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Poetry of the Black Arts Movement

The Black Arts Movement (BAM) was a period of growth in the arts by African-Americans in the 1960s and 70s. Poetry saw tremendous growth during this period, and this guide is dedicated to compiling information about the poets of BAM and their works.

Beginning

The Black Arts Movement was spurned by the assassination of Black Nationalist Leader Malcolm X in 1965. Poet and soon-to-be BAM leader Larry Neal witnessed the assassination. This event affected many members of the African-American community deeply, and especially resonated with those that followed the ideology of Black Nationalism. Soon after the assassination, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) made a symbolic move from Manhattan's Lower East Side to Harlem, which had been a cultural center for African Americans since the 1920s. In Harlem, Baraka founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre. This act is seen as marking the beginning of the Black Arts Movement.

Messages

  • The Black Aesthetic
    • The Black Aesthetic is a cultural ideology that developed during the Black Arts Movement. It promoted a connection with Black cultural traditions, Black separatism within the arts, and the creation of arts based on the Black experience.
  • Black Nationalism
    • Black Nationalism is the political and social thought of African Americans seeking political, economic, and cultural autonomy in American society. Amiri Baraka, the founder of the Black Arts Movement, was a known Black Nationalist during the movement, and those ideas permeated the growth of the movement. Black separatism was a large aspect of Black Nationalism and its influence on the movement was echoed in that ideal being a large part of the Black Aesthetic.

Criticisms

The Black Arts Movement was often criticized as being misogynistic, anti-Semitic, homophobic, and racially exclusive. Many of these criticisms were not necessarily undeserved. The movement was largely lead by men, and those men often produced art focusing on Black masculinity. However, the works produced by Black women during the Black Arts Movement seldom featured misogyny, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. In fact, much of the art by women artists was just the opposite. Their works were often fueled by ideals of Africana womanism, feminism, and in some cases, homosexual pride. They often wrote about their experiences with sexism, misogynoir, motherhood, and homosexuality, all while still incorporating ideals of Black Power and Black Nationalism. Unfortunately, these works were too often overshadowed by the works by male leaders of the Black Arts Movement.

Decline

The Black Arts began to fade in the mid-1970s, around the same time that the Black Power movement started its decline. One of the reasons for the end of the Black Arts Movement was a political switch from nationalism to Marxism made by Amiri Baraka and several other BAM leaders.  An organization led by Baraka, the Congress of Afrikan People, officially transitioned from a "Pan Afrikan Nationalist" organization to a "Marxist-Leninist" one in 1974. Many artists of the Black Arts Movement did not agree with Marxist ideals, and this switch caused a separation that weakened the movement.

The Black Arts Movement was also co-opted by Corporate America, another reason for its decline. As mainstream America began to accept some of the art of BAM, major film, record, book, and magazine publishers made efforts to capitalize on the most salable artists. Once a few Black artists were selected by Corporate America, their work was tokenized, and the profitable financial offers made by major publishers could not be matched by smaller Black-owned publishing companies that had flourished during the height of the Movement. These smaller publishers started to fail as more and more Black artists went looking for more profits. The Black Arts Movement never recovered from the economic strain that occurred.