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Wednesday, June 24, 2015


Distress Calls and the Black Arts Movement



Bracey, John H. Jr., Sonia Sanchez, and James Smethurst, eds. SOS --Calling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader.  Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014.



In discussions of literary and cultural periodicity, there is no consensus regarding the beginning and ending points of the Black Arts Movement.  At best, one can say the enterprise occurred between 1960 and 1980.  It persuaded significant numbers of Negroes (colored people) to call themselves Blacks, Afro-Americans, or African Americans. Adopting new terms of identity was not a total erasure of the marker “Negro” or the more imprecise marker “colored people,” because the NAACP didn’t swiftly become the NAAAA or the NAABP. The change was psychological, not a merely cosmetic substitution of racial markers. Some of the positive attitudes and values forged by the BAM can still be found in certain manifestations of hip hop ideologies.


The change was at once political, cultural, and social.   It  strengthened resolve to work more assiduously for the realization of political aims implicit in the long struggle for human rights called the Civil Rights Movement, an actualization that confused desegregation with integration. For some Blacks, the establishment of Black Power was of greater importance than changes in law that adjusted interpretations of the United States Constitution and gave birth to new legal remedies and policies.  It encouraged a stronger embrace, for some but not all Black Americans, of the social science fiction of cultural unity (the Black Community or the Black Nation), and it produced indelible changes in conception of the primal myth of the American Dream and its systemic entrapments; it sponsored recognition of the Amerikkkan Nightmare, a horror  that had (and still has) a racialized impact on the everyday lives of American citizens. 


Thus, the Black Arts Movement warrants comparison with the radical abolitionist and nationalist   activities of the 19th century as well as the “enthralling/charming,” cultural expressions of the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance.  Study of the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic Movement is too important to be confined to the whims of higher education and to imprisonment in the pedagogy of oppression. The movement did not begin in any classroom discussion of literary theory and culture, although it was defanged by the reconstruction of instruction and ostracized by the politics of new aesthetics.  The editors of SOS do not say that directly. They do not have to repeat what the dedication to Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) and the allusion to his poem “SOS” (1969) articulate for people who have resisted becoming post-whatever robots bereft of historical consciousness. The anthology itself asserts that it belongs to discussions in prisons, in homes, among groups that assist young people to recognize their options in a selectively “democratic” society,  in community centers where immediate local problems and local remedies are debated, and in seminars at non-American universities where scholars and students are not encaged by versions of white hegemony that have apoplexy when Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America” (2001) is voiced. In short, SOS merits being used “in the tradition.”



 The anthology has five major sections: 1) theory/criticism; 2) statements of purpose; 3) poetry; 4)drama, and 5) fiction/narrative, and these are framed by the editors' diplomatic introduction and three very challenging “afterword” essays by James G. Spady,  John H. Bracey, Jr., and Audre Lorde.  The mission of the anthology, the editors assure us, is to remedy problems associated with “ideological, aesthetic, and geographical breadth” (10), difficulty in obtaining access to essential documents, and contextualization. The first two aims of the mission are satisfied as well as any collection might, but it is wanting in providing crucial identifications and contextual information. The very good bibliography sends readers to primary BAM texts and Post-BAM scholarship and anthologies, but SOS would have been enhanced by information not contained in the section introductions by A. B. Spellman, Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti, and Eleanor Traylor. The editors and their publisher must bear the onus for shortcomings.  The book lacks an index. It provides no notes on contributors, as if the juju of the Internet should be invoked to figure out who were or are  Sam Cornish, Ronald Milner, Louise Meriwether, Tom Dent, Ebon Dooley, Joe Goncalves, Carolyn Gerald [Carolyn Fowler], James G. Spady and  Ahmos Zu-Bolton,  The source information for section 2 is spotty ---who formulated the by-laws for the Southern Black Cultural Alliance?---and the acknowledgements (courtesy of specifying indebtedness)  demanded by copyright law are nowhere to be found.  This is surprising.  The University of Massachusetts Press and the editors do know the protocols to be observed in responsible publishing.  Those protocols were faithfully observed in Smethurst’s The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005) and in the two-volume African American Mosaic: A Documentary History from the Slave Trade to the Twenty-first Century (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2004), edited by Bracey and Manisha Sinha.  Better s.o.s (standards of scholarship) ought to have been observed in preparing SOS. Picky readers demand assurance that the Black Arts Movement is accorded due symbolic respect.


Aside from these  shortcomings, SOS does, as Arnold Rampersad remarked, “add immeasurably to our ability to understand and teach a crucial aspect of modern African American and American literary history.”  Rampersad’s “our” has exclusionary force when potential readerships for the anthology are imagined.  If "our ability" is most immediately attached to the desires of people who teach in academic institutions, the phrase overlooks a large number of non-academic activists who still believe it is their duty to use products of the Black Arts Movement in addressing the social and cultural conditions of contemporary life.  They are not excluded from the discourse focused on literary history, but their desires will be different in kind and degree, more related to acquiring utilitarian literacy.  One of the great lessons of BAM was how and what words do not mean in non-academic enterprises.  The point must be stridently emphasized, so that the BAM messages will continue to be fresh grapes rather than raisins.


 Readers, especially adolescent readers, may care little for literary history and care a great deal for cultural history which does not apologize for its political dimensions, for the American cultural history anchored in both the liberated and the commodified  funk ontology  of hip hop’s evolution in the vast territory of African Diaspora. Younger readers have excellent reasons for processing the contents of  SOS in contexts described in Robin D. G. Kelley's Yo' Mama's Disfunktional (1997), Tricia Rose's The Hip Hop Wars (2008), and Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow (2010) and the special segment of Foreign Affairs (March/April 2015) that is devoted to "The Trouble With Race."   It would be good if social activists really did help young people to read and critique SOS and to make practical connections. Ideas provided by Spellman, Sanchez, Madhubuti, and Traylor should be lifted from the page and used in everyday speech.


If a few subversive teachers  opt to deploy ideas from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed as they work through the 666 pages of SOS, they and their history-challenged students  might discover such assisting and seminal works as Toni Cade Bambara’s The Black Woman: An Anthology (1970),  Joyce A. Ladner’s Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: The Black Woman (1971), Carolyn Fowler’s Black Arts and Black Aesthetics: A Bibliography, 2nd ed (1981), Vincent Harding’s The Other American Revolution (1980), Tony Bolden’s Afro-Blue: Improvisations in African American Poetry and Culture (2004) and his crucial essay “Theorizing the Funk: An Introduction” in The Funk Era and Beyond: New Perspectives on Black Popular Culture (2008), and Larry Neal’s Visions of a Liberated Future: Black Arts Movement Writings (1989).  Readers who are less ambitious can sit on the ground with their friends and discuss the contents of SOS in concert  with the daily saturation from social networking and mass media. What laid-back readers have in common with more ambitious readers is arming themselves with critical consciousness.


LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka spend a lifetime preparing materials for the practices of everyday life by those willing to answer the call to “come in,” and pragmatic use of  SOS is a proper way of honoring his blazing work, his Black Fire!!!. Allowing praxis as it can be guided by Black Arts Movement insights to dominate theory as such in 2015 is still an option in the vortex of implacable, global disorders.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.    June 24, 2015



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