Documents from the Black Arts Movement
"On Black Art"
by Ron Karenga
Black Art must be for the people, by the people and from the people. That
is to say, it must be functional, collective
Soul is extra-scientific, that is to say, outside of science; therefore we will allow no scientific disproof of it.
All that we do and create is based on tradition and reason, that is to say, foundation and movement. We began to
build on a traditional [sic], but it is out of movement that we complete our creation.
Art for art's sake is an invalid concept, all art reflects the value system from which it comes.
We say inspiration is the real basis of education. In a word, images inspire us, academic assertions bore us.
Our art is both form and feeling but more feeling than form.
Our creative motif must be revolution; all art that does not discuss or contribute to revolutionary change is invalid.
That is [...] why the "blues" are invalid, they teach resignation, in a word, acceptance of reality--and we have come
to change reality.
There is no better subject for Black artists than Black people, and the Black artist who doesn't choose and develop
his subject will find himself unproductive.
All art is collective and reflects the values of the people. Therefore what makes us able to identify an artist's work
is not individuality, but personality, which is an expression of the different personal experiences of the artist within
the Black framework.
Suppose Ray Charles had to sing Beethoven or Bach's Carols, or Miles Davis had to play in the Philharmonic; it
wouldn't go off at all. That's why we have to have a pattern of development that is suited to our own needs.
The truth is that which needs to be told, and true creation is that which needs to be created and what we need to
create is Black images which speak to and inspire Black people.
We need a new language to break the linguistic straight [sic] jacket of our masters, who taught us his language so
he could understand us, although we could hardly understand ourselves.
In terms of history, all we need at this point is heroic images; white people have enough dates for everybody.
All education and creation is invalid unless it can benefit the maximum amount of Blacks.
Art is an expression of soul and creativity, sensitivity, and impulse is the basis.
Sensitivity, creativity and impulse are abstract to those who don't have them. There is no art in the world you
should have to go to school to appreciate.
Borrowing does not mean you become what others are. What is important here is the choice of what one borrows
and how he shapes it in his own images. Whites are no less white by borrowing from Black and vice versa.
There is no such thing as art for art's sake. If that's so, why don't you lock yourself up somewhere and paint or
write and keep it only to yourself.
The white boy's classical music is static. He values the form rather than the soul force behind the creation. That is
why he still plays tunes written two or three hundred years ago.
All art should be the product of a creative need and desire in terms of Black people.
In Africa you won't find artists of great name because art is done by all for all.
There is no premium on art in Africa just as there is no premium on dancing in the ghetto. All Blacks can dance.
In African art, the object was not as important as the soul force behind the creation of the object.
All art must be revolutionary and in being revolutionary it must be collective, committing, and functional.
Whites can imitate or copy soul, but they can't create out of that context.
All nationalists believe in creativity as opposed to destruction and a nationalist must create for the Black nation.
Black art initiates, supports and promotes change. It refuses to accept values laid down by dead white men. It sets
its own values and re-enforces them with hard and/or soft words and sounds.
All art consciously or unconsciously represents and promotes the values of its culture.
Language and imagery must come from the peopl and be returned to the people in a beautiful language which
everybody can easily understand.
Soul is a combination of sensitivity, creativity and impulse. It is feeling and form, body and soul, rhythm and
movement, in a word, the essence of Blackness.
Muddy Waters and those in the same school are very deep, and so when bourgeois Negroes say that Muddy
Waters is too deep for them, they are saying, in a word, that Muddy Waters is more down to earth.
Reprinted from Black Theater 3, pp. 9-10.
Online Source: http://www.umich.edu/~eng499/documents/karenga1.html
"The Revolutionary Theatre"
by Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones)
This essay was originally commissioned by the New York Times in December 1964, but was refused, with the statement that the editors could not understand it. The Village Voice also refused to run this essay. It was first published in Black Dialogue. --LeRoi Jones
The Revolutionary Theatre should force change, it should be change. (All their faces turned into the lights and you work on them black nigger magic, and cleanse them at having seen the ugliness and if the beautiful see themselves, they will love themselves.) We are preaching virtue again, but by that to mean NOW, what seems the most contructive uses of the world.
The Revolutionary Theatre must EXPOSE! Show up the insides of these humans, look into black skulls. Because they have been trained to hate. The Revolutionary Theatre must hate them for hating. For presuming with their technology to deny the supremacy of the Spirit. They will all die because of this.
The Revolutionary Theatre must teach them their deaths. It must crack their faces open to the mad cries of the poor. It must teach them about silence and the truths lodged there. It must kill any God anyone names except common Sense. The Revolutionary Theatre should flush the fags and murders out of Lincoln's face.
It should stagger through our universe correcting, insulting, preaching, spitting craziness . . . but a craziness taught to us in our most rational moments. People must be taught to trust true scientists (knowers, diggers, oddballs) and that the holiness of life is the constant possibility of widening the consciousness. And they must be incited to strike back against any agency that attempts to prevent this widening.
The Revolutionary Theatre must Accuse and Attack anything that can be accused and attacked. It must Accuse and Attack because it is a theatre of Victims. It looks at the sky with the victims' eyes, and moves the victims to look at the strength in their minds and their bodies.
Clay, in Dutchman, Ray, in The Toilet, Walker in The Slave are all victims. In the Western sense they could be heroes. But the Revolutionary Theatre, even if it is Western, must be anti-Western. It must show horrible coming attractions of The Crumbling of The West. Even as Artaud designed The Conquest of Mexico, so we must design The Conquest of White Eye, and show the missionaries and wiggly Liberals dying under blasts of concrete. For sound effects, wild screams of joy, from all the peoples of the world.
The Revolutionary Theatre must take dreams and give them a reality. It must isolate the ritual and historical cycles of reality. But it must be food for all these who need food, and daring propaganda for the beauty of the Human Mind. But it is a political theatre, a weapon to help in the slaughter of these dimwitted fat-bellied white guys who somehow believe that the rest of the world is here for them to slobber on.
This should be a theatre of World Spirit. Where the spirit can be shown to be the most competent force in the world. Force. Spirit. Feeling. The language will be anybody's, but tightened by the poet's backbone. And even the language must show what the facts are in this consciousness epic, what's happening. We will talk about the world, and the preciseness with which we are able to summon the world, will be our art. Art is method. And art, "like any ashtray or senator" remains in the world. Wittgenstein said ethics and aesthetics are one. I believe this. So the Broadway theatre is a theatre of reaction whose ethics like its aesthetics reflects the spiritual values of this unholy society, which sends young crackers all over the world blowing off colored peoples heads. (In some of these flippy southern towns they even shoot up the immigrants' Favorite Son, be it Michael Schwerner or J.F. Kennedy.)
The Revolutionary Theatre is shaped by the world, and moves to reshape the world, using as its force the natural force and perpetual vibrations of the mind in the world. We are history and desire, what we are, and what any experience can make us.
It is a social theatre, but all theatre is social theatre. But we will change the drawing rooms into places where real things can be said about a real world, or into smoky rooms where the destruction of Washington can be plotted. The Revolutionary Theatre must function like an incendiary pencil planted in Curtis Lemay's cap. So that when the final curtain goes down brains are splattered over the seats and the floor, and bleeding nuns must wire SOS's to Belgians with gold teeth.
Our theatre will show victims so that their brothers in the audience will be better able to understand that they are the brothers of victims, and that they themselves are victims, if they are blood brothers. And what we show must cause the blood to rush, so that pre-revolutionary temperaments will be bathed in this blood, and it will cause their deepest souls to move, and they find themselves tensed and clenched, even ready to die, at what the soul has been taught. We will scream and cry, murder, run through the streets in agony, if it means some soul will be moved, moved to actual life understanding of what the world is, and what it ought to be. We are preaching virtue and feeling, and a natural sense of the self in the world. All men live in the world, and the world ought to be a place for them to live.
What is called the imagination (from image, magi, magic, magician, etc.) is a practical vector from the soul. It stores all data, and can be called on to solve all our "problems." The imagination is the projection of ourselves past our sense of ourselves as "things." Imagination (image) is all possibility, because from the image, the initial circumscribed energy, and use (idea) is possible. And so begins that image's use in the world. Possibility is what moves us.
The popular white man's theatre like the popular white man's novel shows tired white lives, and the problems of eating white sugar, or else it herds bigcaboosed blondes onto huge stages in rhinestones and makes believe they are dancing or singing. WHITE BUSINESSMEN OF THE WORLD, DO YOU WANT TO SEE PEOPLE REALLY DANCING AND SINGING??? ALL OF YOU GO UP IN HARLEM AND GET YOURSELF KILLED. THERE WILL BE DANCING AND SINGING, THEN, FOR REAL! (In The Slave, Walker Vessels, the black revolutionary, wears an armband, which is the insignia of the attacking army . . . a big redlipped minstrel, grinning like crazy.)
The liberal white man's objection to the theatre of the revolution (if he is "hip" enough) will be on aesthetic grounds. Most white Western artists do not need to be "political," since usually, whether they know it or not, they are in complete sympathy with the most repressive social forces in the world today. There are more junior birdmen fascists running around the West today disguised as Artists than there are disguised as fascists. (But then, that word, Fascist, and with it, Fascism, has been made obsolete by the word America, and Americanism. The American Artist usually turns out to be just a super-Bourgeois, because, finally, all he has to show for his sojourn through the world is "better taste" than the Bourgeois . . . many times not even that.
Americans will hate the revolutionary theatre because it will be out to destroy them and whatever they believe is real. American cops will try to close the theatres where such nakedness of the human spirit is paraded. American producers will say the revolutionary plays are filth, usually because they will treat human life as if it was actually happening. American directors will say that the white guys in the plays are too abstract and cowardly ("don't get me wrong . . . I mean aesthetically . . .") and they will be right.
The force we want is of twenty million spooks storming America with furious cries and unstoppable weapons. We want actual explosions and actual brutality; AN EPOCH IS CRUMBLING and we must give it the space and hugeness of its actual demise. The Revolutionary Theatre, which is now peopled with victims, will soon begin to be peopled with new kinds of heroes . . . not the weak Hamlets debating whether or not they are ready to die for what's on their minds, but men and women (and minds) digging out from under a thousand years of "high art" and weakfaced dalliance. We must make an art that will function as to call down the actual wrath of world spirit. We are witchdoctors, and assassins, but we will open a place for the true scientists to expand our consciousness. This is a theatre of assault. The play that will split the heavens for us will be called THE DESTRUCTION OF AMERICA. The heroes will be Crazy Horse, Denmark Vessey, Patrice Lumumba, but not history, not memory, not sad sentimental groping for a warmth in our despair; these will be new men, new heroes, and their enemies most of you who are reading this.
from Liberator, July, 1965, pp. 4-6.
Online Source: http://www.umich.edu/~eng499/documents/baraka1.html
"Black Writing is Socio-Creative Art"
by Charles H. Fuller, Jr.
What is Black writing? For some time Black writers have been asking
themselves this question in the hope that an answer would awaken a new literary
renaissance, one that would free them from the yoke of the white literary community--a
community that, through its offers of reward, has confused and clandestinely oppressed
every Black writer who has tried to deal with the problem. What is Black writing? Black
writing is socio-creative art. It is a manner of self-expression, an artistic form born
directly from the collective social situation in which the Afro-American found himself in
this nation, and this nation only. It is the only art form in the world directly related
to the historical, economic, educational, and social growth and development of a people
and as such maintains a unique position in the literature of the world.
The reason for the difficulty and many of the sleepless nights has been that Black writers (who incidentally have always known what the answer was) tried desperately to explain it in terms of white standards and by so doing to achieve white literary celebration. But art born out of oppression can not be explained in the terms of the unoppressed, since the condition of the oppressor does not allow him to deal with a form that might conceivably make the oppressed his equal. in order for him to remain in power, he must discard any creations of the oppressed people as valueless even though he has given them the tools to build their creation. Hence it is not surprising for us to hear expressions like "social protest" hurled as a definition for great Black art and discussions of the subject being attended by Black writers. What has to be done is not the self-defeating discussions and comparisons of Black writers to their white counterparts but an examination of what we have done for ourselves. If we continue by our discussions to assume that what we do is any less than equal to what they (whites) have created, we will be perpetuating the dilemma they have set in our path. A dilemma so insidious that its corrosive effects have left many Black writers without purpose of the will to search for it. We have been asked to believe that in order for Black
writers to become artists, they must forget who and what they are and follow in the footsteps of white men who created work founded on the idea that the highest form of art was self-expression. We are asked at the same time to be and not to be true to ourselves. We are asked to get off the race issue when we are tied to it hand and foot--and simply because we are the issue. If it is true that Black men historically and presently are in protest of a society that has denied them entrance into theso-called mainstream by every device conceivable, then it is sheer folly to think that they would create work that would not reflect this and an act of oppression to assume that what they create is not art. Socio-creative art is what Black men bring into existence when they sit down to write--indeed it corresponds directly, for us, to the meaning of art. Our lives and our art are one in the same struggle, and to continue to accept or debate the white standards of evaluation, nurtured by racial oppression, is to commit a kind of literary suicide.
It seems to me, and I repeat it again, the fundamental issue here is how
we evaluate what we do. We could get into a discussion about technical things, about verse
structure, about the precise use of the English language, but it would not change the
issue. If we are not prepared to cast off the trappings of the white man and his
oppressive brick walls, we will commit a crime against ourselves more heinous than his
against us. We will render a whole body of literature worthless, when in truth there is
more in Hughes, Wright, Dunbar, and Jones for us than in Hemingway, Joyce, Proust, Mann or
the countless other white writers. To what in the so-called classical literature of our
times can we Black men here and now in this country relate? (For the benefit of those who
will counter the above statement with "Classical literature expresses universal
concepts, and these need no color to be understood," let me first agree with them but
then continue by saying that the physical embodiment of universal concepts such as love,
hate, power, weakness, etc. [as well as the environmental conditions that suck these
abstractions into life] is the only means by which we may know them. If white men are not expected to relate these concepts to us because they live in the white community, how can we possibly relate to their examples, by ignoring our ability to exhibit these qualities, perpetuate our oppression?) The white world is simply not qualified or prepared to evaluate Black writing, and consequently the task of setting up standards which will realistically deal with Black writers must fall to the Black community where it belongs. We must say what has and has not value where our writers are concerned.
But some of us are afraid. We are caught up in the money thing or the
celebrity game, and we are not sure about
this business of evaluating our own work--"What would Bertrand Russell think? Or Eliot. And what frame of
reference can we use, and what is the role of the Black writer in all of this ... this ... new business?"
Let me answer each question. As for the first two, I don't give a damn. To the third, however, let me say that unlike any other writer of today, the Black writer has and has always had as a frame of reference the peculiar historical and social nature of his people in white America at his disposal. He, since he shares in this, is a part of his frame of reference. Let me explain: every Black writer is a product and therefore a part of the Black community; and whether he likes it or not and in spite of his motives he draws from that community many of the ideas that fill his work. It follows that when he addresses his audience, he will be in part expressing the life and needs of that community and by his skill translating that life into things to be emulated or discarded depending on his own point of view and the degree to which white America has impressed him. The frame of reference to which he relates is his community, and he and it are what they are because of the peculiar nature of his people in this country. What then is his role--this man who must draw from himself and his people the content of his work? His role must be to address only that community from which he comes. Black writers must begin a dialogue with the Black community.
Why? Simply because it is unnatural not to. Let us backtrack a bit to the great white writers. There has not been one of them who has really addressed the Black community, the Oriental community, the Asian community or the South American community. For those of you who will say that they have addressed the world, let me answer by saying they addressed the world in power. For us to address this world and expect its support is absurd.
When we address our own community, a new set of values created by the community takes over. We become unexpendible parts in an ever-moving cycle. We address our community which in turn takes from us, acts upon our statements; and from this action provides food for our work. In effect we simply return to the status situation we occupied before our quest for celebration; we become the community and vice versa. It will be through the Black writer that the ideas and needs of the community will find expression and through the community that he will be able to determine those needs. Surely only that community should be qualified to say how well its Black writers expressed or express its needs.
But we cannot get away from the manner in which this is to be accomplished since this, in essence, is what everyone is asking when they ask: what is the role of the Black writer? They are asking: How can we do this?
We can do it by recognizing that the Black community is not interested in the same kind of approach to writing as the white community. The Black community is not made up of writers, dilettantes or large bodies of college-trained professionals. It is made up of people struggling to survive, and we must be prepared to deal realistically with what our people do with their leisure time. Black men do not have time to read huge philosophical tracts or dabble in the merits of so-called classical sculpture; and those that do are greatly outnumbered by their white counterparts. The Black man's leisure time, if he has any, is spent within a relatively small social circle in a community where familiarity with each other is the only condition for social prominence. Black writers can not go to a man whose relative social position is secured outside of white culture but with the symbols of white culture. He would laugh at them and rightly so.
Such a man, no less intelligent than any other, must be reached on a level he can relate to, otherwise Black writers might just as well stay at home. (Those writers who disagree with this might try reading Shakespeare in their neighborhood taprooms.) And what has just been said in no way means that this level is below that of whites. It is a white racist lie that men must absorb certain kinds of things before they are "cultured." Culture depends on the history of a people and as such is not comparable to any other culture. But we do not want to get sidetracked. How do we reach the Black community? We use anything in that community that is easily identifiable--landmarks, ideas, dances--anything. Only when Black writers relate their work to easily recognized symbols and ideas can any hope of a realistic dialogue between writer and community occur. Once this dialogue is started, new standards will emerge. Standards whose emphasis will be placed not on the object with its structural excellence but on its simple capacity to be used by those to whom it is directed. We are already discussing a change in Black writing--that is, the end of art as an object.
Absurd? Let us restate the definition of socio-creative art. It is a
manner of self-expression and artistic form born directly from the collective social
situation in which the Afro-American found himself in this country. Probably the most
apparent thing about the Black community today is its constant state of change, and each
change must of necessity produce a change in the writing of the Black writer who addresses
his community. He must know what is taking place and be flexible enough to give life to
new changes. What today has value might tomorrow be discarded, and the Black writer must
be prepared to address his community in whatever manner is acceptable to them during each
stage of change. What must ultimately result is a new art form--still socio-creative but
elastic, an art form written and presented for particular incidents and once presented
would have no further value except a record of the community's historical growth. No
single work would take precedence over the people it served, and nothing would be written
for its own sake. Only the sum total of a Black writer's work would have value. As the
dialogue continued, the Black writer might find that the value of writing itself would change and be forced to relegate his work to a place where it would simply be the tool of the audio and visual arts.
There are many areas which have not been dealt with in this particular explanation, areas that concern the necessity for change in the image of the Black man in writing and the specific method of presentation that will guarantee a community audience for a Black writer; but these are merely extensions of what has just been said, subjects that can be dealt with individually after the true nature of Black writing is accepted by its writers.
It is not that we have been unaware of the true nature of Black writing. We have simply tried to avoid admitting the truth to ourselves. Instead, operating on the totally unfounded premise that our art had to be explained in terms of the white literary community, we thereby created a false aura of respectability and scholarship. Whatever the value of Black writing, it must proceed as a direct result of the service it will perform for the Black community, and the sooner we accept our roles as the community voice, the closer we will be to a solution to the struggle.
Originally published in Liberator, April, 1967, pp. 8-10.
Online Source: http://www.umich.edu/~eng499/documents/fuller1.html
"Black Writing: Release from Object"
by Charles H. Fuller, Jr.
The question has been asked, "Is the Black writer free to do whatever he chooses creatively?" To which I have replied, "Of course not, it is absurd to believe he is." However, in my two previous discussions [in Liberator magazine] there is an entire area of analysis, basically historical, which I blame myself for not clarifying.
The history of Western thought begins clearly with the work of Aristotle. As it applies to Art, its evolution to the present day may be traced in three statements: (a) Art for the sake of instruction, (b) Art for the sake of Art, and finally, (c) Art for the sake of the artist. But how did this evolution occur? And what is it that prompts Black artists to make absurd statements like, "We must be free to do what we feel is significant and not relegate our work to the masses--or subordinate it to anything else"?
Let us go back briefly to the past and pick up the thread of these Black writers' confusion. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle declares that "an object pursued for its own sake possesses a higher degree of finality than one pursued with an eye to something else ..." and "something which is always chosen for its own sake, and never for the sake of something else, is without qualification a final end." Aristotle considered the final end a good, and in this context believed that there were many goods. His statements did two things. In Art, they placed the object above all else, and opened the door to a world of chaos. Where things may be pursued for their own sake as goods, all manner of things are pursuable. Note, however, that the statements appeared not in his Poetics but in his Ethics--not with the purpose of defining Art but of defining how men ought to live.
We are now free to examine the roots out of which the statements were derived, and the twist the evolving West placed on them. If Art in its very beginnings grew out of religious rites carried to the West from civilizations of Africa and the East, then it is not difficult to understand how a Greek, whose only contact with art was after the fact and came in yearly religious festivals in his country, would assume that the object (sacrifice) which produced the effect (the thing prayed for) would have precedence over those who prayed (the people). It is always thought that the kind of sacrifice produced the right effect. But is this true? Isn't it rather, the need that produced the right kind of sacrifice?
Art began when men set out to say something to the elements--or those things man looked
to for his continued survival. He took to his gods the needs and aspirations of his
people, telling as he offered his sacrifices what he, and they, had done to deserve them.
If writing (or any art form) is an attempt at communication, it first began as a service
of the people--a tool, used by them to talk to their gods. As a service, it had of
necessity to be responsive to their needs--it would have done little good to dance for
wheat, when corn was needed. We must also ask ourselves if the sacrifice was greater than
the need, or simply a manifestation of that need--a tool, a service--something to
demonstrate how much was needed and which, once fulfilling the need, was abandoned. It
would seem that Art, as we know it today, was simply a show of need. But the West has
always glorified things, from relics to books of e e cummings' poetry, with the result
that the reason and meaning of the object became less and less connected to what was
originally intended. Instead of creating objects that mirrored the needs of a society,
objects were created to mirror the needs of other objects. Art became an object, and the
work and the man who created it transcended the struggling society from which it sprang.
It neither serves this society nor is in most instances recognizable.
Historically, we have reached Art for the sake of the Artist.
The Black writer who says, "We are free in Art to do whatever we feel like doing," is implying that the object he chooses to create takes precedence over the desire of his people for it. Whatever value is placed on it springs from his estimation, not from any decision of his people. In the context expressed above, does this statement show any awareness of the roots of Art? That is, does it mirror the needs and aspirations of a people?
We have said previously that Black writing is Socio-creative Art, that it is a manner of self-expression, an artistic form born directly from the collective, social situation in which the Afro-American found and finds himself in this nation. It is directly related to our total evolution as a people in this country, and as such, first set out to mirror the needs and aspirations of our people against white injustice. Consider, if you will, its roots in this country and compare them with the roots of Art itself. Does this mean that if it adheres to this close association it is primitive Art? The West has chosen the word primitive. It would seem to me that any society whose first concerns was the needs of its people is highly developed.
If we can swallow that Black writing in this country did not begin as object, we can understand its present need to reflect the revolution its people are engaged in, and see a fluidity and elasticity in Black writing that can never be hoped for in the West. Black writing must twist and bend with its people, be creative because they are creative, mirror their needs, and become their voice, being judged by those who gave it life. Its longevity will be limited to the nourishment it provides its people, and its writers should be considered no more than good cooks.
We cannot do this, however, if--and I say this with much sadness--Black writers consistently refuse to see themselves as they are and continue to live in a world where their precious poems and short stories are more valuable than the lives of their people. Black Art must go out to Black people, and they must judge its value--if it does not and they do not, to whom, may I ask, can it go?
It should be fairly obvious to Black writers why songs like "All I Need," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," etc., succeed in the Black community--why LeRoi Jones, Bill Davis, Larry Neal have reached the Black community. These people, along with others like Marvin Gaye, James Brown and the Temptations, present in their work the needs, aspirations and struggles of Black people in a manner far more accessible, understandable and beneficial than all the unread poetry the "free" writers produce. We must return to fundamental concerns. Who are we concerned with, what are our needs, and how do we accomplish them, for all? This will take for most of us an entire re-evaluation of Art and its relationship to the people.
It is absurd in this time of struggle, when Black people are rebelling and dying throughout this nation, to ask questions of the sort that opened this article. Of course we're not free to do what we feel like doing at the exclusion of our people--they must always come first!
Originally published in Liberator, September, 1967, pp. 17, 20.
Online Source: http://www.umich.edu/~eng499/documents/fuller2.html
from "The Black Arts Movement"
by Larry Neal
The Black Arts Movement is radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. Black Art is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America. In order to perform this task, the Black Arts Movement proposes a radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic. It proposes a separate symbolism, mythology, critique, and iconology. The Black Arts and the Black Power concept both relate broadly to the Afro-Americans desire for self-determination and nationhood. Both concepts are nationalistic. One is concerned with the relationship between art and politics; the other with the art of politics.
Recently, these two movements have begun to merge: the political values inherent in the Black Power concept are now finding concrete expression in the aesthetics of Afro-American dramatists, poets, choreographers, musicians, and novelists. A main tenet of Black Power is the necessity for Black people to define the world in their own terms. The Black artist has made the same point in the context of aesthetics. The two movements postulate that there are in fact and in spirit two Americasone black, one white. The Black artist takes this to mean that his primary duty is to speak to the spiritual and cultural needs of Black people. Therefore, the main thrust of this new breed of contemporary writers is to confront the contradictions arising out of the Black man's experience in the racist West. Currently, these writers are re-evaluating western aesthetics, the traditional role of the writer, and the social function of art. Implicit in this re-evaluation is the need to develop a "black aesthetic." It is the opinion of many Black writers, I among them, that the Western aesthetic has run its course; it is impossible to construct anything meaningful within its decaying structure. We advocate a cultural revolution in art and ideas. The cultural values inherent in western history must either be radicalized or destroyed, and we will probably find that even radicalization is impossible. In fact, what is needed is a whole new system of ideas. Poet Don L. Lee expresses it:
. . . We must destroy Faulkner, dick, jane, and other perpetuators of evil. It's time for DuBois, Nat Turner, and Kwame Nkrumah. As Frantz Fanon points out: destroy the culture and you destroy the people. This must not happen. Black artists are culture stabilizers; bringing back old values, and introducing new ones. Black Art will talk to the people and with the will of the people stop impending "protective custody."
The Black Arts Movement eschews "protest" literature. It speaks directly to Black people. Implicit in the concept of protest literature, as Brother Knight has made clear, is an appeal to white morality:
Now any Black man who masters the technique of his particular art form, who adheres to the white aesthetic, and who directs his work toward a white audience is, in one sense, protesting. And implicit in the act of protest is the belief that a change will be forthcoming once the masters are aware of the protestor's "grievance" (the very word connotes begging, supplications to the gods). Only when that belief has faded and protestings end, will Black art begin.
Brother Knight also has some interesting statements about the development of a "Black aesthetics:
Unless the Black artist establishes a "Black aesthetic" he will have no future at all. To accept the white aesthetic is to accept and validate a society that will not allow him to live. The Black artist must create new forms and new values, sing new songs (or purify old ones); and along with other Black authorities, be must create a new history, new symbols, myths and legends (and purify old ones by fire). And the Black artist, in creating his own aesthetic, must be accountable for it only to the Black people, Further, he must hasten his own dissolution as an individual (in the Western sense)painful though the process may be, having been breast-fed the poison of "individual experience."
When we speak of a "Black aesthetic" several things are meant. First, we assume that there is already in existence the basis for such an aesthetic. Essentially, it consists of an African-American cultural tradition. But this aesthetic is finally, by implication, broader than that tradition. It encompasses most of the useable elements of Third World culture. The motive behind the Black aesthetic is the destruction of the white thing, the destruction of white ideas, and white ways of looking at the world. The new aesthetic is mostly predicated on an Ethics which asks the question: whose vision of the world is finally more meaningful, ours or the white oppressors? What is truth? Or more precisely, whose truth shall we express, that of the oppressed or of the oppressors? These are basic questions. Black intellectuals of previous decades failed to ask them. Further, national and international affairs demand that we appraise the world in terms of our own interests. It is clear that the question of human survival is at the core of contemporary experience. The Black artist must address himself to this reality in the strongest terms possible. In a context of world upheaval, ethics and aesthetics must interact positively and be consistent with the demands for a more spiritual world. Consequently, the Black Arts Movement is an ethical movement. Ethical, that is, from the viewpoint of the oppressed. And much of the oppression confronting the Third World and Black America is directly traceable to the Euro-American cultural sensibility. This sensibility, anti-human in nature, has, until recently, dominated the psyches of most Black artists and intellectuals; it must be destroyed before the Black creative artist can have a meaningful role in the transformation of society.
It is this natural reaction to an alien sensibility that informs the cultural attitudes of the Black Arts and the Black Power movement. It is a profound ethical sense that makes a Black artist question a society in which art is one thing and the actions of men another. The Black Arts Movement believes that your ethics and your aesthetics are one. That the contradictions between ethics and aesthetics in western society is symptomatic of a dying culture.
The term "Black Arts" is of ancient origin, but it was first used in a positive sense by LeRoi Jones:
We are unfair
We are black magicians
Black arts we make
in black labs of the heart
The fair are fair
and deathly white
The day will not save them
And we own the night
There is also a section of the poem "Black Dada Nihilismus" that carries the same motif. But a fuller amplification of the nature of the new aesthetics appears in the poem "Black Art":
Poems are bullshit unless they are
teeth or trees or lemons piled
on a step. Or black ladies dying
of men leaving nickel hearts
beating them down. Fuck poems
and they are useful, would they shoot
come at you, love what you are,
breathe like wrestlers, or shudder
strangely after peeing. We want live
words of the hip world, live flesh &
coursing blood. Hearts and Brains
Souls splintering fire. We want poems
like fists beating niggers out of jocks
or dagger poems in the slimy bellies
of the owner-jews . . .
Poetry is a concrete function, an action. No more abstractions. Poems are physical entities: fists, daggers, airplane poems, and poems that shoot guns. Poems are transformed from physical objects into personal forces:
. .. Put it on him poem. Strip him naked
to the world. Another bad poem cracking
steel knuckles in a jewlady's mouth
Poem scream poison gas on breasts in green berets . . .
Then the poem affirms the integral relationship between Black Art and Black people:
. . .Let Black people understand
that they are the lovers and the sons
of lovers and warriors and sons
of warriors Are poems & poets &
all the loveliness here in the world
It ends with the following lines, a central assertion in both the Black Arts Movement and the philosophy of Black Power:
We want a black poem. And a
Let the world be a Black Poem
And let All Black People Speak This Poem
The poem comes to stand for the collective conscious and unconscious of Black Americathe real impulse in back of the Black Power movement, which is the will toward self-determination and nationhood, a radical reordering of the nature and function of both art and the artist. . . .
from The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle, Jr. New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1971. Copyright © 1971 by Addison Gayle, Jr.
from "Black Cultural Nationalism"
by Ron Karenga
Black art, like everything else in the black community, must respond positively to the reality of revolution.
It must become and remain a part of the revolutionary machinery that moves us to change quickly and creatively. We have always said, and continue to say, that the battle we are waging now is the battle for the minds of Black people, and that if we lose this battle, we cannot win the violent one. It becomes very important then, that art plays the role it should play in Black survival and not bog itself down in the meaningless madness of the Western world wasted. In order to avoid this madness, black artists and those who wish to be artists must accept the fact that what is needed is an aesthetic, a black aesthetic, that is a criteria for judging the validity and/or the beauty of a work of art.
Pursuing this further, we discover that all art can be judged on two levelson the social level and on the artistic level. In terms of the artistic level, we will be brief in talking about this, because the artistic level involves a consideration of form feeling, two things which obviously involve more technical consideration and terminology than we have space, time or will to develop adequately here. Let it be enough to say that the artistic consideration, although a necessary part, is not sufficient. What completes the picture is that social criteria for judging art. And it is this criteria that is the most important criteria. For all art must reflect and support the Black Revolution, and any art that does not discuss and contribute to the revolution is invalid, no matter bow many lines and spaces are produced in proportion and symmetry and no matter how many sounds are boxed in or blown out and called music.
All we do and create, then, is based on tradition and reason, that is to say, on foundation and movement. For we begin to build on traditional foundation, but it is out of movent, that is experience, that we complete our creation. Tradition teaches us, Leopold Senghor tells us, that all African art has at least three characteristics: that is, it is functional, collective and committing or committed. Since this is traditionally valid, it stands to reason that we should attempt to use it as the foundation for a rational construction to meet our present day needs. And by no mere coincidence we find that the criteria is not only valid, but inspiring. That is why we say that all Black art, irregardless of any technical requirements, must have three basic characteristics which make it revolutionary. In brief, it must be functional, collective and committing. It must be functional, that is useful, as we cannot accept the false doctrine of "art for art's sake." For, in fact, there is no such thing as "art for art's sake." All art reflects the value system from which it comes. For if the artist created only for himself and not for others, he would lock himself up somewhere and paint or write or play just for himself. But he does not do that. On the contrary, he invites us over, even insists that we come to hear him or to see his work; in a word, he expresses a need for our evaluation and/or appreciation and our evaluation cannot be a favorable one if the work of art is not first functional, that is, useful.
So what, then, is the use of artour art, Black art? Black art must expose the enemy, praise the people and support the revolution. It must be like LeRoi Jones' poems that are assassins' poems, poems that kill and shoot guns and "wrassle cops into alleys taking their weapons, leaving them dead with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland." It must be functional like the poem of another revolutionary poet from "US," Clyde Halisi, who described the Master's words as "Sun Genies, dancing through the crowd snatching crosses and St. Christopher's from around niggers' necks and passing the white gapped legs in their minds to Simbas to be disposed of."
Or, in terms of painting, we do not need pictures of oranges in a bowl or trees standing innocently in the midst of a wasteland. If we must paint oranges and trees, let our guerrillas be eating those oranges for strength and using those trees for cover. We need new images, and oranges in a bowl or fat white women smiling lewdly cannot be those images. All material is mute until the artist gives it a message, and that message must be a message of revolution. Then we have destroyed "art for art's sake," which is of no use anyhow, and have developed art for all our sake, art for Mose the miner, Sammy the shoeshine boy, T.C. the truck driver and K.P. the unwilling soldier. In conclusion, the real function of art is to make revolution, using its own medium.
The second characteristic of Black art is that it must be collective. In a word, it must be from the people and must be returned to the people in a form more beautiful and colorful than it was in real life. For that is what art is: everyday life given more form and color. And in relationship to that, the Black artist can find no better subject than Black People themselves, and the Black artist who does not choose or develop this subject will find himself unproductive. For no one is any more than the context to which he owes his existence, and if an artist owes his existence to the Afroamerican context, then he also owes his art to that context and therefore must be held accountable to the people of that context. To say that art must be collective, however, raises four questions. Number one, the question of popularization versus elevation; two, personality versus individuality; three, diversity in unity; and four, freedom to versus freedom from.
from The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle, Jr. New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1971. Copyright © 1971 by Addison Gayle, Jr.
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