Read an Excerpt
The Impact of Fidel Castro, Patrice Lumumba,
Robert F. Williams, and Malcolm X on Amiri
Baraka and the Black Arts Movement
Colonial subjects have their political decisions made for them by the colonial masters, and those decisions are handed down directly or through a process of "indirect rule." Politically, decisions which affect black lives have always been made by white people the "white power structure."
Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power
Afro-Americans were caught up in an assertive drive for a viable, collective identity adapted to the peculiar conditions of their development in the United States and their African background. Further, it was a drive to recover a cultural heritage shaped by over 300 years of chattel slavery and a century of thwarted freedom.
Harry Haywood, Black Bolshevik
By 1970 the dynamics of the Black Revolt had propelled Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), the prolific poet and playwright, into the ranks of national black leadership and transformed his organization, the Newark Congress of African People (CAP), into one of the most formidable Black Power groups in the country. The meteoric rise and fall of the leadership of Amiri Baraka and CAP (1966-1976) is the history of the interplay between the dynamics of cultural nationalism and the development of the national Modern Black Convention Movement. The history of the Congress of African People was an odyssey for thousands of politically active students, street youths, veterans, workers, artists and intellectuals, as they searched for new strategies, tactics, and forms of organization and leadership for black liberation. Their struggles in Newark's grassroots social movement prepared the way for their leadership of the Modern National Black Convention Movement, where they joined others at the center of the broadest and most explosive awakening of black consciousness in U.S. history.
In New Day in Babylon, William Van Deburg argues that Malcolm's life represents the paradigm for the Black Power movement's process of self-realization. As the fire prophet of the Black Revolution, Malcolm X set the pace not only for the younger generation of black activists, but for a generation of intellectuals and artists as well. Malcolm X represents the path of the grass roots to self-transformation and ethical reconstruction through the power of black consciousness. For a generation of black American artists and writers, Malcolm X's example inspired its faith in the potential of the black masses to make their own history that they would become the self-conscious agents of their own liberation. It was a confidence in the power of black consciousness to transform black people into world historical actors, in tandem with the revolutionary upsurges in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In other words, Malcolm X had an indelible impact on the younger generation of leadership with his emphasis on the logic of self-determination, self-defense, and self-respect.
While Malcolm X represented the primary paradigm for the self-transformation of black consciousness, there was certainly another important model for change; and that was the path of the revolutionary intellectual to the national liberation movements. For the Black Revolution, Frantz Fanon, the psychiatrist who left his career to join the Algerian Revolution and who wrote The Wretched of the Earth, represented another way to revolutionary self-transformation. Similarly, many looked to the lives of Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, and Amilcar Cabral as examples of radical intellectuals who returned to their people and led movements for liberation.
Imamu Amiri Baraka's path to black consciousness was different from that of Malcolm X; it represents the other important route to black nationalism, the road traveled by students and revolutionary intellectuals. Baraka's outlook on black nationalism began to take shape in the early 1960s with his visit to Cuba and his associations with Fidel Castro, Robert F. Williams, Mohammed Babu, and Malcolm X. Imamu Baraka's encounters with these revolutionary leaders challenged his identity both as a writer and as a man. As a result of a profound process of identity transformation, a metamorphosis second only to that of Malcolm X, Amiri Baraka became the foremost proponent of the politics of black cultural nationalism in the 1960s.
Unfortunately, black radical intellectuals emanate from small isolated, social, cultural, and political circles, without effective ties to mass organizations. Lacking mass support, a small circle is similar to a head without the strength of the body of the nation. The first phase of Amiri Baraka's political development was a formative period during which he emerged as a revolutionary artist and a radical intellectual; however, Baraka did not develop as an effective political leader until the Newark uprising in 1967. In Newark, Baraka rose as the head of the Modern Black Convention Movement; before that mass movement, many black nationalist intellectuals experienced important personal transformations, but they had extreme difficulties translating their radical beliefs into sustained mass political action.
Nonetheless, the influential personal transformations of writers were essential; they set the stage for the larger battles to come. In the initial phases of black nationality formation, the next wave of black activists were influenced by the moving narratives of individual transformation articulated by Malcolm X in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver in Soul on Ice, and Amiri Baraka in Home to construct a radical black identity, purpose, and direction. Narrative, poetic, and dramatic accounts of self-transformation inspired millions in the black national community to imagine black nationhood in White America. Furthermore, Baraka's work as both an artist and a cultural theorist, in association with Askia Muhammad Toure and Larry Neal, sparked the explosive Black Arts Movement, which galvanized thousands of African American artists and writers; this upsurge prepared the path for the politics of the Modern Black Convention Movement.
For many African American artists and intellectuals as well as black students, Imamu Amiri Baraka represented this second paradigm for self-transformation. John Hutchinson notes that in the process of nationality formation, the artist is usually "the paradigmatic figure of the national community." As the Father of the Black Arts Movement, Imamu Baraka's personal yearning for identity, purpose, and direction captured the imagination of a generation of African American readers because to varying degrees it was experiencing similar tensions between feelings ranging from spiritual ennui, personal malaise, and identity crisis to racial kinship, black consciousness, and cultural regeneration.
Imamu Amiri Baraka was born Everett Leroy Jones on October 7, 1934, during the Great Depression in Newark, New Jersey. There he attended Barringer High School and Rutgers University before studying at Howard University in Washington, D.C.; it was at Howard University that Everett Leroy Jones changed his name to LeRoi Jones.
After leaving Howard and serving in the United States Air Force, Jones found his way to Manhattan's Greenwich Village in the 1950s to become a major poet, editor, and music critic. In Greenwich Village, he married Hettie Cohen; this interracial marriage produced two children, Kellie and Lisa Jones. Soon Jones became identified with the leading writers and poets of the Beat Generation, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and he wrote a number of his early works, including his award-winning play, Dutchman, and his pioneering history of African American music and cultural ethos, Blues People. As the publisher of Yugen and Floating Bear, Jones became one of the most influential editors of the new Beat poetry.
Although many commentators found it strange that LeRoi Jones's trajectory toward black nationalism passed through the Beat poetry circles and jazz sessions of Greenwich Village, Anthony D. Smith, a leading sociologist of nationalism, observes that part of the pattern of modern cultural nationalism involves its origins in the romantic rejection of the conformities of bureaucratic society. In this sense, Jones's early development in Greenwich Village as well as his increasing yearnings for black identity and for what Amilcar Cabral once called "a return to the source" are component parts of a nationalist pattern.
Harold Cruse writes that "the great transformation in LeRoi Jones was brought on by the Cuban Revolution." The generation that created the Black Arts cultural revolution was profoundly influenced by the image of a young, rebellious Fidel Castro and the early fire of the Cuban Revolution. Amiri Baraka confirms as much in his autobiography when he writes, "The Cuban trip was a turning point in my life."
At the invitation of the black journalist Richard Gibson in July 1960, a 25-year-old LeRoi Jones joined Harold Cruse, John Henrik Clarke, Sarah Wright, Ed Clark, Julian Mayfield, Dr. Ana Codero, and Robert F. Williams to see the Cuban Revolution firsthand. Many of these black writers had contributed to a special July 4th issue of the newspaper supplement, Lunes de Revolucion. Jones was watching Robert F. Williams, the hero of the self-defense groups in the Black Revolt because of his courageous stand against Klan terror in Monroe, North Carolina.
Harold Cruse, however, was watching Jones to see what impact that historic journey to the Sierra Maestra would have on the younger generation. Cruse recalled, "In Havana it was noted that Jones made a very favorable impression on the revolutionary intelligentsia of the Castro regime." The senior writer thought it remarkable that the young Cuban rebels and LeRoi Jones had so much in common: "they actually talked the same `language.'" And he concluded that "for Jones's impressionable generation, this revolutionary indoctrination, this ideological enchantment, was almost irresistible." But, it seems that even such seasoned political veterans as John H. Clarke and Harold Cruse were fascinated by the July 26th journey to Sierra Maestra to meet Fidel Castro. Cruse was the most skeptical of any of the writers, yet even he wrote:
We were caught up in a revolutionary outpouring of thousands upon thousands of people making their way up the mountain roads to the shrine of the Revolution, under the hottest sun-drenching any of us Americans had probably ever experienced.... Nothing in our American experience had ever been as arduous and exhausting as this journey.
Intrigued by the new attention given to African American writers, Cruse remarked that "the ideology of a new revolutionary wave in the world at large had lifted us out of the anonymity of lonely struggle in the United States to the glorified rank of visiting dignitaries."
Nonetheless, Harold Cruse would not identify with that generation of Third World rebels in quite the same manner as LeRoi Jones. Jones's encounters with such leaders as Fidel Castro in Cuba, Mohammed Babu in Tanzania, and Robert F. Williams and Malcolm X in the Black Revolt challenged his identity both as a writer and as a man. As far as Jones was concerned, he was on the path to finding himself, and it all revolved around the sense of kinship that he felt with that generation of radicals in Cuba, Africa, and Asia. Their problems would become the heartfelt concerns of LeRoi Jones and his wing of the black liberation movement. Later he would express the same spirit of identification with young African writers like the Kenyan Ngugi Wa Thiong'o. In this passage, Ngugi captures the impact of the upheaval in the Third World on his generation of African writers. For both African and African American writers, intellectuals, and students, the 1950s was "the decade of the high noon of the African people's anticolonial struggles for full independence."
The decade was heralded, internationally, by the triumph of the Chinese Revolution in 1949 and by the independence of India about the same time.... In Africa the decade saw ... armed struggles by the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, Mau Mau, against British colonialism and by FLN against French colonialism in Algeria; intensified resistance against the South African Apartheid regime, a resistance it responded to with the Sharpeville massacre; and what marks the decade in the popular imagination, the independence of Ghana in 1957 and of Nigeria in 1960 with the promise of more to follow.... in [the] USA, the Fifties saw an upsurge of civil rights struggles spearheaded by Afro-American people.
LeRoi Jones and Richard Gibson were becoming increasingly identified with the liberation movements of the Third World. So much so that when Jules Feiffer of the Village Voice criticized Richard Gibson's support for Robert F. Williams and Cuba, Jones began a critique of Left liberalism. In Jones's writings the Black Revolt and the Third World Revolution were increasingly linked. Full of resentment, he wrote, "I get the feeling that somehow liberals think that they are peculiarly qualified to tell American Negroes and other oppressed peoples of the world how to wage their struggles. No one wants to hear it.... As Nat Cole once said, `Your story's mighty touching, but it sounds like a lie.'"
Increasingly, Jones expressed his identification with the rise of Third World revolutions: "The new countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America are not interested in your shallow conscience-saving slogans and protests of moderation or `political guarantees.' As a character in Burrough's Naked Lunch says, `You think I am inarrested in contracting your horrible ol' condition? I am not inarrested at all.'"
And significantly, Jones was focusing on the revitalization theme in the Third World revolution: "Fidel Castro, Kwame [Nkrumah], Sukarno, Nasser, and some others have actually done something about these ills, in their own countries." And they were not concerned about what liberals "[had] to say about the way they are conducting the resurrection of their people."
Further, Jones was intrigued by the white liberal preoccupation with black identity in the 1960s. He wondered why there was so much "fuss" about black people calling themselves "Afro-Americans." However, the uproar about a new black identity was probably stimulated by the United Nations demonstration, protesting the murder of Patrice Lumumba; and Jones was right in the center of those arrested at that protest.
The Congo Crisis
In 1960, Patrice Lumumba, the charismatic premier of the newly independent Republic of the Congo, held a singular fascination. Lumumba rose from simple origins in a remote Congolese village. Like Malcolm X, he had no university degrees, but with his courage and determination by 1960 he had become a man of the people and a burning symbol of African nationalism. Many of the students of color identified with Lumumba, a young man with high aspirations despite the humiliations of white colonialism.
He experienced the Congolese form of dual consciousness as he struggled to make something of himself in the civil service. In the Belgian Congo, they developed a name for an upwardly mobile class of urban Africans which was particularly telling; they were called "evolue," meaning civilized, with the implication that most Africans were not. During one episode, when a young Patrice Lumumba wandered into a segregated white area in his own homeland, he was mortified when a white woman settler screamed that he was a "dirty monkey." Such experiences had a special resonance to young black people in South Africa and the United States. But despite such barriers to his development, Patrice Lumumba seemed unstoppable in his rise to political leadership in the Congo and to acceptance in the hearts of young people around the world.
Just as the rise of Lumumba inspired devotion in many people, it disturbed some Western interests. The United States made no secret of the fact that it backed secessionist forces aiming to dismember the Congo in order to keep its mineral wealth in the hands of Europeans. Soon after Lumumba's election as prime minister, violence erupted in the new nation. As he traveled around the world, seeking support for the young republic, Lumumba spoke in several cities in America. He was warmly received in July, as he talked to an audience of black students at Howard University about the crisis in the Congo. And when he spoke on July 24, 1960, in New York City, stressing the strategic value of his nation's resources, black people were drawn to Lumumba and the fate of the mineral-rich Congo. In effect, for a generation of students whose attention was riveted on the struggle to control Africa's mineral wealth, the Congo Crisis was a crash course in world political economy. They learned that some Western interests would stop at nothing, including the use of mercenaries, to control African mines.
But through all of that conflict, for African Americans Patrice Lumumba was the Nelson Mandela of that day. John Henrik Clarke sought to explain the overwhelming attraction for Lumumba in the black community:
Patrice Lumumba became a hero and a martyr to Afro-American nationalists because he was the symbol of the black man's humanity struggling for recognition.... When the Congo emerged clearly in the light of modern history he was its bright star. Lumumba was a true son of Africa and was accepted as belonging to all of Africa, not just the Congo. No other personality has leaped so suddenly from death to martyrdom.
In fact, the life and death of Patrice Lumumba had such an impact on black people that John Henrik Clarke argues that his murder rekindled the flame of Afro-American nationalism. Clarke observes that the new Afro-American nationalism was introduced to the political arena by the "riot in the gallery of the United Nations in protest against the foul and cowardly murder of Patrice Lumumba."
The political ferment among African Americans had some time to develop during the Congo Crisis, lasting from 1960 up to the murder of Patrice Lumumba in 1961. The protests mounted around the world as the situation worsened in the Congo. As the Belgian interests usurped power in the Congo, outrageous reports poured out of Africa about the death of Lumumba's daughter and soon about the brutal treatment of Premier Lumumba himself in captivity. The whole world watched helplessly as they destroyed Lumumba's vision of a unified Congo.
And finally, with the news of Lumumba's murder, young people around the world were deeply moved. A storm of international protests and demonstrations erupted in many of the major world capitals. They expressed their outrage all over Europe, with protests in Dublin and Bonn and sacking of the Belgian embassies in Belgrade and Rome by Yugoslavian students and Italian youths. In Paris, the police were particularly repressive, clubbing and arresting 106 demonstrating African students.
In Africa, students demonstrated their anger in Casablanca, Morocco; Khartoum, Sudan; and Accra, Ghana. "Lumumba believed in his mission," wrote Frantz Fanon, "[he] continued to express Congolese patriotism and African nationalism in their most rigorous and noblest sense." Of course, Fanon was not alone in his respect for Lumumba. Throughout the Congo Crisis, such progressive national leaders as Nehru, Nkrumah, and Toure had insisted that the world recognize only Lumumba's government as the legitimate representative of the Congo, and they were outraged at the news of his murder. Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah charged that the United Nations connived to murder Lumumba and particularly attacked Britain, France, and the United States. In a wire to President Eisenhower, President Sekou Toure of Guinea condemned the role of the United States in the Congo. In line with the African condemnations, the Cuban representative criticized the United Nations. In the East, students roared in Colombo, Ceylon; Bombay and New Delhi, India; Karachi, Pakistan; and Malaya, Malaysia. The largest demonstration was reported in China, where one rally, attended by 100,000 in Beijing, was led by the legendary Premier Zhou Enlai.
The UN Incident: Afro-American Nationalists
In the United States, there were demonstrations in Washington, D.C., where a number of students from Howard University were arrested. And in Chicago, black people carried signs saying: "Shame on the West!"
Yet, the most dramatic indication of black outrage was demonstrated in the communications capital of the United States, New York City. On Wednesday evening, February 15, 1961, at the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan, a group of African Americans, the women wearing black veils and men black armbands, shocked Americans when they took their outrage right onto the floor of the Security Council meeting on the Congo Crisis. On several occasions, key officials in U.S. foreign policy circles had indicated that they were against Lumumba and favored the Belgian interests and the dismemberment of the Congo. Thus, while the U.S. Representative Adlai Stevenson was speaking, "about sixty men and women burst into the Security Council Chamber, interrupting the session, and fought with guards in a protest against the United Nations policies in the Congo and the slaying of Patrice Lumumba, former Congo Premier." After the violent clash between demonstrators and the special UN police force, twenty people were treated for injuries by United Nations medical personnel.
There was another contingent of black people protesting outside the UN headquarters, on the north side of 42nd Street. As that contingent marched from First Avenue westward across Manhattan, the group chanted, "Congo, yes! Yankee, no!" That protest met the same kind of repression as the one inside. One group, including a young LeRoi Jones, was beaten and arrested in front of the United Nations. Others were attacked at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 43rd Street by mounted police, seeking to prevent them from taking the demonstration to Times Square.
A mass rally was held in Harlem to protest police repression, but another issue captured national media attention. Some U.S. officials were quick to label the demonstration part of a "worldwide communist plot." The issue of an international communist plot became an obsession, and in that context the New York Times sent reporters to Harlem to investigate the social origins of the demonstration. Their findings were published in a series of articles in the week following the UN demonstration.
What they found seems to have surprised them. Essentially, they uncovered that the protest was not run by communists at all but by a new breed of Afro-American nationalists based in Harlem. The initial published reports of the demonstration made the U.S. charge of a communist plot a bit ridiculous. Those reports made it clear that the black demonstrators barred any support from the American Communist Party. For instance, outside of the UN, Benjamin Davis, the first black man on the New York City Council and a well-known member of the Communist Party (USA), was actually pushed away when he and Paul Robeson Jr. attempted to join the picket. Clearly, the protesters were not black communists.
George M. Houser, chairman of the Quakers' American Committee for Africa, thought that "the American public did not fully appreciate the intensity of feeling among many [blacks] in relating African struggles for freedom to their own fight against discrimination and prejudice." The protest was the work of a black united front, a diverse group ranging from black nationalists in the tradition of Marcus Garvey to a new breed of black radicals supporting the causes of Robert F. Williams and the Cuban Revolution.
Furthermore, the demonstration chants were not communist slogans. They chanted in a call-and-response form: one part of the line asked, "Who died for the Black Man?" Another chanted, "Lumumba!" Then one asked, "Who died for freedom?" And, the other chanted "Lumumba!" Not all of the chants and slogans were about the Congo Crisis; some addressed the explosive issue of Black identity. At times they sang, "The word Negro has got to go!" Then, they would thunder, "We're Afro-Americans!"
During an interview, Daniel H. Watts made it clear that the demonstrators were not an appendage of any communist organization; but the ranks of the supporters of African liberation were growing. Later Daniel Watts became the editor of the important Liberator journal, but in 1961 he was the leader of an organization named On Guard. On Guard was established in June 1960 and, according to Watts, had "450 members, including chapters in Denver, Chicago, San Francisco, and Houston." About a dozen members of On Guard had gone to the United Nations planning on a quiet demonstration, wearing symbols of mourning for Lumumba, black veils and armbands.
"We are not Communists," insisted Watts. "We are not a Communist affiliation. We have nothing to do with Communists. We are Afro-Americans, fighting for African liberation." Watts described On Guard as a part of the Harlem Writers Guild, led by Rosa Guy. Along with Daniel Watts in the leadership of On Guard was Richard Gibson, the former CBS journalist who invited Jones to Cuba in 1960.
Malcolm X: The Bridge
The assassination of Malcolm X on February 21, 1965, represented a critical turning point in the life of LeRoi Jones. After the death of Malcolm X, Jones left his wife and children in Greenwich Village in order to join the Black Revolution. Further in his identity transformation, Jones married the black actress and dancer Sylvia Robinson of Newark, New Jersey. Symbolizing the depth of Jones's transformation, Hajj Heesham Jaaber, the Islamic priest who buried Malcolm X, renamed LeRoi Jones Ameer Barakat, "Blessed Prince" in Arabic. Subsequently, Maulana Karenga, a leading cultural nationalist from Los Angeles, Africanized the name Ameer Barakat, making it Amiri Baraka in Swahili, and gave Baraka the distinctive title "Imamu," meaning spiritual leader. Amiri Baraka explains:
Sylvia was named Amina (faithful) after one of Muhammad's wives. Later, under Karenga's influence, I changed my name to Amiri, Bantuizing or Swahilizing the first name and the pronunciation of the last name as well. Barakat in Arabic is pronounced "Body-cot," the Swahili drops the "t" and accents the next-to-last syllable, hence Baraka. Amiri with the rolled "r" is pronounced "Amidi."
Like many other black revolutionaries of that era, Baraka attempted to follow the path outlined by Malcolm X; the most popular themes were those of self-determination, self-respect, and self-defense. For Baraka, Malcolm X embodied the black ethos and the new man produced by revolutionary black consciousness. He sought to flesh out the principles of the new nationalism in several of the most challenging lessons of Malcolm X: the urgency of the modernization of black nationalism, the priority of black cultural revolution, the centrality of the African Revolution, and the necessity of developing a black ideology of self-determination, one reflecting the African American ethos.
Unfortunately, scholars have not placed enough emphasis on Malcolm X's work for the modernization of black nationalism. Malcolm X was intensely interested in the use of mass media for black nationality formation, particularly television, radio, and newspapers; he personally initiated the Muhammad Speaks newspaper to spread the Nation of Islam movement. Moreover, Malcolm X was the bridge between the old nationalism and the new, developing a secular nationalism in tune with many of the innovations of the civil rights revolution. His agitational slogan "the Ballot or the Bullet" supported the voting rights of African Americans at a time when the old black nationalism rejected the American franchise; Malcolm sought to experiment with the use of group voting in order to gain some degree of political autonomy in Harlem.
Furthermore, in addition to Elijah Muhammad's thrust of social rehabilitation, borrowed from the self-reliance program of Booker T. Washington, Malcolm X stressed the need for ethical reconstruction and cultural revitalization in the African American community. For many, the personal example of Malcolm X's own ethical reconstruction was particularly important. As the most advanced spokesman for the new black ethos and a new common sense, his example of self-discipline and self-transformation was a compelling influence. He outlined his style of self-transformation in a three-step program for change, accessible to anyone, urging a new generation to "wake up, clean up, and stand up." In other words, black leaders and activists in the community had to first of all become politically conscious of who they were and the oppressive situation of their people; this was the black consciousness thrust in the Black Revolt. Then they had to raise their standard of ethics and behavior, so that they would be incorruptible in the struggle for black liberation. Thus, Malcolm X insisted that those who wanted to lead the Black Revolution would have to abstain from alcohol and drug abuse, because such pathologies aggravated the already severe social problems in the ghetto, and made such leaders toys in the hands of their ruthless enemies. And finally, they had to be prepared to stand up for equality and justice for black people by any means necessary.
Further, in contrast to the Nation of Islam's tracing the group identity of the black community back to the Asiatic black man, Malcolm increasingly emphasized an African group distinctiveness. It is difficult to say whether this African emphasis was the result of his reflections, especially in the last years of his life, upon his parents' background as followers of Marcus Garvey's Pan-African nationalism; his development within the Harlem nationalist tradition, with its heavy emphasis on African identity; or the close associations that he established with the new generation of African revolutionaries such as Mohammed Babu in Zanzibar. Perhaps in combination, these factors led Malcolm X to transform himself into a bridge between the old nationalism and the New Nationalism.
Moreover, Malcolm X placed a great deal of emphasis on the African Revolution and on the 1955 Bandung Conference of Africans and Asians held in Indonesia, insisting these were models both for forming black united fronts and for breaking Western hegemony over people of color. In the hands of the younger generation, this emphasis manifested itself in the significance they placed on the Third World Revolution.
Stressing the need for African Americans to develop their own revolutionary ideology and organization, Malcolm X urged them to search for philosophical and political approaches rooted in the African Personality. He taught that if black people wanted to be free, they could not be guided by the thinking of their former slave masters: the logic of the oppressor is different from the logic of the oppressed. Significantly, Malcolm X saw black music as the paradigm for the creation of an alternative black ideology of change, because it represented an area of black psychological autonomy:
He improvises, he creates, it comes from within. It's his soul, it's that soul music. It's the only area on the American scene where the black man has been free to create. And he has mastered it. He has shown that he can come up with something that nobody ever thought of on his horn.... Well, likewise he can do the same thing if given intellectual independence. He can come up with a new philosophy. He can come up with a philosophy that nobody has heard of yet. He can invent a society, a social system, an economic system, a political system, that is different from anything that exists or has ever existed anywhere on this earth. He will improvise; he'll bring it from within himself. And this is what you and I want.... You and I want to create an organization that will give us so much power we can sit down and do as we please. Once we can sit down and think as we please, speak as we please, and do as we please, we will show people what pleases us. And what pleases us won't always please them. So you've got to get some power before you can be yourself. Do you understand that? You've got to get some power before you can be yourself. Once you get power and you be yourself, why, you're gone, you've got it and gone. You create a new society and make some heaven right here on this earth.
The impact of the New Nationalism on Baraka and the younger writers and artists was quite dramatic. By building a bridge between the old nationalism and the new, Malcolm X helped lay the basis in political culture for a black united front of various classes and social groups that would bond together in the Modern Black Convention Movement. And under his sway the urban black poor were not isolated; instead of middle-class reformers on a mission in the ghetto, the poor would have allies in their struggle for dignity and justice.
These ideas of the new black nationalism had an epic impact on Baraka's generation as it sought to interpret and continue the legacy of Malcolm X. One thing was clear, Malcolm X opened the door so that a new social stratum, the grass roots, would aspire to national leadership in the Black Revolt. They were the kinds of people that former generations had pushed into the background of the movement; for instance, consider the leaders galvanized by this new message in the Black Panthers: Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Hutton, and Fred Hampton. These leaders would not have come to the forefront under the hegemony of the traditional NAACP. Thus, as black people made their own history, according to Malcolm X, the masses at the grassroots level would become the vanguard for black liberation. This became a major theme in the poetry, art, and plays of the Black Arts Movement.
Because of these powerful influences, what began in the Black Arts as a critique of the white establishment's interpretation and evaluation of black music, poetry, and drama, led to a thoroughgoing social challenge to racist and capitalist hegemony over the cultural life of the black community in the Modern Black Convention Movement. This antihegemonic thrust of the Black Arts informed the Modern Black Convention Movement's ideological challenge of the prevailing direction and content of American politics. Thus, in the initial stage, this social movement sought to create autonomous institutions where new interpretations of art and society, running counter to those of the white establishment, could materialize.
Even though the last year of Malcolm X was crisis ridden, he stood as a steadying force for the New Nationalism. He was that sturdy bridge for the younger generation in their journey from the old nationalism to the new. Especially after his break with the Nation of Islam and his call for a broad black united front, many new writers and intellectuals who were not drawn to Islam, sought out Malcolm X's leadership.
Thus, the assassination of Malcolm X on February 21, 1965, was, in the words of Larry Neal, "an awesome psychological setback to the nationalists and civil rights radicals." Neal knew this more than many other writers, because he actually witnessed the events of that day of shame. He was in the audience at the Audubon Ballroom in Upper Manhattan that Sunday as children sat next to their parents and Malcolm X mounted the platform. He writes:
It could have been church. There was such a very diverse grouping of black people; some of the women were matronly, but tricked up real fine in their Sunday clothes. There were many young children there. The sun was shafting through the windows. The audience had quieted down in anticipation of Malcolm; and after what seemed like two or three long minutes Malcolm came out.
Neal heard Malcolm X give the traditional greeting, "As salaam alaikum, brothers and sisters," and the audience answer, "Wa-laikum salaam." But soon that peaceful, sunny, February day was shattered by the bullets of assassins, and, as Neal puts it, "The whole room was a wailing woman. Men cried openly." It was over so quickly; many felt ashamed of themselves. "They felt that they had not done enough," writes Neal, "to support Malcolm while he was alive."
Hence, they had not protected him, and, somehow, they felt responsible for his assassination. After all, had Malcolm not said that his life was in danger? Had not the man's home been bombed only a week before his assassination?
Such questions haunted many black nationalists as they scattered in a hundred different directions. It was a changing of the guard, compelling new leaders to come to the fore as older leaders faded into the background in disbelief at the brutal murder of Malcolm X. Neal observes that "after Malcolm's death, thousands of heretofore unorganized black students and activists became more radically politicized."
Black Arts Repertory Theater/School
There was an outpouring of expression by artists and writers about the meaning of Malcolm X, the most definitive symbol of the Black Revolution. Two of the most prophetic voices were Ossie Davis, with his bold eulogy "Our Shining Black Prince," and Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), with his fiery song "A Poem for Black Hearts." At the funeral at Faith Temple Church of God on February 27, 1965, Ossie Davis explained, "Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood! This was his meaning to his people. And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves." Further developing the theme of Malcolm X's nobility, Amiri Baraka's poem, more than any other, expressed the combination of adoration, rage, and guilt that fired the minds of his generation. Consider the passionate manifesto he offered black youth:
For Malcolm's eyes, when they broke
the face of some dumb white man, For
Malcolm's hands raised to bless us
all black and strong in his image
of ourselves, For Malcolm's words
fire darts, the victor's tireless
thrusts, words hung above the world
change as it may, he said it, and
for this he was killed, for saying
and feeling, and being/change, all
collected hot in his heart, For Malcolm's
heart, raising us above our filthy cities,
for his stride, and his beat, and his address
to the grey monsters of the world, For Malcolm's
pleas for your dignity, black men, for your life,
black man, for the filling of your minds
with righteousness, For all of him dead
and gone and vanished from us, and all of him which
clings to our speech black god of our time.
For all of him, and all of yourself, look up,
black man, quit stuttering and shuffling, look up,
black man, quit whining and stooping, for all of him,
For Great Malcolm a prince of the earth, let nothing in us rest
until we avenge ourselves for his death, stupid animals
that killed him, let us never breathe a pure breath if
we fail, and white men call us faggots till the end of
Amiri Baraka's interpretation of Malcolm X's behest did not end with a poem. On February 22, 1965, Baraka held a press conference to announce plans to establish the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School (BARTS) in Harlem. At that point a site had not been chosen, but Baraka explained that the school would offer "both practical and theoretical" schooling in all areas of drama: "Acting, writing, directing, set designing, production, [and] management." While the program was particularly aimed at black youth, the Black Arts also wished to provide a place for professional artists to perform.
Baraka announced that funds for the Black Arts venture would be raised from the proceeds of a March 1, 1965, performance of several plays. By March 28, 1965, a major jazz concert for the benefit of the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School was recorded at the Village Gate. The concert featured such jazz artists as Sun Ra and his Myth-Science Arkestra, Betty Carter, John Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Albert Ayler, Joel Freedman, Lewis Worrell, Donald Ayler, Sonny Murray, Grachun Moncur, Bill Harris, Cecil McBee, Bobby Hutcherson, Reggie Johnson, Virgil Jones, Marion Brown, Roger Blank, and Archie Shepp.
Later that spring Amiri Baraka opened the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School in Harlem in a four-story brownstone at 109 West 130th Street. Harlem found out about the opening of the cultural institution when Sun-Ra and his Myth-Science Arkestra led a parade of writers and artists across 125th Street, with "Albert [Ayler] and his brother Don blowing and Milford [Graves] wailing his drums." They waved the Black Arts flag designed by one of their artists, a black and gold flag with Afrocentric theater masks of comedy and tragedy. At the cultural center, Harold Cruse taught black history; Larry Neal, Askia Muhammad Toure, and Max Stanford came as cultural and political advisors; and such musicians as Sun-Ra, Albert Ayler, and Milford Graves provided regular jazz performances.
At the major rallies the Black Arts held in Harlem on 125th Street and Seventh Avenue, the jazz musicians drew the crowds with their music. Advocating black self-determination, Amiri Baraka proposed that "Harlem secede from the United States." Speaking as the director of the Black Arts at one such rally in front of Harlem's Hotel Theresa, Baraka pleaded for unity: "If you want a new world, Brothers and Sisters, if you want a world where you can all be beautiful human beings, we must throw down our differences and come together as black people." Further, he insisted, "All these groups, organizations, viewpoints, religions, had better come together, agreed on one term, that they are black people, and that they are tired of being weak slaves. We are asking for a unity so strong that it will shake up the world."
That summer the Black Arts ran a very successful program for young people, an expanded project funded by some $44,000 from HARYOU-ACT, the major Harlem antipoverty agency. For eight weeks it taught 400 students black studies and African American drama. Some of the poets who flowered at the Black Arts were Sonia Sanchez, Larry P. Neal, Clarence Reed, Clarence Franklin, Sam Anderson, and Ed Spriggs.
The Harlem Black Arts experiment inspired the development of a national Black Arts Movement and the establishment of some 800 black theaters and cultural centers in the United States. Writers and artists in dozens of cities began to assemble to build alternative institutions modeled after the Harlem Black Arts Repertory Theater/School, blending the Black Arts and Black Power. Between 1966 and 1967, the Black Arts Movement spread quickly through a number of important black arts festivals and conventions. In 1966, Baraka organized a black arts festival in Newark, New Jersey, featuring Stokely Carmichael, the leading proponent of Black Power, and Harold Cruse, the foremost theorist of cultural nationalism; that event was important to the development of Baraka's own cultural troupe, the Spirit House Movers and Players in Newark. The development of Black Arts West in San Francisco drew together Ed Bullins, Jayne Cortez, Marvin X, and Amiri Baraka as well as Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther Party. Meanwhile two black arts conventions in Detroit mobilized artists and writers in the Midwest. Dudley Randall reported that perhaps 300 people attended the first Black Arts Convention in Detroit, held June 24-26, 1966, at the Central United Church of Christ. He explained that the scope of the convention "went beyond the arts, for in addition to workshops on literature, music, art, and ... drama, there were workshops on education, religion, [black] history, and politics." This convention had national influence because people came "from most of the major cities across the nation."
These developments inspired a wave of black arts institutions across the nation: the Free Southern Theater in New Orleans, led by Kalaamu ya Salaam; the Concept East Theater and Broadsides Press in Detroit, led by Dudley Randall; the New Lafayette and the National Black Theater in Harlem, under the direction of Barbara Ann Teer; Imamu Amiri Baraka's Spirit House in Newark; and the Afro-Arts Theater and the Organization of Black American Culture in Chicago, led by Gwendolyn Brooks and Haki Madhubuti (Don L. Lee). The Black Arts Movement inspired Chicago's giant mural Wall of Respect, devoted to the new voices of the Black Revolt, which influenced murals in ghettos across the country. A host of new black arts and black studies journals provided vital forums for the development of a new generation of writers and a national Black Arts Movement: Umbra, Liberator, Black World, Freedomways, Black Scholar, Cricket, Journal of Black Poetry, Black Dialogue, Black America, and Soulbook. By 1968, Larry Neal and Amiri Baraka had edited Black Fire, a thick volume of poetry, essays, and drama, which drew national attention to the transformation that was underway among African American writers.
Although the Harlem Black Arts had far-reaching effects on the Black Arts Movement in the United States, the original Black Arts Repertory Theater/School was short-lived. At that point the Black Arts Movement in Harlem remained a small, isolated circle of artists and radicals which had not yet learned how to weave itself into the fabric of the black community. Instead of connecting to the politics of mass mobilization, the Harlem Black Arts revolved around sectarian conflicts within the ranks of religious and cultural nationalism. Harold Cruse warned against the black nationalist temptation of withdrawal from the rest of the world, arguing that the politics of cultural nationalism could not afford to become one that "retreats from social realities of the white power structure under the guise of separatist nationalistic moods." In fact, Cruse urged the Black Arts Movement to avoid the malicious fringe element that threatened to take over the Harlem cultural center, suggesting that the leadership develop a concrete political program that addressed the monumental problems of the ghetto.
Unfortunately, none of that happened; instead a group of nihilistic youth at the BARTS destroyed the program "from the inside." According to Cruse and Baraka, the group "forced out everyone else who would not agree with their mystique." Baraka left in disgust, and later, on the night of March 10, 1966, Larry Neal was shot by two men in Harlem at 130th Street and Seventh Avenue. Even before that violent incident, a demoralized Amiri Baraka had retreated to Newark, New Jersey, one night in late 1965, feeling hopelessly defeated. In Newark, Baraka was haunted by several questions: How had the Harlem Black Arts Repertory Theater/ School failed? What was his own responsibility for allowing such youthful fanatics to destroy the Harlem Black Arts program? What kind of leadership and organization could successfully combine culture and politics?