Amiri Baraka (the name LeRoi Jones taken for himself) was the founder of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), a group of politically-oriented artists, poets, playwrights, musicians, novelists, and essayists active in the mid-1960s to the late 1970s. Baraka’s poem “Black Art” became a de facto manifesto with lines such as “We want a black poem. And / a Black World. / Let the world be a Black Poem.”
The assassination of Malcolm X in February of 1965 was an important moment for radical black activists. Some joined the Black Panther Party, while others gravitated toward creative expression. The goal was for black people to create art for black people to help raise consciousness and achieve liberation. In a 1968 essay, "The Black Arts Movement," Larry Neal said the Black Arts Movement was the "aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept." In 1969, Baraka explained “nationalist art”: “The Art is the National Spirit. That manifestation of it. Black Art must be the Nationalist's vision given more form and feeling, as a razor to cut away what is not central to National Liberation. To show that which is. As a humanistic expression it is itself raised. And these are the poles, out of which we create, to raise, or as raised.”
The moment that the BAM began is usually pinpointed as Baraka opening the Arts Repertory Theater in Harlem not long after Malcolm X’s death. The works it produced traveled to Chicago, Detroit, and San Francisco. Baraka’s Dutchman was one of the most shocking and influential works to come out of the Black Arts Movement.
Negro Digest (later Black World) published the work of emerging black writers, and Third World Press was similarly committed to publishing black poets and writers. The Black Scholar was the first scholarly journal to focus on black studies. Other publications included Freedomways, The Liberator, and Black Dialogue. Britannica notes that the literature of the Movement was “generally written in black English vernacular and confrontational in tone, addressed such issues as interracial tension, sociopolitical awareness, and the relevance of African history and culture to blacks in the United States.”
The most impactful publication was Negro Digest/Black World. The Oxford Companion to African American Literature explains, “…it was sold on newsstands nationwide. Originally patterned on Reader’s Digest, Negro Digest changed its name to Black World in 1970, indicative of [Hoyt] Fuller’s view that the magazine ought to be a voice for Black people everywhere. The name change also reflected the widespread rejection of ‘Negro’ and the adoption of ‘Black’ as the designation of choice for people of African descent and to indicate identification with both the diaspora and Africa. The legitimation of ‘Black’ and ‘African’ is another enduring legacy of the Black Arts movement. Negro Digest / Black World published both a high volume and an impressive range of poetry, fiction, criticism, drama, reviews, reportage, and theoretical articles. A consistent highlight was Fuller's perceptive column Perspectives (‘Notes on books, writers, artists and the arts’) which informed readers of new publications, upcoming cultural events and conferences, and also provided succinct coverage of major literary developments. Fuller produced annual poetry, drama, and fiction issues, sponsored literary contests, and gave out literary awards. Fuller published a variety of viewpoints but always insisted on editorial excellence and thus made Negro Digest / Black World a first-rate literary publication.”
With regard to music, jazz musicians such as John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Archie Shepp collaborated with the Cultural Nationalists. Scholars see some of the music produced during the BAM as paving the way for hip-hop.
Though significant cultural expressions that gave utterance to African Americans’ rage, frustration, and zeal to bring about change, some of the works in the Black Arts Movement were/are controversial or problematic. Hannah Foster explains, “[these works] also often alienated both black and white mainstream culture with their raw shock value which often embraced violence. Some of the most prominent works were also seen as racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and sexist. Many works put forth a black hyper masculinity in response to historical humiliation and degradation of African American men but usually at the expense of some black female voices.” Women were a prominent part of the movement despite the behavior of some black members. Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, and Ntozake Shange achieved lasting fame.
The Black Arts Movement started to fade with some leading members’ shifting to Marxism, as well as the larger acceptance by a white mainstream audience in the mid-1970s.
Of the BAM's legacy, The Oxford Companion to African American Literature says, “In addition to advocating political engagement and independent publishing, the Black Arts movement was innovative in its use of language. Speech (particularly, but not exclusively, Black English), music, and performance were major elements of Black Arts literature. Black Arts aesthetics emphasized orality, which includes the ritual use of call and response both within the body of the work itself as well as between artist and audience. This same orientation is apparent in rap music and 1990s ‘performance poetry’ (e.g., Nuyorican Poets and poetry slams). While right-wing trends attempt to push America's cultural clock back to the 1950s, Black Arts continues to evidence resiliency in the Black community and among other marginalized sectors. When people encounter the Black Arts movement, they are delighted and inspired by the most audacious, prolific, and socially engaged literary movement in America's history.”