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 (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Black Panther Party 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 Generation.
One of the most important figures in the Black Arts Movement was Amiri Baraka (formerly, LeRoi Jones), who began his career among the Beats, 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 (The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1969) is one of the finest products of the African American creative energies of the 1960s.” Baraka also became known for his play Dutchman, a shocking one-act that was charged with symbolism and a radical Black consciousness.
Other significant figures from the Black Arts Movement include Gwendolyn Brooks, Jayne Cortez, Mari Evans, critic Hoyt W. Fuller, Nikki Giovanni, playwrights Lorraine Hansberry and Adrienne Kennedy, Gil-Scott Heron, Kwanzaa founder Maulana Ron Karenga, Etheridge Knight, Haki R. Madhubuti, Ishmael Reed, Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange, and Quincy Troupe.
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, many other writers—including those of Indigenous and Latin descent, members of the LGBTQ community, and younger generations of African Americans—have acknowledged their debt to the Black Arts Movement.
Related works on the movement 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).