist owe and acknowledge a large debt to the militancy, urgent tone, and multimedia aesthetics of the Black Arts Movement and other forms of literary and artistic nationalism.

As such, the Black Arts Movement stands as an enduring and important contribution to the catalogue of black American culture.

Or, as Larry Neal stated, the Black Arts Movement sought to heal the dual consciousness that W.E.B Du Bois described at the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance.

Neal claimed the Black Arts "aimed at consolidating the African-American personality. It has, instead, turned its attention inward to the internal problems of the group.... It is a literature primarily directed at the conscience of black people."

Sam Fulwood III is a metro columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a Presidential Fellow at Case Western Reserve University.
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Author:Fulwood, Sam, III
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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