ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Once having had a writer like Baldwin lay bare the corrupt morality of America,
and in so complete and thorough a manner, a way was paved for another dynamic
Books by Larry Neal
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Larry Neal Speaks
on the Black Arts as Folk-Based & Directed at Black People
Corruption: A Matter of Life & Death
What Miss Hansberry seems to be saying and somebody must say it, is that the issue is not one of high ideals, but really of life and death. That what Modern Man is faced with is really survival, and that what we must recognize is that where there is corruption nothing survives: love, nobility, idealism, nothing; and like the ancient Hebrews, we must seek corruption out and destroy it viciously and relentlessly.
Review of Loraraine Hansberrys The Sign in Sidney Brusteins Window. Liberator IV, 12 (December 1964), p. 25.
Official Opening of Black Arts: April 30, 1965
The Black Arts officially opened their school on April 30th with an explosive evening of good poetry. (See April Liberator) I say explosive because the black community has not really been exposed to the work of her sons and daughters who, for a myriad of reasons, have been busy elsewhere. The idea behind . . . this event . . . is to open a dialogue between the artist and his people, rather than between the artist and the dominant white society which is responsible for his alienation.
When one hears the poetry of Rolland Snellings, David Henderson, Calvin Hernton, and the other fine poets represented that night, one is certain that soon there will be no need for a dialogue, but that the artist and the community will be one voice wedded in an assault on racist America.
I believe that the highlight of the Black Arts weekend was the short parade which it held on Saturday morning in Harlem. Imagine Jazz musicians, African dancing, and a group of groovy black people swinging down Lenox Avenue; while every body freely plays their instruments, and fine black girls give out bright yellow circulars that say: THE BLACK ARTS IS COMING!. It was Garvey all over again. It was informal and spontaneous and should illustrate something of the potential for creative encounter existing in our community.
The Cultural Front, Liberator, V, 6 (June 1965), pp. 26-27.
The Proper Role of Black Literature: Speaking to Black People
The writing had become the voice of the educated Negro pleading with white America for justice. The writing was external to the lives of educated Negroes themselves. The best of this writing was rarely addressed to the Negro, his needs, his sufferings, his aspirations. . . .
Here is the criterion on which this series is based. It is precisely here that almost all Afro-American literature has failed. Our literature has succumbed to the role of merely providing entertainment to white people. We have failed to create a dynamic body of Afro-American literature, addressed, as Wright suggests, to the suffering, needs, and aspirations of Black people.
The Black writer is, generally, caught up in the artistic standard of Western capitalistic society. He is a divided person, confused between loyalty to his own people or to the oppressing society. His is a desire to be accepted on his own terms. Rather than on those forced upon him by white critics and others who are not aware of his problems. Every Black writer is, somehow, engaged in a battle with himself to discover his own dynamic vis-a-vis his status as an artist and a member of an oppressed group.The Black Writers Role: Richard Wright, Liberator, V, 12 (December, 1965), pp. 20-22.
The Spiritual Destructive Aspects of American Education
LeRoi, [was] born in the mid-thirties. . . . They [had] almost a cosmic desire to tear out of the value system that their parents had so much faith in. Large numbers of this generation had the benefits of a college education. Like Jones they were sent off to obtain an education which would insure them more freedom and success, more security than their parents, and a greater share of the American pie. But for the Negro, education is full of interesting paradoxes. While the system exposes its good face, its ugly one also comes into view. And because the American educational system is basically antagonistic to the Black mans needs, the student with any degree of sensitivity is able to discern the spiritually destructive aspects of the situation in which he finds himself. For those who refuse to accept illusions, there is rebellion.The Development Of LeRoi Jones (Part I) Liberator, VI 1 January, 1966), 4-5.
The Futility of Protest Literature That Pleads with Whites
LeRoi Jones called Malcolm a poet. I agree . . . Malcolm has had a profound influence on the young; especially writers and artists. This influence was not especially linked to any wholesale conversion to Islam; although the necessity of having a workable spiritual code played a part in Black youths attraction to Malcolm. Most of us who turned to Malcolm did so out of a sense of the utter futility of the civil rights protest movement. . . . We began to question the basic premises on which the movement was built, and when we did, the results looked bleak and sinister.Malcolm and the Conscience of Black America, Liberator, VI, 2 (February, 1966), pp. 10-11.
The Need for a New Literary Tradition
Once having had a writer like Baldwin lay bare the corrupt morality of America, and in so complete and thorough a manner, a way was paved for another dynamica new force was unleashed among younger Black writers which had as its purpose an internal dialogue among Black people. Baldwins impassioned essays and shrill outcries were directed primarily at white America. Hence, he joined the tradition of pleading with white America for the humanity of the negro; instead of addressing himself to Black people and their problems. . . .
The only way humanity can find real substance is by placing it at the center of the collective spirit of the group. The myth and folklore, that you write about Ellison, must be turned inward and explored in all of its dimensions by our own people. For you are talking to white people about a humanity, the existence of which, some Negroes question themselves. . . .
The Negro writer did not evolve as an expression of needs of the community, but merely to express his individual suffering and estrangement from his environment. This was not true of the folk performer, the blues singers, the storyteller, and the folksinger. They were an integral of the community, its voice and consciousness, the bearers of myth and religion . . . in order for the Negro to develop his craft, it was necessary for him to adopt a Western attitude toward his role as an artist . . . to seek out forms the whites would evaluate artistically. . . . The writers must grapple with the question of control and dissemination of his work . . . consequently, the real revolution in Black literature is occurring . . .The Black Writers Role: James Baldwin, Liberator, VI, 4 (April 1966), pp. 10-11, 18.
The Need for a Folk-Based Literature That Speaks back to the People
Who is the Black writers audience? Who are we writing forour neo-colonialist masters or our own people? Finally, this question transcends that of craft and form. Specifically, although it may seem obvious, all creative artists obtain their idea of excellence from some standardsome isolatable set of values and judgments. Lamming had spent two hours discussing Black literature with no discernible audience in mind. But his answer to the question, are the people of the West Indies reading your work indicates that Lamming is not unaware that he finds himself in a rather complicated trick.
These remarks are not to be taken as an attack on Lamming. Most of us are in the same situation, but have refused to be as honest as Lamming. Few of us have accepted the responsibilities of directing our work to the needs of our people. Most of us simply seek entrance into the establishment; thereby, never completely developing a literature that mirrors the manifold realities of Black America. Essentially, we are a glorified proletariat accepting an occasional crumb from the tables of the establishmentan establishment which has yet to concede that our work has anything but exotic value.
Under such conditions, the Black writer is another variation of the court jestera literary Stepinfechit performing for an audience of white onlookers. . . .
The recent Negro Arts Festival in Dakar immediately comes to mind. There, hundreds of artists of African descent came to what could have been a most significant event. Only, they found that it was constructed to attract everyone but Black people. The performances were attended by ninety-percent European and American whites; while the bulk of the Senegalese people either could not afford the festival, or were somehow discouraged from going. And Senghor can glibly write about negritude and African Socialism.
The so-called Harlem Renaissance of the Twenties, although it produced a few excellent writers, is an example of a similar phenomenon, maybe its the archetype. This Renaissance occurred at a time when white America, in a wild search for the unusual and exotic, came up to Harlem to watch extravagant productions at places like the Cotton Club, where Black people were not allowed. Many writersBlack and whitecapitalized on this sudden interest in Afro-American culture by producing a literature which simply titillated the suppressed sexual urges of White America.
Meanwhile, significant Black talent like Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, and Claude McKay were never fully allowed to develop a deeply rooted Afro-American literature. Very few of our children grow up embracing the poems of Langston Hughes, or the folk-oriented stories of Zora Neale Hurston. Hence, there is a concrete relationship between the overt socio-economic oppression of the Black masses, and the suppression of their legitimate culture. . . .
There is a new Afro-American literature in the process of developing. It has its antecedents in Afro-American folk culture, the folktales, blues, spirituals, and the unrecorded and recorded oral history of the people. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison, to name a few, have attempted to explore this culture for all of its possibilities and ramifications.
There is, however, a wider area of possibilities; and the more one proceeds towards them, the more profound is the contact with the essential reality of the Black man in the West. It is this kind of contact with fundamentals that makes Ellisons Invisible Man one of the most significant novels of the twentieth century.
It should be clear that I am not advocating a folk literature per se. Rather I am asserting the existence of a valid folk culture. That is, a primary culture which underlines the so-called higher levels of culture. . . . The best work of these writers grows out of the spirit of the race and is rooted in the manifold experiences of an oppressed people.The Black Writers Role, Liberator, VI, 6 (June, 1966), pp. 7-9.
The Need for a Model Form of Cultural Nationalism
According to Western aesthetics, art and life are separate; art has no function save to entertain. Outside of the Western world view, however, the function of art is to make man stronger, to make it more possible for man to understand the nature of the world he sees around him, and finally to shape that world into a more meaningful entity. Art and life are therefore integral to each other; and since life is change in this cosmological view, art must be change. There is no need to worry about permanence in the sense that things can be deep frozen forever. The universe is in motion. . . .
What is the function of criticism? It is merely a way into things. And it is important only insofar as it relates to the nature of the changing world. There are, consequently, no steadfast critical values. Most western critical assumptions deny change. It is for this reason that we must discard them. We must develop our own critical methodology, one that is more nearly related to the condition in which we find ourselves. We must first understand and utilize our own culture as the basis for the creation of art. Otherwise, it will be impossible to add anything new to the concept of the universe. . . .
I fully understand Cruses point of attack. I, myself, wrote a series of articles several years ago in Liberator on Black writers that dealt with the same subject.
But given the understanding of any kind of historical analysis. Cruses attack is somewhat unwarranted because, until recently, there existed no viable form of Black nationalism, culturally or politically, that a sophisticated group of creative artists could adhere to.
The reason that previous generations of Black writers were never able to develop a viable cultural nationalism rests not with the writers themselves per se, but with the social, artistic, and political context in which they found themselves. No one had developed a model form of cultural nationalism that those writers could follow.
The writers of the Harlem Renaissance were caught in the euphoria of suddenly having been discovered by the white intelligentsia; the thirties were dominated by leftwing ideologies, and most importantly, as Cruse notes, Garvey himself lacked a cultural philosophy. Therefore, there were no nationalistic models. (The only writer whose work seems consistently based on a nationalistic model is Langston Hughes, but he was a poet, not a theoretician.) Consequently, Claude McKay, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Julian Mayfield, and a great many other writers moved toward what they considered to be viable ideologythe ideology of the American leftwing, which for all its faults, posited a theory of social change.”Cultural Nationalism and Black Theatre/Two On Cruse: View of the Black Intellectual, Black Theatre, 1 (1968), pp. 8-10.
A Collective Sense of Who We Are
We bear witness to a profound change in the way we now see ourselves and the world. And this has been an ongoing change. A steady certain march toward a collective sense of who we are, and what we must now be about to liberate ourselves. Liberation is impossible if we fail to see ourselves in more positive terms. For without a change of vision, we are slaves to the oppressors ideas and valuesideas and values that finally attack the very core of our existence. Therefore, we must see the world in terms of our own realities.Black Art and Black Liberation, Ebony Magazine (August 1969), pp. 54-56.
An Art That Addresses Itself Directly to Black People
So when we speak of an esthetic, we mean more than the process of making art, of telling stories, of writing poems, of performing plays. We also mean the destruction of the white thing. We mean the destruction of white ways of looking at the world. For surely, if we assert that Black people are fighting for liberation, then everything that we are about, as people, somehow relates to it.
Let me be more precise: When artists like LeRoi Jones, Quincy Troupe, Stanley Crouch, Joe Goncalves, Etheridge Knight, Sonia Sanchaz, Ed Spriggs, Carolyn Rodgers, Don L. Lee, Sun Ra, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Willie Kgositsile, Arthur Pfister. . . . assert that Black Art must speak to the lives and the psychic survival of Black people, they are not speaking of protest art. They are not speaking of an art that screams and masturbates before white audiences. That is the path of Negro literature and civil rights literature.
No, they are not speaking about that kind of thing, even though that is what some Negro writers of the past have done. Instead, they are speaking of an art that addresses itself directly to Black people; an art that speaks to us in terms of our feelings and ideas about the world; an art that validates the positive aspects of our life style.
Dig: An art that opens us up to the beauty and ugliness within us; that makes us understand our condition and each other in a more profound manner; that unites us, exposing us to our painful weaknesses and strengths; and finally an art that posits for us the Vision of a Liberated Future.Black Art and Black Liberation, Ebony Magazine (August 1969), pp. 54-56.
Ethics & Aesthetics
The Black Arts movement is rooted in a spiritual ethic. In saying that the function of art is to liberate Man, we propose a function for art which is now dead in the west and which is in keeping with our most ancient traditions and with our needs. Because, at base, art is religious and ritualistic; and ritual moves to liberate Man and to connect him to the Greater Forces. Thus Man becomes stronger psychically, and is thus more able to create a world that is an extension of his spiritualityhis positive humanity. We say that the function of art is to liberate Man. And we only have to look out of the window to see that we need liberation. Right on, brothers. And God Shango, help us. . . .
Merely to point out to Black people the economic and political nature of our oppression is not enough. Why is it not enough? It is so because people are more than just the sum total of economic and political factors. Man must exist on a more cosmic plane than that. This is what Cecil Taylor, Phil Cochran, Aretha Franklin, Milford Graves, Abdul Rahman, James Snead, Loften Mitchell, Evan Walker, Ed Bullins, Ron Milner, Maya Angelou, Jacob Lawrence, Tony Northern, Charlie Fuller, Romare Bearden, Eleo Pomare, Judi Dearing, John Parks and all of the names I have forgotten teach us. Yeah.Black Art and Black Liberation, Ebony Magazine (August 1969), pp. 54-56.
Source: The above quotations were extracted from the article “The Achievement of Larry Neal” by Eleanor Traylor. In Callaloo 23 Volume 8, no. 1 (1985), pp. 11-35. the quotations retain Dr. Traylor’s documentation but do not occur in the same order as they appear in her articles. Here they are presented in the order in the time period in which they were published.
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“Black Boogaloo” Polemical & Literary Poems
I remember we did the the Jitterbug and the Strand and all those dances in the 1940s (late 1940s) and the 1950s. There was something about the Boogaloo. So I was trying to make a statement about culture, and I was trying to make a statement revolution in the title poem of the book. It’s kind of a young poet’s poem. It’s a poem to revolution; it’s a cultural revolution poem; and it’s kind of an anarchistic poem. I always thought of it as a poster poem rather than as a literary poem. I still see it that way, as a poem you post on wall. I wrote it during a period when I was trying to be polemicalI was about a polemic voiceand I’m glad I went through that period now, because it gives a lot of strength to have a position like that; it gives me a lot of strength now when I want to get into some fairly literary questions. . . .
I was very much influenced by Yoruba religious beliefs and Yoruba mythology in the 1960s. As a matter of fact, my wife and I were married by an African-American Yoruba priest. At least culturally I was very much interested in the Yorubas, and I still am, although I haven’t had a chance to do all the reading I want. I went to Nigeria in 1971. . . .
I definitely wanted a tone that was sort of religious in spirit but one that wasn’t coming strictly out of the gospel or spiritual. I wanted a tone that was religious but felt oldan old feeling that ran through it. Now I’m working consciously with rhythms, and there may be some influence of African poets in there, because, by that time, I had read Senghor and Césaire and Damas; I had read the Negritude poets. There may even be a lit bit of Gerald Manley Hopkins in there, too, because he was one of my favorite poetsone of my favorite nineteenth century poets. At one point, I decided I wanted to try to work with the African rhythms or rhythmic patterns that I didn’t see or hear in Anglo-American poetry. I’m also again trying to get at an emotional power which black poets seem to be afraid of getting at. I was trying to break down that barrier, to find my voice. . . .
I had come out of a very serious personal thing in the 1960s. I had been in the Movement, and I had been in the Revolutionary Action Movement, which is like an underground movementRAM. We were very much committed to African ideas and to African liberation and to Afro-American liberation and to African culture and to African perceptions. So the whole revolutionary background is in the poems. And then there was the broken love affair hanging in the air. A girl I was really in love with . . . you know, losing her. the pain of losing her, in some of these poems, is really just like a whine to call this woman back. It shaped a lot of my work. So a lot of that’s there, too. . . .
I don’t feel the same way about them today as I did, but at the time they were written they were very important for me to write. I had to write them. . . . We were looking for a big feeling; we were really trying to connect. I was aware of a whole kind of cosmology of love that I had never dealt with before, and I was aware of it. I was trying to sing to all of that . . .
What I like in Hopkins is the energy, and he and Dylan Thomas are the two strongest influences on me in Western world literature. They’re stronger than the Anglo-American poets. I like the strange imagery of Thomas. I think in very strange imagery, you know; I always had a very strange way of thinking about images, so Thomas would appeal to me that way. I like Hopkins’ “Pied beauty” (“Glory be to God for dappled things. . . .”) and his “The Windhover.” And there’s his poem about “Spring.” All of the alliteration in Hopkins wiped me out when I read “The Windhover.” There’s a certain kind of magnificence and scope in Hopkins. I just envy that scope, and I want to riff off that scope in my own Afro-American language.
“Libations for Olorum” Apocalypse & the Birth of a New World
It’s a contorted poem, I remember, and it’s packed. Stanley Crouch likes that poem, too; he liked the imagery in that poem. I saw an end it was apocalyptic. I was apocalyptic, and I still am. I have to watch myself sometimes. I question whether or not that is an image that can be furthered in terms of humanity. The image of the apocalypse. I was constantly haunted by the image. In the 1960s, a lot of us really felt that something was going to happen. There was always a sense that something was always going to happenthat something bad was going to happen. Maybe it was the influence of Max Stanford, who was a good friend of mine. he always carried this image around. Max Stanford, Askia Muhammad Touré, and Al Haynes were friends of mine; we all were together. We all believed that there was going to be some kind of apocalypse, some kind of final end, that was just going to come down. Maybe such an idea is romantic. But in light of what was happening in the world, it was quite rational in many ways.
Then Watts came, and the assassination took place. I had seen Malcolm X killed right before my very eyes. We had a sense of our own doom; we had a sense that would be set up by someone, or implicated for a crime or something, and trapped, or that we would be killed. It was that feelingor paranoia there, too, to a certain extent. But I think it was a vision of another world, a world where black people were free. I had another poem that reaches for the same kind of vision, that reaches for the vision of freedom. There was a struggle to get to it though. That’s what the poem is about. There is a struggle with the angel in that poems, “Who is her lover?” The angel of the sword or the poet of the guitar? Is it the angel of war or the singer? . . .
The poem is the Earth Mother, too. . . . I never analyze my own poems. . . . Who will own this earth? will the poets and the singers own this fucking thing? Now will the generals be running every goddamn thing? Naturally, I’m pulling for the singers. . . . I don’t know if that my romantic thing. . . . I’d studied the romantics, you know. I don’t know if that was my Shelley talking to me there or not.
“Love Song: Middle Passage”Polemical Stances, Poetic Vision
Some of those poems are concessions in some sense to a certain kind of militant posture that I felt I had to have, you know? Well, they’re polemics. Some of them are polemical stances mixed in with a poetic vision. they’re also counter-statements to the idea that we have to love everybody . . . that we must love everybody. I wasn’t a follower of [Martin Luther] King’s ideas, but I would defend him as a man of humanity. . . . There was something about us, or there was something in the situation which demanded that. It might be the influence of Frantz fanon because we were reading fanon then. . . .
We’re clearly in the Middle Passage. The Middle Passage is symbolic of our condition now. We’re in the Middle Passage now rather than the Middle Passage of the past. It’s a good polemic poem in one sense, because I pull up images like McNamara and the ICBMs and all that shit, which I’m very glad I did. I’m very glad that those polemics, that those poems, took a stance at the time. Just the way [Pablo] Neruda takes a stance against United Fruit Company. In some poems you have to be very blunt even with the chance of being awkward. Now there is a literary school that would flinch at that kind of bluntness, but there’re certain statements that need to be made at a certain time. You take the leap and you make the statement. they may haunt you later, but you make them.
“For Our Women”A Need for Celebration
The poem . . . is trying to celebrate the idea of black woman-ness. Not a particular black woman, but the idea of black womannessby extension, the idea of femaleness in the universe. The idea of the female principle, in one sense, is what’s out there. the strength of all those women, the strength of the women who gave us the great men, the strength of those women in people singing the blues, the strength of those women that are represented by the Harriet Tubmans and the Sojourner Truths and the Margaret walkers and the Billie Holidays, and all of those fantastically beautiful people. There’s a sense that black women hadn’t really been celebrated much before the 1960s. If you go back and check it out in the poetry, you’ll discover a few things here and there. You have Langston Hughes’ “When Susanna Jones Wears Red,” There was equivocation; there was somebody [Waring Cuney] who began a poem with “She does not know her beauty.” . . .
I wanted a cosmic image, in other words. I wanted to make the images larger than sociological images. . . . So it was ‘you came out of this earth, out of the earth you came.” . . . The women as earth symbols . . . and there they were in all their magnificence, these women. You saw them. Some of us saw these women suddenly.
“For Black Writers and Artists in Exile”Looking for the “City of Light”
Well, that was an early, early poem. it was written in 1964. I think I date it; maybe I didn’t date it. But in my new bookHodoo Hollerin’ Bebop Ghosts, which is coming out in the spring from Howard University press–I think I dated that poem. It was originally published in Negro Digest in 1964. That’s a poem about exile. Isn’t it? We go from New York. We go over to Paris. I had Richard Wright in mind, and I had James Baldwin in mind. I had Chester Himes. William Gardner Smith, and all of those legions of black artists and writers who went to Europe looking for the “City of Light,” and they found that it wasn’t there, and were frustrated. I think it goes on “until form becomes, or life dances to incoherent conclusion,” or something like that.
“Don’t Say Goodbye to Pork-Pie Hat”No Voice Like That
Ellison to me is one of the great living artists and writers in the world . . . But I learned from Ellison, and I learned from Langston Hughes, and particularly I learned a lot from the jazz world. That’s a big influence on me. I grew up in Philadelphia with the Bebop sound. I grew up in a good time to hear a lot of good music, both the old and the new. The musicians were my biggest heroes; my heroes had always been musicians. In fact, I’m finishing up a play now about a musician going to Philadelphia in 1945. So I’ve got a heavy thing about this music that I’ve had a long time. The pork-pie hat was Lester Young’s symbol; he was best known for the pork-pie hats sometimes. I had Langston Hughes in mind, and I had Lester Young in mind . . . otherwise known as Prez. The title comes from a song by Charles Mingus called “Goodbye to the Pork-Pie Hat.”
Now I added the “don’t.” I took it further; I took it on out. I took it into a kind of . . . what would you call that poem? It’s like a free-wielding solo, like a solo, like a horn solo, if you will, that sort of riffs. The whole poem is about riffing and traveling and moving through the landscape of the musician, and it ends up in a kind of jazz solo exchange. The hat was just a nice metaphor for these cats. I could see these musicians flying through space with a horn. It was supposed to be kind of humorous tooto a certain extent. Almost like Lester Young, or somebody of that stature, reigning above the worldreigning above it and singing their song. And their son was all these memories and all those freight trains and all those blues whistles and all those clubs and all those stops and all those womenjust the color and magnificence of all that I was trying to capture and to celebrate. Actually I tried to celebrate the jazz musician.
I don’t know about the symbol so muchbut the hat is the musician, and the musician is the hat. I think it’s a poem that celebrates. I saw it as a jazz solo for wordsall kinds of funny little gimmicks here and there, and changes of pace and mood. I consciously worked on changing and varying the rhythm throughout and from line to line. There are lines that run and then there’s a stop, and there’s a staccato set of images, and there’s a burst, and little stories inside. At that time, I tried to write big pieces, and I always wanted to tell a story inside a poem, or tell little units of stories. Some of the things I try to do in poetry very often is to get an overall ambience, an atmosphere, in a poem, and then I want to present little vignettes through little images that make people recognize themselves.
“Who was that cat there that did so-and-so? Was she so-and-so? Then you go on to something else. Then you go on to “”Where’d you get that horn?’ You try to get a lot of data in this whole movement of words flashing through, you see. Those were the kinds of forms I was trying to perfect. I don’t know if I was successful, but there’s something kind of unique about the voice in that poem. “Don’t Say Goodbye.” There’s something very unique about it. At least I find it unique. There’s no voice like that. It comes from reading a lot of other poetry, but a lot of it arises from my attitude towards the jazz world, towards black music, which has been a major influence on me, as well as my literacy training and background.
“Harlem Gallery, From the Inside”A Counter-Statement
It’s a counterstatement to Tolson. Tolsonwho I really like, whose poetry I likeis so contorted and strange in his way. I wanted to write a counter-statement not a response. Mine was from the inside. I felt that Tolson was from the outside. I thought I was closer to what the gallery of Harlem was. I got that poem walking up 8th Avenue one day in the summer. It was raining. I walked up the strip all the way [into Harlem]. I was looking in a barand I’m like that; I go anywhere at all in Harlem. If I see some place that I haven’t been and it looks interesting, I go in. I don’t care where it is. Some people say, “Why are you going in that place? You could get hurt.” I don’t care. I don’t care. there are certain places I try to stay away from, because they are problem spots. I don’t go in those places.
But I go in places and I look around and I think. I sit there in the place and I feel. I forgot the name of this place. I was passing by and there was a formica table by the window, and I said let me go in there and sit down, get a beer, and sit down by the window. I went in and I sat down. It was a strange kind of place. There was just so much shit going on in the place. Everybody was doing something wrong. There was so much going on, so much life, and so much tragedy, and so much comedy, all into one. That was the gallery I saw. Tolson’s was another kind of gallery. His gallery was a real gallery. He’s got a curator and everything, and he’s got a microcosm. I was trying to get at something else. I was trying to get at something more tragic. He is more comic. That’s why I call it a counter-statement. that’s why it is dedicated to Melvin Tolson. . . .
Hoodoo Hollerin’ Bebop GhostsLess Polemical
This is a different kind of book. . . . takes up in some places where Black Boogaloo left off. Again the African and Afro-American mythologies are dealt with in there. I put some of my Shine poems in there. This is another that I’m going to have finished some day, a volume called “Shine,” which will be based on the Afro-American folk character. The poems in Hoodoo Hollerin Bebop Ghosts are stranger than the poems Black Boogaloo. They are in many ways more haunted, there’re more ghosts. That’s where the title comes from. It’s a book full of ghosts’ voices. For example, the Garvey poem is in Black Boogaloo, and when I put it that poem in Hoodoo Hollerin Bebop Ghosts it takes on another meaning in that context. Certain poems are not in Hoodoo, partly for space and partly for theme. You’ll see. Thematically it’s a tighter book.
It tries to be encyclopedic, somewhat like a perception of Afro-American reality. It covers a lot of different kinds of people, and a lot of different situations. There’s a lot of strange people speaking through poems. There’re a lot of monologues: the poems have a persona, and the persona speaks. I tried to develop a particular kind of language, hoodoo as a unique language. I hope that’s a more controlled book. It’s less polemical than Black Boogaloo.
“The Black Arts Movement “Iconography
Iconography is the range of images. That’s what I’ve been talking about. . . . I’m sorry that essay was placed in such a polemical context. What I means is this: it’s impossible for Afro-Americans to develop any kind of unique literature, if they can merely imitate the imagistic clusters of the Anglo-Americans. If they don’t begin to perceive their own reality, and perceive the symbols and images and metaphors implicit in that reality, they will not have an imagery that will be fresh, a set of images and perceptions that will be fresh.
It is the problem of Claude McKay and Countee Cullen.. They began writing Keatsian and Shellyan, and their stock of imagery, their metaphorical sense, is Western. One might ask, “Well what’s wrong with that?” Nothing’s wrong with that if that’s what they want to write. But no one can propose to me that McKay’s and Cullen’s poems are in essence, by example, Afro-American in style and in content because their poetry doesn’t have content that is derived from Afro-American culture. The content of their poetry is not rooted there.
I’m not saying it shouldn’t be rooted with reference to other bodies of imagery. For example, in certain Asian literature, the lotus as as an image means very certain things. That’s part of Asian iconography. Now if I propose an imagery, for example, that grows out of the blues, an imagery that grows out of jazz, an imagery that grows out of black dance, out of black speech, out of black history, then I’ve got an iconography that I’ve lived, that I can claim as my own, as a primary basis which means that I can therefore consciously contrast my imagery with other kinds of imageries. Bebop is a certain of acoustical iconography, you see, a certain way of phrasing that is unique to jazz musicians like Charlie Parker. That’s another language. That’s one of the things I felt, that many of us felt.
Then the perception of other so-called imagerysay the imagery of the universeachieved through an iconography that was different; for example, the sun as an image, the moon as an image. What do these images mean? Are we supposed to inherit these images the same way the Western poets inherit them? Or do we, as all poets do in all time, bring to bear on the same images another consciousness. The sin us with us. It’s there. It ain’t going nowhere. It’s here. So the question is this: How do I use a symbol like that as opposed to the way Shelly or Keats used it, or the way Eliot uses it, or the way that Wallace Stevens or somebody else? I think the statement might be attacked if I implied that all black writers should do that. . . .
[If] somebody is interested in developing a black aesthetic they have to consider what I’m talking about. I don’t see how they can’t. Harsh as it may sound, and even verging on the totalitarian to a certain extent, but there was a point where I felt certain things had to be said bluntly. That is, we’re going to have to deal with these aesthetic questions, and we’ll have to look at them and ask ourselves, “What is our relationship to the literary heritage of the West?” Ralph Ellison had to ask himself this question. Richard Wright had to ask himself this question. All black writers that were conscious of critical problems asked themselves this question.
And this is true of Indian writers. This is true of Irish writers. They have to ask themselves: “What is my relationship to the established literary tradition in which I find myself?” Since also I am in a unique position, I feel oppressed. There is oppression. I’m identified as belonging to a certain group, and I see myself in a certain group. I know I’m different, according to the laws of this country, according to the perceptions of this country. What does that mean? What parts of the literary tradition do I claim, and what parts do I reject? Where do I add my own voice, and where do I propose another way, another direction? These are the kinds of things I ha don my mind at the time I wrote that essay. . . .
“The Black Arts Movement “Critique
This is the most important, because the critique to me assumes that you have information, that you’ve studied the culture, and that you come to discuss the literary culture with some sense of its various resources. If you go to discuss black literature and the things that exist in black culture, then that to me a priori assumes some understanding of cultural sources and some understanding of the tools of criticism. But it also assumes an understanding of the development of a critique that allows you to discuss your literature and to move it forward, to a higher levelby a higher level I mean a more serious level on its own terms . . . on terms that are fresh, that are new. It doesn’t mean that you discount other terms. If a Western critic is going to write about Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and he doesn’t know anything about the culture from which Ellison sprang, then, as a critic, he’s a damn fool.
Now the same way with me. If I sat down to write an article or an essay or a book on James Joyce, I would think it wood behoove me to know something about Irish culturee.g., to know something about Irish bar-rooms. What does an Irish bar smell and look like? What are the Irish songs? The Irish way of speaking? What is it like to be Irish? That’s what I mean by the basis of the critique.
This doesn’t happen very often when a white faces black art. I am not like Hoyt Fuller and all those guys about the white critic. I welcome the white critic as adversary, in the field of black art, black criticism, and black literature; or as a colleague, however it may be. What I dislike is the glib assumption that he can come to the culture without taking the culture seriously enough to study the sources from which this literature springs. I would never be so bold as to do that with reference toI used for example, Joyce, which is a very accessible exampleYeats. Yeats is even harder. Some guys have gotten famous writing works on the background of Yeats. When these critics come to Richard Wright, when they come to Ralph Ellison, when they come Imamu Baraka,, to name a few, they often don’t come. And it’s really detrimental in the theatre, where you see the real ignorance of the white critics.
They are of ignorant of black culture. Yet they still pontificate. This means that criticism, even sometimes when it is technically correct, lacks information. They might point out some technical flaw in a black play or a black novel, but their criticism lacks specific content. That means there’s a crisis in the white critic in that he has not taken time to learn about black people so that his criticism could be cogentand be a welcome criticism. . . .
But I’m not trying to ascribe devious intentions to the critic. I’m trying to make certain assumptions, which is what I have to do when I talk to you; I have to assume that you are serious. I can’t read your mind . . . I can’t begin to divine your intentions. . . . What I am saying is I can’t a priori condemn a white critic before I see what he has written. It’s too unscientific. . . .
Well, if I look at certain specific things, if I look at something like Edward Margolies’ Native Sons, and I examine his book and I see in there a perception that lacks an in-depth understanding of black life and I point that out. . . . What I’m saying now is that I point out to Margolies and I say “Margolies, get your shit together and before you start writing these essays on Richard Wright sit down and study Afro-American culturenot only the sociological things and the historical things, but the cultural things. How people live? What it’s like to be in this context?” I believe the more people (of whatever race) are discussing Afro-American literature and culture, then the stronger it becomes. It become valid. I don’t want Afro-American literature to become the exclusive property of blacks, just like I don’t want e.e. cummings to become the exclusive property of white critics.
I have a right to deal with e.e. cummings if I want to. I can’t demand my freedom and cut down on another man’s freedom. I can’t say “I am free to discuss anything I want and to study and to research it,” and yet say that another person is not free to do the same. You can’t say that in this society. It’s not a proper critical stance. Instead of having the white critic get out of this area, the black critic is supposed to take upon himself the job of writing strong criticism and establishing the pace. When the white critic goes to discuss black literatureif there’s a high standard laid out there for himhe’ll have to meet the standard. The reason there’s been such poor criticism by white critics about black literature is that there hasn’t been a good standard laid out there.
When the better standards are laid out, then the more challenging it is. But some critics are better than others. Gene Bluestein’s essayin The Voice of the Folkon the Blues as a literary theme and the way he discusses Ellison and Faulkner . . . a magnificent essay. But Gene Bluestein has studied folk culture. He’s studied it; he knows what he’s talking about. When he talks about a blues feeling, a blues tone, a blues modality (then he moves over to literature and discusses that), he knows when he’s got his hands on something. He’s been in it, he’s delved in it, he’s gotten to the nuances in it. You’ve got to have that kind of tenacity. I respect that kind of tenacity, regardless of color, because otherwise you’re not being scientific.
There are some obnoxious white critics. That guy David Littlejohn . . . his book White on Black is obnoxious. He has no love for the culture, and no sympathy for the culture; and it comes out in his writing. What you do is you challenge that. When you run across that kind of writing you challenge it and you destroy it, and you put it in its place. But you don’t handle that problem by saying a priori that white critics have no place in black art. This is a personal belief now; this is not a scholarly belief. I believe that black critics should dominate the area of black culture. But that’s a chauvinistic belief. That’s what I would like.
I believe blacks should be telling everybody what the whole thing is about. But that’s chauvinism; that’s personal chauvinism. I can’t let that get in the way of my critical perception. When I look at a white critic, I have to say I’ve got a critic, black or white. That’s a horrible book some guy who supposedly black, write on LeRoi Jones. It’s called From LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka. . . .
Theodore Hudson. I have a student named Kim Benston who’s doing his senior thesis. I’ve been his advisor for a year on his thesis. Kim Benston is white. Dr. Hudson is black. . . .[His book shows] disrespect for all that Baraka put into his work. It doesn’t do Baraka any justice whatsoever. That Hudson is black doesn’t mean he’s going to be able to do the work. Doing the work means you know something. It means you have your skills, it means you have your resources, it means you know what’s being written and being published and being studied about certain subjects and you come to it. It also means you have some style.
It means you’re informed. Now as far as I know, you get these things by studying. Also by being humblei.e., if I’m interested in Dostoevski, I give in to Dostoevski’s experience. The problem with white people, white critics very often, is that they refuse to give in to our experience because maybe somehow it indicts them too much. . . . I’ve never written anything about the white critic that way either. I’ve never put that in print. There’s a fear of the black writer or black critic of the critical establishment, maybe because blacks, until recently, haven’t had any critics. We had a lot of writers and poets and people trying to create art, but we didn’t have any serious critics, which is very bad. It takes a while to develop a critical class.
So Hoyt [Fuller], coming along at a certain time, represents the beginning of a certain kind of critical class. That isn’t something you develop overnight. It takes a certain amount of leisure, it takes a certain amount of studying, and then you have a number of people who stand as critics in your group. Then you say, “Oh, yeah, that’s a critics.” But it takes a while. These people don’t just come out of the air. We have not developed our own critics, in the cultural areas–for example, the area of black music, which was not critically dealt with by black critics for a long time. They didn’t have time to deal with it. People thought there were other things more pressing.
Du Bois certainly thought there were things more pressing. He wrote one essay about black music in The Souls of Black Folk. You have a few pieces here and there. Black scholars were really concerned with “high culture.” You got Sterling Brown and you got Alain Locke, but you don’t have a school of black critics who were dealing with black folk music back in that period. As a matter of fact, these discussions were frowned upon as topics of serious discussion by the Negro colleges. It is impossible, then, to get a critical body, particularly as I said in the area of music, the white guys who had time and leisure and had the sensitivity to deal with our music came in and started writing criticism. Some of the first criticism on black music was done by Frenchmen. The most serious criticism was done by them.
They said, “This is art.” But you got a guy working in a steel mill and working from job to job and gets a chance to play his horn . . . he’s playing his horn. He’s not stepping outside of it and developing a critical stance; that’s Western. That’s really Western. In our context it’s essentially Western, that particular approach. If Hoyt [Fuller] would present a kind of historical argument, he might be on better grounds than just a blanket indictment of the white critic. You got to be very careful with blanket indictments. There’s always going to be someone who’ll turn up and who’ll mess up you a priori statement. All you need is one person who’s a good critic to come along and blow you away.
Engaged Theatre of the 60s “Black Labs of the Heart”
Here in the 1960s black drama was flowering forth in its fantastic ferment of revolutionary ideas and social activism. I always wanted somehow to freeze that in this moment in time, to put something down about that. Having been given the opportunity to write the piece for Drama Review I could put something down about that, this moment, when there was more black theatre. Black theatre was really asserting itself more then than at any other time in history. There was the black theatre of the 1920s, which was mostly the theatre of the musical comedy and dance type thing. There were a few other things later on in the 1930s and a few other fairly dramatic things, but mostly black theatre was the musical thing and the dancing thing.
The new black theatre of the 1960s was a very engaged theatre. This is a theatre that consciouslymore than any other time in history, and this is one of the things the 1960s is most important for, for all of its ranting and raving and bullshitforced black artists to look at black people, to address their art to black people, which to me is absolutely necessary in order to get a focus. To have an art that was addressed to black people unapologetically, unequivocally . . .to say, “Yes, I’m addressing this poem or this play to black people,” because that is a mark of freedom in a way for us, because our tradition had been one where the literate men had many times been forced to address themselves to white men of so called equal intellectual standing as the black men.
So here was the literature, the drama, that was springing up in black communities, in black theatres, that was saying “We are dealing with black art.” As LeRoi said it in that poem, “We are black magicians. We work something in black labs of the heart.” There is an attempt at a kind of collective intimacy. It was art. It’s a withdrawal. It’s an exclusive kind of thing. But this is good, to withdraw now and then.
The Audience of Black WritingPrimary & Secondary Address
I always think, “Who is my work addressed to?” All writers ask this question. Ellison asked this question. I imagine every writer did, particularly anyone with critical awareness. They ask themselves, “Who am I writing to?” Now Albert Murray might say he writes to anybody who speaks English, and who understands English and is interested in literature. Murray’s a good friend of mine, but I don’t say that. My work is primarily addressed to black people. primarily. I mean the primary address is to black people. The secondary address is, then, to whoever reads English. So that the primary problems and the primary symbols I’m dealing with in my work spring from my immediate reality as a black person in America.
And my voice, even though it may sometimes be a strange voice, is primarily directed at black ears. As a matter of fact, I even think about who I’m writing for in certain passages in a play. I’ll say this is for Nicki. She needs to see somebody who loves this strongly. I’ll do that in a minute. This is for Hugh. He’ll dig this. Or this is for Mom. See what I’m getting at? This is me. I may have been overstepping my bounds when I said somewhere that black writers should address their works to black people. . . .
I’m always editing myself. So you have to excuse me sometimes. I’m aware of my positions at various stages. I’ve been moving and parking around so much that I’ve got to sort out these ideas. It was a revolutionary idea to tell black people that they ought to address their literature to themselves, and I’ll stand on it. That’s that. It might need some modification, but it’s correct. I’m pretty certain that if you get down to it Invisible Man is addressed to black people, primarily. It’s addressed to other people. he says in one line, “Who knows, but maybe on the lower frequencies, I speak for you.” I think the “you” may be the white man, but I think the story as a morality tale is a morality tale for blacks. Now as far as a morality tale for everybody else who identifies with the writer, with the narrator of the novel . . . which is the way literature becomes generalized. But I know that there’s specific content and there’s specific thrust in writing. I know there’s a specific focus in the writer’s mind. You absolutely must have this as a writer. . . .
It’s much more difficult . . . as Murray points out in The Hero and the Blues, to utilize and to bring into Afro-American fiction these untapped sources from Afro-American culture and to present them in a way that is aesthetically challenging to various kinds of people. So in other words, it has both a specific and a general character. What I like to do is get both; the happy ground for me is to have a play or a novel or a poem that is both specific and general. But it’s got to first spring from some specific ground, and this is what Ellison is arguing about the way Hyman handles Afro-American folklore. Ellison says that Hyman ignores the specific character of Afro-American folklore. Hyman has got to get the specific character and then he can move to the general character.
What I was just trying to do was bluntly state the specific. And this was coming out of the 1950s, when people didn’t want to be black anymore. It seemed as if people were trying to forget the Afro-American background. So I wanted to get back to that. Essentially one of the reasons that black music has always been strong is that it’s always been specifically addressed to black people. But because of the specific nature of that address and because of the humanity of that specificity, anybody who was resonating on a human wave would reach out for it and identify with it.
Even though the blues were not addressed to white people and were not created by white artists, when white people heard the blues they knew it was formidable music. This is the same with African sculpture. When African sculpture was created in Africa, it was created in the ritual tradition and the ethnic tradition, and there wasn’t a European in sight. But when Europeans, like Picasso and the other artists, looked at African art they were moved by its specific humanity. This is the theoretical basis of that statement about the address. I think I can stand on it even after all these years.
Zora Neale HurstonMules & Men
[“Characteristics of Negro Expression”] . . . it’s not a probing piece. It’s just a piece in which she goes into characteristics of Negro style. The thing about the piece that’s good is that Zora is always looking for these Africanisms and these peculiar ways that Afro-Americans did things. She was good, even in that article, for showing you certain aspects of Afro-American life, and pinpointing them. She was not theoretical about them. She wasn’t theoretical in the same way as [Melville] Herskovits or [Franz] Boas were theoretical; they could put things in a so-called larger system of activity. So Mules and Men is a fairly good book; it’s a good book of folklore and a good book of a discussion of folk practices. She was not analytical as we’ve come to read other anthropologists.
I think she was primarily creative. I think that’s for somebody else to be. Maybe one of your students or one of my students would one day sit down and do the analytical work of examining Afro-American culture, its ways and its modalities. I have this critical book I’m doing on the 1960s, and I want to do a chapter on ethos. In this chapter on the Afro-American ethos, I want to take all those things and lay them out and examine them. I want to deal with black culture in units. I want to deal with speech, i want to deal with dance, I want to deal with music. I want to deal with modes of doing things that seem peculiar to Afro-Americans, and i want to test how writers and various artists have tried to depict them in art.
Mastering the InstrumentMastering Yourself
[An essay on Ellison in Black World (December 1970)] . . . What I mean was that it’s not really enough to be technical. The technical thing is cool, but it’s not enough to be technical. I meant that there’s a perception you have to have–and Ellison probably knows this; I’m not telling him anything he doesn’t know, and I’m not really talking to Ellison. At one point I’m talking to my colleagues, my fellow writers, guys around my age. I’m having a little running battle with Don Lee, Ron Karenga, and guys like that. I’m talking to Imamu, trying to pull his coat to some things I think he forgot. But mastering yourself means that you’re not apologetic to anybody about any of this.
You’re together. And you’re strong. And you’re together as a person of a particular so-called ethnic group–Afro-Americans, in this case. You master that part of yourself, and you get that part of yourself cooled out, and you’re never intimidated anymore. Further on, I said in that essay, you master an instrument, but you have to think about another instrument too . . . . In other words, the idea is not to settle, not to be settled, not to stop the exploration of yourself . . . to be wide open to new ideas, which is one of the things I found a little disconcerting about Mr. Ellison, where there is a kind of of implication in Ellison and in Shadow and Actin some spots ever so minutethat the African reality or the African culture offered no possibility of inquiry. There’s sort of a subtle sense of that in Ellison.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it . . . that the most important thing was the West and what the West was about. Wright was into to that to a certain extent, too. The idea is that the West had done all these things and given you the literature and given you the criticism. The West had given you a lot of the museums and libraries, etc. I was just trying to say that the idea is not to exclude any area from inquiry. When you’re secure within yourself and something comes along, you find out what the truth is in it, what is in it that I can use. You don’t know what you can use until you inquire. if somebody came up to me and said I’m studying Sanskrit right now, I would n’t say, “Well, there’s nothing relevant in Sanskrit.”
The same with Don Lee . He has this essay in Dynamite Voices, in which he was trying to discuss the literature, the culture, but he ends up at one point saying he’s trying to say something about the white critic. He’s trying to rationalize why the white critic, can’t discuss black literature. But he says: “Well, take me for example, I don’t know anything about Chinese literature or Chinese art or Chinese music, so therefore I would not be qualified to discuss Chinese literature. My note on the side of the page of my book of that was, “Well, Goddamit, you can study it. What’s to prevent you from studying?” It’s learnable.
Is Afro-American culture learnable, or is something so precious and so recondite that it is not learnable? Why are Afro-Americans so afraid of somebody else learning their culture? The only reason I can come up with is that we’re afraid of seeing the culture exploited for commercial reasons. If we were the majority culture, it would be reverse. If we were the majority culture, we wouldn’t give a damn about who studied or who wrote about it. Do you see what I’m getting at? If you reverse it, you see a whole different kind of thing. You can study African mythology and culture and patterns of making art and patterns of thinking, patterns of storytelling, patterns of making music.
There are all kinds of things: patterns of doing drama, patterns of perception and reality, say in the story, time and space, for example, cosmology. You can go on and on. So when you imply, however subtly, that that area of study should be excluded, you’re in a sense implying a fear of dealing with it. Your rejection of it is not objective at all; your rejection is subjective. You’re rejecting it on a subjective premise. This is the point I was trying to get at: to master yourself means you don’t deal with certain questions or assumptions. We’re all going to get all the information that exists. We’re just here to get it. So the world itself becomes a body of inquiry, and Afro-Americans are in a position to inquire and to create out of all the world’s knowledge.
Great Black Literature of the 1960s & 1970s
I don’t know about the black aesthetic so much, but I think in the 1960s we had some great literature. I think that the works of Imamu Baraka, specifically Dutchman, Blues People, Slave Ship, some of the stories in tales, some of the poems in Black Magic . . . he covers so many things beautifully. He’s just a master of genres. If he gave up this political thing he’s into today and came back out here and started writing, he would probably blow away most of the cats out here writing, because he’s a good writer when he’s focused, when he’s focused on the problems. After that the novels and poetry of Ishmael Reed . . . particularly Yellow Back Radio and Mumbo Jumbo, are excellent, new, and exciting pieces. Henry Dumas is cool, and very good, and very unique and fresh.
Henry Dumas’ books Ark of Bones and Poetry for My People . . . Henry Dumas and Ishmael Reed have a nice sense of what to do with the Pan-African folk materials and Pan-African mythological materials in their work; that’s the thing that’s good about them . . . there’re a lot of good people. And then you’re got people . . . people who are not in the Movement who just reign supreme on their own terms. Shadow and Act came out during the 1960s, you know. Albert Murray’s books, the Omni-Americans and The Hero and the Blues, came out in the late 70s. Then there’re Ed Bullins and a couple of his plays. I like In The Wine Time. Ron Milner’s Who’s Got His Own is a very fine play.
The quoted material above was taken from a taped interview 12 March 1974 at Yale University published by Callaloo #23 (1985)
posted 3 December 2006
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By Gil Scott Heron
Shortly after we republished The Vulture and The Nigger Factory, Gil started to tell me about The Last Holiday, an account he was writing of a multi-city tour that he ended up doing with Stevie Wonder in late 1980 and early 1981. Originally Bob Marley was meant to be playing the tour that Stevie Wonder had conceived as a way of trying to force legislation to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. At the time, Marley was dying of cancer, so Gil was asked to do the first six dates. He ended up doing all 41. And Dr King’s birthday ended up becoming a national holiday (“The Last Holiday because America can’t afford to have another national holiday”), but Gil always felt that Stevie never got the recognition he deserved and that his story needed to be told. The first chapters of this book were given to me in New York when Gil was living in the Chelsea Hotel. Among the pages was a chapter called Deadline that recounts the night they played Oakland, California, 8 December; it was also the night that John Lennon was murdered. Jamie Byng, Guardian
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The Black Arts MovementLiterary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s
By James Edward Smethurst
Emerging from a matrix of Old Left, black nationalist, and bohemian ideologies and institutions, African American artists and intellectuals in the 1960s coalesced to form the Black Arts Movement, the cultural wing of the Black Power Movement. In this comprehensive analysis, James Smethurst examines the formation of the Black Arts Movement and demonstrates how it deeply influenced the production and reception of literature and art in the United States through its negotiations of the ideological climate of the Cold War, decolonization, and the civil rights movement.
Taking a regional approach, Smethurst examines local expressions of the nascent Black Arts Movement, a movement distinctive in its geographical reach and diversity, while always keeping the frame of the larger movement in view. The Black Arts Movement, he argues, fundamentally changed American attitudes about the relationship between popular culture and “high” art and dramatically transformed the landscape of public funding for the arts.Publisher, University of North Carolina Press
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By Larry Neal
“What we have been trying to arrive at is some kind of synthesis of the writer’s function as an oppressed individual and a creative artist,” states Neal (1937-1981), a writer, editor, educator and activist prominent in the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Articulate, highly charged essays about the black experience examine the views of his predecessors–musicians and political theorists as well as writers–continually weighing artistic achievement against political efficacy. While the essays do not exclude any readers, Neal’s drama, poetry and fiction are more limited in their form of address, more explicitly directed to the oppressed. The poems are particularly intense in their protest: “How many of them / . . . have been made to /prostitute their blood / to the merchants of war.” Rhythmic and adopting the repetitive structure of music, they capture the “blues in our mothers’ voices / which warned us / blues people bursting out.” Commentaries by Neal’s peers, Amiri Baraka, Stanley Crouch, Charles Fuller and Jayne Cortez, introduce the various sections.Publishers Weekly
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By Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars has been selected as the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly noted the collection’s “lyric brilliance” and “political impulses [that] never falter.” A New York Times review stated, “Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we’re alone in the universe; it’s to acceptor at least endurethe universe’s mystery. . . . Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith’s pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the books first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant.” Life on Mars follows Smith’s 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet’s second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans. The Bodys Question (2003) was her first published collection.
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 5 July 2012