The Black Arts Movement

What was the Black Arts Movement?

The Black Arts Movement had as its goal “to transform the manner in which African Americans were portrayed in literature.” The literature of mainstream American had portrayed them as “criminal, servile, misfit, or dependent.” Some sources call the Black Arts Movement the Black Aesthetic Movement, while others separate the terms. The Black Arts Movement began in the early 1960s, and began to subside in the mid-1970s. It was the first major African-American artistic movement since the Harlem Renaissance. Unlike the Harlem Renaissance in which white Americans played some part in its development, this movement was brought on by the anger of notable African-American writers, including Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright.

This artistic movement was closely paralleled by the civil rights marches and the call for independence being experienced in the African-American community. As phrases like “Black is beautiful” were popularized, African-American writers of this movement consciously set out to define what it meant to be a black writer in white culture. While writers of the Harlem Renaissance seemed to stumble upon their identity within, writers of this movement were serious about defining themselves and their era before being defined by others. Writers of this movement tended to be revolutionaries rather than diplomats—Malcolm X was more of an idol than Martin Luther King Jr. In addition, they believed that artists had more of a responsibility than just art: artists also had to be political activists in order to achieve nationalistic goals.

Writers of this movement include some seen in the Black Aesthetic Movement, such as Ellison and Wright. It also includes Haki R. Madhubuti (Don L. Lee), a poet and essayist who was overwhelmingly popular, selling over 100,000 copies of his books without a national distributor. Ishmael Reed, A. B. Spellman, Nikki Giovanni, and Jayne Cortez are among the poets of the movement—the largest group of artists in the Black Arts Movement.

The period saw the emergence of black publishing houses, such as Third World Press in Detroit and Broadside Press in Chicago. Broadside Press published more than one hundred books and recordings, including the works of over four hundred poets. Black journals emerged as well and included such titles as Black Dialogue, Journal of Black Poetry, and Negro Digest (renamed Black World).

The academic world was impacted by the Black Arts Movement as well, as seen in the Black Studies programs that were developed during this period. The movement saw a change in terminology—the use of “black” rather than “Negro,” and certainly the death of the word “colored” that had been used for many years.


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