Clean out the world for virtue and love,
Let there be no love poems written
until love can exist freely and
I’m unsure how well known the Black Arts Movement is, because it is so controversial, but it is a movement I have learned to truly respect!
I DO NOT agree with all of their views, but I believe this group of artists has produced some of the most powerful poetry I have ever read. A lot of BAM works come from an extremely angry place, and anger is a fierce emotion. Some would say it’s an emotion that does not have a place in poetry, simply because it’s harsh, based on fear, and often considered base, but that doesn’t make BAM poetry any less beautiful to me. It is very honest, and most like confessional poetry.
You can find a decent amount of info about the movement on Wikipedia and much more if you do a little research, but the Black Arts Movement is the artistic side of the Black Power Movement. It came to existence in the 1960’s in the wake of the Malcolm X’s assassination. Amidst a tumultuous atmosphere of political and social unrest, Amiri Baraka began BAM in Harlem, with his seminal poem “Black Art.” It’s an ars poetica that lays the foundation for his ideas and the Black Arts Movement, in general. “Black Art” easily lends itself to being the authoritative text of the movement and serves as a manifesto, as it is undoubtedly, the Black poem—and the blueprint for all Black Art of the movement. It is militant, boisterous, angry, proud, demanding, and no holds-barred. There is cursing, violence, blasphemy against God, poetry, and poet, pure unadulterated hate, and also love. Needless to say, his writing receives a significant amount of negative attention as it is typical of his works to express hateful, racist, classist, sexist, anti-Semitic, anti-establishment, anti-African American, anti-peace until we can all have peace ideas, making his work exclusionary to almost all, except those who agree with his ideas of what it means to be Black.
Yet, when reading this poem, I do believe it’s important to question what it truly means to be Black and what it means to be White. I don’t think he is referring to races at all, but using Black and White as concepts, modes of thinking, and ways of being. BAM may appear as a counter culture, but I do think BAM writers were intent on establishing a new culture with new meanings for the terms Black and White.
Black is typically associated with negativity: darkness, danger, evil, and death. White is typically associated with positivity: goodness, clarity, safety, and life. Baraka completely reverses these meanings in his work and associates White (not the white man), with negativity, and Black to be the innate being of man, a man who fights openly and aggressively for the rights of the marginalized and does not turn a cowardice blind eye to universal struggle. Baraka insists that people should be willing, not to die, but to kill for the independence of all. He takes a “you’re either with us or against us” approach and that extends to all races of people.
The Black Arts Movement was innovative and emerged during a frightening time in American history. While, the violence that is promoted can be quite graphic and overbearing, I think it is representative of what was happening in the 1960s, and I understand Baraka’s intention to rile people up and ready them for battle. Yet, violence is a difficult thing to promote, especially in a culture where violence is associated with being a brute. If one can reach past the violence and see the movement and the material of the movement through a broader lens, it has the capacity and possibility of establishing itself as a national and international movement of the oppressed who are ready to fight and kill for their rights and no longer willing to wait to die or accept someone else’s definition of how they should live.
Also, I think it’s important to note that the violence that is present is rhetorical violence and we see worse on TV nowadays. I think the simple fact that his poems are so difficult to digest is testament to the power of the written word, and that means a lot to me.
And a complete positive of the Black Arts Movement is the widespread change in academic literature that arose after the movement waned in the mid-seventies. American literature was no longer to be dominated by white authors. Not only did African-Americans gain a voice, but Latinos, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, members of the LGBT community and other minority groups who were voiceless.
I don’t agree with violence in any way (except in my writing), or hating people based on race or any other stereotype, but I think the whole movement is interesting. I don’t know what it was like to live during the time of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, I don’t have first-hand experience of blatant racism and constant disrespect, so I cannot judge the reactions of people living during those times, and I won’t. I will say that being a product of your time and representing your life experience in your work is something I admire because it represents a very honest truth.
I grew up (am growing up) in the era of rap & spoken word and both of these art forms remind me of the Black Arts Movement. When you are surrounded by negativity and violence, you shouldn’t have to shut off your experiences to make art, but infuse all of it into your writing in order to tell your story, that deserves to be told. Yes, sometimes it is gratuitous and sometimes it is glorified, but good rappers and good poets paint pictures and tell stories, and I definitely respect that.
BAM writers I enjoy: Amiri Baraka, Mya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Etheridge Knight, Gwendolyn Brooks…
A poem by Etheridge Knight that I Love:
I done shot dope, been to jail, swilled
wine, ripped off sisters, passed bad checks,
changed my name, howled at the moon,
wrote poems, turned
backover flips, flipped over backwards
(in other words)
I been confused, fucked up, scared, phony
to a whole / lot of people…
In one way or another?
Enybody else wanna cop-out?