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Mirrors of Deception: Visualizing Blackness in the Poetry of Chicago Black Artist Johari Amini.

The Black Arts Movement (BAM) has become an increasingly popular subject of critique in recent years. Despite the participation of some of the most prolific women writers, artists, and activists of this period, including Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Mari Evans, Audre Lorde, and June Jordan (some of whom did not define themselves as "black artists"), male artists and intellectuals are given credit for shaping and codifying the aesthetic and political ideologies of the BAM. Cherise Pollard reminds us that:
 As they articulated black manhood through the pen, the gun, the
penis, and
 the microphone, male poets in the Black Arts Movement defined and
 revolutionary black male identity.... [M]any [black women poets]
 both within and against the men's assumptions about the
 between race and gender and art and politics. (Pollard 173) 

The work produced by women writers and artists characterized the ideological and propagandistic relationships between race, sex, and art in ways that deserve careful examination. In his extensive project, Afro-Blue: Improvisations in African-American Poetry and Culture, Tony Bolden provides an overview of this subject as it relates to women poets, stating that "much of black vernacular culture, like American culture generally, is male-centered, and [i]s a product of that culture." An acknowledgement of the ways in which male writers and intellectuals of the BAM, such as Haki Madhubuti, Maulana Karenga, Amiri Baraka, and Larry Neal "had not yet learned to question the narrow framework in which gender is theorized in black culture" is integral to an exploration of the ideals of this period (25). Indeed, scholars are now beginning to recognize the complexities of the aesthetics of this historical period in ways that move beyond popular critiques of its masculinist ideological foundations. Such interests privilege other aspects of BAM that recognize its artists' varied approaches to executing its ideals.

Black American writers of preceding generations had debated, discarded, and negotiated questions of cultural representation, nationhood, and the role of the black writer in the articulation of such concepts, and BAM writers of the 1960s and '70s would continue to do the same. Looking at the goals of the BAM through the context of local initiatives, in such cities as Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, and Chicago, is useful for engaging the ways in which BAM principles were experimented with and sustained by black artists in particular communities. Although New York is often understood to be at the center of most of the artistic productivity of the BAM, due in part to a migration of innovative black writers there during the 1950s and '60s (Nielsen 79), the Movement would be shaped in other regions of the U. S. as well. In Chicago, for instance, black artists were affiliated with the Organization for Black American Culture (OBAC), a multi-media initiative that would continue to thrive well into the decade of the eighties. As James Smethurst suggests in a valuable historical survey of BAM, "the numerous direct exchanges and interconnections between African American cultural and political activists in Chicago and Detroit made the Black Arts movement in those cities exceptionally vital" (180).

For members of OBAC, both writing and the production of other media of expression was germane to the communication of the organization's specific objectives. For example, under the direction of such members as artist Jeff Donaldson, one of the "captains" of AFRICOBRA, the visual arts branch of OBAC, the efforts of local artists to translate its ideals into visual media would be realized in the construction of the in/famous "Wall of Respect" on Chicago's South Side. As Margo Natalie Crawford writes,
 The OBAC visual arts workshop decided to shape the mural around
 following categories: rhythm and blues, jazz, theater, statesmen,
 religion, literature, sports, and dance. In each of these categories,
 workshop members created a list of the black cultural
"heroes" who would
 be represented on the Wall. (Collins and Crawford 25) 

Like other OBAC works, the "Wall of Respect" was intended to reflect the concerns and interests of black urban communities, and it would draw significant attention from local and national authorities that perceived it to be a message of radical and potentially violent insurgence (Donaldson). Furthermore, as the Chicago urban scene materialized as a source of inspiration for writers and artists, the landscape, character, and history of this city marked a spatial, symbolic, and cultural context that ultimately influenced OBAC poetics.

For black artists like Johari Amini, this was especially true. Born in Philadelphia in 1935, she began her writing career as Jewel C. McLawler. Amini was educated at several institutions after moving to Chicago in 1941 with her parents while she was a child. She married activist Jawanza Kunjufu in 1951 and gave birth to a daughter, Marcianna, and a son, Kim Allan. While a student at Chicago's Wilson Junior College (now Kennedy-King City College), she met Haki Madhubut--later founder of Chicago's Third World Press. She recalls his having encouraged her to pursue her own writing goals. As a founding member of the Organization for Black American Culture, along with Rodgers and Madhubuti, Amini's poetic voice would emerge as one of the most prolific within the Chicago Black Arts Movement. It would be during this period that she would change her name to "Johari Amini," Swahili for "Faithful Jewel." In 1968, she met actor and director Val Gray-Ward and her husband, journalist Francis Ward, who were the founding members of the Kuumba Performing Arts Company in Chicago. It was also during this period that she began meeting some of the most recognized and acclaimed black writers of this period, including Illinois Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks, who performed as a mentor for many of the "new," younger black artists of this era. It was at Brooks's home that Amini met Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who had been serving as a visiting faculty member at Northwestern University while in exile. In 1970, Amini earned a B.A. from Chicago State University, and in 1972, she earned an M.A. at the University of Chicago (Amini, Interview).

It is noteworthy that the theme of writing as a method of recording black culture and community is addressed in "To A Black Writer," which appears in Amini's first collection of poetry, Images in Black, published by Third World Press in 1967 (12). As the narrator addresses the political urgency of written words and their ability to preserve and define culture, while calling upon her contemporaries to "give us prose / ... write the words / of Blackness stolen," her words comply with the political and artistic expectations of the broader Black Arts community with regard to the role of black artists, who were considered to be figures of empowerment (ll. 11, 15, 16). Many of the pieces in Images suggest that such ideals--perpetuated among black artists in Chicago and nationwide--reflected aspirations that were ultimately impossible to realize. In fact, despite the popularity of black art, the narrator intimates that black artists must be inspired by an idyllic African history in the creation of their work, and black art must be prophetic and foreshadowing in its attempt to stimulate the consciousness of its audiences. As the black artist "writes of why our blood / is poured out" and "distil[s] the wisdom of beginnings," the artist becomes a visionary for the future and fate of their community (ll. 21, 22, 8). Even as Amini's narrator privileges the aspirations of the black artist, she recognizes that she can only write from her own perspective and "tell it like it is." As a black artist of the '60s and '70s, Amini honors a tradition of black writing that demonstrates literacy and asserts humanity.

Several poems in Images construct images as metaphors for characterizing black culture, nationhood, identity, and the role of the black artist in projecting such concepts for their audiences' consumption. The presumption that black audiences in urban areas like Chicago, where people had experienced the impact of social, political, and economic oppression upon their communities. "All material is mute until the artist gives it a message, and that message must be a message of revolution. ... [T]he real function of art is to make revolution, using its own medium" (2087), wrote cultural critic Maulana Karenga. The propagandist import of images as visual aesthetics representing BAM ideals is the focus of many pieces included in Amini's first collection, wherein she strategically and paradoxically under-mines the legitimacy of visual characterizations of black culture, community, and identity that had become integral to BAM ideals of nation-building. Consequently, her critique of visual aesthetics and iconography anticipates the often counterproductive ways in which such resources are engaged in the work of today's contemporary artists. As Angela Davis has argued, the reduction and packaging of political ideology into popular media representations is not emancipatory, but counterproductive (292-93). Thus, much of Amini's work included in Images transcends the immediacy of the BAM since it cautions against an over-reliance upon aesthetics in representations of blackness that continue to be exploited in visual media and performance.

In Amini's "Coronoch," the opening piece in Images, audiences are confronted with explicit portrayals of violence and oppression that appeal to an ambivalent concept of American democracy (Images 1). References to the colors red, white, black, and blue serve as metaphors dramatizing the human sacrifice and violence that contributes to an ideal of American democracy. Images of "burning ghettos," "bloated starvation," burning blackness," "black blood," etc., invoke a collective, historical memory of racial violence among the writer's key audiences (ll. 12- 15). The image of the "spectre" referenced in the poem that is "unseen / by masses" and "defined / by few" is never fully clarified, yet its illusory, ethereal qualities are meaningful (ll. 2-3, 6-7). The idea that only a marginal number of individuals are capable of sensing the presence of the specter in the poem could be a reference to the ways in which it tragically eludes the masses and serves as a visually ambiguous yet powerful symbol, as "prophetic voices" are "shouted down," "warned of fire" and "warned of patriotism" in this scene of violence. The piece ends with mocking emphasis on the term "DEMOCRACY," which is itself constructed as an illusion, and which is preserved only through the mass killing of black bodies "as black flesh burns blue" (ll. 22, 21).

Because quotidian approaches to black art relied upon artists' ability to incorporate aesthetics with which audiences could presumably identify, a Black Art that would speak "directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America," in Larry Neal's words, was essential (2039). Amini's reliance upon and reconstruction of images of violence, insurgence, and civil unrest in her writing--scenes that characterize the immediate and historical epistemologies of violence against blacks--exemplifies her inclination to respond to this objective. The final line of the poem, which states that "atrocities preserve DEMOCRACY," implicates the "pouring of black blood," the "drying of black bones," and the "burning of black flesh" as tragic but necessary consequences of preserving the myth of American freedom and democracy ("Coronoch"). The references to the colors red, white, and blue simultaneously conjure visions of nationalism and freedom, violence and oppression. Amini's reliance upon and critique of the universally recognizable and symbolic colors red, white, and blue, as well as the incorporation of scenes of reactionary violence inspired by racial subjugation, constitute methods of engaging audiences in ways that reinforce the marketability of provocative images in socially conscious black art.

The piece "Identity" further characterizes the extent to which dialogue and verbal performance expose, determine, and shape the aesthetic parameters of black art. Dedicated to Haki Madhubuti, who may have well influenced the characterization in this piece, the poem features two figures whose relationship is reminiscent of the student/mentor relationship that existed between Amini and Madhubuti during her early years as a developing Black Arts writer. The fact that this piece is presented in the form of a dialogue between the narrator/Amini and her teacher/Madhubuti as she "comes" into "blackness" and achieves a heightened sense of cultural awareness upon seeing a man "tall wearing a crown / of natural / a prophet / creator of change" is relevant here (ll. 2-4). The process of "becoming black" is presented in the form of a catechism in which the narrator assumes the role of the "student" and attempts to answer the questions posed by her "teacher." The narrator's arrival at a final stage of black consciousness is achieved only after this exchange takes place: "The pain stopped I / breathed life / birth was completed," she expresses (ll. 43-45). Her evolution is analogous to the birthing process, and in this context, Madhubuti not only administers the procedure, but he also becomes the ostensible midwife, providing the guidance, cajoling, and nurturing needed to expedite the narrator's immanent and emerging "black" identity. As he poses the necessary questions used to evaluate the extent to which the narrator perceives herself to "be black," the narrator exposes her uncertainty, and she is conscious of the fact that she cannot answer "yes" to the question of whether or not she "THINK[S] BLACK" because of her "imitationwhite hair" and her "curlfree do" (ll. 32, 33) Madhubuti poses the questions "What are you," "Are you Black," and "Do you think Black" (ll, 27) to a narrator who, at the point of their encounter, only imagines herself to be black and who is in fact fearful of presenting herself to Madhubuti as a fully realized "Black woman." Doubting her own self-image, the narrator is apprehensive about responding to Madhubuti's questioning, "as birth is a painful process," and she provides a rather ambiguous response--"i am a person" (ll. 20-21, 18). It is not until he asks "are you B L A C K" and the narrator reveals a conscious betrayal of her race--"should i lie/say / yes ... no I need time" (ll. 22, 24-25), that Madhubuti articulates the final and most critical query, "do you THINK BLACK" (l. 27). Contrary to the implication that simply "thinking" black justifies that one is black, Madhubuti proffers a list of individuals who legitimately represent "blackness" and in whom an image of this ideal is reflected. Racial identity is treated not as an arbitrary or elusive category of subjectivity here, but is instead defined by boundaries and degrees of psychosocial commitments, and any question of this is mitigated by Madhubuti's references to Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Patrice Lumumba, Stokely Carmichael, and W. E. B. Du Bois--all are implicated as individuals who demonstrate "acceptable" versions of black consciousness (ll. 37-42). Subsequently, each of these male figures--Madhubuti included--assist the female narrator in reaching her climactic point of "identity reconciliation," and "growth was begun [and she] / was sister" (ll. 46-47; emphasis added).

The opportunity to critique this interplay of words represents not only a pedagogical moment between student and teacher, but also serves as a critical space for a verbal exchange that symbolizes the transitional moment between the narrator/ student's prior and ostensible ignorance and her subsequent cultural enlightenment. In this way, Amini creates a script in which the narrator recognizes and accepts her black identity through an identifiable and specific paradigm that actualizes what it means to "be black." Cultural identity is conceptualized as a process realized through language and the reinforcement of images that characterize blackness as an ideal.

As the poem "Identity" suggests, cultural identity can be accessed through the dialogic process in which references to appropriate images assist the narrator in the realization of an ideal black identity and consciousness. However, the piece "Faux-Semblant" conveys the inherent problem of relying upon fixed notions of its ideal., and thus, Amini's treatment of "images" goes counter to the conventions of Black Arts principles (Images 4). In contrast to the poem "Identity," in "Faux-Semblant"--a French phrase which, translated, means "false truth"--Amini introduces a solitary figure in the form of a narrator who becomes disillusioned with herself as she approaches a pond in which her image is reflected. Although she is beguiled by the "slight breeze" and "soft/cool shadowed woods," the narrator's ultimate decision to approach the pond is informed by the expectation that she will be greeted by an image that will confirm her preconceived notions of identity (ll. 1-2). Leaning into the pond "to breathe/the beauty" that is certain to be seen in the reflection, the narrator is confronted with what instead becomes "the death-face." Despite the ambiguity revolving around what actually constitutes the death-face, the narrator's unwavering faith in a reflection that will ideally validate her self-image is critical to the Black Arts idea that perceptions of self-image and identity were expected to be reproduced or reaffirmed through visual aesthetics, and that an awareness, assurance, and articulation of identity are accompanied by one's ability to see it manifested in material form. The narrator's proclivity to consciously look toward physical evidence that might validate preexisting notions of identity underscores the primary function of visual stimuli in black art to assist in communicating the concept of identity, and this is further reinforced by the narrator's preoccupation with what the reflection will yield. In this sense, the responsibility of Amini's narrator is evident--she submits to a desire to have perceptions of image confirmed by the reflection--yet central to this desire is a subtext in which the ideal image of "beauty" is juxtaposed with that of the "death-face" in the reflection. The "fault/faux" of the narrator lies not in her desire to imagine herself in general, but instead resides in her attempt to see or locate identity in a visible, recognizable form. As in the poem "Identity," the potential to realize identity in imagistic forms is unrealistic, and Amini's work becomes a potential critique of the essentialist import of visual aesthetics popularized by her contemporaries. In "Faux-Semblant," the narrator is empowered by the solitude and tranquility of the pond "drawing [her] / to its stillness." Although the singular image of the "death-face" is expressive of all that is not "beauty[full," and performs in opposition to that which is favorable or ideal in reference to identity, the tragedy of the situation revolves around the narrator's willingness to subject herself to the power of imagery as a means of validation.

Black art was frequently susceptible to the agency of images in provoking audience interaction. Thus, the tendency to exploit images in the effort to advance an inclusive, nation-building aesthetic was invariable. The appeal towards an aesthetic that would manifest itself not only in the material production and physical performance of consciousness-raising objectives, but also in the form of more nuanced, interactive methods of communicating ideals of black identity and culture, is a critical and discursive function of Amini's early work. Although I do not read her poetry as propaganda that necessarily endorses the abandonment of accessible archetypal symbols representing OBAC and/or BAM imperatives, I recognize the manner in which it reflects an interrogation of the legitimacy and utility of such resources in marketing concepts of cultural identity. Implicit within Amini's approach is the message that individuals should feel empowered to authorize and construct their own unique identities rather than look toward the objectification of their experiences through a politically sanctioned set of aesthetics.

The poem "About Communication" further complicates the perceived functionality of various popular media positioned to articulate an ideal, culturally specific version of identity (Images 11). In it, the narrator assumes the role of a critic, citing the inadequacies of "sections / specifications/blueprints / delineations/ ... words" in the struggle to conceptualize identity (ll. 12-15). More appropriately, the narrator becomes a veritable voice of dissent, as her words undermine political and artistic projects that enforce the commodification and construction of aesthetic paradigms that function to dictate and legitimize black identity. Thus, the perceptibly pathological tendency of black artists to create work that reflected a codification of cultural identity through aesthetics is problematized here. The first character's statement, "you/know my/self" suggests her belief in the second character's ability to relate to her without the intervention of outside resources (ll. 10-11, 14). The critique of "sections / specifications / blueprints," and so forth, as metaphors for the forced and perhaps restricted aesthetics of this period is quite heretical, and the narrator of "About Communication" asserts a clear, self-defining authority that undermines principles of poetics, language, and ideology. In this way, Amini deconstructs the underpinnings of conventional aesthetics and locates identity in a much more allusive, abject, "intangible" place, one that eludes even the function of words.

Visual media and performance art were integral to the process of marketing black art as a socially and politically conscious community-building aesthetic. For Chicago black artists like Amini, photography, art, drama, and poetry readings, among other activities, promoted the ideals of the BAM in a way that encouraged a critical relationship between artists and mainstream audiences, and which rendered black art inclusive. In many ways, audiences were themselves actors as well as primary subjects of critique, since their lifestyles found thematic materialization in the form of black art. Such an idea is consistent with the message conveyed in Baraka's "Black Art," in which he writes, "We want live / words of the hip world live flesh & / coursing blood" (1943). The accessibility of the BAM was sustained through visual and performance media that made images reflective of black life central to its objectives. Narratives focusing on the empowerment of black communities found artistic legitimacy in the iconography reinforced through the popularity of black art. Yet, as much of Amini's poetry conveys in Images, identity and community are not visually, physically, or aesthetically translatable, and can never be capable of defining or dictating the experiences of black people. Such treatments work to humanize the otherwise caricatured propaganda of the BAM and suggest the implausibility of reflecting or reinventing "blackness" in any art form. More than forty years after the publication of Images in Black, the impact of visual media on the consciousness of contemporary consumers is greater, given the influence of technology--a trend that former Black Arts writer Johari Amini may have prophetically anticipated, and against which she cautioned much earlier.

Works Cited

Amini, Johari. Images in Black. Chicago: Third World, 1969.

--. Telephone interview. Summer 2000.

Baraka, Amiri. "Black Art." 1969. Gates and McKay 1943-44.

Bolden, Tony. Afro-Blue: Improvisations in African American Poetry and Culture. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2004.

Collins, Lisa Gail, and Margo Natalie Crawford, eds. New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2006.

Crawford, Margo Natalie. "Black Light on the Wall of Respect: The Chicago Black Arts Movement." Collins and Crawford 23-42.

Davis, Angela. "Black Nationalism: The Sixties and the Nineties." 1992. The Angela Y. Davis Reader. Ed. Joy James. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999. 289-93.

Donaldson, Jeff. Personal interview. Summer 2000.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Nellie Y. McKay, eds. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: Norton, 2004.

Karenga, [Maulana] Ron. "Black Art: Mute Matter Given Force and Function." 1968. Gates and McKay 2086-90.

Neal, Larry. "The Black Arts Movement." 1968. Gates and McKay 2038-50.

Nielsen, Aldon. Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism. New York: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Pollard, Cherise A. "Sexual Subversions, Political Inversions: Women's Poetry and the Politics of the Black Arts Movement." Collins and Crawford 173-86.

Smethurst, James Edward. The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2005.
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Author:Phelps, Carmen
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2011
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