The Black Arts Movement
We call it “BAM” today
As a poet, I am mostly influenced by a period of African American literature known as “The Black Arts Movement.” I embrace all kinds of poetry and poetic influences stylistically and politically, but today, decades into writing poetry, “BAM” as it is now called, continues to help me find my way on the page, and on the stage.
When Amiri Baraka, the revolutionary poet, and playwright, from Newark, N.J., left the Village, and went uptown to Harlem, to establish Spirit House, it was the “Big Bang” of the Black Arts Movement. If you ask many Black artists around at the time, BAM occurred in many places all at once, in many cities, and many Black writers and poets and artists moved in sync all at the same time.
It was inevitable anyway. Richard Wright had written a book called Black Power about his visit to Ghana, in Africa to see Black self determination in action under Kwame Nkrumah. And then years later, Malcolm X emerged by 1964 as the alternative voice of Black America in its demands for freedom, justice, and self determination in America.
This is the crux of “BAM.” Malcolm X and Richard Wright were not contemplating integration, equality, or assimilation into America; they wanted absolute freedom and liberation for African people, and then they would decide what was best for themselves.
That is why Black Arts poets use and used small letters in their writings, why BAM writers intentionally made up (and make up) and create new words, and why they create new forms of literature and pull from forms from Black culture. The blues and jazz because they are a key mode of expression. The oral tradition was embraced.
By 1965, however, Malcolm X was dead (Richard Wright died in 1960), murdered by his own former Nation of Islam brothers, at the Audubon Ballroom. Hence, Baraka’s symbolic decision to move uptown to the place where “our black shining prince” had died.
Meanwhile, as Amiri Baraka moved to Harlem and empowered his hometown of Newark, N.J. with art and struggle, others were making their own moves. Gaston Neal, a poet, and radical voice in Washington D.C., organized a similar wave of energy in that city.