Thursday, September 8, 2011

From a 'Black Art' Poem to 'The Black Arts Movement'

Amiri Baraka & Larry Neal, photo appears on back of their anthology Black Fire
Two of the most important writings in black arts discourse are Amiri Baraka's poem "Black Art" and Larry Neal's essay "The Black Arts Movement." In addition to offering blueprints and definitions of a developing movement, the pieces gave a whole range of cultural activities a memorable name: the Black Arts Movement.

Before those two pieces circulated widely, African American artists, including Baraka and Neal, had developed a Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem. They also organized a "black arts" weekend in April 1965 that included public discussions about the relationships black artists might have with their communities, a poetry reading, and a "black arts parade" that moved down 125th Street.

Baraka's poem first appeared on jazz drummer Sonny Murray's 1965 album Sonny's Time Now. In January 1966, "Black Art" appeared in Liberator magazine and was then included in several anthologies over the years.

Baraka's poem includes fiery rhetoric and advocates for poems that are "live" and have bite to them. He informs black people that they are "lovers" and the descendants of "warriors," and he notes at the end that "We want a black poem. And a / Black World."

In 1968, in a special issue on black theater in The Drama Review, Larry Neal published "The Black Arts Movement." Neal's essay offers definitions of radical African American artistic activity, noting that Black Arts are the "aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept." Neal also offers high praise for Baraka, whom he refers to as the movement's "prime mover and chief designer."

Neal's praise helped create the view that Baraka was the leader of the movement. Baraka and others have noted, however, that there were actually many leading figures and organizers who helped implement the cultural movement. Still, Baraka was definitely one of the more visible and revered figures of the era.

The wide circulation of Neal's and Baraka's writings helped give shape a distinct view of a developing and specific African American artistic enterprise. Even though quite a bit of activity took place prior to and outside the particular concerns of those two pieces, we often look back on much of what took place and was produced during that cultural period and refer to much of it under the general title "Black Arts Movement."

This entry is part of a series--30 Days of Black Arts Poetry


Anonymous said...

Hi! Thanks for the post! Could you please tell which edition this cover belongs to?

H. Rambsy said...

That would be in the first edition. I'm fairly sure it shows up in a second edition as well. I'll confirm once I get my hands on that one soon.