Black Arts Movement Essay Outline

"Sometimes referred to as 'the artistic sister of the Black Power Movement,' the Black Arts Movement stands as the single most controversial moment in the history of African-American literature—possibly in American literature as a whole. Although it fundamentally changed American attitudes both toward the function and meaning of literature as well as the place of ethnic literature in English departments, African-American scholars as prominent as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., have deemed it the 'shortest and least successful' movement in African American cultural history." —"Black Creativity: On the Cutting Edge," Time (Oct. 10, 1994)

With roots in the civil rights movement, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, and the Black Power movement, the Black Arts movement is usually dated from approximately 1960 to 1970. Both the Black Power and Black Arts movements were responses to the turbulent socio-political landscape of the time. As racial inequality prevailed and black leaders such as Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated, organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense worked to protect the rights of African Americans. On the relationship between the Black Power and Black Arts movements, Larry Neal writes, “Black Art is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. … The Black Arts and the Black Power concept both related broadly to the Afro-American’s desire for self-determination and nationhood.” The artists within the Black Arts movement sought to create politically engaged work that explored the African American cultural and historical experience and transformed the way African Americans were portrayed in literature and the arts.

While the Black Arts movement certainly wasn’t limited to poetry, poetry was the genre that saw the most expansion and growth at the time. Like the members of the Harlem Renaissance, Black Arts writers also crafted a black voice that drew on African American vernacular, songs, and sermons in free verse that was experimental, incorporating jazz, the blues, and many linguistic and rhythmic techniques also characteristic of the Beat movement.

One of the most important figures in the Black Arts movement was Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones), who began his career among the Beat generation, living in Greenwich Village and associating with poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, and Gary Snyder. Following the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka made a symbolic move from Manhattan's Lower East Side to Harlem, where he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. According to the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, "No one was more competent in [the] combination of the experimental and the vernacular than Amiri Baraka, whose volume Black Magic Poetry 1961-1967 (1969) is one of the finest products of the African American creative energies of the 1960s." Baraka also became known for his Dutchman, a shocking one-act play that was charged with symbolism and a radical black consciousness.

Other poets of the Black Arts movement include Gwendolyn Brooks, Ed Bullins, Eldridge Ceaver, Jayne Cortez, Harold Cruse, Mari Evans, Hoyt Fuller, Nikki Giovanni, Lorraine Hansberry, Gil-Scott Heron, Maulana Ron Karenga, Etheridge Knight, Adrienne Kennedy, Haki R. Madhubuti, Larry Neal, Ishmael Reed, Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange, Quincy Troupe, and John Alfred Williams.

Sometimes criticized as misogynist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and racially exclusive, the Black Arts movement is also credited with motivating a new generation of poets, writers, and artists. In recent years, however, many other writers—Native Americans, Latinos/as, gays and lesbians, and younger generations of African Americans, for instance—have acknowledged their debt to the Black Arts movement.

Related works include "On Black Art" by Maulana Ron Karenga and "The Revolutionary Theatre" by Baraka. For more information, consult The Oxford Companion to African American Literature (Oxford University Press, 1997), The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (W.W. Norton, 1996), and Furious Flower: African American Poetry from the Black Arts Movement to the Present (University of Virginia Press, 2004).

read about poets from the black arts movement

August Wilson was born in 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  He grew up during the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 60s, one of the most tumultuous periods in American History.  Wilson often described his influences as “the four Bs”:  Jorge Luis Borges (an originator of the magical realism literary genre), Blues music, Romare Bearden (an African American artist famous for his collages depicting everyday Black life), and Amiri Baraka (the leading figure of the Black Arts Movement). 

The Black Arts Movement emerged from the political ideology of Black Power, which arose out of the frustrations African Americans felt about the failures of the Civil Rights Movement to bring about the social and economic changes that would have been necessary to achieve true equality.  While Civil Rights legislation brought about real changes in terms of voting rights and desegregation, social, political, and economic inequality remained a reality for most Black Americans. 

During the 1960s and 70s, the Black Power ideology promoted nationalism, racial pride, and self-determination for African Americans, often placing its adherents at odds with the mainstream Civil Rights Movement and its emphasis on integration of Blacks into the larger (and predominantly White) American society.  The Black Arts Movement, founded by the writer and activist Amiri Baraka, functioned as the aesthetic complement to Black Power, and was based on ideals of beauty centered on Black culture and experiences.   The movement sought to fulfill W.E.B. DuBois’ call for art that is “about us,” “by us,” “for us,” and “near us.” 

The Black Arts movement has had a lasting influence on African American culture, but its legacy is much broader, influencing people of color and other minority groups across the United States and the world. Many Latino/a, American Indian, Asian, and LGBT writers and artists have credited the movement with inspiring them to explore and take pride in their history, experiences, and identities. 

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