African American Literature


African American Literature

Motivated by politics, a group of African-American authors became known as the Black Arts Movement.  Preeminent in this movement was the poet Imamu Amiri Baraka.  The movement stemmed from the strife following the assassination of Malcom X in 1965, and then the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.  Those involved in the changes spreading across America, known as Black Nationalism or the Black Power Movement, broke into two primary branches–Revolutionary Nationalists, which included such groups as the Black Panther Party, and Cultural Nationalists, which includes the Black Arts Movement.

The expression of the Black Power Movement was evident in several ways: changes in clothing styles (dashikis, for example) adopted among several black groups, more vocal involvement in politics, and more outspoken tones in and topics of writing, speeches, and the plastic arts (sculpture and painting).

Though the Black Arts Movement began in Harlem, it quickly spread to many cities around the country.  Numerous African-American magazines, publishing houses, and journals flourished during this time, such as Negro Digest, Black World, Third World Press, The Black Scholar, and Lotus Press, among others. Poetry was the predominant form of writing within this movement, but not exclusively–short stories, drama, essay, plays, and music were also key to the content of this era.

The Black Arts Movement was not without controversy.  The content of its works is often cited as homophobic, exclusive, misogynistic, and anti-Semitic in favor of black identity.

The Black Arts Movement’s influence began to fade as the result of an unlikely source–success.  As members such as James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Nikki Giovanni, among others, became popular and even wealthy as the result of the works they also became mainstream, which was an unforeseen consequence counter to the basis of the movement itself.

Recovering the History of African Americans

Attempts to recover and recognize the history of African Americans was part of the Black Power Movement. This is seen in African Americans who changed their birth names to African names. Born as Leroi Jones, Amiri Baraka, for example, changed his name in 1964. Stokely Carmichael became Kwame Ture. In Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use,” Dee returns home with the name Wangero.

Attitudes and actions that before the 1960s might have been kept private became more overt, which is evident in the essays defining the Black Arts Movement. Richard Wright’s comments about African-American writers in his 1937 essay “Blueprint for Negro Writing” were no longer true. In that essay, Wright discussed black writers who “dressed in the knee-pants of servility” as they went “abegging to white America” for approval. He notes, “Negro writing was something external to the lives of educated Negroes themselves.”

Instead, the arts in the 1960s were more aligned with what Du Bois wrote in 1926, when he called for black literature that would be “for us, by us, about us, and near us.” The black writers discussed in these learning materials created a literature that was explicitly “for us, by us, about us.” Similar to the voices heard in the early twentieth century, black American writers of the Black Arts Movement sought to recover African-American history, expressed their ties to Africa and their ancestors, urged African Americans to respect themselves, and encouraged unity among the race in seeking equality. By considering the statements by Wright and Du Bois together, a reader can define the spirit of the Black Arts Movement, the literary expression of the Black Power Movement. It was the “about us” phrase to which black writers of the 1960s responded, for many of them wrote literature that was strikingly different from their predecessors’ work in its outspokenness.

Identity and Self-Worth

The belief that an individual sense of identity and self-worth must accompany any social reform is, one could posit, the backbone of the Black Arts Movement. Although attacks on white power meant that whites had a psychic and emotional hold or control over blacks, white power had control, so to speak, in determining what was aesthetically good or right or beautiful. By acknowledging white power, black attention from the race’s own inner strength was deflected. Protest literature of the 1960s pointed out the structures of oppression, methods of controlling African Americans.

Confidence, Awareness, and Power

Perhaps boosted by the progress—albeit limited—made through Civil Rights movements of the 1950s, many African Americans became more confident in and aware of the power they wielded. They developed a more vigorous and outspoken urgent tone in claiming their own in the United States. The Black Power Movement developed, in part, from the dissension and anger many African Americans felt.

Black literature became the vehicle through which dissent of current conditions was voiced. As Du Bois had written in an editorial in Crisis in 1926, “I do not care a damn for any art that is not propaganda.” To Du Bois and to the writers of the Black Arts Movement, art—writing, sculpture, even clothing—should be used to educate African Americans. Art was not to be created for its own sake. Instead, it should be for and about blacks in raising their consciousness about their African ancestry, not about the European tastes that surrounded them in the United States. Ties to Africa (their spiritual home), an awareness of their history, their current political situation, and the acknowledgement of a black aesthetic were promoted and encouraged.

Please answer both questions:

1. As the above commentary states, the black writers discussed in these learning materials created literature that was explicitly “for us, by us, about us.” After reading the poetry of Baraka and Giovanni, discuss the overt style, subjects, and theme (s) exemplified in their poetry.

2. Alice Walker is generally not included in The Black Arts Movement period in literature, yet her short story “Everyday Use” was published in 1970. With this in mind, discuss the ways Walker reflects the concerns or issues of the BAM in her story and why is it important to note this representation?

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