Black Arts Movement contributors. Left to right, top to bottom: [Unidentified], Ishmael Reed, Jayne Cortez, Léon-Gontran Damas, Romare Bearden, Larry Neal, Nikki Giovanni and Evelyn Neal. Courtesy Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library.
You may write me down in history / With your bitter, twisted lies / You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
— Maya Angelou
…the primary duty of the black artist is to “speak to the spiritual and cultural needs of Black people.”
— Larry Neal, Scholar
Most textbooks would have you believe Black history stopped in the 1960’s. That the tragic assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the infallible marker of progress. However, in the decades following, the Black experience in America expanded and grew to new heights, and faced new obstacles. Among top scholarship for more recent Black history, the Black Arts Movement provided an urgent and necessary language for understanding the relationship between resistance and art.
In conjunction with his PBS documentary special, Black Scholar and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. details this rich post-MLK history in And Still I Rise: From Black Power to the White House. The film catalogues the underappreciated history of Black folk in the United States, from early radical movements of the Black Panthers, to the present outcries surrounding the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant. Black artists and writers speak to the subjectivities and realities of Blackness in America.
We have the honor of featuring some of these integral moments, excerpts which delineate a history of Black writers, from all over the diaspora that encompass the realities of resistance.
Black Students Union and Third World Liberation Front members protest for a larger black studies program and for the reinstatement of Black Panther George Murray, who was suspended by University President Robert Smith, November 1968.
SEPTEMBER 18, 1968. The first department of black studies opens at San Francisco State University, chaired by Professor Nathan Hare, a sociologist fired by Howard University the year before for his Black Power activism. Despite the opposition of faculty (skeptical that black studies is a serious academic discipline), student protests lead to founding black studies programs at Howard, Cornell, Harvard, and the University of California campuses in Los Angeles, Berkeley, and Santa Barbara by the end of 1969. In September 1970, scholars Molefi Asante and Robert Singleton launch the Journal of Black Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. During its formative years, black studies is seen as a way of helping the first generation of affirmative action students adjust to life at historically white colleges and universities.
Maya Angelou reading at Robsham Theater for the Humanities Series, March 1984. Courtesy John J. Burns Library, Boston College.
JANUARY 12, 1970. With encouragement from her friend and fellow writer James Baldwin, Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Johnson), a forty-one-year-old poet and dancer from Stamps, Arkansas, publishes her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. “This is a memoir of a black girl-hood, or childhood, and it is written from the center of blackness,” writes Ward Just in a review for the Washington Post. Nominated for the National Book Award, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings becomes standard reading on college campuses in the coming decades. It also signals the emergence of critically acclaimed popular fiction by African American women. The same year also saw the publication of Toni Morrison’s debut novel, The Bluest Eye; Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland; and Toni Cade Bambara’s The Black Woman: An Anthology, which includes writing by Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Paule Marshall, and Audre Lorde. “The woman is a butt of the nation’s sneer and the black is the butt of the nation’s joke,” Angelou tells Hollie West of the Washington Post on April 3, 1970. “Black women feel the joke and the sneer.”
Audio recording of Gil Scott-Heron performing “Bicentennial Blues” live.
JULY 4, 1976. The bicentennial of American independence, one year after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War, forces many to examine the ties that bind citizens to their common heritage and to each other. Black Americans reflect on the bicentennial in diverse ways, including calls for a celebration and recognition of black Revolutionary War heroes like Crispus Attucks, a victim of the Boston Massacre in March 1770. Black History Month (originating in the historian Carter G. Woodson’s Negro History Week in 1926) becomes a national event as part of the country’s bicentennial celebration. Others take a more caustic view of this display of national pride. Gil Scott-Heron, in his poem “Bicentennial Blues,” writes: “From Plymouth Rock to acid-rock / From 13 states to Watergate / The blues is grown / But not the home / The blues is grown / But the country has not / The blues remembers everything the country forgot.” Or, as Richard Pryor puts it more succinctly on his Grammy-winning concert LP, Bicentennial Nigger, 1976 signals “two hundred years of white folks kicking ass.”
Ntozake Shange, Reid Lecture, Women Issues Luncheon, Women’s Center, November 1978. Courtesy Barnard College.
SEPTEMBER 15, 1976. After stints at a Lower East Side bar and the Public Theater, Ntozake Shange’s play for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf makes its Broadway debut. “What does it mean to be a black woman in white America?” the New York Times’ Mel Gussow asks in the first line of his review. “The search for self, the struggle for singularity, the anguished urging to be loved are at the root of Ntozake Shange’s remarkable evening of theater.” Feminist themes become more visible among various black artists such as Faith Ringgold, whose performance piece The Wake and Resurrection of the Bicentennial Negro is first performed at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where she works as an artist in residence.
Co-founder of the Combahee River Collective Barbara Smith talks about the idealism of her generation. (via Makers)
APRIL 1977. A gathering of leading black feminists, lesbian writers and activists, pen the Combahee River Collective Statement, a foundational document that articulates a distinct African American women’s political voice. The group, organized in Boston in 1974 and continuing through 1980, includes Barbara Smith, Gloria Hull, and Audre Lorde, who together argue that “the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. In the case of Black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves. We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.” The statement appears in Zillah Eisenstein’s anthology Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism (1978). The inspiration for the collective’s name originates from Harriet Tubman’s guerrilla campaign to free slaves during the American Civil War.
First ad for Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, 1970. (via Brain Pickings)
SEPTEMBER 13, 1987. Toni Morrison, a fifty-six-year-old former English teacher at Howard and editor at Random House, publishes her fifth novel, Beloved, destined to join the Western and African American literary canons as one of the finest books of the century. In her New York Times review on September 13, Margaret Atwood says of Morrison, “If there were any doubts about her stature as a pre-eminent American novelist, of her own or any other generation, Beloved will put them to rest.” The powerful intersection of historical slave narratives, folklore, and the supernatural captures the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Five years later, Morrison publishes Jazz, and is recognized for her achievements with the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel announcement lauds that Morrison “delves into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race. And she addresses us with the lustre of poetry.”
“The mode I choose is tragic,” the author tells Connie Casey of the Chicago Tribune for an October 27 profile titled “Pain Is the Stuff of Toni Morrison’s Novels.” “I don’t find difficulty to be sad or bad. The reason I write is because it’s hard. I’m rather bored with easy shots and fake problems.” Morrison, who goes on to teach writing at Princeton University, is considered by many to be the greatest African American writer of her generation and one of the most important American writers of any age.
Installation view of Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, November 10, 1994–March 5, 1995). Exhibition title. Photograph by Geoffrey Clements
NOVEMBER 10, 1994. The exhibition Black Male opens at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. Curated by Thelma Golden, the exploration of black masculinity inspires controversy and praise, with New York magazine commenting that it “courageously subverts the stereotype of what black art should be like.” The year 1994 is a stand-out for African American visual artists. Kara Walker makes an impression on the art world with her controversial silhouettes displayed at New York City’s Drawing Center; the artist Howardena Pindell says Walker’s art “seems to be catering to the bestial fantasies about blacks created by white supremacy and racism.” Glenn Ligon’s installation To Disembark, also debuts at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC.
Author Edwidge Danticat
SEPTEMBER 4, 2007. Edwidge Danticat’s memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, is published by Random House. The book, which earns the National Book Critics Circle Award and is short-listed for the National Book Award, reveals the increasing influence of a growing population of black immigrants to the US from the Caribbean (Danticat is Haitian), Latin America, and Africa. Fast-forward to 2013, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (a Nigerian writer who spent her University years in the U.S. and now divides her time between North America and Nigeria) receives the National Book Critics Circle Award for Americanah. A review of the book in the Guardian notes, “There are some novels that tell a great story and others that make you change the way you look at the world. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is a book that manages to do both.”