In fact, the history of African American poetry in the twentieth century can be divided not into two but three generations: the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and early 1930s, the post-Renaissance poetry of the 1940s and 1950s, and the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The Harlem Renaissance was the first major flowering of creative activity by African American writers, artists, and musicians in the twentieth century. In the 1940s and 1950s, there was a revival of African American verse, led by Melvin Tolson, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Robert Heyden.
Finally, a third wave of African American poetry emerged in the late 1960s with the Black Arts movement or Black Aesthetic. It was motivated by the newly emerging racial and political consciousness (Neal 236). Poets such as Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Audre Lorde, Ishmael Reed , and Michael S. Harper produced poetry that was rawer in its language form and also often carried sharp, militant messages. While the Harlem Renaissance was the literary avant-garde movement, the Black Arts Movement was the poetic avant-garde of the 1960's.
The Black Arts movement — also known as the New Black Consciousness, and the New Black Renaissance — began in the mid-1960s and lasted until the mid-1970s, though it lingered on for a while thereafter, even spreading into the 80s. The poetry, prose fiction, drama, and criticism written by African Americans during this period expressed a boldly militant attitude toward white American culture and its racist practices and ideologies. Slogans such as "Black Power," "Black Pride" and "Black is Beautiful" represented a sense of political, social, and cultural freedom for African Americans, who had gained not only a heightened sense of their own oppression but also a greater feeling of solidarity with other parts of the black world: African and the Caribbean. The young artists of the Black Artists Movement were fighting for a cultural revolution (Woodard “Amiri Baraka” 60).
The new spirit of militancy and cultural separatism that characterized the racial politics of the late 1960s had profound effects on the way African American poetry was written. There was pressure on African American poets, more than ever before, to produce work that was explicitly political in nature and that addressed issues of race and racial oppression. The Black Arts movement was strongly associated with the Black Power movement and its brand of radical and revolutionary politics.
The emergence of Black Power as a mass slogan signaled a fundamental turning point in the modern Afro-American liberation struggle, carrying it to the threshold of a new phase.
- Harry Haywood, Black Bolshevik (Quoted in Woodard “A Nation Within” 69)
The Black Arts and the Black Power movement was further galvanized into action by the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King , Jr. and by the angry riots and the burning of inner cities that ensued. (Wynter 109). The writers and artists of the Black Arts Movement had gone much further than Harlem Renaissance in asserting the larger political and spiritual identity of the Black people. Above all, Blacks tended to refuse to be judged by the dominant white standards of beauty, value and intelligence anymore (Leon 28).
In the poems and critical statements of Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal and others, there was a new level of racial consciousness, and clearer process of self-definition. Their voice did not limit itself to negative protest, but positively sought to provide a new vision of freedom. The young black poets of the Movement turned away from the formal or modernist styles of earlier black poets and promoted a poetic form that reflected the rawness of the streets. Most prominent among these poets were Amiri Baraka, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovaani, Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti), Etheridge Knight, David Henderson, June Jordan, Ishmael Reed, Michael S. Harper, Clarence Major, Sonia Sanchez, Kayne Cortex, and Lucille Clifton.
The dominant theme in African American poetry, has always been that of liberation, whether from slavery, from segregation, or even from a wish for integration into the mainstream white middle-class society. Another important theme in African American poetry has been the concern with a spiritual or mystical dimension, whether in religion, African mythology, or musical forms like hymns, blues, and jazz. Because the 'mystical' presented a greater sense of freedom, in contrast to the oppression of the 'political' and the 'social'. The black avant-garde of the 60’s was rooted in the contemporary popular African American spiritual practices. James Stewart, in his essay "The Development of the Black Revolutionary Artist" in the anthology of Afro-American writing Black Fire, stresses on the nature and significance of the spirit:
That spirit is black
That spirit is non-white.
That spirit is patois.
That spirit is Samba.
The black Baptist church in the South.
(quoted in Smethurst 65)
Moving from spirit, when it comes to the word the twentieth century black poetry involved references to both colloquial black speech, in terms of style and structure,. The young black poets of the 1960s focused much more heavily on the colloquial aspects of speech than their predecessors. They stressed on the contemporary idiom of urban blacks, on references to specifically black culture and cultural practices, and on a realistic depiction of life in inner cities. These poems embodied a form of language and a depth of experience that was unfamiliar to most white readers. It is also clear that often the intent of the poem involved, at least in part, shocking the readers.
During the epoch of slavery, white Americans regarded speech differences as an indication of black inferiority. Black people were stereotypically presented as speaking gibberish, and when they did make attempts at standard English, the results was scoffed at. Many nineteenth-century African American writers concentrated on demonstrating their command of standard English as a political defense against equating black speech with intellectual inferiority. But others such as Paul Laurence Dunbar and Charles Chesnutt used dialect to express the authenticity of expressive black vernacular. During the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, and subsequently in a more intensified manner in the 1960s Black Arts Movement, African American writers became more intent on celebrating and capturing the nuances of black speech.
Arguably, the most influential of the new black poets was Amiri Baraka. Born Leroi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, in 1934, Baraka published under that name until 1968. After graduating from Howard University, Baraka served in the Air Force until the age of twenty-four, when he moved to Greenwich Village in New York City and became part of the avant-garde literary scene, making friends with poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, and Frank O'Hara.
During this period, Baraka was more drawn to the poetry and ideas of the Beats and other white avant-garde movements than to the politics of black separatism; he married a white woman; he wrote poems, essay, plays, and a novel within the context of the Beat counterculture; and he edited two magazines. However, Baraka's interest in racial issues was clear even in the early 1960s, as evidenced in his historical study Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963) and in plays such Dutchman (1964) and The Slave (1964).
In the mid-1960's, Baraka was deeply affected by the death of Malcom X, and subsequently changed the focus of his life. He divorced and moved to Harlem, he converted to the Muslim faith and took a new name (Charters 469). He then founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School in New York City and Spirit House in Newark. He became the leading spokesman for the Black Arts movement. He was nearly beaten to death in the Newark race riots of 1967. In 1968, Baraka co-edited Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, which included social essays, drama, and fiction as well as poetry. In 1969, he published his poetry collection Black Magic Poetry: 1961 - 1967.
Baraka's poetry changed radically during the 1960s, as he turned from a vague sense of social alienation to a revolutionary vision which reflected deep affinity to black culture. Baraka's most famous poem is “Black Art” (1966) and has been called the signature poem of the Black Arts Movement, though critics tend to be strongly divided on it.
and they are useful, wd they shoot
come at you, love what you are,
breathe like wrestlers, or shudder
strangely after pissing. We want live
words of the hip world live flesh &
coursing blood. Hearts 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. Black poems to
smear on girdlemamma mulatto bitches
whose brains are red jelly stuck
between 'lizabeth taylor's toes. Stinking
Whores! We want "poems that kill."
Assassin poems, Poems that shoot
guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys
and take their weapons leaving them dead
with tongues pulled out and sent to
poems for dope selling wops or slick
politicians Airplane poems, rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr ... tuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuh
... rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr ... Setting fire and
whities ass. Look at the Liberal
Spokesman for the jews clutch his throat
& puke himself into eternity ... rrrrrrrr
- “The Black Art” (in part)
(Quoted in Brennan 2)
Normal boundaries of poetic language no longer are able to convey Baraka's rage, and therefore he resorts to the use of obscenities and raw sounds - rrrr.... tuhtuhtuh" — thereby turning language into the verbal guns of "poems that kill." For Baraka, poetry is a weapon; it is not simply meant to create an aesthetic effect, it is meant to push some social and political cause. Poetry is not just meant to touch hearts and move people emotionally, but stir their souls and move them into action. Poetry is meant to raise consciousness of the masses and bring change into the world. Poetry is not a means of entertainment, it is a way to enlightenment, and beyond that, a path to empowerment. Baraka’s poems are raw, and often they mean war.
Along with Baraka, perhaps the most significant poet to emerge from the Black Arts Movement was Audre Lorde. In addition to several volumes of poetry, beginning with The First Cities (1968), Lorde wrote essay (collected in her book Sister Outsider), an autobiographical account of her battle with cancer (The Cancer Journals), and a fictionalized "biomythography" (Zami: A New Spelling of My Name) (Wilson 95). Lorde's poems deal with her personal experience as an African American woman (she called herself, "a black feminist lesbian mother poet"), as well as with the contemporary experience of blacks both in the United States and throughout the world.
Lorde is known for her evocative and very powerful use of imagery. In the poem "Coal" (1968), she says, “I am Black because I came from the earth's inside/ now take my word for jewel in the open light.” Lorde's poems are her "jewels" that allow her to reflect words outward into the world.
Baraka's poem “SOS” (1966), begins with the words "Calling black people/ calling all black people, man woman child/ wherever you are" (Quoted in Collins, Crawford 29). The Black Arts Movement was above all a call to the black people to arouse themselves to action. It was an ideological platform. It concentrated on the black experience, the oppression and injustice suffered by African Americans. In a critical essay on Baraka's "Black Art," Brennan (4) says that art operates, that is to say, can operate, as a revolution. It has the power to destroy the status quo so that a new reality is created. It was to this end — to create a new reality — that the poets of the Black Art movement struggled, albeit with very limited success. The movement did not last for long, but had a considerable impact on changing the perceptions of Americans toward the function and meaning of literature.
Brennan, Sherry. “On the sound of water: Amiri Baraka's "Black Art" - Critical Essay”
African American Review, Summer-Fall, 2003. May 22, 2007, from
Charters, Ann. The Portable Sixties Reader. New York : Penguin Books, 2003
Collins, Lisa Gail and Margo Natalie Crawford. New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement. New York : Rutgers State University, 2005
Leon, David De. Leaders from the 1960s: A Biographical Sourcebook of American Activism. Westport, CT : Greenwood Press, 1994
Neal, Larry. "The Black Arts Movement." A Turbulent Voyage: Readings in African-American Studies. Ed. Floyd Windom Hayes. Lanham, Maryland : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000. 236-267.
Smethurst, James Edward. The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture). University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
Woodard, Komozi. A Nation Within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics. The University of North Carolina Press, 1999
--------. “Amiri Baraka, the Congress of African People.” Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era. Ed. Peniel E.Joseph. Routledge, New York, 2006. 55-78.
Wilson, Anna. Persuasive Fictions: Feminist Narrative and Critical Myth. Cranbury, NJ :
Associated University Presses, 2001
Wynter Sylvia. “On How We Mistook The Map for the Territory.” A Companion to African-American Studies. Ed. Jane Anna. Oxford : Blackwell Publishing, 2006. 107 – 118