What Was the Black Arts Movement?

The Black Arts Movement was a pivotal cultural moment when African Americans fought for greater freedom through multiple means of expression.

Jun 30, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

what was black arts movement


The Black Arts Movement (BAM) was a powerful movement of the 1960s and 1970s led by African Americans who examined the complex identity politics of being black in American society. Ideas expanded across drama, poetry, music, art, literature and academia, and merged elements of activism and political protest with creative expression, often with a direct, militant form of communication that sometimes veered into violence. While there was no one house style, poets and playwrights played with language in direct and uncompromising ways, while many black artists associated with the movement worked with collage, appropriation, photography and printing. We take a brief look at the evolution of the movement.


The Black Arts Movement Began in 1965

Members of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem, New York, during the 1960s


Several significant events triggered the advent of the Black Arts Movement. Following the deaths of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Patrick Lumumba, black citizens and students mobilized and staged a series of uprisings in opposition to the ongoing issues surrounding racial discrimination and civil rights. Protestors also looked to the revolutions in China and Cuba, along with the independence movements in Asia and Africa for messages of hope and empowerment. Poet Le Roi Jones – who renamed himself Imamu Amiri Baraka – founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem, which became a busy hub which organised poetry, playwriting, painting and musical workshops and events. As such, Baraka became a father figure for the entire movement, which began in New York, and later spread throughout Chicago, Illinois, San Francisco, Detroit, Michigan and California.


The Movement Centered Around Poetry and Theatre

Left: Dudley Randall, founder of Broadside Press in Detroit, photograph by Andrew Sacks. | Right: Song of the Son by Jean Toomer; Published by Broadside Press, Detroit, 1967; Designer unknown; offset lithograph.


Poetry and theatre were the most potent and impactful aspects of the Black Arts Movement. Many poets had their work published through the black oriented publishing houses which celebrated both the work of older black writers and emergent talent. They included Negro Digest in Chicago, Third World Press in Chicago, and Lotus Press and Broadside Press in Detroit. Poetry was also popular because it could be performed during rallies and events, and their attention-grabbing, rhythmic approach has gone on to influence many performers and rappers since. Meanwhile in Baraka’s theatre and other similarly socially engaged spaces free events were staged where playwrights and performers could expose their ideas to an audience.


Art and Academia

Front cover from The Black Scholar Vol 10 No 3-4 by Chrisman, Robert, Ed – 1978

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Both art and academia were important elements of the Black Arts Movement. Some of the major artists of the movement include Benny Andrews, Jeff Donaldson, Ben Hazard, Carolyn Lawrence and Dinga McCannon. In 1969, the first scholarly journal associated with the movement, titled The Black Scholar, was founded by Robert Chrisman and Nathan Hare.


The Black Arts Movement Was a Powerful Means of Black Expression

Unite (First State), 1969, by Barbara Jones-Hogu


In essence the Black Arts Movement was a means of empowerment for black people, in line with its political sister, the Black Power movement. Poet and publisher Haki Madhubuti wrote, “And the mission is how do we become a whole people, and how do we begin to essentially tell our narrative, while at the same time move toward a level of success in this country and in the world? And we can do that. I know we can do that.” However, their message of freedom fighting sometimes veered into violence, and some members of the movement were regarded to be racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and sexist, promoting an aggressive form of black male sexuality, meaning certain aspects of the movement are still shrouded in controversy. 


The Movement Peaked During the 1970s

Black Arts Movement pioneer Imamu Amiri Baraka


The 1970s were the pivotal era for the Black Arts Movement, when it gained traction across much of the United States. But as the troublesome elements of the movement began to take hold, many of the group’s leading members, including Baraka, had moved away from black nationalism towards Marxism by the middle of the decade.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.