The Black Arts Movement and the Black Aesthetic: Where Do We Go From Here?

Author:Joyce, Joyce A.
Position:Essay
 
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Having earned her Ph.D. in English at the University of Georgia in 1979, Joyce A. Joyce has given one of two keynote presentations at the American Embassy in Paris at the "International Centennial Celebration of Richard Wright's Birthday" and a keynote presentation at "Richard Wright 100," an international conference held at the Universidade da Beira Interior in Coviha, Portugal. A 1995 recipient of The American Book Award for Literary Criticism, she has published articles on Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Walker, Arthur P. Davis, Toni Cade Bambara, E. Ethelbert Miller, Askia Toure, Gil Scott-Heron, and Sonia Sanchez. Her fields of concentration include African-American criticism and theory, African-American poetry and fiction, Black feminist theory, Black lesbian writers, and African Religion and Philosophy in Black Women's Fiction. Her monograph in progress is entitled "Kaleidoscopic Critical Reflections of the Black Arts Movement."

The Black Arts Movement's creative artists, scholars, and activists have come a long way from reading poetry in bars and performing plays in parks. Much change has occurred in American politics and culture since the publication of what I see as the credo of the Black Arts Movement--Larry Neal's essay "The Black Arts Movement," published in Visions of a Liberated Future: Black Arts Movement Writings, with essential commentary by Amiri Baraka, Stanley Crouch, Charles Fuller, and Jayne Cortez. This essay provides a perspective on the current status of and obstacles to the Black Arts Movement. Larry Neal's article functions here as fulcrum for a 21st century position toward the Black Arts Movement and reaffirms the need for an enhanced emphasis for a morally flexible set of guidelines that counter the elitism and hypocrisy that continue to dominate academic, literary, and publishing arenas. Neal's first paragraph nicely and precisely identifies the essential goals of the Black Arts Movement as it was conceived:

The Black Arts Movement is radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. This movement 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 the 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 concepts both relate broadly to the Afro-American's 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. (62) Since the Black Aesthetic falls literarily, culturally, and spiritually under the umbrella of the political Black Arts Movement, I use the two terms interchangeably in this essay. The America in which Neal writes this statement in 1968 is and is not the same America of the twenty-first century. We no longer have the potency and commitment of a Black Power movement. And for those Black scholars wedded to an academic Eurocentric aesthetic, the spiritual is alienated from the aesthetic. We have reasons to ask, "Who makes up Black America?" For the most part those scholars educated in the Eurocentric academy have not reordered the cultural and epistemological limitations of the Western aesthetic. Perhaps, grassroots Blacks have a separate symbolism, mythology, and iconology. Yet, our most visible representatives of the Black intelligentsia or educated aestheticians are male tools of the hegemony or establishment, emerging as rabble-rousers who are revered as they manipulate audiences, avoiding honest answers to racist questions. At the height of the Black Arts Movement, I was ending my first year of college. In 1979, the University of Maryland hired at least five Blacks who were recent Ph.D.'s (I was among them) in the College of Arts and Sciences alone. Blacks, hired in the academy around the country, particularly on the East Coast, represented the potential for the future of the Black Aesthetic in the academy. However, at this point neither I nor, perhaps, my Black colleagues new to Maryland had read anything by Larry Neal and others of the Black Arts Movement. Thus we had not been trained for the need for a communal connection for our training as scholars.

Neal cites Etheridge Knight who says that the Black writer is accountable only to Black people and that we must destroy the White ways of looking at the world (64). So much has politically influenced American culture since the heyday of the Black Arts Movement that we have no possibility for a singly-focused African-American culture much like what George Schuyler describes in Black No More. Zora Neale Hurston's was ridiculed for her view regarding the 1954 Supreme Court decision to desegregate the schools. She was "criticized because she thought it implied the inferiority of black teachers, black students, and black schools in the South... [she resented] any suggestion that whites were superior and that blacks could learn better if they went to school with [Whites]" (Walker 19), Hurston shares an attitude toward Black creativity and ingenuity with Larry Neal and the leading artists of the Black Arts Movement.

Currently, influenced by their class status (privileges), the education of their parents, their movement through slightly integrated universities and their proximity to White innovative representatives of Generation X and Millennials, some Black scholars now address what they refer to as a new Black Aesthetic, bragging of their class privilege and unflinchingly ignoring any commitment to a grassroots culture. These children of Civil Rights workers and Black nationalists reflect Hurston's position that integration would induce alienation from Black folk cultural identity. A synonym for the New Black Aesthetic without discernable differences is the Post-Soul Aesthetic, whose practitioners challenge stable cultural practices regarding what is traditionally seen as Black and White. In other words, Black and White become unstable categories; the Post-Soul aestheticians explore or explode the traditional boundaries of what is meant by Black and what is defined as White. In other words, racial identity is as fluid as sexual and gender identity. Among the more recent publications that interrogate this concept of indeterminacy, only known in the academy, is Trey Ellis's essay, "The New Black Aesthetic," found in his Platitudes and in the African-American Review, Volume 41, No. 4, Winter 2007.

This position toward Black identity immediately reminds me of two things: Houston Baker's collection of poetry No Matter Where You Travel You Still Be Black and Beverly Daniel...

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