Larry Neal, “The Black Arts Movement,” and Hoyt Fuller, “Toward a Black Aesthetic” for February 10, 2009


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.



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32 responses to “Larry Neal, “The Black Arts Movement,” and Hoyt Fuller, “Toward a Black Aesthetic” for February 10, 2009

  1. Lana C

    Who is he writing this to? If he wanted change in society shouldn’t he be aiming his work to were the majority of his audience is? Theaters are expensive, if he really wanted to speak to Black American during that time period wouldn’t he want to try and bring them something they could afford to see/listen too.
    Yes, they did trying bringing it to the streets but how long did that last? Blue-collared workers [the working class] of this time period generally did not have the money or the time to go to the theater.

  2. Marissa Moodenbaugh

    If Neal is talking about Black Art in general, why does he only focus on the changes occruing within the theater. I agree with Lana, why would Neal be focused on theaters that primarily serve white people if he is trying to create change within the African American community?

    Also one of the elements that caught my attention in Fuller’s essay was the idea of “racism-in-reverse.” In it he mentions that African American writers are being labeled as racists because they are trying to separate their work from the racism that surrounds them. But how are these actions racist? Who is this racism projected at?

  3. Jenna Currie

    At the beginning of this essay Neal touches on many cultural issues and then narrows his focus to Black Art within theather. Throughout the essay, Neal tries to provoke a change in the concept of being black and the overall theme of blackness. With this being said, how does this essay seek to redefine the meaning of the word black?

  4. Tom C

    Neal says that “unless the black artist establishes a black aesthetic he will have no future at all”

    My question is, based on this piece, what will be his guidelines for black aesthetic be? how will his option differ from the white culture he hopes to define himself from. Shouldn’t everyone be allowed to define blackness in their own way?

  5. Nick Atkins

    On pg. 186 Neal presents the point that in “The Black Arts Movement… your ethics and aesthetics are one.” What role do aesthetics play in establishing a values system?

  6. Katie Myers

    In this essay it states that the Black Arts Movement is a ethical movement, and that is the viewpoint of the oppressed, if that is the case how can it also be shown to those who are not oppressed and have the same effect? Also what are the cultural responsiblities and attitudes of the Black Arts movement and the Black power movement and how they relate to each other?

  7. Jason Sikma

    Toward the end of Fuller’s argument he discusses the importance of style. He lists a great deal of famous African Americans and says what made them so special was their style. What does Fuller mean by this and why does he credit very few white men in having style?

  8. Tyler Nakatsu

    In Neal’s essay he works to focus the need of a black aesthetic or art canon. He then focuses more distinctively on theatre and cliams that it is “potentially the most social of all the arts – it exists in direct relationship to the audience it claims to serve.” (190) Isn’t all art subjective? Why is it that Neal feels that because in theatre there is the obvious action and reaction between the audience and the actors, that it is inherently more affective than other forms of art? This personally seems like a bias.

    Fuller continues on the topic of a Black aesthetic. An idea that stood out for me was when he defined aesthetic and stated that a black aesthetic would emcompass that definition “but in the context of Western culture is and becomes a serious and profound variation on a loose theme” (215) he continues quoting Cruse then doesn’t make any further comments. What I would like to know aside from his use of others work, what is that variation?

  9. geoffmcneish

    I would have to agree with Neal’s point that african americans need their own style because otherwise it is not from their heart. My question is why did african american artists ever stop making their own art and why do they have to be told to make their own identity?

    My question for Fuller is how did he plan to get black art noticed and more importanly bought if it was not like anything else consumers knew

  10. Andrew Frei

    I was excited when Neal broke down the seven criteria for culture as: Mythology, History, Social Organization, Political Organization, Economic Organization, Creative Motif, and Ethos. I thought he’d take them each individually, explain what he meant by them and tie his examples into them. I did not expect for him to mention them bluntly, and then move on, never to mention them again in his essay. I can see how points in his essay definitely tie in, and several of his examples hearken back to the criteria for culture, but what was his motivation in making such a big point of it? How did he mean for the reader to internalize the criteria for culture?

  11. Andrew Frei

    I wonder if Fuller disapproves of attempts to find universals for the African American community, or if he simply thinks that universals are impossible and beside the main point. I understand, and agree, that it takes many different viewpoints to flesh out the diverse situations of a culture, but Fuller doesn’t seem to have a problem with assuming that White cultural universals exist. Why is that?

  12. kristina long

    Fuller discusses the black outsider and the white insider.
    Is there ever a time when thoes roles switch or counter act?
    Saying that the outsiders feed on its own source…but dont all races feed on not only their own but eachothers to discover their ideas and beliefs?
    What makes someone an outsider if we are all on one earth regardless of two separate “worlds”

  13. Lindsay Nelson

    Neal states “A main tenet of Black Power is the necessity for Black people to define the world in their own terms. Therefore, the main thrust of this newbreed of contemporary writers is to confront the contradictions arising out of the Black man’s experience in the racist West.”

    Is he then suggesting black writers write for only one purpose? It seems as if he is discouraging originality, and advocating for writing for a common agenda.

  14. Brad Pearce

    Larry Neal makes an interesting statement in this piece, “Cut deeply into the most docile Negro, and you will find a conscious murderer.” What this essentially is saying, is that the stereotypical docile black man content to serve white people has murder boiling under his skin. My question is whether Larry Neal thought it would have been productive if white writers made this more clear when creating black characters who fall into this pattern?

  15. Brad Pearce

    If Hoyt Fuller thinks that races in America are naturally antagonistic, what ideas does he have for promoting positive dialog? Fuller seems to think that this situation is not likely to change, and if that is the case what will developing a black aesthetic accomplish?

  16. Brad Thompson

    Maybe it’s because I’m sick and easily irritated because of it but I have one question that will not leave my mind; will white people ever exist neutrally to African Americans? It seems that no matter how nice I am to everyone (no matter their race or religion) that I will forever be the enemy.

  17. Elliott Lamp

    My question is mostly based towards Larry Neal’s first couple of paragraphs where he talks about black art and now is plays into politics. Neal says “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.” But he contradicts himself in the paragraph directly before that saying that, ” In fact, what is needed is a whole new system of ideas.” Stating that the cultural values need to be changed. So my question is what does he want does he want a huge radical change in society or does he think it is better for the black artist to conform and through that change will come?

  18. Jennifer Kurz

    Neal, in his essay states that the Black Arts Movement “proposes a radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic” by creating “a separate symbolism, mythology, critique, and iconology.” However, the identity of a nation is often wrapped up in its history and traditions. Unfortunately, a great chunk of America’s history, and therefore its white culture, involved subjecting blacks to slavery. If culture is created through experience, one could argue an African-American’s history is inevitably saturated by the effects of slavery as well. Does this mean black culture is born out of oppression? If so, how can development of a “Black Aesthetic” separate African-American art from the taint of racism, and in effect steer it away from being “only a set of reactions to white people?”

  19. Lana C

    In response to Fuller:
    The connections that Fuller makes between Black literature, literary critics, and publication of Black literature altogether I find quite interesting. I can defiantly see the connections he is making here because of previously reading other essays in the novel, but he gives off this air that it’s only happening to his own ‘Group’. Prejudice is quite a common thing among the literary world, and great example of that is Jewish literature.
    After the Holocaust those who survived and actually wrote their stories were often denied publication. It wasn’t until the 60’s that old anti-Semitism feelings faded enough that those crucified during WWII were able to spread their stories.
    So the question is
    How does one end up putting themselves where Fuller is at…blaming the ‘White’ world and demanding only those of the same ‘Group’ to be allowed to judge their work? Because every other Groups works and ideals are so different?
    Criticism should be able to be given and taken both ways.

  20. kristenmnelson

    Fuller states that “no manner of well-meaning rhetoric about “one country” and “one people,”…can obliterate the high, thich dividing walls which hate and history have erected-and maintained-between [the two races]”. Would developing a “black aesthetic lift artists in a way that would help break down these barriers or is he suggesting that African-American artists be operating on a separate circuit than white artists? Could either of those be a hindrance to African-American artists?

  21. Arie Henry

    In response to Neal:

    Larry Neal uses extended quotes from Brother Neal to reinforce his argument at the beginning of “The Black Arts Movement.” In one specific passage, Knight claims that Black art cannot truly begin until the idea of it operating as protest material is let go. Knight believes it is protest material because it adheres to the white aesthetic and is directed towards a white audience. If this is true, how can the satire and protesting tones be located within the works? And when the protest is abandoned, in what ways does the African American’s art conform to Neal’s definition of Black art?

  22. Leslie Lambert

    I was wondering is there ever a time, to Fuller, the roles of the “black outsider” and the “white insider” are inverted or put in conflict within one another?

    My question for Neal is similar to Arie’s: what is Black art, in Neal’s definition, and how does that conflict or work with societies defintion?

  23. Arie Henry

    In response to Fuller:

    Fuller notes and anticipates that critics of the Black Arts Movement will deem the movement as “racism-in-reverse.” Fuller understands that this is all but a given. From his perspective, however, Fuller sarcastically welcomes the idea of the Black artist being tagged as “racist” for having his own perspective on the oppression against him by the White man. Based on Fuller’s theories, how legitimate can the Black aritist’s “racist” views be? If it is in observation of the White man’s immediate atrocities against others who are apparently innocent of any provocation, why would it be dismissed as being non-constructive and “racist”?

  24. Resa I.

    Because these were written in 1968 and everything else we’ve read has been written in a different era, I wonder…How different are the views on African American culture within art, theater, etc. now? Things have changed somewhat so I wonder how people feel about these things in the present day.

  25. Troy Alapit

    While reading the Larry Neal “Black Arts Movement”, in Within the Circle many things caught my eye and I found a contradiction in what the Black Arts Movement was trying to do. To bring out this contradiction I first want to use two passages to supplement my argument for this contradiction. The first passage is found on page 184 where it states, “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.” The second passage I would like to point out is on page 186 where Neal claims, “Essentially, it [Black Aesthetic] 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 the Third World culture.” The reason why these two specific passage are important is because since the “Black Arts Movement” is to be comparable to the Black Power movement, and both are to be a progressive movements for blacks, how than can they be “nationalistic” or “consisting of an African-American cultural tradition” or even a “third world culture”, when we learn through comparative ethnic studies that “nation” and “culture” along with “race” are all “structures” and ideologies made up by society? I don’t understand how it could be a progressive movement for blacks if what is the foundation for the “Black Arts Movement” is based on a belief system of ideologies construed only by a certain society. For example, African-American culture is an ever changing thing; therefore it is not a permanent fact or has not set definition. How than was the black arts movement so progressive with a foundation such as these?

  26. Lynette M

    Neal says: The two movements postulate that there are in fact two spirits two Americans—one black, one white.” I know that Neal is trying to make a point for the Black Arts Movement, but by this point in 1968 there were defiantly more than just two groups in the United States. Did Neal effectively create the Nationalistic feeling he was aiming for?

  27. Lynette M

    Fuller focuses on the development of the “Black Aesthetic.” He says, “After centuries of being told, in a million different ways, that they were not beautiful, and that whiteness of skin, straightness of hair, and aquilineness of features constituted the only measures of beauty, black people have revolted.” I have seen that trend in many of my African American friends as I as growing up, has that statement been fulfilled, or are there still oppressions of beauty on the African American society?

  28. Lindsey Bratonia

    Larry Neal argues that there should be a black art movement separate from the white culture. He states, “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, and one white.” (184) He goes on to compare and contrast the black and white cultural movements but at what point is the black art movement not defined as being separate/different from the white? When or how will this shift happen?

  29. David Hagen

    My question regarding the Neals reading addresses the topic of white racism vs. black racism that he brings up when he questions whether white racism and black racism could be equated. My question is: does anyone actually attempt to equate the two, or are they rather simply speaking out against racism in general when they state: “We deplore both white racism and black racism.”

  30. Jon Ecklund

    It seems that Neal is calling for a change to the “Black Aesthetic.” He is calling for a Black Aesthetic created by African-Americans, that represents theie culture. I was wondering if Neal feals there is one true Black Aesthetic, or if there are many; and if those created by African-Americans are all acceptable, solely because they are created by African-Americans; and are therefore more virtuous to the Black Arts Movement?

  31. David Hagen

    While I fully understand that the time period in which Fuller’s piece was written, I must question whether white people actually failed to recognize the contribution that the black community had on the styles of the time, and whether a group of people can be considered “more stylish” rather than differently styled, as surely even styles that are considered lame or outdated currently are still a style.

  32. Pingback: A New Aesthetic: Black Art – jtransociology

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