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 When I sat down next to Philly Negro Ed Bullins, my esteemed but sometimes estranged

comrade from BAM (he brought me to Harlem to join him at the New Lafayette Theatre),

he whispered, "I want to do Salaam, Huey, Salaam"



Report: BAM Conference

at Howard University March 23-24, 2006

By Marvin X


A funny thing happened when I got to Howard University for the Black Arts Movement conference but I won't reveal the dramatic event until the end of this article, just to be sequential and chronological. I came to Washington DC after some hesitation, especially when I read the internet conversation on ChickenBones suggesting a boycott of the conf was in order. But I decided to attend after receiving generous sponsorship from the Oakland Post Newspaper Group and San Francisco Recovery Theatre.

I arrived in DC a day early and settled in at my longtime friend's gallery on Bunker Hill Road. Baba Lumumba (Don Freeman, brother of Kenny Freeman) was co-founder of Soulbook magazine, one of the most radical 60s publication, associated with RAM or the Revolutionary Action Movement, headed by Robert Williams (Negroes with Guns) and Max Stanford or Muhammad Ahmed. Like myself, Baba is an angry old man but still doing revolutionary things. His Umoja House Gallery is a safe house and free thought zone for revolutionary black nationalism and pan-Africanism. Although Baba was not scheduled to participate and for various reasons didn't want to attend, on the second day of the conf I dragged him to Howard and he was immediately drafted to be on the Revolutionary Nationalism panel. But let me describe day one.

I missed the first session on the Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron. I had talked with Omar Ben Hasan of the Last Poets who didn't know about the conference, nor was he invited. At least he was the subject of a paper. I had talked with Sonia Sanchez who was invited but couldn't attend due to a schedule conflict.

When I arrived, a scholar was reading a paper on Amiri Baraka's poem Black Dada Nihilismus written on the eve of his departure from Greenwich Village and coming to Harlem. It tells of his despair and budding political consciousness. There was also a paper on legendary writer Henry Dumas who was killed by a New York policeman on the subway. The magical and supernatural writings of Dumas is the primary source of Toni Morrison's fiction, including Song of Solomon, Tar Baby and Beloved.

Indeed, while at Random House, Tony edited a collection of his work. The audience asked why was such an important writer largely unknown, which is true for many BAM writers who didn't achieve the commercial success of say Baraka, Giovanni, Sanchez and Haki. But BAM was a national movement, so there are many writers who remain underground, many unpublished, certainly by the commercial press. It is for BAM scholars to discover them and make them known to the public. This was one purpose of the conference. In my own case, I am confronted by people who never heard of me after forty years on the case.

I failed to mention upon entering the conference room I saw playwright Ed Bullins who co-founded Black Arts West Theatre, San Francisco, 1966, along with Duncan Barber, Hillery Broadus, Ethna Wyatt and Myself. Later Ed joined me at Black House, along with Eldridge Cleaver who funded it. Ethna Wyatt was there as well. Before I got to Ed, I shook hands with Roy Lewis, the photographer who chronicled the 60s, including the Civil Rights movement, BAM and the Black Liberation Movement (BLM).

He later showed me his classic photos of John Coltrane, Martin Luther King, Elijah Muhammad, Muhammad Ali, Baraka, Sonia, Haki and others. Roy Lewis was mainly posted in the Chicago area. Photographers Doug Harris and St. Clair Borne covered the New York area.

A few seats down from Ed was another gentleman I recognized, James Spady, our most radical literary critic. Spady is so informed he would later fill in any and all gaps in the knowledge of the presenters with a very factual and balanced response, no matter if the topic was feminism or whatever. Spady is a jewel in our community. Have you ever heard of him? Like BAM heavyweights Ed Bullins, Larry Neal and Charles Fuller (A Soldiers Story), Spady is a Philadelphia Negro.

When I sat down next to Philly Negro Ed Bullins, my esteemed but sometimes estranged comrade from BAM (he brought me to Harlem to join him at the New Lafayette Theatre), he whispered, "I want to do Salaam, Huey, Salaam," his play about my last meeting with Huey P. Newton in an Oakland Crack house. I replied, "Hell, Ed, just give me some money." He said, "Let's step into the hall," which we did.

Ed and I have had a nasty relationship since he made a one-act play out of my material, but I told him out in the hall, "Man, we too old to be tripping." Indeed, Ed is 72 and I will be 62 in May.

Conference papers can be boring, so I slept through a paper on women writers in BAM. Sisters forgive me, although I did hear the paper by Carmen Phelps on Chicago women writers Carolyn Rogers and Johari Amini, and of course Gwen Brooks was part of the discussion. These women are critical to any discussion of BAM, especially a regional dialogue. Again, BAM was national with outposts in the midwest, east, west and south. And each region had nuances on the general theme of liberation, nationhood, radical esthetics and consciousness.

Rod Hernandez gave a talk on the connection between BAM and Latino writers, such as Victor Hernandez Cruz, Felipe Lucdiano of the Last Poets, Avotcha and others.

I say this multi-racial connection happened toward the end of BAM, circa 1975, because we must understand BAM was black nationalist and any attempt to paint it otherwise is incorrect and revisionist. Now early on, Felipe did join the Last Poets, but when Avotcha came to the Black House in 1967, she came as an African American rather than a Puerto Rican, as if there is a great difference. My point is that we cannot make a black movement into a multi-cultural movement. We can't say the Asia Arts movement was a black movement, even though it was inspired by BAM. Asian poet Janice Mirikitani (Mrs. Cecil Williams) tells everyone, "It was the poetry of Marvin X that awakened me to my ethnicity."

One of the major achievements of BAM was that it forced recognition of ethnic literature in the field of American literature. After all, what or who is more American than African American. As James Baldwin put it, "We're the only thing that happened here." And Baraka notes English literature happened in England. To understand the American experience through literature, one must begin with slave narratives along with the folk literature of Native Americans, Latinos and Asians. We don't hear the American language in the general or white American narrative until Huck Finn.

Amy Abugo Ongiri discussed the BAM classic anthology Black Fire, 1968, edited by Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Larry Neal, the iconic philosopher of BAM, who clarified BAM was the sister of the Black Power or Black Liberation Movement, although I maintain BAM was like the mother because activists gained consciousness in BAM then joined the BLM. For example, Bobby Seale performed in my plays before he created the BPP. Before joining the BPP, Eldridge Cleaver was in Black House with Ed Bullins and myself.

And Black House was the BAM cultural center, and no matter how much Eldridge disdained us cultural workers, he was there among us: Baraka, Sanchez, Chicago Arts Ensemble, Avotcha, Sara Webster Fabio, Reginald Lockett. The Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglass came to Black House looking for something to do, as did Samuel Napier, who became the Black Panther minister of distribution for their newspaper.

George Murray performed in Baraka's communication project at San Francisco State College (now University) before becoming the BPP minister of education. Again, BAM was the mother who gave consciousness to the political activists.

 Part 2

On Friday, I arrived with Baba Lumumba in tow, kicking and screaming as angry old men are known to do. We had agreed to arrive in time for the session on Revolutionary Nationalism. When we arrived, Dr. Dana Williams requested my presence on the panel since scheduled speakers were absent. Initially, she asked me, but I referred her to Baba as the authority on Revolutionary Nationalism. When Baba agreed, I thought I was home free, but Dana said she wanted me as well, so I submitted, since she was a BAM scholar, tall, fine, Chocolate City sister. Point of information: I was informed the ratio of women to men at Howard is 14 to 1. Lord, let me die in DC.

Well, let's be real, DC has the highest  HIV/AIDS rate in the US, so one must be careful. Furthermore, see Sunday's Washington Post article, "Marriage is for White People."

Our panel began with a paper by Amy Washburn on Assata Shakur, a feminist approach to BAM/BLM, saying we often dehumanized women, degendered them, although Assata was indomitable in the tradition of Harriet Tubman who said, "I could have freed more slaves if they had known they were slaves."

Baba followed her by attempting to correct some of the distortions and revisions in BAM/BLM history, since he was there, and as per the BPP, he was a part of the rival Northern California Chapter of the Black Panther Party. In his back pocket, he had a letter from the BPP to their rivals. In fact, he said, the BPP was initiated by Robert F. Williams (Negroes With Guns) and Max Stanford (Muhammad Ahmed) of the Revolutionary Action Movement who wanted an over-ground group to work with their underground movement. Kwame Toure took the black panther symbol from Clarke College for the symbol of the Lowndes County Freedom Democratic Party, and it was later adopted by the BPP.

Baba claimed the BPP legacy was no different from the Crips and Bloods: they romanticized the gun, turning it against the community (see the article Murder, Inc. by David Horowitz on the internet) rather than the enemy whom they had no hope of defeating. The BPP became the cult of the field negro or the Lumpen and they were directed against the intellectuals and artists, considered bourgeois nationalists. The BPP sold drugs, used drugs and functioned as gangstas. Huey was a drug dealer/user before, during and after the BPP. He died as he lived.

BAM/BLM people were not holy, as English department chair and conference host, Dr. Eleanor Traynor warned her young scholars as they research BAM/BLM (let's be clear, BAM and BLM are essentially indistinguishable—it was a merging of the artist/activist. Often the pen was mightier than the sword, i.e. gun. Even today, Fidel Castro recently said, "The weapon of today is not guns—it is consciousness."

But in response to my comrade Baba, I say we needed crazy nigguhs bold enough to confront American terrorism in the form of police, FBI, KKK and the military/industrial complex in general. One brother says BAM/BLM gave our people breathing space from oppression, if only for a moment—the artists/activists absorbed the pain of the oppressors so our people could see a better day.

And they did until opportunists seized the time, enough to derail our work and destruct the movement for decades, just as hip hop has been destroyed by unconscious rap and bling bling, i.e., get rich or die trying, as if our ancestors arrived here for crass materialism, gangsterism and pimpism. We were brought here to do a job and if a job is still our ultimate mission in America, then we are an insult to our ancestors who came from independent nations, enjoyed freedom, self-determination and sovereignty.

Baba called the feminist ideology divisive and setting the movement back by openly declaring that women suffered more from their gender than black men. He said black feminists believe they can create a movement around their gender while denying black men the privilege to be masculinists (well, they do allow men to be masculine feminists, mx), thus they refuse to face the contradictions of  a gender-based movement within the black liberation movement.

Indeed, if the ratio of women to men is 14 to 1 at Howard, imagine what the message is about the societal destruction of men. Finally, I say slavery and colonialism are about the suppression of manhood and womanhood, thus they are of equal importance—essentially oppression is about the destruction of a people—men, women and children. So what does gender have to do with it? Clearly though, the first objective of the enemy is to destroy the men—look at the daily news from Iraq to see what gender is the object of mass murder by the US military, insurgents, and militias.

I began my remarks on Revolutionary Nationalism by suggesting how Islam was a driving force in BAM/BLM, not only from the influence of Malik Shabazz, Malcolm X, but also through the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Master Fard Muhammad, Noble Drew Ali, even Marcus Garvey (One God, One Aim, One Destiny).

There was a Sunni influenced through musicians too numerable to name: Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Yusef Latif, Rashid Ali, Dakota Statan, Ahmad Jamal and a host of others. There was a Sufi connection through the writings of Hazrat Inayat Khan that many BAM writers studied.

As Sonia Sanchez said to me recently, "Marvin we were all Muslims in BAM, or Muslim influenced. Islam altered the mythology and ritual of black America. In BAM it was expressed in the writings of Sanchez (Laila Mannan), Baraka, Henry Dumas (see his story Fon), Askia Muhammad Toure, Marvin X and others.

Islam replaced Christian ritual, although BAM sought to recreate the energy of the black Christian ritual in our attempt to formulate a ritual theatre as expounded by Robert Macbeth at the New Lafayette theatre, Barbara Ann Teer's National Black Theatre and my own Black Educational Theatre (Resurrection of the Dead, a myth-ritual dance drama. On Friday, I added that not only did Islam influence BAM, but BAM is now being acknowledged as the beginning of Muslim American literature.

There is a forthcoming anthology by Dr. Mohja Khaf of the University of Arkansas, Muslim American Literature, that advances this thesis. Indeed, she claims "Marvin X is the father of Muslim American literature."

posted 27 March 2006

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