Art History 101: The Black Arts Movement

Often times art is a response. This manifestation can be inspired by a feeling, experience, heartbreak, political movement, and anything else under the sun. Today, I wanted to go back, take a moment to appreciate our roots, and tell the story of artists who were revolutionaries, story tellers, and change makers. Personally, a timely reflection of the path that was forged makes trudging ahead just a little bit easier.

The Black Arts Movement was the “aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept”. This decade (1965 – 1975) of politically inspired paintings, poetry, music, art, theater, and literature was ignited by the murder of Malcolm X and other revolutionaries. A man known by many names, but most famously Amiri Baraka, is considered the father of the movement. Born in New Jersey, and having spent time studying at Howard University, were many greats were produced, his work propelled him to be regarded among the great American writers. His preferred medium of expression was though  words; poetry, literature, music, and playwriting.

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Brought to life in New York City, the first members of the Black Arts Movement came from Black literary groups such as Umbra, On Guard for Freedom, and the Harlem Writer’s Guild. As the movement grew the dynamic between being an artist, a political activist, or both created division within the groups, yet the message continued to spread, finding roots across the country in California.

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Revolutionary by Wadsworth Jarrell (1972)

The creative works that emerged from the Black Arts Movements were often emotional, honest, and sometimes violent or unconventional. It was an opportunity for black artists to define themselves outside of traditional artistic institutions and share their raw experiences. This lead to the creation of the idea regarded as, The Black Aesthetic.

Similarly to politics, art is ever dynamic. As the political sentiments of the Black Artists evolved, the movement disintegrated 10 years after its inception, yet we still feel its affects to this day. The movement produced greats such as James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Aude Lorde and dozens more intellectuals.

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There Must Be A Heaven by Benny Andrew (1966)

So over 40 years later what have we learned? The Black-American artistic response to American political, economic, and social inequalities will always be present. We see that  in response to the injustices we face today such as, Childish Gambino’s This is America or Andrea Levy’s Portrait of Michael Brown pictured below. Artistic responses in the faces of these tragedies are essential to our history and our healing. Yet there is still so much room to grow, we must learn from past generations and not make the same mistakes they did. These space can only thrive for blackness when they are inclusive of all shades, genders, sexualities, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

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Portrait of Michael Brown by Andrea Levy (2014)

“ The artist’s role is to raise the consciousness of the people. To make the understand life, the world and themselves more completely.” – Amiri Baraka

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