Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Notes on the History of the term "Black Aesthetic"

The January 1968 issue of Negro Digest contained writers' comments about a black aesthetic

I was recently rapping with my friends/guides Maryemma Graham and Jerry W. Ward, Jr. about buzzwords and the lack of discussion concerning "keywords" in our field. Often, a focus on "key"  and "major" authors, as opposed to concepts and phrases, end up driving our scholarly discourse. I began to think about the histories of key key terms and started thinking about “black aesthetic,” which, more so than “Black Arts Movement,” during the late 1960s and 1970s, inspired really extensive conversations and serious debate even at the time of the phrase's inception.

Usually people give credit to Addison Gayle for the term "Black Aesthetic," but we should go back a few years and note that Hoyt Fuller, editor of Negro Digest/Black World, did important organizing and advocacy work to bring the phrase to a broader arts public. Fuller had written a draft of his article “Toward a Black Aesthetic” as early as 1967.

Just as important, at some point in 1967, Fuller “polled some 38 writers, both famous and unknown” raising several questions. For number 19, he asked “Do you see any future at all for the school of black writers which seeks to establish ‘a black aesthetic’?”

The January 1968 issue of Negro Digest contains the writers' responses. Etheridge Knight’s extensive response to that question was published and so was the response by Larry Neal, who interestingly opened by noting that “There is a no need to establish a ‘black aesthetic.’ Rather it is important to understand that one already exists.” He then detailed more takes on the idea. Later in 1968, Neal had warmed up to the concept more, as he advocated support for a “Black aesthetic” in his popular essay “The Black Arts Movement” (1968).

During this time, Fuller was receptive to having short articles and essays on a black aesthetic published in Negro Digest/Black World. Fuller also wrote a letter to Addison Gayle requesting and encouraging him to produce a work on the topic. Gayle eventually did so, and the collection of essays that he produced entitled The Black Aesthetic (1971), which included re-prints of essays by Fuller, Neal, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, and others, became one of the most widely known texts of the black arts era and perhaps ever.

A few years later, Stephen Henderson published this poetry anthology Understanding the New Black Poetry (1973), which contains an extensive introduction, where Henderson is essentially attempting to work out what a black aesthetic looks like in poetry. Consider Toni Morrison in this mix too. People often point out that Morrison sought to write for a black audience--an approach that was really at the core of this whole black aesthetic enterprise. In fact, Morrison published an essay in Black World magazine entitled "Behind the Making of The Black Book;" that piece  and many others by her could have easily appeared in a part 2 of Gayle's The Black Aesthetic.  

Jump forward to the late 1980s, and you have Houston Baker and Henry Louis Gates writing about and debating each other in print about what those editors and writers were up to and why when it came to a black aesthetic. Gates, soon after, publishes The Signifying Monkey, which seeks to offer a theory of African American literature. Though Gates distanced himself from particular black aesthetic positions, that impulse to finding a unifying theory for African American literature was, without question, routed to a black aesthetic.

Looking back, what really fascinates me is that so many editors, poets, novelists, and literary scholars engaged in the conservation about this single phrase, which was referred to as "a black aesthetic," "the black aesthetic," and "the Black aesthetic." These days, I prefer saying "black aesthetics" as a way giving the term and idea more space.

A Notebook on the Black Arts Era 

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