The Black Aesthetic

Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on MSA’s literary arts blog, curated by junior and senior literary arts students.

The Black Arts Movement, also known as The Black Aesthetic Movement, was a period (1965-1975) were politically driven black artists challenged racism through their craft. The assassination of Malcolm x in 1965 was the catalyst for The Black Arts Movement. The supporters of the Black Panther Party divided into two groups: Revolutionary Nationalists and Cultural Nationalists. Revolutionary Nationalists identify as the Black Panther Party, and Cultural Nationalists used the arts to exposed racism. The goal for the Cultural Nationalists was to demonstrate black pride and to achieve freedom through the art of writing, dancing, acting, singing, visual art, and music.

The Black Arts Repertory theater parading the streets.

Amiri Baraka, an accomplished African American writer, moved from his home in Manhattan to Harlem. Baraka opened up the first Black Arts Repertory Theater and School (BARTS).  He visualized BARTS to be an art school catered to and from the black community.  In the theatre segment, all of BARTS performances were written and performed by African American artists. In the literature segment, BARTS artists created poetry, novels, plays and published many extraordinary works. BARTS was the first establishment of The Black Art Movement, and even though it operated for only a year, BARTS attracted many artists. It also provided a fine example to others and broaden the BAM movement across the nation.

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Amiri Baraka on the cover of Negro Digest

The Black Arts Movement began in Harlem with BARTS but quickly expanded to the states: Illinois, Detroit, and California. For instance, John Johnson and Hoyt Fuller published Negro Digest,  a magazine that promoted black writers, in Chicago, Illinois. Also in 1969, Robert Chirsman and Nathan Hare created The Black ScholarThe Black Scholar was the first scholarly journal to print academic African American studies.

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Cover of The Black Scholar 1969

However, music was also a detriment part of the BAM, specifically, jazz. Cultural Nationalists saw that they could use jazz as a political source; as a result, many jazz musicians and poets collaborated.  This created a new genre of literature and music: Jazz Poetry. Here is a video of the infamous jazz poet, Jayne Cortez, reciting her works. Experience the amazing collaboration of her spoken word poetry and jazz.

The Black Aesthetic 

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Ntozake Shange posing outside of a theater that is showing her choreopoem: For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide /When the Rainbow is Enuf.

Now after reading all this, you may be wondering, “What is the black aesthetic?” During the Black Arts Movement the term ‘Black Aesthetic’ was used to describe works of literature, music, art, and theater that captured African American culture. With the BAM came a new way to express their work, that, black artists created. Writers like Ntozake Shange didn’t confine to westernized, European English nor did she let anything limit her creativity. In her writing, she wrote by her own rules and communicated her craft by using, what we know today as, African American Vernacular English.

In all, there isn’t one exact way to define ‘Black Aesthetic’. It means many things in various ways. According to Tate.org the black aesthetic means, “a cultural ideology that developed in America alongside the civil rights movement in the 1960s and promoted black separatism in the arts.”

However, I believe that the ‘Black Aesthetic’ doesn’t promote black separatism in the arts. Simply because black culture is an art, in itself. I believe it radiates off the walls; it is in the air you breathe. Black art is everywhere; therefore, it is impossible to separate it from anything that is true art. I believe that the ‘Black Aesthetic’ has more to do with the black identity. When you disregard the rules, and barriers that have been placed on you as an artist. When you have decided to create by your own rules and standards. To me, that is the ‘Black Aesthetic’.

Ten influential artist who were apart of the Black Arts Movement

1. Sonia Sanchez

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2. Gwendolyn Brooks

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3. June Jordan

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4. Benny Andrews

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5. Kay Brown

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6. Nikki Giovanni

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7. Amiri Baraka

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8. Dr. John Henrik Clarke

9. Rosa Guy

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10. Wanda Coleman

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