Black Arts for Liberation

— Cynthia A. Young

The Black Arts Movement:
Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s.
by James Edward Smethurst
Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press,
2005, 471 pages, $24.95 paper.

IT IS RARE to encounter a book that lives up so completely to its far-reaching title as does James Edward Smethurst’s The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Smethurst, an Associate Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has written a tour-de-force that will quickly become the definitive analysis of the sprawling and internally contradictory entity known as the Black Arts movement.

Smethurst wrestles with the various influences and ideas that animated the movement, showing its cultural precursors and its lasting legacy. He does justice to the movement’s heterogeneity by expanding the Black Arts movement’s epicenter beyond New York to other East Coast cities (Washington, Boston), the South (Atlanta, New Orleans), Midwest (Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit) and West (Los Angeles, San Francisco).

Rather than simply asserting that the movement had national reach but then sticking to familiar movement figures, Smethurst navigates through a dizzying array of entities. Cleveland’s Karamu House, the Watts Writers Workshop, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Institute of the Black World, BLKARTSOUTH, Umbra Poets Workshop, Tom Dent, Askia Touré, Ishmael Reed, Calvin Hernton, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Burroughs, and dozens of others appear here, making The Black Arts Movement a nearly exhaustive bibliographic source.

Smethurst’s attention to regional and local specificity bolsters the contention that the Black Arts Movement was truly national in scope, even if its participants did not share a unified aesthetic or ideology.  This important methodological point usefully allows Smethurst to define the Black Arts movement less in terms of its participants’ avowed similarities, and more in terms of their shared tendencies or preoccupations. He writes, “Black Arts poetics could be more accurately described as a series of debates linked to ideological and institutional conflict and conversation than a consistent practice.” (57)

This perspective, gained with historical distance, enables Smethurst to look beyond the public debates, sectarian battles, and in one instance a murderous feud that seemed to divide the movement.

Where much has typically been made of the split between politics and culture, Smethurst argues: “There was a convergence in RAM [Revolutionary Action Movement] — and eventually in the Black Arts movement generally — between essentially political types with an interest in culture…and essentially cultural types with an interest in politics.” (171)

This casts doubt on the accuracy and utility of the “revolutionary nationalist vs. cultural nationalist” framework that has defined so much of Black Arts and Sixties historiography.

Seemingly symbolic matters — what clothes to wear, what names to adopt, what foods to eat, what holidays to celebrate — often reflected significant counter-hegemonic beliefs about the way that Western, in particular U.S. supremacy, might be countered and eventually overthrown. While some may find reason to quibble with this catholic approach, it does justice to the dynamism and diversity of the movement.

Literary Legacies

The book’s national scope also upends the conventional view that the East Coast was the spark igniting copycat movements in other cities; instead, Smethurst contends that the East Coast was an “incubator,” where “black intellectuals, artists and often short-lived institutions in the region prepared the way for the movement.” (107) Arguably, Black Arts production in other cities surpassed that of New York and Newark, Amiri Baraka’s home base, neither of which produced journals or institutions with national reach or longevity.

The influential journal Negro Digest, later Black World, Third World Press, and Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press emerged in the Midwest, what Smethurst describes as the “heart of African American independent publishing.” (179) Providing public venues and a sizeable national audience for Black Arts poets including Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Larry Neal, Baraka and Randall, Midwestern and Western publications have supplied “much of the physical record of Black Arts literature today.”

In fact, Smethurst views Broadside Press’s For Malcolm, a poetic tribute to slain leader Malcolm X, as a more accurate reflection of the national movement than Baraka and Neal’s oft-cited Black Fire.(1) Unlike the latter anthology, For Malcolm recruited poets from around the country and featured Black and white, male and female, young and middle-aged writers, all of whom shared a “militant, nationalist stance.” (223)

Smethurst’s centering a text that defies the conventional wisdom that the Black Arts Movement was young, Black and predominantly male speaks to his larger point, which is that the movement’s eclecticism defied its own ideological pronouncements.

The Movement’s Antecedents

Smethurst’s other notable achievement lies in framing the Black Arts movement in the context of both New American Poetry and the Popular Front that proceeded it. While describing Black Arts poetry’s relation to New American Poetry is not unique to Smethurst — Lorenzo Thomas and Aldon Nielson have both plowed that ground — he does delineate common characteristics: looking to Walt Whitman and popular culture as sources of inspiration, the use of an intensely personal voice, a focus on labor, and attention to race and ethnicity.(2)

These commonalities demonstrate the fact that Black poets such as Amini Baraka and Ted Joans — to say nothing of Asian American, Puerto Rican and Chicano/a poets — were integral parts, rather than marginal members, of the New American Poetry movement. More original, however, is Smethurst’s linking of the Black Arts movement to the Popular Front era. This should come as no surprise to those familiar with his first book The New Red Negro, which focused on the cultural left’s influence on Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown and other interwar Black poets.(3)

Rethinking the Cold War era, Smethurst shows how decolonization, a burgeoning civil rights movement and vibrant, sometimes underground, networks sustained radical culture in the midst of McCarthyism.

New York’s Lower East Side sheltered Black and white bohemians, some members of the Communist Left, who provided early support and funding for such groups as the Umbra Poets Workshop. Old Leftists Margaret and Charles Burroughs, founders of the DuSable Museum of Afro-American History, mentored Haki Madhubuti, spurring him to found Third World Press and creating an inter-generational, “Old Left-new black dialogue” (198) that shaped Black Arts in Chicago and elsewhere.

In its emphasis on folk culture, interest in race, ethnicity, place and its relation to identity, as well as the mixing of high and low culture, Smethurst sees evidence of this dialogue. Identifying the Popular Front trace in the Black Arts, The Black Arts Movement joins other recent work exploring the complex and often successful negotiations undertaken by radical artists in the postwar period.(4)

Popular Cultural Vanguard

Having established the movement’s antecedents, Smethurst persuasively catalogs Black Arts’ lasting legacy. Chief among them is the model of the “popular avant-garde,” which is rooted in both Black folk culture and popular culture,  both experimental and hybrid. It is the “transmutation of ‘folk’ elements into a new ‘high’ culture” (59) that is alternative and accessible.

Black Arts figures Ed Bullins and Kalamu ya Salaam created a “relatively large audience for black avant-garde art, giving that audience new benchmarks by which this art could be understood, evaluated, and appreciated.” (73)

Elsewhere, Madhubuti and Maulana Karenga disparaged Black popular culture, preferring to embrace a model of the “alternative avant-garde” that deliberately incorporated “high culture.” Both models foreground the relationship between the community and the individual artist; they reconceptualize the role and function of art and artists.

That raises Smethurst’s most subtle, yet important, point: namely, that the Black Arts movement was profoundly theory driven. Rather than the product of eccentric personalities and spectacular stunts, the movement was shaped by dialogue and debate about poetics, aesthetics, political empowerment and social justice. Definitions of blackness, as well as other identity categories, were far from rigid or settled; they were the starting point for rich conversations that could only be read as dogma if you weren’t paying close enough attention.

Male Supremacy

This, it turns out, is also one useful way to grapple with the Black Arts movement’s spotty record on gender and sexuality. Understandably, the movement has been blasted for homophobia and misogyny, but Smethurst disputes the view that the Black Arts and Black Power movements were only characterized by “misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and eschewal of practical politics for the pathologically symbolic,” contending that passionate debates about gender and sexuality constituted the ground upon which the Black Arts movement cohered. (4)

He also astutely turns the question around: “To say that the Black Arts movement as a whole was particularly male supremacist and particularly homophobic, as opposed to say, the abstract expressionist painters, the early high modernists, or the bohemian arts community of the Lower East Side in the 1950s and 1960s, is in fact problematic.” (86)

Women like Jayne Cortez, Barbara Ann Teer, and Toni Cade Bambara consistently raised the issue of male supremacy, vocally critiquing gender relations at a time where women in many other spaces could not. While Smethurst is right to point out the typicality of the movement’s misogyny and homophobia, his discussion downplays the hyper-masculine posturing that characterized some Black Arts figures — Karenga and Baraka come to mind here — and thus fails to consider the intricate articulation between male posturing and Black Arts theory.  He passes up the opportunity to consider how male supremacy gendered that theory, shaping conceptions of art, community, aesthetics, and the avant-garde.

Though female participants in the movement have done some of this work — Bambara’s grounding anthology The Black Woman is one notable example — we still await a comprehensive history of gender and the Black Arts movement, one that explores the intellectual and artistic consequences of this phallocentric and heterosexist norm.(5)

If Smethurst does not provide this, we can hardly hold that against him, particularly when The Black Arts Movement covers so much ground so very well.

After taking us on his nationwide tour of the Black Arts, Smethurst concludes by reminding us of the fact that whatever its flaws, the movement left a deep imprint. Not only did it change the public conversation about high and low culture, and help increase public funding for the arts, but it also left a generation of writers and artists who are still very much with us.

Weighing this legacy, Smethurst concludes a touch hyperbolically that the Black Arts movement was “arguably the most influential cultural movement the United States has ever seen.” (373) After immersing yourself in this persuasive and comprehensive book, you might not dispute the point.

Notes

  1. Dudley Randall and Margaret Taylor Burroughs, For Malcolm; Poems on the Life and the Death of Malcolm X, 2d ed. (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1969); Imamu Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal, Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing (New York: William Morrow, 1969).
    back to text
  2. Lorenzo Thomas, Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry, 1st ed. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000); Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Black Chant : Languages of African-American Postmodernism, Vol. 105 (Cambridge, U.K., New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 288.
    back to text
  3. James Edward Smethurst, The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
    back to text
  4. See for example Penny M. Von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 2004); Rebecca Welch, “Black Art and Activism in Postwar New York, 1950-1965” (Ph.D., New York University); Daniel Widener, “Something Else: Creative Community and Black Liberation in Postwar Los Angeles (California)” (Ph.D., New York University).
    back to text
  5. See Toni Cade Bambara, The Black Woman: An Anthology (New York: Penguin, 1970). Cheryl Clarke has also done some of this work in “After Mecca:” Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005). See in particular the chapter entitled “Queen Sistuh: Black Women Poets and the Circle(s) of Blackness.
    back to text

Bibliography

Bambara, Toni Cade. The Black Woman: An Anthology. New York: Penguin, 1970.

Baraka, Imamu Amiri, and Larry Neal. Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing. Apollo Editions. Vol. A-220. New York: Wm. Morrow, 1969.

Clarke, Cheryl. “After Mecca”: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005.

Nielsen, Aldon Lynn. Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism. Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture. Vol. 105. Cambridge, U.K., New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Randall, Dudley, and Margaret Taylor Burroughs. For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and the Death of Malcolm X. Broadside Poets. 2d ed. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1969.

Smethurst, James Edward. The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Thomas, Lorenzo. Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth- Century American Poetry. 1st ed. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000.

Von Eschen, Penny M. Satchmo Blows Up the World : Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Welch, Rebecca. “Black Art and Activism in Postwar New York, 1950-1965.” Ph.D., New York University, 2002.

Widener, Daniel. “Something Else: Creative Community and Black Liberation in Postwar Los Angeles (California).” Ph.D., New York University, 2003.

ATC 126, January-February 2007