Chapter Title: The Black Arts Movement

University of Massachusetts Press
Chapter Title: The Black Arts Movement
Chapter Author(s): LARRY NEAL
Book Title: SOS — Calling All Black People
Book Subtitle: A Black Arts Movement Reader
Book Editor(s): John H. Bracey <suffix>Jr.</suffix>, Sonia Sanchez and James
Published by: University of Massachusetts Press
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The Black Arts Movement
The Black Arts Movement is radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates
him from his community. Black Art is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power
concept. As such, it envisions an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of
Black America. In order to perform this task, the Black Arts Movement proposes a radical
reordering of the western cultural aesthetic. It proposes a separate symbolism, mythology,
critique, and iconology. The Black Arts and the Black Power concept both relate broadly
to the Afro-American’s desire for self-determination and nationhood. Both concepts are
nationalistic. One is concerned with the relationship between art and politics; the other
with the art of politics.
Recently, these two movements have begun to merge: the political values inherent in
the Black Power concept are now finding concrete expression in the aesthetics of AfroAmerican dramatists, poets, choreographers, musicians, and novelists. A main tenet of
Black Power is the necessity for Black people to define the world in their own terms. The
Black artist has made the same point in the context of aesthetics. The two movements
postulate that there are in fact and in spirit two Americas—one black, one white. The
Black artist takes this to mean that his primary duty is to speak to the spiritual and cultural needs of Black people. Therefore, the main thrust of this new breed of contemporary
writers is to confront the contradictions arising out of the Black man’s experience in the
racist West. Currently, these writers are re-evaluating western aesthetics, the traditional
role of the writer, and the social function of art. Implicit in this re-evaluation is the need
to develop a “black aesthetic.” It is the opinion of many Black writers, I among them, that
the Western aesthetic has run its course: it is impossible to construct anything meaningful within its decaying structure. We advocate a cultural revolution in art and ideas. The
cultural values inherent in western history must either be radicalized or destroyed, and we
will probably find that even radicalization is impossible. In fact, what is needed is a whole
new system of ideas. Poet Don L. Lee expresses it:
. . . We must destroy Faulkner, dick, jane, and other perpetuators of evil. It’s time for
Du Bois, Nat Turner, and Kwame Nkrumah. As Frantz Fanon points out: destroy the
Larry Neal
From TDR: The Drama Review 12.4, Black Theatre Issue (Summer 1968).
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culture and you destroy the people. This must not happen. Black artists are culture
stabilizers; bringing back old values, and introducing new ones. Black Art will talk
to the people and with the will of the people stop impending “protective custody.”
The Black Arts Movement eschews “protest” literature. It speaks directly to Black people.
Implicit in the concept of “protest” literature, as Brother Knight has made clear, is an
appeal to white morality:
Now any Black man who masters the technique of his particular art form, who adheres to the white aesthetic, and who directs his work toward a white audience is, in
one sense, protesting. And implicit in the act of protest is the belief that a change will
be forthcoming once the masters are aware of the protestor’s “grievance” (the very
word connotes begging, supplications to the gods). Only when that belief has faded
and protestings end, will Black art begin.
Brother Knight also has some interesting statements about the development of a “Black
Unless the Black artist establishes a “Black aesthetic” he will have no future at all. To
accept the white aesthetic is to accept and validate a society that will not allow him
to live. The Black artist must create new forms and new values, sing new songs (or
purify old ones); and along with other Black authorities, he must create a new history, new symbols, myths and legends (and purify old ones by fire). And the Black
artist, in creating his own aesthetic, must be accountable for it only to the Black
people. Further, he must hasten his own dissolution as an individual (in the Western
sense)—painful though the process may be, having been breast-fed the poison of
“individual experience.”
When we speak of a “Black aesthetic” several things are meant. First, we assume that
there is already in existence the basis for such an aesthetic. Essentially, it consists of an
African-American cultural tradition. But this aesthetic is finally, by implication, broader
than that tradition. It encompasses most of the useable elements of Third World culture.
The motive behind the Black aesthetic is the destruction of the white thing, the destruction of white ideas, and white ways of looking at the world. The new aesthetic is mostly
predicated on an Ethics which asks the question: whose vision of the world is finally more
meaningful, ours or the white oppressors’? What is truth? Or more precisely, whose truth
shall we express, that of the oppressed or of the oppressors? These are basic questions.
Black intellectuals of previous decades failed to ask them. Further, national and international affairs demand that we appraise the world in terms of our own interests. It is clear
that the question of human survival is at the core of contemporary experience. The Black
artist must address himself to this reality in the strongest terms possible. In a context
of world upheaval, ethics and aesthetics must interact positively and be consistent with
the demands for a more spiritual world. Consequently, the Black Arts Movement is an
ethical movement. Ethical, that is, from the viewpoint of the oppressed. And much of the
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T h e B lac k A rts M o v e m e nt 57
oppression confronting the Third World and Black America is directly traceable to the
Euro-American cultural sensibility. This sensibility, anti-human in nature, has, until recently, dominated the psyches of most Black artists and intellectuals; it must be destroyed
before the Black creative artist can have a meaningful role in the transformation of society.
It is this natural reaction to an alien sensibility that informs the cultural attitudes of
the Black Arts and the Black Power movement. It is a profound ethical sense that makes
a Black artist question a society in which art is one thing and the actions of men another.
The Black Arts Movement believes that your ethics and your aesthetics are one. That the
contradictions between ethics and aesthetics in western society is symptomatic of a dying
The term “Black Arts” is of ancient origin, but it was first used in a positive sense by
LeRoi Jones:
We are unfair
And unfair
We are black magicians
Black arts we make
in black labs of the heart
The fair are fair
and deathly white
The day will not save them
And we own the night
There is also a section of the poem “Black Dada Nihilismus” that carries the same motif.
But a fuller amplification of the nature of the new aesthetics appears in the poem “Black
Poems are bullshit unless they are
teeth or trees or lemons piled
on a step. Or black ladies dying
of men leaving nickel hearts
beating them down. Fuck poems
and they are useful, would they shoot
come at you, love what you are,
breathe like wrestlers, or shudder
strangely after peeing. We want live
words of the hip world, live flesh &
coursing blood. Hearts and Brains
Souls splintering fire. We want poems
like fists beating niggers out of Jocks
or dagger poems in the slimy bellies
of the owner-jews . . .
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Poetry is a concrete function, an action. No more abstractions. Poems are physical entities: fists, daggers, airplane poems, and poems that shoot guns. Poems are transformed
from physical objects into personal forces:
. . . Put it on him poem. Strip him naked
to the world. Another bad poem cracking
steel knuckles in a jewlady’s mouth
Poem scream poison gas on breasts in green berets . . .
Then the poem affirms the integral relationship between Black Art and Black people:
. . . Let Black people understand
that they are the lovers and the sons
of lovers and warriors and sons
of warriors Are poems & poets &
all the loveliness here in the world
It ends with the following lines, a central assertion in both the Black Arts Movement and
the philosophy of Black Power:
We want a black poem. And a
Black World.
Let the world be a Black Poem
And let All Black People Speak This Poem
The poem comes to stand for the collective conscious and unconscious of Black America—
the real impulse in back of the Black Power movement, which is the will toward selfdetermination and nationhood, a radical reordering of the nature and function of both
art and the artist.
In the spring of 1964, LeRoi Jones, Charles Patterson, William Patterson, Clarence Reed,
Johnny Moore, and a number of other Black artists opened the Black Arts Repertoire
Theatre School. They produced a number of plays including Jones’ Experimental Death
Unit # One, Black Mass, Jello, and Dutchman. They also initiated a series of poetry readings
and concerts. These activities represented the most advanced tendencies in the movement
and were of excellent artistic quality. The Black Arts School came under immediate attack
by the New York power structure. The Establishment, fearing Black creativity, did exactly
what it was expected to do—it attacked the theatre and all of its values. In the meantime,
the school was granted funds by OEO through HARYOU-ACT. Lacking a cultural program itself, HARYOU turned to the only organization which addressed itself to the needs
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T h e B lac k A rts M o v e m e nt 59
of the community. In keeping with its “revolutionary” cultural ideas, the Black Arts Theatre took its programs into the streets of Harlem. For three months, the theatre presented
plays, concerts, and poetry readings to the people of the community. Plays that shattered
the illusions of the American body politic, and awakened Black people to the meaning of
their lives.
Then the hawks from the OEO moved in and chopped off the funds. Again, this should
have been expected. The Black Arts Theatre stood in radical opposition to the feeble attitudes about culture of the “War on Poverty” bureaucrats. And later, because of internal
problems, the theatre was forced to close. But the Black Arts group proved that the community could be served by a valid and dynamic art. It also proved that there was a definite
need for a cultural revolution in the Black community.
With the closing of the Black Arts Theatre, the implications of what Brother Jones
and his colleagues were trying to do took on even more significance. Black Art groups
sprang up on the West Coast and the idea spread to Detroit, Philadelphia, Jersey City,
New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. Black Arts movements began on the campuses of
San Francisco State College, Fisk University, Lincoln University, Hunter College in the
Bronx, Columbia University, and Oberlin College. In Watts, after the rebellion, Maulana
Karenga welded the Blacks Arts Movement into a cohesive cultural ideology, which owed
much to the work of LeRoi Jones. Karenga sees culture as the most important element in
the struggle for self-determination:
Culture is the basis of all ideas, images and actions. To move is to move culturally,
i.e., by a set of values given to you by your culture.
Without a culture Negroes are only a set of reactions to white people.
The seven criteria for culture are:
1. Mythology
2. History
3. Social Organization
4. Political Organization
5. Economic Organization
6. Creative Motif
7. Ethos
In drama, LeRoi Jones represents the most advanced aspects of the movement. He is its
prime mover and chief designer. In a poetic essay entitled “The Revolutionary Theatre,”
he outlines the iconology of the movement:
The Revolutionary Theatre should force change: it should be change. (All their
faces turned into the lights and you work on them black nigger magic, and cleanse
them at having seen the ugliness. And if the beautiful see themselves, they will love
themselves.) We are preaching virtue again, but by that to mean NOW, toward what
seems the most constructive use of the word.
The theatre that Jones proposes is inextricably linked to the Afro-American political
dynamic. And such a link is perfectly consistent with Black America’s contemporary
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demands. For theatre is potentially the most social of all of the arts. It is an integral part
of the socializing process. It exists in direct relationship to the audience it claims to serve.
The decadence and inanity of the contemporary American theatre is an accurate reflection of the state of American society. Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is very American: sick white lives in a homosexual hell hole. The theatre of white America is escapist,
refusing to confront concrete reality. Into this cultural emptiness come the musicals, an
up-tempo version of the same stale lives. And the use of Negroes in such plays as Hello
Dolly and Hallelujah Baby does not alert their nature; it compounds the problem. These
plays are simply hipper versions of the minstrel show. They present Negroes acting out the
hang-ups of middle-class white America. Consequently, the American theatre is a palliative prescribed to bourgeois patients who refuse to see the world as it is. Or, more crucially,
as the world sees them. It is no accident, therefore, that the most “important” plays come
from Europe—Brecht, Weiss, and Ghelderode. And even these have begun to run dry.
The Black Arts theatre, the theatre of LeRoi Jones, is a radical alternative to the sterility
of the American theatre. It is primarily a theatre of the Spirit, confronting the Black man
in his interaction with his brothers and with the white thing.
Our theatre will show victims so that their brothers in the audience will be better
able to understand that they are the brothers of victims, and that they themselves are
blood brothers. And what we show must cause the blood to rush, so that prerevolutionary temperaments will be bathed in this blood, and it will cause their deepest
souls to move, and they will find themselves tensed and clenched, even ready to die,
at what the soul has been taught. We will scream and cry, murder, run through the
streets in agony, if it means some soul will be moved, moved to actual life understanding of what the world is, and what it ought to be. We are preaching virtue and
feeling, and a natural sense of the self in the world. All men live in the world, and the
world ought to be a place for them to live.
The victims in the world of Jones’ early plays are Clay, murdered by the white bitchgoddess in Dutchman, and Walker Vessels, the revolutionary in The Slave. Both of these
plays present Black men in transition. Clay, the middle-class Negro trying to get himself
a little action from Lula, digs himself and his own truth only to get murdered after telling
her like it really is:
Just let me bleed you, you loud whore, and one poem vanished. A whole people
neurotics, struggling to keep from being sane. And the only thing that would cure
the neurosis would be your murder. Simple as that. I mean if I murdered you, then
other white people would understand me. You understand? No. I guess not. If Bessie
Smith had killed some white people she wouldn’t needed that music. She could have
talked very straight and plain about the world. Just straight two and two are four.
Money. Power. Luxury. Like that. All of them. Crazy niggers turning their back on
sanity. When all it needs is that simple act. Just murder. Would make us all sane.
But Lula understands, and she kills Clay first. In a perverse way it is Clay’s nascent knowledge of himself that threatens the existence of Lula’s idea of the world. Symbolically, and in
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T h e B lac k A rts M o v e m e nt 61
fact, the relationship between Clay (Black America) and Lula (white America) is rooted in
the historical castration of black manhood. And in the twisted psyche of white America,
the Black man is both an object of love and hate. Analogous attitudes exist in most Black
Americans, but for decidedly different reasons. Clay is doomed when he allows himself
to participate in Lula’s “fantasy” in the first place. It is the fantasy to which Frantz Fanon
alludes in The Wretched Of The Earth and Black Skins, White Mask: the native’s belief that
he can acquire the oppressor’s power by acquiring his symbols, one of which is the white
woman. When Clay finally digs himself it is too late.
Walker Vessels, in The Slave, is Clay reincarnated as the revolutionary confronting
problems inherited from his contact with white culture. He returns to the home of his
ex-wife, a white woman, and her husband, a literary critic. The play is essentially about
Walker’s attempt to destroy his white past. For it is the past, with all of its painful memories, that is really the enemy of the revolutionary. It is impossible to move until history is
either recreated or comprehended. Unlike Todd, in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Walker
cannot fall outside history. Instead, Walker demands a confrontation with history, a final
shattering of bullshit illusions. His only salvation lies in confronting the physical and psychological forces that have made him and his people powerless. Therefore, he comes to
understand that the world must be restructured along spiritual imperatives. But in the
interim it is basically a question of who has power:
Easley: You’re so wrong about everything. So terribly, sickeningly wrong. What can
you change? What do you hope to change? Do you think Negroes are better people than whites . . . that they can govern a society better than whites? That they’ll
be more judicious or more tolerant? Do you think they’ll make fewer mistakes?
I mean really, if the Western white man has proved one thing . . . it’s the futility
of modern society. So the have-not peoples become the haves. Even so, will that
change the essential functions of the world? Will there be more love or beauty in
the world . . . more knowledge . . . because of it?
Walker: Probably. Probably there will be more . . . if more people have a chance
to understand what it is. But that’s not even the point. It comes down to baser
human endeavor than any social-political thinking. What does it matter if there’s
more love or beauty? Who the fuck cares? Is that what the Western ofay thought
while he was ruling . . . that his rule somehow brought more love and beauty into
the world? Oh, he might have thought that concomitantly, while sipping a gin
rickey and scratching his ass . . . but that was not ever the point. Not even on the
Crusades. The point is that you had your chance, darling, now these other folks
have theirs. Quietly. Now they have theirs.
Easley: God, what an ugly idea.
This confrontation between the black radical and the white liberal is symbolic of larger
confrontations occurring between the Third World and Western society. It is a confrontation between the colonizer and the colonized, the slavemaster and the slave. Implicit in
Easley’s remarks is the belief that the white man is culturally and politically superior to
the Black Man. Even though Western society has been traditionally violent in its relation
with the Third World, it sanctimoniously deplores violence or self assertion on the part
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of the enslaved. And the Western mind, with clever rationalizations, equates the violence
of the oppressed with the violence of the oppressor. So that when the native preaches selfdetermination, the Western white man cleverly misconstrues it to mean hate of all white
men. When the Black political radical warns his people not to trust white politicians of
the left and the right, but instead to organize separately on the basis of power, the white
man cries: “racism in reverse.” Or he will say, as many of them do today: “We deplore both
white and black racism.” As if the two could be equated.
There is a minor element in The Slave which assumes great importance in a later play
entitled Jello. Here I refer to the emblem of Walker’s army: a red-mouthed grinning field
slave. The revolutionary army has taken one of the most hated symbols of the AfroAmerican past and radically altered its meaning.* This is the supreme act of freedom,
available only to those who have liberated themselves psychically. Jones amplifies this inversion of emblem and symbol in Jello by making Rochester (Ratfester) of the old Jack
Benny (Penny) program into a revolutionary nationalist. Ratfester, ordinarily the supreme
embodiment of the Uncle Tom Clown, surprises Jack Penny by turning on the other side
of the nature of the Black man. He skillfully, and with an evasive black humor, robs Penny
of all of his money. But Ratfester’s actions are “moral.” That is to say, Ratfester is getting
his back pay; payment of a long over-due debt to the Black man. Ratfester’s sensibilities are
different from Walker’s. He is blues people smiling and shuffling while trying to figure out
how to destroy the white thing. And like the blues man, he is the master of the understatement. Or in the Afro-American folk tradition, he is the Signifying Monkey, Shine, and
Stagolee all rolled into one. There are no stereotypes any more. History has killed Uncle
Tom. Because even Uncle Tom has a breaking point beyond which he will not be pushed.
Cut deeply enough into the most docile Negro, and you will find a conscious murderer.
Behind the lyrics of the blues and the shuffling porter loom visions of white throats being
cut and cities burning.
Jones’ particular power as a playwright does not rest solely on his revolutionary vision,
but is instead derived from his deep lyricism and spiritual outlook. In many ways, he is
fundamentally more a poet than a playwright. And it is his lyricism that gives body to
his plays. Two important plays in this regard are Black Mass and Slave Ship. Black Mass
is based on the Muslim myth of Yacub. According to this myth, Yacub, a Black scientist,
developed the means of grafting different colors of the Original Black Nation until a White
Devil was created. In Black Mass, Yacub’s experiments produce a raving White Beast who
is condemned to the coldest regions of the North. The other magicians implore Yacub to
cease his experiments. But he insists on claiming the primacy of scientific knowledge over
spiritual knowledge. The sensibility of the White Devil is alien, informed by lust and sensuality. The Beast is the consummate embodiment of evil, the beginning of the historical
subjugation of the spiritual world.
*In Jones’ study of Afro-American music, Blues People, we find the following observation: “. . . Even the
adjective funky, which once meant to many Negroes merely a stink (usually associated with sex), was used
to qualify the music as meaningful (the word became fashionable and is now almost useless). The social
implication, then, was that even the old stereotype of a distinctive Negro smell that white America subscribed
to could be turned against white America. For this smell now, real or not, was made a valuable characteristic
of ‘Negro-ness.’ And ‘Negro-ness’ by the fifties, for many Negroes (and whites) was the only strength left to
American culture.”
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T h e B lac k A rts M o v e m e nt 63
Black Mass takes place in some pre-historical time. In fact, the concept of time, we
learn, is the creation of an alien sensibility, that of the Beast. This is a deeply weighted play,
a colloquy on the nature of man, and the relationship between legitimate spiritual knowledge and scientific knowledge. It is LeRoi Jones’ most important play mainly because it is
informed by a mythology that is wholly the creation of the Afro-American sensibility.
Further, Yacub’s creation is not merely a scientific exercise. More fundamentally, it is
the aesthetic impulse gone astray. The Beast is created merely for the sake of creation.
Some artists assert a similar claim about the nature of art. They argue that art need not
have a function. It is against this decadent attitude toward art—ramified throughout most
of Western society—that the play militates. Yacub’s real crime, therefore, is the introduction of a meaningless evil into a harmonious universe. The evil of the Beast is pervasive,
corrupting everything and everyone it touches. What was beautiful is twisted into an ugly
screaming thing. The play ends with destruction of the holy place of the Black Magicians.
Now the Beast and his descendants roam the earth. An off-stage voice chants a call for the
Jihad to begin. It is then that myth merges into legitimate history, and we, the audience,
come to understand that all history is merely someone’s version of mythology.
Slave Ship presents a more immediate confrontation with history. In a series of expressionistic tableaux it depicts the horrors and the madness of the Middle Passage. It then
moves through the period of slavery, early attempts at revolt, tendencies toward Uncle
Tom-like reconciliation and betrayal, and the final act of liberation. There is no definite
plot (LeRoi calls it a pageant), just a continuous rush of sound, groans, screams, and souls
wailing for freedom and relief from suffering. This work has special affinities with the New
Music of Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and Ornette Coleman. Events are blurred,
rising and falling in a stream of sound. Almost cinematically, the images flicker and fade
against a heavy back-drop of rhythm. The language is spare, stripped to the essential. It
is a play which almost totally eliminates the need for a text. It functions on the basis of
movement and energy—the dramatic equivalent of the New Music.
LeRoi Jones is the best known and the most advanced playwright of the movement, but
he is not alone. There are other excellent playwrights who express the general mood of
the Black Arts ideology. Among them are Ron Milner, Ed Bullins, Ben Caldwell, Jimmy
Stewart, Joe White, Charles Patterson, Charles Fuller, Aisha Hughes, Carol Freeman, and
Jimmy Garrett.
Ron Milner’s Who’s Got His Own is of particular importance. It strips bare the clashing
attitudes of a contemporary Afro-American family. Milner’s concern is with legitimate
manhood and morality. The family in Who’s Got His Own is in search of its conscience,
or more precisely its own definition of life. On the day of his father’s death, Tim and his
family are forced to examine the inner fabric of their lives: the lies, self-deceits, and sense
of powerlessness in a white world. The basic conflict, however, is internal. It is rooted in
the historical search for black manhood. Tim’s mother is representative of a generation of
Christian Black women who have implicitly understood the brooding violence lurking in
their men. And with this understanding, they have interposed themselves between their
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men and the object of that violence—the white man. Thus unable to direct his violence
against the oppressor, the Black man becomes more frustrated and the sense of powerlessness deepens. Lacking the strength to be a man in the white world, he turns against his
family. So the oppressed, as Fanon explains, constantly dreams violence against his oppressor, while killing his brother on fast weekends.
Tim’s sister represents the Negro woman’s attempt to acquire what Eldridge Cleaver
calls “ultrafemininity.” That is, the attributes of her white upper-class counterpart. Involved
here is a rejection of the body-oriented life of the working class Black man, symbolized by
the mother’s traditional religion. The sister has an affair with a white upper-class liberal,
ending in abortion. There are hints of lesbianism, i.e., a further rejection of the body. The
sister’s life is a pivotal factor in the play. Much of the stripping away of falsehood initiated
by Tim is directed at her life, which they have carefully kept hidden from the mother.
Tim is the product of the new Afro-American sensibility, informed by the psychological revolution now operative within Black America. He is a combination ghetto soul
brother and militant intellectual, very hip and slightly flawed himself. He would change
the world, but without comprehending the particular history that produced his “tyrannical” father. And he cannot be the man his father was—not until he truly understands
his father. He must understand why his father allowed himself to be insulted daily by the
“honky” types on the job; why he took a demeaning job in the “shit-house”; and why he
spent on his family the violence that he should have directed against the white man. In
short, Tim must confront the history of his family. And that is exactly what happens. Each
character tells his story, exposing his falsehood to the other until a balance is reached.
Who’s Got His Own is not the work of an alienated mind. Milner’s main thrust is
directed toward unifying the family around basic moral principles, toward bridging the
“generation gap.” Other Black playwrights, Jimmy Garrett for example, see the gap as unbridgeable.
Garrett’s We Own the Night (see this issue of TDR, pp. 62–69) takes place during an
armed insurrection. As the play opens we see the central characters defending a section
of the city against attacks by white police. Johnny, the protagonist, is wounded. Some of
his Brothers intermittently fire at attacking forces, while others look for medical help. A
doctor arrives, forced at gun point. The wounded boy’s mother also comes. She is a female
Uncle Tom who berates the Brothers and their cause. She tries to get Johnny to leave. She
is hysterical. The whole idea of Black people fighting white people is totally outside of her
orientation. Johnny begins a vicious attack on his mother, accusing her of emasculating
his father—a recurring theme in the sociology of the Black community. In Afro-American
literature of previous decades the strong Black mother was the object of awe and respect.
But in the new literature, her status is ambivalent and laced with tension. Historically,
Afro-American woman have had to be the economic mainstays of the family. The oppressor allowed them to have jobs while at the same time limiting the economic mobility of
the Black man. Very often, therefore, the woman’s aspirations and values are closely tied to
those of the white power structure and not to those of her man. Since he cannot provide
for his family the way white men do, she despises his weakness, tearing into him at every
opportunity until, very often, there is nothing left but a shell.
The only way out of this dilemma is through revolution. It either must be an actual
blood revolution, or one that psychically redirects the energy of the oppressed. Milner is
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T h e B lac k A rts M o v e m e nt 65
fundamentally concerned with the latter and Garrett with the former. Communication
between Johnny and his mother breaks down. The revolutionary imperative demands that
men step outside the legal framework. It is a question of erecting another morality. The
old constructs do not hold up, because adhering to them means consigning oneself to the
oppressive reality. Johnny’s mother is involved in the old constructs. Manliness is equated
with white morality. And even though she claims to love her family (her men), the overall
design of her ideas are against black manhood. In Garrett’s play the mother’s morality
manifests itself in a deep-seated hatred of Black men; while in Milner’s work the mother
understands, but holds her men back.
The mothers that Garrett and Milner see represent the Old Spirituality—the Faith of
the Fathers of which Du Bois spoke. Johnny and Tim represent the New Spirituality. They
appear to be a type produced by the upheavals of the colonial world of which Black America is a part. Johnny’s assertion that he is a criminal is remarkably similar to the rebel’s
comments in Aimé Césaire’s play, Les Armes Miraculeuses (The Miraculous Weapons). In
that play the rebel, speaking to his mother, proclaims: “My name—an offense; my Christian name—humiliation; my status—a rebel; my age—the stone age.” To which the mother
replies: “My race—the human race. My religion—brotherhood.” The Old Spirituality is
generalized. It seeks to recognize Universal Humanity. The New Spirituality is specific. It
begins by seeing the world from the concise point-of-view of the colonialized. Where the
Old Spirituality would live with oppression while ascribing to the oppressors an innate
goodness, the New Spirituality demands a radical shift in point-of-view. The colonialized
native, the oppressed must, of necessity, subscribe to a separate morality. One that will
liberate him and his people.
The assault against the Old Spirituality can sometimes be humorous. In Ben Caldwell’s
play, The Militant Preacher, a burglar is seen slipping into the home of a wealthy minister.
The preacher comes in and the burglar ducks behind a large chair. The preacher, acting
out the role of the supplicant minister begins to moan, praying to De Lawd for understanding.
In the context of today’s politics, the minister is an Uncle Tom, mouthing platitudes
against self-defense. The preacher drones in a self-pitying monologue about the folly
of protecting oneself against brutal policeman. Then the burglar begins to speak. The
preacher is startled, taking the burglar’s voice for the voice of God. The burglar begins
to play on the preacher’s old time religion. He becomes the voice of God insulting and
goading the preacher on until the preacher’s attitudes about protective violence change.
The next day the preacher emerges militant, gun in hand, sounding like Reverend Cleage
in Detroit. He now preaches a new gospel—the gospel of the gun, an eye for an eye. The
gospel is preached in the rhythmic cadences of the old Black church. But the content is
radical. Just as Jones inverted the symbols in Jello, Caldwell twists the rhythms of the Uncle
Tom preacher into the language of the new militancy.
These plays are directed at problems within Black America. They begin with the premise that there is a well defined Afro-American audience. An audience that must see itself
and the world in terms of its own interests. These plays, along with many others, constitute the basis for a viable movement in the theatre—a movement which takes as its
task a profound re-evaluation of the Black man’s presence in America. The Black Arts
Movement represents the flowering of a cultural nationalism that has been suppressed
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66 L arry Ne al
since the 1920’s. I mean the “Harlem Renaissance”—which was essentially a failure. It did
not address itself to the mythology and the life-styles of the Black community. It failed to
take roots, to link itself concretely to the struggles of that community, to become its voice
and spirit. Implicit in the Black Arts Movement is the idea that Black people, however,
dispersed, constitute a nation within the belly of white America. This is not a new idea.
Garvey said it and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad says it now. And it is on this idea that
the concept of Black Power is predicated.
Afro-American life and history is full of creative possibilities, and the movement is
just beginning to perceive them. Just beginning to understand that the most meaningful statements about the nature of Western society must come from the Third World of
which Black America is a part. The thematic material is broad, ranging from folk heroes
like Shine and Stagolee to historical figures like Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. And then
there is the struggle for Black survival, the coming confrontation between white America
and Black America. If art is the harbinger of future possibilities, what does the future of
Black America portend?
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