A Brief Guide to the Black Arts Movement
TypeSchools & Movements
"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, Black Arts is usually dated from approximately 1960 to 1970. African American artists within the movement sought to create politically engaged work that explored the African American cultural and historical experience.
One of the most important figures in the Black Arts Movement is Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones). 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."
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 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), and Furious Flower: African American Poetry from the Black Arts Movement to the Present (University of Virginia Press, 2004).
Poets in the Black Arts Movement include Baraka, 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.