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An Introduction to the Black Arts Movement

Showcasing one of the most influential cultural movements of the last 50 years.
LeRoi Jones leading a student protest

The Black Arts Movement began—symbolically, at least—the day after Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. The poet LeRoi Jones (soon to rename himself Amiri Baraka) announced he would leave his integrated life on New York City’s Lower East Side for Harlem. There he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre, home to workshops in poetry, playwriting, music, and painting.

The Black Arts, wrote poet Larry Neal, was “the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept.” As with that burgeoning political movement, the Black Arts Movement emphasized self-determination for Black people, a separate cultural existence for Black people on their own terms, and the beauty and goodness of being Black. Black Arts poets embodied these ideas in a defiantly Black poetic language that drew on Black musical forms, especially jazz; Black vernacular speech; African folklore; and radical experimentation with sound, spelling, and grammar. Black Arts Movement poet and publisher Haki Madhubuti wrote, “And the mission is how do we become a whole people, and how do we begin to essentially tell our narrative, while at the same time move toward a level of success in this country and in the world? And we can do that. I know we can do that.”

The Black Arts Movement was politically militant; Baraka described its goal as “to create an art, a literature that would fight for black people's liberation with as much intensity as Malcolm X our ‘Fire Prophet’ and the rest of the enraged masses who took to the streets.” Drawing on chants, slogans, and rituals of call and response, Black Arts poetry was meant to be politically galvanizing. Because of its politics—as well as what some saw as its potentially homophobic, sexist, and anti-Semitic elements—the Black Arts Movement was one of the most controversial literary movements in US history.

The movement began to wane in the mid-1970s, in tandem with its political counterpart, the Black Power movement. Government surveillance and violence decimated Black Power organizations, but the Black Arts Movement fell prey to internal schism—notably over Baraka’s shift from Black nationalism to Marxism-Leninism—and financial difficulties.

Mainstream theaters and publishing houses embraced a select number of Black Arts Movement poets seen as especially salable to white audiences. When these artists moved on from Black Arts presses and theaters, the revenue from their books and plays went with them. The independent economic support structure the movement had hoped to build for itself was decimated. “During the height of Black Arts activity, each community had a coterie of writers and there were publishing outlets for hundreds, but once the mainstream regained control, Black artists were tokenized,” wrote poet, filmmaker, and teacher Kalamu ya Salaam. Along with the economic recession of the 1970s and philanthropic foundations’ unwillingness to fund arts organizations that advocated radical politics, the cooption of a few Black artists by a white establishment meant the movement was no longer financially viable.

Despite its brief official existence, the movement created enduring institutions dedicated to promoting the work of Black artists, such as Chicago’s Third World Press and Detroit’s Broadside Press, as well as community theaters. It also created space for the Black artists who came afterward, especially rappers, slam poets, and those who explicitly draw on the movement’s legacy. Ishmael Reed, a sometimes opponent of the Black Arts Movement, still noted its importance in a 1995 interview: “I think what Black Arts did was inspire a whole lot of Black people to write. Moreover, there would be no multiculturalism movement without Black Arts. Latinos, Asian Americans, and others all say they began writing as a result of the example of the 1960s. Blacks gave the example that you don't have to assimilate. You could do your own thing, get into your own background, your own history, your own tradition and your own culture.”

This collection brings together poems, podcasts, and essays by or about Black Arts Movement writers. To suggest additions to the collection, please contact us here.

Amiri Baraka
Gwendolyn Brooks
Maya Angelou
Nikki Giovanni
Etheridge Knight
Audre Lorde
Ntozake Shange
Haki R. Madhubuti
Lorenzo Thomas
Quincy Troupe
Sonia Sanchez
Henry Dumas
Jayne Cortez
bell hooks
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