Both inherently and overtly political in
content, the Black Arts movement was the only American literary
movement to advance "social engagement" as a sine qua
non of its aesthetic. The movement broke from the
immediate past of protest and petition (civil rights) literature
and dashed forward toward an alternative that initially seemed
unthinkable an unthinkable and unobtainable: Black Power.
In a 1968 essay,
"The Black Arts
Movement," Larry Neal proclaimed Black Arts the
"aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept." As a political phrase, Black Power had earlier been
used by Richard Wright to describe the mid-1950s emergence of
independent African nations. The 1960s' use of the term originated
in 1966 with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee civil
rights workers Stokely Carmichael and Willie Ricks. Quickly
adopted in the North, Black Power
was associated with a militant
advocacy of armed self-defense, separation from "racist
American domination," and pride in and assertion of the
goodness and beauty of Blackness.
Although often criticized as sexist,
homophobic, and racially exclusive (i.e. reverse racist), Black
Arts was much broader than any of its limitations. Ishmael Reed,
who is considered neither a movement apologist nor advocate
("I wasn't invited to participate because I was considered an
integrationist"), notes in a 1995 interview.
I think what Black Arts did was inspire
a whole lot of Black people to write. Moreover, there
would be no multiculturalism movement without Black
Latinos, Asian Americans, and others all say they began
writing as a result of the example of the 1960s. Blacks
gave the example that you don't have to assimilate. You
could do your own thing, get into your own background,
your own history, your own tradition and your own culture.
I think the challenge is for cultural sovereignty and
Black Arts struck a blow for that.
History and Context
The Black Arts movement, usually referred to as
a "sixties" movement, coalesced in 1965 and broke apart
around 1975/1976. In March 1965 following the 21 February
assassination of Malcolm X, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) moved from
Manhattan's Lower East Side (he had already moved away from
Greenwich Village) uptown to Harlem, an exodus considered the
symbolic birth of the Black Arts movement.
Jones was a highly
visible publisher (Yugen and Floating Bear magazines, Totem
Press), a celebrated poet (Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide
Note, 1961, and The Dead Lecturer, 1964), a major music
critic (Blues People, 1963), and an Obie Award-winning
playwright (Dutchman, 1964) who, up until that fateful
split, had functioned in an integrated world.
Other than James
Baldwin, who at that time had been closely associated with the
civil rights movement, Jones was the most respected and most
widely published Black writer of his generation.
While Jones' 1965 move uptown to found
the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS) is the
formal beginning (it was Jones who came up with the name
"Black Arts"). Black Arts, as a literary
movement, had its roots in groups such as Umbra Workshop.
Umbra (1962) was a collective of young Black writers based
in Manhattan's Lower East Side; major members were writers
Steve Cannon, Tom Dent, Al
Haynes, David Henderson, Calvin
C. Hernton, Joe Johnson, Norman Pritchard,
Ishmael Reed, Lorenzo Thomas, James
Thompson, Askia M.
Touré (Roland Snellings, also a visual artist), Brenda Walcott, and musician-writer Archie
Touré, a major shaper of "cultural
nationalism," directly influenced Jones. Along with Umbra
writer Charles Patterson and Charles' brother William Patterson,
Touré joined Jones, Steve Young, and other at BARTS.
Umbra, which produced Umbra magazine,
was the first post-civil rights Black literary group to make an
impact as radical in the sense of establishing their own voice
distinct from, and sometimes at odds with, the prevailing white
literary establishment. The attempt to merge a Black-oriented
activist thrust with a primarily artistic orientation produced a
classic split in Umbra between those who wanted to be activists
and those who thought of themselves as primarily writers, though
to some extent all members shared both views. Black writers have
always had to face the issue of whether their work was primarily
political or aesthetic.
Moreover, Umbra itself had evolved out of
similar circumstances. In 1960 a Black nationalist literary
organization, On Guard for Freedom, had been founded on the Lower
East Side by Calvin Hicks. Its members included Nannie and
Walter Bowe, Harold Cruse (who was then working on
Crisis of the Negro
Intellectual, 1967), Tom Dent, Rosa
Guy, Joe Johnson, Leroi Jones, and Sarah Wright, among others.
On Guard was active in a
famous protest at the United Nations of the American-sponsored Bay
of Pigs Cuban invasion and was active in support of the Congolese
liberation leader Patrice Lumumba. From On Guard, Dent,
and Walcott along with Hernton, Henderson, and
Another formation of Black writers at that time
was the Harlem Writers Guild, led by John O. Killens, which
included Maya Angelou, Jean Carey Bond, Rosa
Guy, and Sarah Wright
among others. But the Harlem Writers Guild focused on prose,
primarily fiction, which did not have the mass appeal of poetry
performed in the dynamic vernacular of the time. Poems could be
built around anthems, chants, and short stories. Moreover, the
poets could and did publish themselves, whereas greater resources
were needed to publish fiction. That Umbra was primarily poetry
and performance-oriented established a significant and classic
characteristic of the movement's aesthetics.
When Umbra split up, some members, led by Askia M.
Touré and Al Haynes, moved to Harlem in late 1964 and formed
the nationalist-oriented "Uptown Writers Movement,"
which included poets Yusef Rahman, Keorapetse "Willie"
Kgositsile from South Africa, and Larry Neal. Accompanied by young
New Music musicians, they performed poetry all over Harlem.
Members of this group joined LeRoi Jones in founding BARTS.
Jones' move to Harlem was short-lived. In
December 1965 he returned to his home, Newark (N.J.), and left
BARTS in serious disarray. BARTS failed but the Black Arts center
concept was irrepressible mainly because the Black Arts movement
was so closely aligned with the then-bourgeoning Black Power
The mid-to-late-1960s was a period of intense
revolutionary ferment. Beginning in 1964, rebellions in Harlem and
Rochester, New York, initiated four years of long hot summers.
Watts, Detroit, Newark, Cleveland, and many other cities went up
in flames, culminating in nationwide explosions of resentment and
anger following Martin Luther King, Jr. April 1968 assassination.
In his seminal 1965 poem "Black Art,"
which quickly became the major poetic manifesto of the Black Arts
literary movement, Jones declaimed "we want poems that
kill." He was not simply speaking metaphorically. During that
period armed self-defense and slogans such as "Arm yourself
or harm yourself" established a social climate that promoted
confrontation with the white power structure, especially the
police (e.g., "Off the Pigs").
Indeed, Amiri Baraka (Jones changed his name in
1967) had been arrested and convicted (later overturned on appeal)
on a gun possession charge during the 1967 Newark rebellion).
Additionally, armed struggle was widely viewed as not only a
legitimate, but often as the only effective means of liberation.
Black Arts' dynamism, impact, and effectiveness are a direct
result of its partisan nature and advocacy of artistic and
political freedom "by any means necessary." America had
never experienced such a militant artistic movement.
Nathan Hare, the author of
Anglo-Saxon (1965), was the founder of 1960s Black Studies.
Expelled from Howard University, Hare moved to San Francisco State
University where the battle to establish a Black Studies
department was waged during a five-month strike during the
1968-1969 school year. As with the establishment of Black Arts,
which included a range of forces, there was broad activity in the
Bay Area around Black Studies, including efforts led by poet and
professor Sarah Webster Fabio at Merritt College.
The initial thrust of Black Arts ideological
development came from the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), a
national organization with a strong presence in new York City.
Both Touré and Neal were members of RAM. After RAM, the major
ideological force shaping the Black Arts movement was the US (as
opposed to "them") organization led by Maulana Karenga.
Also, ideologically important was Elijah Muhammad's
Chicago-based Nation of Islam.
These three formations provided both style and
ideological direction for Black Arts artists, including those who
were not members of these or any other political organization.
Although the Black Arts movement is often considered a New
York-based movement, two of its three major forces were located
outside New York City.
As the movement matured, the two major
locations of Black Arts' ideological leadership, particularly for
literary work, were California's Bay Area because of the Journal
of Black Poetry and the Black Scholar, and the
Chicago-Detroit axis because of Negro Digest/Black World
and Third World Press in Chicago, and Broadside Press and
Long Madgett's Lotus Press in Detroit. The only major Black Arts
literary publications to come out of New York were the short-lived
(six issues between 1969 and 1972) Black Theatre magazine
published by the New Lafayette Theatre and Black Dialogue,
which had actually started in San Francisco (1964-1968) and
relocated to new York (1969-1972).
In 1967 LeRoi Jones visited Karenga in
Los Angeles and became an advocate of Karenga's philosophy
of Kawaida. Kawaida, which produced the "Nguzo Saba"
(seven principles), Kwanzaa, and an emphasis on African
names, was a multifaceted, categorized activist
philosophy. Jones also met Bobby Seale and Eldridge
Cleaver and worked with a number of the founding members
of the Black Panthers. Additionally, Askia
a visiting professor at San Francisco State and was to
become a leading (and long lasting) poet as well as,
arguably, the most influential poet-professor in the Black
Playwright Ed Bullins and poet Marvin X had
established Black Arts West, and
Dingane Joe Goncalves, , LeRoi
Jones, Sonia Sanchez, Askia M.
Touré , and Marvin X
became a major
nucleus of Black Arts Leadership.
Theory and Practice
The two hallmarks of Black Arts activity were
the development of Black theater groups and Black poetry
performances and journals, and both had close ties to community
organizations and issues. black theaters served as the focus of
poetry, dance, and music performances in addition to formal and
ritual drama. Black theaters were also venues for community
meetings, lectures, study groups, and film screenings. The summer
of 1968 issue of Drama Review, a special on Black theater
edited by Ed Bullins, literally became a Black Arts textbook that
featured essays and plays by most of the major movers: Larry
Ben Caldwell, LeRoi Jones, Jimmy Garrett, John
O'Neal, Sonia Sanchez, Marvin X , Ron
Milner, Woodie King, Jr., Bill Gunn,
Ed Bullins, and Adam David Miller. Black Arts theater proudly
emphasized its activist roots and orientations in distinct, and
often antagonistic, contradiction to traditional theaters, both
Black and white, which were either commercial or strictly artistic
By 1970 Black Arts theaters and cultural centers
were active throughout America. The New Lafayette Theater (Bob
Macbeth, executive director, and
Ed Bullins, writer in residence)
and Barbara Ann Teer's National Black Theatre led the way in New
York, Baraka's Spirit House Movers held forth in Newark and
traveled up and down the East Coast. The Organization of Black
American Culture (OBAC) and Val Grey Ward's Kuumba Theatre Company
were leading forces in Chicago, from where emerged a host of
writers, artists, and musicians including the OBAC visual artist
collective whose "Wall of Respect" inspired the national
community-based public murals movement and led to the formation of
Afri-Cobra (the African Commune of Bad, Revolutionary Artists).
There was David Rambeau's Concept East and
Milner and Woodie King's Black Arts Midwest, both based in
Detroit. Ron Milner became the Black Arts movement's most enduring
playwright and Woodie King became its leading theater impresario
when he moved to New York City. In Los Angeles there was the Ebony
Showcase, Inner City Repertory Company, and the Performing Arts
Society of Los Angeles (PALSA) led by Vantile Whitfield.
In San Francisco was the aforementioned Black
Arts West. BLKARTSOUTH (led by Tom Dent and Kalamu ya Salaam) was
an outgrowth of the Free Southern Theatre in New Orleans and was
instrumental in encouraging Black theater development across the
South from the Theatre of Afro Arts in Miami, Florida, to Sudan
Arts Southwest in Houston, Texas, through an organization called
the Southern Black Cultural Alliance. In addition to formal Black
theater repertory companies in numerous other cities, there were
literally hundred of Black Arts community and campus theater
A major reason for the widespread dissemination
and adoption of Black Arts was the development of nationally
distributed magazines that printed manifestoes and critiques in
addition to offering publishing opportunities for a proliferation
of young writers. Whether establishment or independent, Black or
white, most literary publications rejected Black Arts writers. The
movement's first literary expressions in the early 1960s came
through two New York-based, nationally distributed magazines, Freedomways
and Liberator. Freedomways, "a journal of the
Freedom Movement," backed by leftists, which openly aligned
itself with both domestic and international revolutionary
movements. Many of the early writings of critical Black Arts
voices are found in Liberator. Neither of these were primarily
The first major Black Arts literary publication
was the California-based Black Dialogue (1964), edited by
Arthur A. Sheridan, Abdul Karim, Edward Spriggs,
and Marvin Jackmon (Marvin X ). Black Dialogue was
paralleled by Soulbook (1964), edited by Mamadou Lumumba (Kenn
Freeman) and Bobb Hamilton. Oakland-based Soulbook was
mainly political but included poetry in a section title
Dingane Joe Goncalves became Black
poetry editor and, as more and more poetry poured in, he conceived
of starting the Journal of Black Poetry. Founded in San
Francisco, the first issue was a small magazine with mimeographed
pages and a lithographed cover. Up through the summer of 1975, the
Journal published nineteen issues and grew to over one
hundred pages. Publishing a broad range of more than five hundred
poets, its editorial policy was eclectic. Special issues were
given to guest editors who included Ahmed Alhamisi,
Don L. Lee
(Haki Madhubuti ), Clarence Major, Larry Neal, Dudley
Randall, Ed Spriggs, and Askia
Touré. In addition to African Americans,
African, Caribbean, Asian, and other international revolutionary
poets were presented.
Founded in 1969 by Nathan Hare and Robert
Chrisman, the Black Scholar, "the first journal of black
studies and research in this country," was theoretically
critical. major African-diasporan and African theorists were
represented in its pages. In a 1995 interview Chrisman attributed
much of what exists today to the groundwork laid by the Black Arts
If we had not had a Black Arts movement in the
sixties we certainly wouldn't have had national Black literary
figures like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alice Walker, or
Morrison because much more so than than the Harlem Renaissance, in
which Black artists were always on the leash of white patrons and
publishing houses, the Black Arts movement did it for itself. What
you had was Black people going out nationally, in mass, saving
that we are independent Black people and this is what we produce.
For the publication of Black Arts creative
literature, no magazine was more important than the Chicago-based
Johnson publication Negro Digest / Black World.
Johnson published America's most popular Black magazines Jet
and Ebony. Hoyt Fuller, who became the editor in
a Black intellectual with near-encyclopedic knowledge of Black
literature and seemingly inexhaustible contacts. Because Negro
Digest, a monthly, ninety-eight-page journal, was a Johnson
publication, it was sold on newsstands nationwide.
Originally patterned on Reader's
Digest, Negro Digest changed its name to Black World
in 1970, indicative of Fuller's view that the magazine
ought to be a voice for Black people everywhere. The name
change also reflected the widespread rejection of
"Negro" and the adoption of "Black" as
the designation of choice for people of African descent
and to indicate identification with both the diaspora and
Africa. The legitimatization of "Black" and
"African" is another enduring legacy of the
Black Arts movement.
Negro Digest / Black World
published both a high volume and an impressive range of
poetry, fiction, criticism, drama, reviews, reportage, and
A consistent highlight was Fuller's
perceptive column Perspectives ("Notes on books,
writers, artists and the arts") which informed
readers of new publications, upcoming cultural events and
conferences, and also provided succinct coverage of major
Fuller produced annual poetry, drama, and fiction
issues, sponsored literary contests, and gave out literary
awards. Fuller published a variety of viewpoints but
always insisted on editorial excellence and thus made Negro
Digest / Black World a first-rate literary
publication. Johnson decided to cease publication of Black
World in April 1976: allegedly in response to a
threatened withdrawal of advertisement from all of
Johnson's publications because of pro-Palestinian-Zionist
articles in Black World.
The two major Black Arts presses were pet Dudley
Randall's Broadside Press in Detroit and Haki Madhubuti's Third
World Press in Chicago. From a Literary standpoint, Broadside
Press, which concentrated almost exclusively on poetry, was by far
the more important. Founded in 1965, Broadside published more than
four hundred poets in more than one hundred books or recordings
and was singularly responsible for presenting older Black poets (Gwendolyn
Brooks, Sterling A. Brown, and Margaret
Walker) to a
new audience and introducing emerging poets (Nikki Giovanni,
Etheridge Knight, Don. L. Lee/Haki Madhubuti, and Sonia
who would go on to become major voices for the movement. In 1976,
strapped by economic restrictions and with a severely overworked
and overwhelmed three-person staff, Broadside press went into
|Above left: We A
BaddDD People By Sonia Sanchez was a Broadside Press
Although it functions mainly on its black
catalog, Broadside Press is still alive.
While a number of poets (e.g., Amiri Baraka, Nikki
Giovanni, Haki Madhubuti, and Sonia Sanchez), playwrights (e.g.,
Ed Bullins and Ron Milner), and spoken-word artists (e.g., the
Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, both of whom were extremely popular
and influential although often overlooked by literary critics) are
indelibly associated with the Black Arts movement, rather than
focusing on their individual work, one gets a much stronger and
much more accurate impression of the movement by reading seven
anthologies focusing on the 1960s and the 1970s.
(1968), edited by Baraka and
Neal, is a massive collection of essays, poetry, fiction, and
drama featuring the first wave of Black Arts writers and thinkers.
Because of its impressive breadth, Black Fire stands as a
definitive movement anthology.
For Malcolm X,
Poems on the Life and the Death
of Malcolm X (1969), edited by Dudley Randall and
Taylor Goss Burroughs, demonstrates the political thrust of the
movement and the specific influence of Malcolm X. There is no
comparable anthology in America poetry that focuses on a political
figure as poetic inspiration.
The Black Woman (1970), edited by Toni Cade
Bambara, is the first major Black feminist anthology and features
work by Jean Bond, Nikki Giovanni, Abbey Lincoln, Audre Lorde,
Paule Marshall, Gwen Patton, Pat Robinson, Alice Walker, Shirley
Williams, and others.
Edited by Addison Gayle, Jr.,
Aesthetic (1971) is significant because it both articulates
and contextualizes Black Arts theory. the work of writers such as
Alain Locke, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and J.A. Rogers
showcases the movement's roots in an earlier era into sections on
theory, music, fiction, poetry, and drama, Gayle's seminal
anthology features a broad array of writers who are regarded as
the chief Black Arts theorist-practitioners.
Understanding the New Black
Poetry (1972) is important not only because of the poets
included but also because of Henderson's' insightful and
unparalleled sixty-seven page overview. this is the movement's
most through exposition of a black poetic aesthetic. Insights and
lines of thought now taken for granted were first articulated in a
critical and formal context by Stephen Henderson, who proposed a
totally innovative reading of Black poetics.
New Black Voices
(1972), edited by Abraham
Chapman, is significant because its focus is specifically on the
emerging voices in addition to new work by established voices who
were active in the Black Arts movement. Unlike most anthologies,
which overlook the South, New Black Voices is
geographically representative and includes pro and con articles
side by side debating aesthetics and political theory.
The seventh book, Eugene Redmond's
The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History
(1976), is a surprisingly thorough survey that has been unjustly
neglected. Although some of his opinions are controversial (note
that in the movement controversy was normal), Redmond's era by era
and city by city cataloging of literary collectives as well as
individual writers offers an invaluable service in detailing the
movement's national scope.
The Movement's Breakup
The decline of the Black Arts movement began in
1974 when the Black power movement was disrupted and co-opted.
Black political organizations were hounded, disrupted, and
defeated by repressive government measures, such as CONINTELPRO
and IRS probes. Black Studies activist leadership was gutted and
replaced by academicians and trained administrators who were
unreceptive, if not outright opposed, to the movements political
Key internal events in the disruption were the
split between nationalists and Marxists in the African Liberation
Support Committee (May 1974), the Sixth Pan African Congress in
Tanzania where race-based struggle was repudiated/denounced by
most of the strongest forces in Africa (August 1974), and Baraka's
national organization, the Congress of Afrikan People (CAP),
officially changing from a "Pan Afrikan Nationalist" to
a "Marxist Leninist" organization (October 1974).
As the movement reeled from the combination of
external and internal disruption, commercialization and
co-option delivered the coup de grace. President Richard Nixon's
strategy of pushing Black capitalism as a response to Black Power
epitomized mainstream co-option. As major film, record, book, and
magazine publishers identified the most salable artists, the Black
Arts movement's already fragile independent economic base was
In an overwhelmingly successful effort to
capitalize on the upsurge of interest in the feminist movement,
establishment presses focused particular attention on the work of
Black women writers. Although issues of sexism had been widely and
hotly debated within movement publications and organizations, the
initiative passed from Black Arts back to the establishment.
Emblematic of the establishment overtaking (some would argue
"co-opting") Black Arts activity is Ntozake Shange's
colored girls, which in 1976 ended up on Broadway produced by
Joseph Papp even though it had been workshopped at Woodie King's
New Federal Theatre of the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower
Black Arts was not able to match the economic and
publicity offers tendered by establishment concerns.
Corporate America (both the commercial sector and
the academic sector) once again selected and propagated one or two
handpicked Black writers. During the height of Black Arts
activity, each community had a coterie of writers and there were
publishing outlets for hundreds, but once the mainstream regained
control, Black artists were tokenized. Although Black Arts
activity continued into the early 1980s, by 1976, the year of what
Gil Scott-Heron called the "Buy-Centennial," the
movement was without any sustainable and effective political or
economic bases in an economically strapped Black community.
additional complicating factor was the economic recession,
resulting from the oil crisis, which the Black community
experienced as a depression. Simultaneously, philanthropic
foundations only funded non-threatening, "arts oriented"
Neither the Black Arts nor the Black power movement ever
In addition to advocating political engagement and
independent publishing, the Black Arts movement was innovative in
its use of language. Speech (particularly, but not exclusively,
Black English), music, and performance were major elements of
Black Arts literature. Black Arts aesthetics emphasized orality,
which includes the ritual use of call and response both within the
body of the work itself as well as between artist and audience.
This same orientation is apparent in rap music and 1990s
"performance poetry" (e.g., Nuyorican Poets and poetry
While right-wing trends attempt to push America's
cultural clock back to the 1950s, Black Arts continues to evidence
resiliency in the Black community and among other marginalized
sectors. When people encounter the Black Arts movement, they are
delighted and inspired by the most audacious, prolific, and
socially engaged literary movement in America's history.
* * *
My Story, My Song (Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)
* * * *
music website >
writing website >
daily blog >
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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays
Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a
collection of fourteen essays by scholars and
creative writers from Africa and the Americas.
Called one of two significant critical works on
Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late
1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of
Carter G. Woodson and
Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as
well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations
were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early
essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish
medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an
historical context for understanding 20th-century
creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone
writers, such as Cuban
Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist,
Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the
significance of Negritude in Latin America.
This collaborative text set the tone for later
conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to
promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of
Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . .
Cited by a
literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the
field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which
most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."
* * * * *
Aké: The Years of Childhood
By Wole Soyinka
Aké: The Years of Childhood
is a memoir of stunning beauty,
humor, and perception
lyrical account of one boy's attempt
to grasp the often irrational and
hypocritical world of adults that
equally repels and seduces him.
Soyinka elevates brief anecdotes
into history lessons, conversations
into morality plays, memories into
awakenings. Various cultures,
religions, and languages mingled
freely in the Aké of his youth,
fostering endless contradictions and
personalized hybrids, particularly
when it comes to religion. Christian
teachings, the wisdom of the ogboni,
or ruling elders, and the power of
alternately terrify and inspire him
carried equal metaphysical weight.
Surrounded by such a collage, he
notes that "God had a habit of
either not answering one's prayers
at all, or answering them in a way
that was not straightforward."
In writing from a child's
perspective, Soyinka expresses
youthful idealism and unfiltered
honesty while escaping the adult
snares of cynicism and intolerance.
His stinging indictment of
colonialism takes on added power
owing to the elegance of his attack.
* * * * *
Faces At The Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism
By Derrick Bell
In nine grim metaphorical sketches, Bell, the black former Harvard law professor who made headlines recently for his one-man protest against the school's hiring policies, hammers home his controversial theme that white racism is a permanent, indestructible component of our society. Bell's fantasies are often dire and apocalyptic: a new Atlantis rises from the ocean depths, sparking a mass emigration of blacks; white resistance to affirmative action softens following an explosion that kills Harvard's president and all of the school's black professors; intergalactic space invaders promise the U.S. President that they will clean up the environment and deliver tons of gold, but in exchange, the bartering aliens take all African Americans back to their planet. Other pieces deal with black-white romance, a taxi ride through Harlem and job discrimination.
* * *
The Persistence of the Color Line
Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency
By Randall Kennedy
Among the best things about
The Persistence of the Color Line
is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the
positions about Mr. Obama staked out by
black commentators on the left and
right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel
West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley.
He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr.
Smiley consistently “voiced skepticism
regarding whether blacks should back
Obama” . . .
finest chapter in
The Persistence of the Color Line
is so resonant, and so personal, it
could nearly be the basis for a book of
its own. That chapter is titled
“Reverend Wright and My Father:
Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism.”
Recalling some of the criticisms of
America’s past made by Mr. Obama’s
former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with
feeling about his own father, who put
each of his three of his children
through Princeton but who “never forgave
American society for its racist
mistreatment of him and those whom he
His father distrusted the police, who had frequently
called him “boy,” and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedy’s
father “relished Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong
had never called him ‘nigger.’ ” The author places his
father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.
* * * * *
Salvage the Bones
A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake.
She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—
* * * * *
Captain of the Planter: The Story of
Dorothy Sterling’s biography of
Robert Smalls is
Captain of the Planter: The Story of
Robert Smalls (Garden City,
N. Y.: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1958).
In most history books, the
contributions of Negroes during the
Civil War and Reconstructions are
ignored. Robert Smalls was one of
the heroes who is rarely mentioned.
He was a Negro slave who stole a
ship from the Confederates, served
on it with the Union Army with
distinction, and finally served
several terms in Congress.
All this was accomplished against
the handicaps first of slavery, then
of the prejudice of the Union Army,
and finally of the Jim Crow laws,
which eventually conquered him.
Besides its value in contradicting
the history book insinuation that
the Negro was incapable of political
enterprise and that the South was
right in imposing Jim Crow laws,
Captain of the Planter
is an exciting adventure story.
Captain Smalls’ escape from slavery
and his battle exploits make
interesting reading, and the style
is fast moving.—Barbara
* * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
* * * * *
Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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16 July 2012