People who study the Black Arts Movement often cite--with frustration--a 1994 article from Time magazine by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., where he notes that the African American artistic movement of the 1960s/1970s was "the shortest and least successful" in history. Scholars and commentators rightly find fault with Gates's designation that the movement was shorter and less successful than previous or subsequent ones.
[Related: A Notebook on the Black Arts Enterprise]
Actually, a strong counter-argument can be made to Gates's observation. Instead of being a relatively short, unsuccessful African American artistic endeavor, it's possible that the Black Arts Movement constitutes one of the longest and most accomplished organized developments in African American literature, especially with regards to the production and reception of poetry. Few, if any, moments have seen the rise of so many major black literary artists--figures who remain widely known and published.
Taken together, black arts poets--Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Nikki Giovanni, Haki Madhubuti, Larry Neal, Eugene B. Redmond, Ishmael Reed, Carolyn Rodgers, Sonia Sanchez, and Quincy Troupe, to name just ten popular writers--have had an extraordinary influence on American and African American poetry, as well as on black studies, during and well beyond the 1960s and 1970s. Rarely has such a large group of poets also distinguished themselves as novelists, editors, publishers, recording artists, essayists, performers, and political activists.
Aside from Langston Hughes, few writers from the Harlem Renaissance remain as prominent in popular and scholarly discourses, especially in comparison to black arts era poets. Notably, more so than during their own time periods, poets of the Harlem Renaissance and as well as previous generations of poets such as Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar were more likely to have their poems routinely reprinted during the black arts era when there was dozens of anthologies published during a short amount of time. Despite the focus on "new" poetry, the Black Arts Movement was also significant because of how many poets were "recovered" during the time period.
Although select poets who emerged after the black arts era during the late 1980s and through the 1990s have received a substantial amount of prestige and literary awards, they have had a limited impact beyond the world of poetry for some reason. Collectively, the large numbers of African American poets receiving MFA degrees have produced some really good poetry. Unfortunately, their works have not circulated far beyond circles that consist primarily of other poets.
A key agenda for black arts poets was to reach out to audiences beyond the typical realms of poetry. They sought to engage in contemporary political discussions, institution building, collaborations with musicians, and performance. Collectively, they've made serious contributions and continue to do so.
Last month when Sonia Sanchez was appointed as the Poet Laureate of Philadelphia, I started thinking to myself that even thought the Black Arts Movement apparently ended long ago, the powerful motion of the poets has yet to subside.
A Notebook on the Black Arts Era