These two essays from 1968 offer a window into the ideas that provided the foundation for the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Black Arts Movement, as Neal states in his essay, was seen as “the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept.” Though the term “Black Power” had been used by Richard Wright in the 1950s to describe the liberation struggles of African nations, the notion of “Black Power” as used here originates in 1966 from two leaders within the civil rights organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC — pronounced “snick”), Stokley Carmichael and Willie Ricks.
The Black Power movement was largely characterized as a Black nationalist movement, emphasizing racial pride and the creation of Black political, cultural, and economic institutions that would be able to promote collective community interests and Black autonomy. As the aesthetic reflection of the Black Power Movement, the Black Arts Movement has been the only American literary movement to have social engagement as an essential element of its aesthetic.
Neal’s essay serves primarily as a primer for the Black Arts Movement, outlining its purpose and necessity, and presenting examples of artists who were creating literature centered on these explicitly political aims. Perhaps the most insight we get into the Black Arts Movement from the essay is when Neal quotes his fellow Black Arts poet, Etheridge Knight:
“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 the old ones by fire). And the Black artist, in creating his own aesthetic, must be accountable for it only to the Black people.”
Hoyt Fuller’s essay provides more of a critical examination of the motivations, logics, and imperatives behind the creation of a Black aesthetic. He begins by saying that “Just as black intellectuals have rejected the NAACP, on the one hand, and the two major political parties on the other, and gone off in search of new and more effective means and methods of seizing power, so revolutionary black writers have turned their backs on the old ‘certainties’ and struck out in new, if uncharted, directions.”
He focuses much of his discussion in responding to criticisms waged against the idea of a Black aesthetic, and by extension, the idea of a Black Arts Movement. Of special interest to Fuller is the problematic ways in which notions of “universalism” have been used against Black art as a way to legitimate its marginalization. “‘Certainly,’ the argument might proceed, ‘to be important, writing must have universal values, universal implications; it cannot deal exclusively with Negro problems.’ The plain but unstated assumption being, of course, that there are no ‘universal values’ and no ‘universal’ implications’ in Negro life.”
The most powerful of his statements about the paradox of universalism is his comment on the poem by Joseph Bevans Bush. He says: “If the poem lacks the resonsances of William Shakespeare, that is intentional. The ‘great bard of Avon’ has only limited relevance to the revolutionary spirit raging in the ghetto. Which is not to say that the black revolutionaries reject the ‘universal’ statements inherent in Shakespeare’s works; what they do reject, however, is the literary assumption that the style and language and the concerns of Shakespeare establish the appropriate limits and ‘frame of reference’ for black poetry and people.” (emphasis added)
Think about the ways in which Fuller’s argument is continuing a conversation with earlier arguments, especially Schuyler, Hughes, and DuBois.