The Black Arts Movement stands as a seminal moment in the Black experience. It marked the emergence of a new Black identity and authenticated the existence of a distinct Black culture within America’s settler state.
It’s the story of an advanced detachment of poets, writers, dramatists, and musicians whose commitment to support the Black Power insurgency placed them in the vanguard of a Black Nationalist Cultural Revolution.
The combustible mix of Black left bohemian artists from NYC’s East Side and Harlem Black Nationalists that created Black Arts Repertory Theater was a Molotov cocktail. Once lit, it ignited a national cultural revolt.
It was once said by Alice Walker that ‘Poetry is the lifeblood of rebellion, revolution, and the raising of consciousness.' She captured the role and essence of the BAM's Intifada led by the ‘hand grenade poets.’ The irreverent upstarts bombarded inner cities with new images, sounds, language, symbols, music, and expansive concepts of racial identity. Indeed, BAM exploded on the scene proposing no less than ‘a radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic.’
In urban centers, rural communities and the jungles of Vietnam, the BAM’s revolutionary concepts were debated. Amid the social tumult, the tribe Zora Neale Hurston described as the “voluptuous children of the sun,” purged “Negro” and “Colored” identities from the popular imagination. In its place they embraced a new sense of Black self-determination and destiny.
The Black Arts Movement eviscerated the myth that Black people were devoid of culture by opening the floodgates of poetry fests, literary criticism, cultural journals, publishing houses, guerilla theatre, playhouses, public murals, mobile artist troupes, start-up documentary and film companies, avant garde jazz and Afrofuturist stylings.
Unbolting the doors of universities to Black and African studies programs, Black history and culture journeyed from the backwaters of a renegade subculture to the lecture halls of American Empire’s academy.
The ‘hand grenade poets’ provided a national platform for rising Black female, writers, dramatists, and literary critics. Unmatched by any ethnic, nationalist, or leftist political force, the BAM gave voice to phenoms like Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Sonia Sanchez, Toni Cade Bambara, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jayne Cortez, Mari Evans, Carolyn Rodgers, Ntozake Shange, and Nikki Giovanni. Notwithstanding its sexists and homophobic tendencies, the BAM was a launching pad for future Black feminist leaders.
The BAM’s juggernaut inspired Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Asian-Americans and indigenous Indians to validate their own historical and cultural antecedents. Following the Black Arts Movement’s model, they developed cultural infrastructure in their communities and college campuses. The BAM set in motion a realignment that became the template of post-Civil Rights multiculturalism.
Despite its stunning successes, the lessons and meaning of BAM’s cultural revolution remain controversial. Black arts historian James Smethurst observed that:
‘The somewhat nebulous universe of ethnic studies was haunted by the ethnic and racial nationalisms that in their various manifestations flourished in the United States from about 1965 to 1975. Most high-profile institutions and scholars of African American studies and ethnic studies maintain a far more ambivalent, if not hostile, relationship to the Black Power movement and, the Black Arts movement?’
Despite owing their vocations in some measure to the BAM’s radical cultural studies demands and institution building initiatives, Black scholars routinely sanitize, belittle, and even slander the BAM’s legacy.
Henry Louis Gates, the bard of Ivy League Africana Studies excoriated the Black Arts Movement by calling it; ‘The shortest and least successful movement in African-American cultural history.’ His stunning falsehood, informed by base contempt for Black Nationalism and the BAM, gave new meaning to the saying that 'history is but lies agreed upon by scholars.'
Alternative Black Nationalists uphold the Black Arts Movement and its far-reaching accomplishments without reservation. By ushering in Black identity and culture, BAM’s ‘hand grenade poets’ established the foundation of a ‘nationalist ideal’ and a Black nation-state when American Empire inevitably falters and collapses.
Not only have we inherited their foundational legacy, BAM activists debated and answered every cultural and aesthetic question that surfaced in their storied ten-year history. As a result, Black Nationalists possess a comprehensive blueprint of theory and practice to fabricate a consensus Black cultural theory.
Inasmuch as Black Nationalists have failed to formulate a consensus cultural theory, our responsibilities as guardians of the BAM’s legacy requires us to complete its unfinished agenda. This means Black Nationalists cannot simply build on BAM’s successes.
We must take ownership of the BAM’s theoretical errors, sexists and homophobic practices. They must be analyzed and corrected if 4th Wave Black Nationalists are to mount a serious effort to garner support for creating a future nation-state.
Black-Nationalism.com identified a number of issues that we regard as significant errors. Those issues will be explored in two separate papers. That being said, it’s important to briefly contextualize the unique internal and external conditions that adversely impacted the BAM's leadership and contributed to some of its flawed formulations.
The BAM was conceived as a cultural adjunct to the Black Power movement. As BAM poet Larry Neal’s stated ‘This movement is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. Indeed, with the BAM's formation there was every reason to believe the sky was the limit The BAM’s writers, dramatists, playwrights, and poets were as talented and politically sophisticated as any previous artistic movement--bar none. Conversely, several Black Power leaders came from artistic backgrounds. Black Panther Bobby Seale was briefly a stage actor. Mohammed Ahmed, Revolutionary Action Movement leader was a painter. Harold Cruse, Lord Protector of Black Nationalism was a playwright. Both the BAM and their Black Power counterparts were well read in Marxist-Leninist-Maoist theory. In countless cities across the country veteran Garveyites, Pan-Africanists, Black ex-Communist Party USA activists, and 'Beat' counter-culture artists mentored the rising Sixties generation of civil rights and Black Nationalist activists. The Black Arts and Black Power movement's political and artistic firepower was formidable. But from the beginning, the BAM’s relationship with the Black Power movement was muddled, and arguably hampered their cause as much as they advanced it.
To further complicate matters, BAM leaders and activists were often members or supporters of multiple political organizations. Amiri Baraka, the BAM’s founder, was chairman of the Pan Africanist Congress of Afrikan People in 1970, and later the Marxist-Leninist League of Revolutionary Workers in 1974. BAM theoretician Larry Neal was a member of Revolutionary Action Movement, attended Nation of Islam study sessions and was Minister of Education of the Black Panther Party. This political and ideological fluidity within BAM was fairly common, and equally disorienting at times as different political factions vied for influence inside the BAM.
Launched in 1965, the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School collapsed in less than a year. The BAM in New York City was in disarray. Poet Askia Touré, recalled that in 1966; 'Backward, disruptive elements sabotaged the Harlem BAM, shot Larry Neal, attacked Amiri and me, and forced him to return to Newark.' Years later, taking aim at Black Nationalism, Baraka explained the collapse this way;
The BART/S self-destructed because Black is not an ideology, and so the unity gained under that finally nationalist and reductionist label, though it was an attempt to locate and raise the national consciousness, could not hold. There was not an advanced enough unity to maintain the eclectic entity that 'Black' had brought together; Nationalist, Muslims, Yoruba devotees, under the cover integrationist, Christians, all of the above-ist. But though that institution failed it was the flare sent up that marked the explosion of Black Arts institutions across the country.'
After the dissolution of the BART/S, the Black Arts Movement was unable to create a coherent organizing center. Historically, movements aren't characterized by highly centralized or strong hierarchal structures. But effective coherent leadership does not have to be highly centralized or hierarchal. Nor are movements usually characterized by rigid political agendas. Movements are created around broad goals like stopping a war or ending police brutality. Its supporters--as Baraka described above--come from diverse ideological backgrounds and employ a variety of political approaches, tactics and strategies to achieve their common goals. The BAM, in many respects was exactly the opposite. Instead of the various forces working towards common goals with a different approaches, competing or autonomous leadership centers developed along regional and organizational lines. They vied for hegemony in determining the BAM's direction. Instead of leadership steering the BAM’s around political landmines and on to common ground, the movement tended to factionalize over different issues. Instead of leadership providing constancy and some measure of political stability, the BAM more or less lurched forward through a continuous series of open debates on critical issues.
Maulana Karenga's US Organization made deep inroads in the BAM through his association with Amiri Baraka while teaching Black Studies in California. Bald headed, sporting dashikis and dark shades, their disciplined military style and martial African philosophical system of Kawaida evinced illusions of imposing order to the BAM's incessant chaos. It didn't happen. Karenga and the US Organization brought open warfare to the BAM's doorstep. Deliberately adopting the moniker of "Cultural Nationalists" the utopian Pan-Africanist US Organization became bitter rivals with the increasingly popular Black Panthers. By 1969 the two organizations were engaged in armed street battles across Southern California. At UCLA's campus, two Black Panthers were killed and one US Organization member was seriously wounded in a shootout.
The Black Panthers also had their own controversies with the BAM. Eldridge Cleaver expelled poet Marvin X and playwright Ed Bullins from San Francisco's 'Black House' on charges of "Cultural Nationalism.' Purportedly, the Black House split in a dispute over whether Black Liberation forces should work with whites. Bullins, who temporarily served as the Panthers Minister of Culture, and came to the Black House with Baraka, and poets Sonja Sanchez and Askia Touré said no.
The anecdote to combat the BAM's destructive tendencies was not developing a strong organizational center to dominate the movement. What was needed was a consensus leadership group or council of sage veterans that could mitigate conflicts and craft compromises, while continuing to encourage the broadest participation possible.
The essence of BAM's project was fostering, creating, popularizing, defining, and evaluating a new Black culture and aesthetics in all of its manifestations. Its challenge was how to encourage the full flowering of organic expressions of Black culture that embodied the collective strivings of a people seeking self-directed empowerment. The cultural expressions that would prove to be more revolutionary and forward leaning would--like cream--eventually rise to the top through its interaction with the Black street.
Yet, the BAM insurgents were often unrelenting in their attempts to designate the definitive source codes powering Black culture, be it 'avant garde free jazz' or the blues. In truth, there is no single form of music, or type of novel, or mode of speech, or poetic format, or school of painting, or type of dance, or style of dress, or method of literary criticism that is inherently more Black, revolutionary, and nationalist than all the other alternatives. Some BAM and Black Power leaders drew little distinction between art and politics, insisting they were essentially the same. What they really meant was that art is nothing more than the continuation of politics through cultural means. This was a profoundly flawed construct--a version of old Soviet-style agitprop in blackface.
Worse still, Maulana Ron Karenga’s formulation that; ‘Black Art must expose the enemy, praise the people, and support the revolution’ was a destructive view that gained traction within the BAM. The softer Afrocentric version of this viewpoint was expressed by Chicago poet Haki Madhubuti who argued that, , "
Black art, like African art is perishable. This too is why it is functional. For example, a black poem is written not to be read and put aside, but to actually become a part of the giver or receiver. It must perform some function: move the emotions, become a part of the dance, or simply make one act.' In both cases, art that did not satisfy these criteria, was not regarded as real Black art but reactionary art that served the bourgeoisie.
The Black Arts Movement was plagued by excesses and the actions of zealots. Some of its leaders envisioned themselves as enlightened authoritarians, issuing edicts designating what was revolutionary and Black enough and what was not. Black artists and activists were pressured to toe the line of ideological and political orthodoxies or face ostracism. These excesses were destructive and anti-democratic. Alternative Black Nationalists understand that excesses are an unavoidable consequence of revolutions--even cultural revolutions--like China's which occurred at the same time and significantly influenced Black Power leaders. As Chinese leader Mao-Tse Tung famously said in 1968; 'A revolution is not a dinner party.' To Black-Nationalism.com, it matters that the excesses which occurred were not primarily the machinations of ill-intentioned narcissists, opportunists or agent-provocateurs. Black Arts Movement leaders were young inexperienced radicals, who ventured into uncharted waters to lead a revolution against a system that despite its vulnerabilities was not yet ripe for collapse.
Their excesses were the by-product of the seriousness they devoted to the Black Nationalist project. It was also a reaction to the violent and psychological warfare they encountered from the FBI and ruling powers to crush the Black liberation movement.
Thus, we look with distain upon self-righteous melodramatic remarks like that of Henry Louis Gates, who, complained in 1979 that 'The tendency of black criticism toward ideological absolutism, with its attendant Inquisition must come to an end.' The BAM's had its issues with excesses, but in no way was it the moral equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition burning religious heretics at the stake.
Black cultural scholar Houston Baker's observation about the BAM's overzealous nationalistic strivings and dogmatic intellectual tendencies probably represents a more widely held critique of the BAM's demise. Baker said,
'Our stance was nationalistic….and our results were sometimes dreary. The familiar terms were ‘Black Aesthetic,’ ‘Black Power’ ’Nation Time’ and so on. We assumed we were fighting for survival, and we took Malcolm X’s words quite literally: we proceeded ‘by any means necessary.’ The cultural nationalism of the BAM was too concerned with dictating an ideological agenda and establishing a political agenda that it lacked the methodological rigor necessary for serious analysis of black culture.'
As Black Nationalists committed to developing a theory of Black culture, our assessment of the Black Arts Movement is a paramount issue. It's the central reference point of our national existence because as an event, it defined our identity more than any other singular occurrence.
In its aftermath, the Black Arts Movement has assumed the status of a sacred ideological space--a place of return. Black Feminists who maintained the nationalist impulse despite the BAM's sexist practices drew strength and inspiration from it to battle the 'Deconstructionist School' of literary criticism led by Henry Louis Gates, Houston Baker and Hortense Spillers. Hip-Hop journeyed back to its hallowed grounds to re-capture the rhythms and edginess of the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. Today's self-described Black Alternative Movement Afrofuturists are revisiting the interstellar themes of Sun Ra.
So too, Black Nationalism is experiencing a rebirth. It began slowly with Black Lives Matter and picked up steam with the Cooperation Jackson movement, and Trump's election. In these contentious times of American Empire's decline and rising White Nationalism, Black Nationalism is poised to make a big comeback. And once more, the Black Arts Movement will be revisited to discern its deeper meaning.
It's incumbent on Black Nationalists, working with Black scholars to renew the excavation of the Black Arts Movement's sacred grounds. We must unearth every artifact, examine every unturned stone, and exhume every corpus of work to complete its history.
This task assumes greater importance given that most of the BAM's main architects renounced its revolutionary legacy. Amiri Baraka in his autobiography said of the BAM experience; 'It is still my contention that we were revolutionaries, albeit saddled with the weight of nationalism which does not even serve the people.' By 1972, Larry Neal, having abandoned nationalism for the deconstructionist camp said the 'emotional level of rhetoric' in the nationalist critique was no longer viable.
Understandably, some Black Feminist never reconciled the sexist abuses they suffered and held the BAM in low regard. A number of BAM's Black Nationalists became Marxists and Maoists. They rationalized their transformation as an intellectual and revolutionary upgrade from the spontaneous and infantile romanticism of race pride and narrow nationalisms.
As for the Pan Africanists in Karenga's ambit, who basked in the appellation of 'cultural nationalism;' they went on to become disciples of Molefi Asanti's school of Afrocentrism. Chilling in the department chairs of Black and African Studies across the country, they set about the arduous task of publishing books proving Cleopatra was a Black Egyptian queen, and that Aristotle plundered the libraries of Alexandria.
The Nation of Islam (NOI), which exerted significant influence in the Black Arts Movement through the force of Malcolm X's legacy, its anti-imperialists editorial pages, and its Poet's Corner section, splintered. Some followed Louis Farrakhan and his classical rendition of Elijah Muhammad's militant separatist Black capitalism. Other breakaway factions eventually morphed into various reinteractions of the Black Panthers 2.0.
One of the only organizations that advocated for the creation of a Black nation in the Black Belt South was the Detroit-based Republic of New Afrika. While their cultural orientation in the 1960s was Pan-Africanist, their successors in the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and Cooperation Jackson have largely jettisoned their former Pan-Africanist trappings.
Who then is left to safeguard and advance the legacy of the Black Arts Movement? In "A Poem Some Will Just Have to Understand," (1969) an impatient Amiri Baraka wrote,
We awaited the coming of a natural phenomenon,
Mystics and romantics,
Knowledgeable workers of the land.
But none has come.
but none has come.
Will the machine gunners please step forward?'
Time and events will decide if the collapse of American Empire will require the force of arms. In the meantime, Alternative Black Nationalist will take the Hand grenade Poets.