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.
James Edward Smethurst is associate professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He is author of The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946 and coeditor of Left of the Color Line: Race, Radicalism, and Twentieth-Century Literature of the United States.
The Left, Nationalism, and the Origins of the Black Arts Matrix
Literary expressions of nationalism by African American writers have a long foreground, going back to at least the portions of Martin Delaney's novel Blake that were published in serialized form in the late 1850s. While these published chapters of Delaney's novel did not circulate widely in the nineteenth century, certainly by the early twentieth century, black nationalist thought deeply marked the production of African American art, creating antecedents for the Black Arts movement that caught the attention of scholars from widely varying ideological positions. Tony Martin, for instance, has called our attention to the Garveyite literary circle around the magazine Negro World. Ernest Allen Jr. (Ernie Mkalimoto) and William Maxwell have investigated the impact of both Garveyism and the Left nationalism of the African Blood Brotherhood on the New Negro Renaissance. George Hutchinson, Barbara Foley, and Anthony Dawahare in their different ways have argued powerfully that the New Negro Renaissance was a form of cultural nationalism.
However, a still relatively underconsidered period that is crucial for our understanding of the artistic nationalisms of the 1960s and 1970s is the left-wing arts subculture in the two decades following the New Negro Renaissance. The importance of this subculture (or overlapping subcultures) is not simply due to the enormous number of African American writers, playwrights, directors, actors, visual artists, composers, musicians, and dancers of the 1930s and 1940s who participated in the activities and organizations of the Left, especially the Communist Left. It also results from the circulation of a couple of Left paradigms, that of an alternative, folk-based avant-garde and that of a popular avant-garde, which were, in different forms, crucial to the development of black artistic nationalism during the 1960s and 1970s.
The first paradigm promoted by the Communist Left, particularly from the late 1920s on, was the notion of an oppositional culture that was both avant-garde, or vanguard, if you will, and rooted in a working-class or (in the case of African Americans) a proletarian-peasant national tradition that would exist outside of mass culture. In this view, a sort of homegrown version of the Frankfurt school, mass culture was a form of capitalist mind control that got workers (and African Americans, as an oppressed "nation" or "national minority" depending on whether they lived in the southern "Black Belt" or urban ghettos), literally to buy into the capitalist system against their own best interests. Where most Left artists and intellectuals who subscribed to this position differed from the Frankfurt school was that they did not generally see salvation in a "high" art experimentalist avant-garde as did, say, Theodor Adorno. Instead they tended to look for or imagine residual folk or worker cultures that lay outside mass consumer culture-though they were often influenced by the formal artistic radicalism of the early twentieth century as well. In short, they had what might be called a utopian alternative culture vision of the working class and the folk. While this view might be derided as an unrealistic, reductive, and/or sentimental primitivism, it did promote the growth of a considerable network of left-wing alternative cultural institutions-theater groups, dance groups, film and photography groups, sports leagues, bookstores, reading circles, and writers' groups and affiliated journals, forums, and so on, as well as a groundswell of efforts by radical folklorists and musicologists (both professional and "amateur"), such as Lawrence Gellert, Alan Lomax, Frank Marshall Davis, Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, John Hammond, Meridel Le Sueur, Charles Seeger, Pete Seeger, Don West, and B. A. Botkin.
This alternative approach came to have a particular application for African Americans. The sixth congress of the Comintern in 1928 defined the "Negro Question" as a "national question" and declared it to be at the heart of the work carried on by Communists in the United States. For the next thirty years, with varying degrees of intensity, instead of opposing integrationism to nationalism or nationalism to internationalism, the CPUSA argued that African Americans in the rural South constituted an oppressed nation with the right to political and economic control. This theoretical right to self-determination included the option to form a separate political state in the so-called Black Belt region of the rural South, a group of more or less contiguous counties in which African Americans were the majority of the population. The Communists also held that African Americans in the ghettos of the urban North and West were members of a "national minority" that needed to be integrated into "mainstream" American society on the basis of full equality. An important corollary of the "Black Belt thesis," as the Communist position became known, was that African Americans had a common history and a distinct national culture rooted among Southern black farmers, sharecroppers, farm laborers, and semi-industrial laborers in the countryside ("from blackbottom cornrows and lumber camps," as Sterling Brown said).
One can argue, and many have, the efficacy of the Black Belt thesis. And the leadership of the CPUSA often paid only lip service, if that, to the formulation-as was the case late in the tenure of Earl Browder as general secretary of the party. Nonetheless, it had tremendous influence as a model of cultural production that privileged this rural, southern, African American culture as the authentic culture of the black nation. This model is not the same as the dominant vision of Negro culture of the New Negro Renaissance, derived largely from nineteenth- and early twentieth- century European nationalism, in which "folk" culture would provide material for nationalist "high" artists to transform into a "high" national culture. Rather, in this Left paradigm, "folk" expressive culture is the national culture, at least on a formal level. The slogan of the Communist-initiated League of Struggle for Negro Rights (of which Langston Hughes was the president) sums up this stance well: "Promote Negro Culture in Its Original Form with Proletarian Content." What was necessary, then, was not the transmuting of the folk culture into high art but rather the infusing of the old forms with a new consciousness of class and national self-interest. Not surprisingly, critics of the Communist Left strongly praised the work of the poet, scholar, and critic Sterling A. Brown, whose 1932 collection of poetry, Southern Road, often disparaged the popular culture of the emerging black neighborhoods of the urban North and instead located authentic African American culture in the historical experience and the blues, work songs, spirituals, and other folk expressions of the rural South.
The other major paradigm of popular culture by Left artists and intellectuals during the 1930s and 1940s was that associated with the Popular Front. The policy of the Popular Front arose after the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933 and other nativist, racist, and/or anti-Semitic fascist or semi-fascist movements took over (or threatened to take over) governments throughout Europe. Nazi rule in Germany saw the rapid destruction of what had been the largest Communist Party in the world outside the Soviet Union. As a result, the Comintern came to the conclusion that the threat of fascism was the paramount danger to social progress and required an alliance of all democratic forces, also known as "the people" (as opposed to "the working class" or "the proletariat"), and an emphasis on the particular democratic traditions and symbologies of individual countries. This notion of "the people" included, in the United States, various liberal or social democratic groups (such as the NAACP and the SP) and individuals (such as John L. Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois, and A. Phillip Randolph) that the Communists had often derided previously as "misleaders" or even "social fascists." Though the official period of the Popular Front as an international Comintern strategy runs from about 1935 to the Hitler-Stalin pact at the end of 1939, the Popular Front's approach to political organization, sociocultural symbology, and aesthetics characterized the domestic work of the Communist Left in the United States far beyond 1939. For example, the names of the left-wing Abraham Lincoln School in Chicago, the Jefferson School of Social Science in downtown Manhattan, and the George Washington Carver School in Harlem continued to stake symbolic claims to American democratic icons Popular Front-style in the 1940s and 1950s, whatever the ideological zigs and zags of the international Communist movement. This CPUSA vision of the democratic traditions of the United States was resolutely multiracial in the post-World War II era. It is worth noting that even though this period featured episodes of intense criticism of "nationalism" within the CPUSA, resulting in the resignations or expulsions of a substantial number of black party members, the party's version of multiracialism did allow for the celebration of distinct African American experiences and traditions. This can be seen in the promotion of Carter G. Woodson's Negro History Week (now African American History Month) as part of the public school curriculum, which became a major campaign of the CPUSA nationally and locally in the late 1940s and 1950s to a much greater degree than had been the case during the late 1930s.
The Popular Front was an extremely complex and far-reaching social formation, especially in the area of expressive culture. For the purposes of this study, its most important aspect is the approach to mass culture it generally promoted: instead of being a form of thought control, popular culture was seen as a sort of field or terrain in which "progressive" artists could battle what Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the "economic royalists" in his "A Rendezvous with Destiny" speech at the 1936 Democratic National Convention. So even "high" artists who wrote, composed, painted, directed, acted, danced, and so on infused their work with the themes, the cadences, the imagery, and the media of mass culture. The artists who took this approach for the most part did not see themselves as simply using popular culture but often celebrated what they saw as its progressive aspects as expressions of the American democratic spirit. Perhaps the most notable example of this approach is found in the work of Langston Hughes during the 1930s and 1940s (and beyond). For instance, Hughes began publishing his "Simple" stories, focusing on the life of the "average" Harlemite, Jesse B. Semple, in early 1943 as a part of his "Here to Yonder" column in the Chicago Defender that was eventually syndicated throughout the black press, including (by the 1960s), the NOI's Muhammad Speaks. Not only do these stories celebrate African American popular culture (as well as such white popular artists as Bing Crosby) and incorporate blues, jazz, and pop music, vaudeville comedy routines, various "folk" practices (such as the dozens), and a huge range of literary, musical, folkloric, sociological, political, and historical allusions into the formal structure of the stories themselves, but the stories were in fact popular culture productions in that they were written for the mass-circulation African American press.
This raises one of the most notable, and most noted, features of Popular Front aesthetics: a cultural mixing-of the "high" and the "low," of the "popular" and the "literary," of Whitman and Eliot (formally, if not ideologically), of folk culture and mass culture, of literary and nonliterary documents, of different genres, of different media. Examples of this generic mixing include Langston Hughes's popular 1938 poetry play, Don't You Want to Be Free, in which Hughes's poems were interspersed among blues and gospel songs; Woody Guthrie's "Tom Joad," a seven-minute adaptation of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath set to the tune of "Black Jack Davey" and released on record by RCA Victor in 1940; Muriel Rukeyser's poetic sequence "Book of the Dead," which was filled with fragments of "nonliterary" documents, such as government records, court testimony, diary entries, and stock exchange listings; and Richard Wright's blues song "King Joe," a minor jukebox hit in 1941 set to music by Count Basie and recorded by the Count Basie Orchestra, with Paul Robeson singing.
Another important feature of much Popular Front art is an interest in race and ethnicity and the relation of racial identity and ethnic identity to American identity. This aspect of the Popular Front has been often misunderstood in that Popular Front constructs of "the people" have sometimes been posed as sentimental or corny negations of particularized ethnic or racial affiliation. Examples of that sentimentality unquestionably exist. However, as Michael Denning puts it, the Popular Front was more often characterized by "an anti-racist ethnic pluralism imagining the United States as a 'nation of nations.'" When one considers the poetry of Sterling Brown (whose popularity on the Left survived the onset of the Popular Front), Don West, Aaron Kramer, Frank Marshall Davis, Langston Hughes, Waring Cuney, and Margaret Walker; narratives such as Pietro di Donato's Christ in Concrete, Jerre Mangione's Mount Allegro, Daniel Fuchs's Low Company, Carlos Bulosan's America Is in the Heart, and Richard Wright's Native Son; the famous "Spirituals to Swing" concerts of 1939; and paintings by Jacob Lawrence, Ben Shahn, Aaron Douglas, Charles Alston, Elizabeth Catlett, Hale Woodruff, Charles White, and Jack Levine-to name but a few of the many examples-it is clear that race and ethnicity remained overriding concerns during the Popular Front, albeit concerns that were as much about transformation and, to employ a somewhat overused phrase, hybridity, as they were about tradition.
Finally, many of the artistic, literary, or quasi-literary works of the Popular Front are marked by an interest in place and its relation to American identity, an interest that is often closely connected to the above-mentioned concern with race and ethnicity. While the place represented, re-created, and dissected is most commonly a specific urban neighborhood-New York's Harlem, Brooklyn's Williamsburg, Chicago's South Side, Detroit's Paradise Valley, Boston's West End, and so on-such representations are frequently rural, as in Meridel Le Sueur's portrait of the Upper Midwest in North Star Country and Don West's poems of the southern mountains.