The Black Arts movement

The Black Arts movement - also known as the Black Aesthetic, the New Black Consciousness, and the New Black Renaissance - began in the mid-1960s and lasted, in its most intense phase, until the mid-1970s. The poetry, prose fiction, drama, and criticism written by African Americans during this period expressed a more militant attitude toward white American culture and its racist practices and ideologies. Slogans such as "Black Power," "Black Pride" and "Black is Beautiful" represented a sense of political, social, and cultural freedom for African Americans, who had gained not only a heightened sense of their own oppression but a greater feeling of solidarity with other parts of the black world such as Africa and the Caribbean.

The new spirit ofmilitance and cultural separatism that characterized the racial politics of the late 1960s had profound effects on the way African American poetry was written. The pressure on African American poets was greater than it had ever been to produce work that was explicitly political in nature and that addressed issues ofrace and racial oppression. The Black Arts movement was strongly associated with the Black Power movement and its brand of radical or revolutionary politics. As the critic Stephen Henderson suggested in the introduction to his 1972 anthology Understanding the New Black Poetry, the artists and writers of the Black Arts movement had "moved beyond the Harlem Renaissance" in their capacity to view their community "in the larger political and spiritual context of Blackness."10 In the poems and critical statements ofAmiri Baraka, Larry Neal, and others, Henderson claimed, "one can see the process of self-definition made clearer and sharper as the self-reliance and racial consciousness of an earlier period are revived and raised to the level of revolutionary thought." The writing of the Black Arts movement would not be "protest" art so much as "an art of liberating vision."

As a result of this change in emphasis, the younger black poets turned away from the modernist or formal styles of Tolson and Hayden and embraced a more militant poetic, one based on the language of the street. Among the most notable ofthese younger poets were Baraka, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti), Etheridge Knight, David Henderson, June Jordan, Ishmael Reed, Michael S. Harper, Clarence Major, Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, and Lucille Clifton.

Henderson's appraisal of the new black poetry of the 1960s was a significant step in the legitimation of the Black Arts movement. Henderson identified three basic categories according to which African American poetry could be analyzed. The first of these was the poem's theme or specific subject matter; the second was its structure, including such elements as diction, rhythm, and figurative language; and the third was what he called the poem's "saturation," the extent to which it communicated its "blackness" and the accuracy of its presentation of black life in the United States.

The dominant theme in African American poetry, Henderson suggests, has always been that of "liberation," whether from slavery, from segregation, or from the false wish for integration into the mainstream of white middle-class society. A secondary theme in African American poetry has been the concern with a spiritual or mystical dimension (whether in religion, African mythology, or musical forms like hymns, blues, and jazz) which can provide a meaningful alternative to "the temporal, the societal, and the political."11 In terms of structure, Henderson identifies a range of stylistic elements in contemporary black poetry involving references to both colloquial black speech and music, especially jazz and blues. Finally, the "saturation" of an African American poem involves the depth and the quality of its evocation of black experience. In order to illustrate this more elusive category, Henderson gives the example of the difference between a white Tin Pan Alley "blues" and a blues performance by the black musician Lightnin' Hopkins, in other words between a white imitation or appropriation of a form of black expression and an authentically black manifestation of it. While examples of such saturation are difficult to analyze in precise critical terms, they are an important part of the experience of reading this poetry. The younger black poets ofthe 1960s focused much more heavily than their predecessors on the contemporary idiom of urban blacks, on references to specifically black culture and cultural practices, and on a realistic depiction oflife in the inner cities. These poems portrayed a level oflife experience and used a form oflanguage that was unfamiliar to most white readers; often, it seems, the intent of the poem was at least in part to shock such readers.

The most influential of the new black poets was Amiri Baraka. Born Leroi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, in 1934, Baraka published under that name until 1968. After graduating from Howard University, Baraka served in the Air Force until the age oftwenty-four, when he moved to Greenwich Village in New York City and became part of the avant-garde literary scene, befriending poets like Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, and Frank O'Hara. During this period, Baraka was more drawn to the poetry and ideas of the Beats and other white avant-garde movements than to the politics of black separatism: he married a white woman; he wrote poems, essays, plays, and a novel within the context of the Beat counterculture; and he edited two magazines, Yugen and Floating Bear. Baraka's interest in racial issues was clear even in the early 1960s, as evidenced in his historical study Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963) and in plays such as Dutchman and The Slave (both 1964).

In the mid-1960s, deeply affected by the death of Malcolm X, Baraka made a number ofimportant changes in his life and focus. He divorced and moved to Harlem, he converted to the Muslim faith and took a new name, he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in New York City and Spirit House in Newark, and he became a leading spokesman for the Black Arts movement. He was also nearly beaten to death in the Newark race riots of 1967. In 1968, Baraka co-edited Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, which included social essays, drama, and fiction as well as poetry, and in 1969 he published his poetry collection Black Magic Poetry: 1961—1967. As Jerry Gafio Watts suggests, Black Magic Poetry can be read "as a record of his progression from an entrapment in whiteness to an identification with blackness," from his "outsider status in [white] bohemia" to his "arrival at a black nationalist sensibility."12

Baraka's poetry changed radically during the 1960s, as he turned from a more general sense of social alienation to a vision that was politically revolutionary and that expressed a profound solidarity with black culture. In his 1964 volume The Dead Lecturer, Baraka begins to describe more explicitly his sense ofpolitical and social alienation as a black man whose former status as a bohemian poet has been "undone by my station ... and the bad words of Newark" ("Political Poem"). But Baraka's real poetic revolution comes with the poem "Black Art" (1966). "Black Art" is Baraka's most famous poem and has been called the signature poem of the Black Arts movement, but it is one about which critics and readers are strongly divided. As Werner Sollors suggests, the poem is "striking for its venemous language and for its rhetorical violence."13 The poem is a virtual barrage of language directed against white society in general, and more specific attacks are launched against Jews, white liberals, and bourgeois blacks:

We want live words of the hip world live flesh & coursing blood. Hearts Brains Souls splintering fire. We want poems like fists beating niggers out of Jocks or dagger poems in the slimy bellies of the owner-jews. Black poems to smear on girdlemamma mulatto bitches whose brains are red jelly stuck between 'lizabeth taylor's toes. Stinking Whores! We want "poems that kill." Assassin poems, Poems that shoot guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys and take their weapons leaving them dead with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland. Knockoff poems for dope selling wops or slick halfwhite politicians Airplane poems, rrrrrrrrrrrrrr rrrrrrrrrrrrr . . . tuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuh

Baraka finds that the normal boundaries of poetic language no longer contain the words he needs in order to express his rage. The use of obscenities and of raw sounds - "rrrr . . . tuhtuhtuh" - turns language into the verbal guns of "poems that kill." Jerry Watts, who is particularly critical of the poem, calls it "an insurrectionary statement of hilarious and demented imagery," and he dismisses it as "nothing more than mere thuggery superimposed on hurt black feelings, impotence, and defeat."14 At the same time, however, there are reasons for the poem's success within the Black Arts movement. While the poem is certainly disturbing, especially in its anti-semitic references, it is rhetorically powerful in its suggestion that poetry can reverse many of the injustices perpetrated on African Americans. Lines like "Poems that wrestle cops into alleys / and take their weapons leaving them dead / with tongues pulled out" express the desire for social and political revenge by reversing the power relationships usually operating in American society. The poem's ending is more affirmative, calling for the "black poem" that can lead to a "Black World":

Let the world be a Black Poem

And Let All Black People Speak This Poem

Silently or loud

Along with Baraka, perhaps the most significant poet to emerge from the Black Arts movement was Audre Lorde. In addition to several volumes of poetry, beginning with The First Cities (1968), Lorde wrote essays (collected in her book Sister Outsider), an autobiographical account of her battle with cancer (The CancerJournals), and a fictionalized "biomythography" (Zami: A New Spelling of My Name). The daughter of West Indian immigrants, Lorde studied at both Hunter College and Columbia University. She worked as a librarian and taught at various colleges in New York City, including Hunter College, where she was a professor of English until her death in 1992.

Lorde's poems deal with her personal experience as an African American woman (or, as she called herself, "a black feminist lesbian mother poet"), as well as with the contemporary experience of blacks both in the United States and throughout the world. In her work, she makes frequent reference to historical events and figures, often juxtaposing events and images for ironic effect. In "The Day They Eulogized Mahalia," for example, she juxtaposes the public celebration of the black singer Mahalia Jackson with the death on the same day of six black children in an underfunded day-care center. In "Sisters in Arms" (1986) she comments on the situation of blacks in South Africa through a series of interlocking narratives: the violent death of a friend's fifteen-year-old daughter, the massacre and imprisonment of black children in a South African province, and the uprising by the warrior queen Mmanthatisi. Lorde is known for her evocative and very powerful use of imagery. In "Sisters in Arms," for example, she writes of the silence which "explodes like a pregnant belly / into my face / a vomit of nerves." Lorde's use of images is particularly effective in "Coal" (1968):

In the total black, being spoken

From the earth's inside.

There are many kinds of open.

How a diamond comes into a knot of flame

How a sound comes into a word, colored

By who pays what for speaking.

The image of the diamond is especially resonant here, as it evokes the history of racial oppression under which South African blacks have worked in the diamond mines. Yet at the same time the transformation of coal into diamonds represents the possibility ofa revelatory opening oflanguage. The significance of the image is made explicit in the final two lines:

I am Black because I came from the earth's inside now take my word for jewel in the open light.

As a black woman poet, Lorde has had to "pay" for the privilege of speaking; but her poems remain as the permanent crystallization of her experience, the "jewels" that allow her to reflect her words outward into the world.

Another strong voice in African American poetry since the Black Arts Movement has been Michael S. Harper. Harper's "Dear John, Dear Coltrane," the title poem of his 1970 collection, represents an important subgenre within the poetry of the Black Arts movement: the poem dedicated to or deriving from the work of black musicians. As Giinter Lenz puts it, black poetry of the 1960s and 1970s offered "the most promising medium to .. . transform the energy of the forms of black music into the structure and performance of literature."15 For many black poets of the period, including Harper, the influence ofmusic was just as crucial as that ofpoetry; while the poetry of Langston Hughes and others was an important model, so was the music of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Thelonius Monk, and John Coltrane. Of all the jazz musicians of the period, it was Coltrane who served as the most important model for black poets, the "shaping spirit," as Baraka put it, of the New Black Music. Poems interpreting and celebrating Coltrane's music were written by many African American poets.

In Harper's poem, he addresses both the man and his music. The poem begins and ends with the refrain "a love supreme," a phrase which Coltrane chanted on his record (and which Harper chants in his live performances of the poem). In between the appearances of the refrain, the poem moves through a series of focuses, from the personal and biographical to the cultural and historical. Images of Coltrane's suffering and aging body are juxtaposed with invocations ofhis music and affirmations ofthe black community. The opening lines of the poem end with first repetition of the refrain and the question, "What does it all mean?" The answer seems to come from Coltrane's music itself, which responds to the loss of Coltrane's physical manhood ("Loss, so great each black / woman expects your failure / in mute change, the seed gone") with a song "now crystal and / the blues."

In the concluding section, a call-and-response format invokes the process by which the black community as a whole has responded to a history of suffering:

Why you so black? cause I am why you so funky? cause I am why you so black? cause I am why you so sweet? cause I am why you so black? cause I am a love supreme, a love supreme

So sick you couldn't play Naima so flat we ached for song you'd concealed with your own blood, your diseased liver gave out its purity, the inflated heart pumps out, the tenor kiss, tenor love:

a love supreme, a love supreme -a love supreme, a love supreme -

"Dear John, Dear Coltrane" uses many of the techniques Henderson identifies with the use of black music as a poetic reference: the allusion to song titles (Coltrane's classic composition "Naima"), the use of language from the jazz life ("funky"), quotations from a song ("a love supreme"), the generalized reference to a musical form ("the blues"), the musician as subject (Coltrane), and the incorporation of an emotional response to the music ("so flat we ached / for song you'd concealed"). Finally, the poem incorporates the tonal memory of jazz as a basis of poetic structure. This effect is most clear in a passage like "fuel / the tenor sax cannibal / heart, genitals and sweat," where a memory of the complex rhythms of Coltrane's music helps the reader to experience the highly syncopated rhythm of the lines.

If Coltrane's music enabled Harper to articulate his vision of history, it also helped him to formulate his own poetic style and voice. The alternation of vernacular speech patterns ("Why you so black?. . . Why you so funky?") with more traditionally lyric language reenacts the harmonic and melodic counterpoint of Coltrane's music. At the same time, the use of the call-and-response format echoes the repetition of Coltrane's own refrain; in thematic terms, the call-and-response tradition is linked with the tradition of black music, and, by extension, of African American poetry.

Chapter 7

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  • miranda
    Why does larry neal feel that the harlem renaissance was a failure?
    6 months ago

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