There have been two major Black literary movements in American history: The Harlem Renaissance
and The Black Arts Movement
. The first, The Harlem Renaissance, occurred in the 1920s with most scholars agreeing it began with Claude McKay’s
notable poem, “If we must Die.” McKay wrote the poem in response to mass lynching’s and the mob murders of Blacks during the summer of 1919. During the era, W.E. B Dubois
and other scholars gathered together in an effort to bring together the most talented Black writers in America.
The Black Arts Movement, BAM, was also birthed out of societal unrest; Malcolm X’s death is credited with being the catalyst of America’s second Black literary movement (Smethurst 8). A single event alone is seldom responsible for change; there is no one specific event that one can attribute the origin of Blacks Arts Movement due to its many inputs of different thoughts, political influences, and purposes. However, the founders of BAM did look to previous literary movements for guidance and structure.
Both the Harlem Renaissance and the Negritude Movement of West Africa played major roles in the origin and development of the Black Arts Movement, and guided BAM’s attack on what W.E.B. Du Bois labeled “Double Consciousness.” Amiri Baraka, a BAM founder, wrote:
We felt (and I still do feel) that Afro American people were and are still involved in a war. A war for Self Determination, Self Respect and Self Defense. It is a war for equal rights and democracy. But how can we press this struggle to victory if we suffer form a Double consciousness (Bracey et. al 17).
Much like the Harlem Renaissance and American racism, Negritude writers were gathered to make a change in their environment in response to European colonialism; both movements occurred due to societal oppression; however, instead of other writers gathering the African writers, they were called together by a journal, “L’Etudiant noire.” Aimé Césaire’s poem for the journal is actually credited with giving the movement its name, “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, declaring “my negritude is not a stone, its deafness hurled against the clamor of the day” but instead, his negritude “takes root in the ardent flesh of the soil” (qtd. in “Negritude Movement” par. 2). Three founding members of the BAM referenced the Negritude Movement in their instillation of the Black Nationalism that was so characteristic of the Black Arts Movement: Amiri Baraka, Maulana Karenga, and Larry Neal.
Amiri Baraka, although critical of Negritude’s French origins, drew the principles of: self-affirmation and self-knowledge from Negritude. Césaire defined Negritude as “the awareness of being black, the simple acknowledgement of a fact which implies acceptance of it, a taking charge of one’s destiny as a black man, of one’s history and culture” (Baraka par. 4). These principles and thoughts served as a source of fodder for Baraka’s Black Nationalism. Baraka wanted to change Black American culture from Western centered to African (Swahili) centered. He wanted Black Americans to think of themselves culturally as Africans not Europeans – with a European center they would never view themselves as equals; they would only see themselves as White Americans saw them. Baraka:
Fundamentally we must pursue what Du Bois called True Self Consciousness and defeat its reverse the Double Consciousness. The Black Arts Movement raised this antagonistic contradiction once again, as part of the cultural revolution still necessary to raise and unite the consciousness of the oppressed Afro American people, so that they better understand themselves as well as better resist their enemies. (Bracey et. al 17)
The American aesthetic was designed with European nationalism in mind with the European on top; Baraka believed that Black Americans needed a new aesthetic.
Mualana Karenga, another principle of BAM, was also greatly influenced by Negritude writers and African political leaders. Karenga preferred the African socialism presented in the work Loepold Senghor, “On African Socialism,” to the socialism of Karl Marx. Karenga saw nation builders like “Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Sekou Toure, and Leopold Senghor, intellectuals who had arisen as heads of state in the blossoming African postcolonial period of the late 1950s and early 1960s” as role models (Brown 12). He wanted to re-Africanize Black Americans into African culture; this change required new thought and separation from European culture. Karenga believed acceptance of one’s African culture and one’s African-self developed a powerful Black American image, and his belief added to the Black Nationalism of BAM. Karenga labeled this process Kawaida which, “was the basis of what became known as Cultural Nationalism” (Salaam 49). This since of belonging to something other than oppressive America was a key component in the re-Africanization of Black Americans. Much like the Africans in West Africa who were rejecting colonialism, Karenga hoped that through Kawaida Black Americans would fight against American oppression and racism by turning away from the American dream and embracing their African ancestry (Brown 12-14). Karenga wanted to eliminate the European from Black American’s center gaze, removing White America from the subject position, and placing Black Americans as the subject and looking at themselves through their own view. The Kawaida process was fighting against Du Bois’s double consciousness. BAM writers wanted Black Americans to be as just ignited as the Senegalese, Ghanaians, and Tanzanians for independence and freedom from oppression. BAM theorist and writers witnessed the revolt against and rejection of colonialism in West Africa, and they understood Negritude to be “Emerging at the cusp of African independence movements, Negritude made an impact on how the colonized viewed themselves.” (“Negritude Movement” par. 3) Karenga, Baraka, and Neal believed that Black people had to view themselves differently, and they believed the message of seeing oneself different (more African as opposed to American) could be passed on in art; again, attacking double consciousness.
Larry Neal’s embrace of Negritude was more thought based than physical; where Baraka and Karenga sought an internalization of African culture by Black Americans to move them toward a different (African / Blacker) self-image, Neal sought a healing of the double consciousness that Black Americans suffered from. Neal believed that Black people viewing themselves as white people viewed them destroyed their self-image; he wasn’t in agreement that an African image was the answer, but he was certain that a Black person having a white person’s view of self was problematic; he theorized that the tension of having a double consciousness was driving Black Americans to violence. Neal believed that there was enough culture in the existing African American lifestyle to be proud of and to establish a positive self-image:
In some cases, the tension resolves in recognizing the beauty and love within Black America itself. No, not a new “Negritude,” but a profound sense of a unique and beautiful culture; and a sense that there are many spiritual areas to explore within this culture. (Napier 74).
Neal recognized the value of Negritude when it assisted with resolving the Black American double consciousness.
Neal’s concern for revolution was based on Western civilization coming to an end. He felt that morally the West could no longer exist; it was exhausted humanitarianly and culturally due to executing so many wrongs against non-white nations and people of color. Neal:
The white world-the West- is seen now as a dying creature, totally bereft of spirituality. This being the case, the only hope is for some kind of psychic withdrawal from its values and assumption. Not just America, but most of the noncolored world had been in the process of destroying the spiritual roots of mankind, while not substituting anything meaningful for this destruction. (Neal 16)
Neal argued that black people had no choice but turn away from Western ideals or be destroyed by the double consciousness that resulted from the acceptance of those ideals; i.e. white supremacy. For Neal, the revolution would start in the minds of Black Americans. Like W.E.B. Du Bois, Neal saw malady in:
this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness-an American, a Negro-two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife-this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double-self into a better truer self… (qtd. in Neal 9) Neal saw the revolution occurring in the mind of the individual first, he believed as George Clinton from the funk band – Funkadellic, “Free the mind and the ass will follow.” Once one’s thinking is changed behavior changes. Once the mass becomes aware (acknowledges the sickness of double consciousness) then one’s enemy could be recognized and acted upon, but as long as Western ideals were pursued there would be no revolution:
But first, we must liberate ourselves, destroy the double consciousness. We must integrate with ourselves, understand that we have within us a great vision, revolutionary and spiritual in nature, understanding that the west is dying and offers little promise of rebirth. (Neal 21).
There would have been no Black Arts Movement without The Harlem Renaissance and The African Negritude Movement. The need for an accurate seeing of self was not a new concept (Martin Delaney, Du Bois and Marcus Garvey included it in their tenants for Black Nationalism). However, BAM theorist and writers wanted the message that Black was beautiful to be heard, the message that Black was not less than white, the message that equality was not based on skin color. BAM writers wrote to bring about a change within Black people, to change how they thought about self. “The value of black literature is to be located in its capacity to nurture positive self-images…” (Napier 1). It was believed that once the Black populous saw beauty in self, they would no longer accept the injustice of American society and revolution would follow; this was the political environment of BAM. The community of writers wanted the populous of Black people to think differently to move away from the programed thinking of white supremacy – to see the beauty in their Black culture – to see the injustice they survived – to want revolution; Baraka, “We wanted an art that was revolutionary. We wanted a Malcolm art, a by-any-means-necessary poetry. A Ballot or Bullet verse. We wanted ultimately, to create a poetry, a literature, a dance, a theatre, a painting, that would bring revolution!” (Bracey et al. 17).
The strong Black Nationalist message that was passed on in the writings, music, paintings, and plays of BAM helped the Black populous to see the beauty and value of self. “Black is beautiful” was the agreed upon message of Black Nationalism. It was through this messaging that double consciousness was attacked changing the status quo white supremacist belief with a message of Black pride. From the essay, “The Black writer and his role,” Carolyn F. Gerald writes:
Those associations with black and white have conditioned us to accept white as the symbol of goodness and purity; black as the symbol of evil and impurity… Thus, the negative reflection of ourselves is, in the white man’s system, the reverse side of his positive projection of himself. The white man has developed a myth of superiority based on images which compare him symbolically with the black man… Our work at this stage is clearly to destroy the zero and the negative image-myths of ourselves by turning them inside out. To do this, we reverse the symbolism, and we use that reverse symbolism as the tool for projecting our own image upon the universe. (Napier 85)
To understand the pride that surged through BAM, a reader has to understand what the leading theorist of BAM understood – that Black pride existed when Black people saw themselves through their own eyes. For this to happen, the double consciousness that resulted from white supremacist thought had to be attacked – the writers and theorist of BAM were aware of this. “Virtually all the dominate forms of nationalism during the 1960s and 1970s supported the idea of a fundamental transformation of existing social order as a cornerstone of Black liberation…” (Bracey et al. 5). The message of pride would lead to the transformation of white supremacist thinking; this was a uniting factor between BAM theorist and writers.
BAM artist drew from the two major Black literary movements: the Harlem Renaissance and the Negritude Movement. The purpose and principles were garnered from both yielding the Black aesthetic of BAM. The Harlem Renaissance clearly identified the problem of the double consciousness, and the Negritude Movement provided the guided principles to target the attack. The origins and contributors of the BAM are many, and just as varied are the characteristics for Black Nationalism:
Some envisioned a socialist society run on Marxist-Leninist principles. Others imagined communal societies rooted in a vision of African traditional culture. Still others promoted a notion of Black entrepreneurship or Black capitalism. Some insisted that a large, unified state would be necessary to ensure Black independence and national development. Others saw a linked federation of city-states as the natural territory of the Black community in the second half of the twentieth century. (Bracey et al. 5)
However, the unifying task of aborting the white supremacist thought from the mass consciousness of the Black community remained constant. All the different ideologies of Black Nationalism shared in this task; they all sought to free the minds of Black people. Liberating Black minds from the damaging double consciousness was a shared action among the theorist, writers, painters, dancers, and musicians of the Black Arts Movement. The writers and theorist of the Black Arts Movement were united in their attack on the double consciousness that plagued Black Americans.
Bracey, John, H. Sonia Sanchez and James Smethurst, editors. SOS-Calling All Black People – A Black Arts Movement Reader. University of Massachusetts Press. 2014.
Brown, Scot. Fighting for Us. New York University Press. 2003
Clinton, George. “Free Your…” Westbound Records. 1979.
Napier, Winston, editor. African American Literary Theory – A Reader. New York University Press. 2000
Neal, Larry. Visions of a Liberated Future: Black Arts Movement Writings. Basic Books. 1993
“Negritude Movement.” BlackPast.org. n.d. http://www.blackpast.org/gah/negritude-movement.
Salaam, Kalamu Ya. The Magic of JuJu: an Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement. Third World Press. 2016.
Smethurst, James, E. The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s. The University of North Carolina Press. 2005.
The Black Arts Movement (BAM) by Kalamu ya Salaam