Literature of the Civil Rights Movement

What was the focus of black writers during the Civil Rights Movement?

African-American literature is traditionally polemical and thus indicative of the political and social concerns of black people. This is evident in African-American literature at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, which was characterized as consciousness-raising and self-affirming. Beginning in the 1950s, writings by African Americans increasingly shifted from integrationist literature directed toward a primarily white audience to a literature that was reflective of intra-communal issues and validation of black experiences. Gwendolyn Brooks’ Annie Allen, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun are among the most prominent works of the decade. The works are reflective of the concerns of the Civil Rights Movement. Unlike the naturalistic and social-realist writings of the 1940s, this literature celebrated life in the black community, at times in relation to the white community, but more often not. These works revealed the humanity of black people and thus suggested that the political and social rights of African Americans are an obvious extension of that humanity.

The 1960s marked a decidedly more pronounced shift in the literature. Like literature of the 1950s that focused on interpersonal and intra-communal issues of black people, the 1960s literature emphasized political and social awareness and black pride. The Society of Umbra meetings in 1962-1963 served as precursor to the Black Arts Movement. Black writers Tom Dent, Askia Toure, David Henderson, and Calvin Hernton were among the writers who developed and attended Umbra meetings. At these meetings writers discussed their work, as well as social and political issues. Despite the efforts of the Umbra writers, the assassination of Malcolm X and Amiri Baraka’s establishment of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS) in 1965 are generally considered the beginning of the Blacks Arts Movement. Under the leadership of Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal, black writers sought to promote an aesthetic that was truly reflective of African artistic values and celebrated the lives of black people. Amiri Baraka’s essay “Black Art” and his poem by the same title both provide insight into the radical black aesthetic espoused by the most prominent writers of this period. Larry Neal’s essay, “The Black Arts Movement,” further provides insight into the agenda of writers of this era. The movement largely produced poetry and drama.

Some of the other dominant writers of the period included Sonia Sanchez, Etheridge Knight, Haki Mutabuti (Don Lee), Nikki Giovanni, Ishmael Reed, Alice Childress, Adrienne Kennedy, Ed Bullins, and Douglas Turner Ward. Despite the empowering nature of the black aesthetic promoted by the writers of the Black Arts Movement, the efforts of the writers were marred by concerns of artistry being overshadowed by the didactic nature of the writing and problems of misogyny, vulgarity, violence, and a glamorization of impoverished mind-set and lifestyle. With the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the decline of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Arts Movement ended in the early 1970s.

Among his many important writings, James Baldwin is best remembered for the semi-autobiographical 1953 novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, which examines racism, community, and the role of the Christian Church in the lives of African Americans.


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