In 1965, playwright and poet Amiri Baraka (b. Leroi Jones) challenged the theatrical status quo by creating the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS) in Harlem. The opening of the theater is considered to be the beginning of the Black Arts Movement, which has been dubbed the “second renaissance,” a nod to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Founded shortly after the assassination of Malcolm X, BARTS’ opening ushered in a period of radically transformative Black art that accompanied the grassroots demonstrations and legislative work of Civil Rights Movement activists.
Theater scholar Lawrence Paul Neal wrote, “This [Black Arts] movement is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power,” adding that “the Black Arts and the Black Power concept both related broadly to the Afro-American’s desire for self-determination and nationhood.”
It was a critical period in our history marked by swelling frustration, righteous anger and a growing spirit of rebellion during which Black artists created a powerful channel of resistance. Black art has always been political by virtue of every Black identity being perpetually politicized, but it was during this time of liberatory genius that many Black artists came to be respected as architects of the revolution. As churches were bombed, protestors hosed down and chased by dogs, and Freedom Riders were intimidated on dark Southern roads, Black people could no longer remain silent as their precious freedom was being stripped from them. They refused to allow White people to shape the narrative of what was happening,
During this time, a collective of radical Black women writers emerged, sparking conversations and presenting perspectives that had long been erased and ignored in the United States. These women constructed a radical blueprint of resistance by laying bare their tales of resilience and triumph over oppression. They created the space for future Black women writers to create meaningful art representing the truth about our people. By refusing to acquiesce to the demands of the mainstream literary world, these women, by way of their powerful words, exemplified how Black resistance shows up in every aspect of our cultural experiences as a people.
While Black artists of all ages, classes, genders and sexual identities and orientations produced various media in the Black Arts Movement, the women writers stand out as the ones who have had the greatest impact and influence on modern Black feminist scholars and activists. For example, Ntozake Shange’s innovative choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf broke the code of silence around the abuses Black women have long-endured at the hands of their romantic partners. Survivors were inspired by the courage and resilience in her words. Gwendolyn Brooks’ depiction of urban Chicago life in her 1968 poetry collection In the Mecca highlighted the resilience of Black people in urban centers, fighting against perpetual class oppression. Brooks was the first African-American author to win the Pulitzer Prize. Her collection called Annie Allen documented the journey of a young Black girl into womanhood. Brooks’ poetic imagery represented the reality of so many marginalized Black people who lived in Northern and Midwestern cities. They were part of the Great Migration that in itself was a form of resistance. Their survival in these new industrial cities demonstrated Black resilience.
Poets and essayists like Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou and Sonia Sanchez, along with Shange and Brooks, set the tone for revolutionary women’s empowerment through their art.
In her 1985 essay, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Lorde spoke to the necessity for Black women to create art:
“For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”
Throughout her lifetime, Lorde spoke of Black womanhood as intersecting identities that cannot and should not be divorced from each other. She was a lesbian, an immigrant, a mother, a feminist and an artist whose poetry and prose exposed the nuances of intersectional oppression. Today, Lorde is often cited by younger writers, queer people, and feminist women of color because she challenged Western White status quos not only within art spaces but with regard to understanding our experiences with identity and injustice.
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be
defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” — Maya Angelou
Angelou and Sanchez demonstrated the importance of integrity and honoring our own stories, no matter how painful they may be. In speaking of overcoming defeat, Angelou noted it’s in how we come to understand ourselves on the other side that is most important.
Sanchez, who co-founded BARTS with Baraka, shook the literary world up by infusing urban and street language into her poetry, and she would become an early influencer of hip-hop culture. Angelou called her a “lion in literature’s forest,” fitting for the long time activist who centered Black liberation and women’s rights in her works. Commonly regarded as a foremother of hip-hop culture, Sanchez has functioned as a gateway to Black feminist cultural consciousness for many artists today, and her impact on the development of our language, the language of the resistance and resilience that defines hip-hop as a culture, cannot be understated.
The urgency Lorde spoke of continues on and those who have carried the torch of Black feminist artistic revolution for the last 50 years express it with their powerful words. Yes, the work of these Black women during the Black Arts Movement was undoubtedly feminist work — we have plenty of examples of Black women presenting Black womanhood as they have observed and experienced it, a standard practice of Black feminist women. In carrying on this tradition, these Black feminist artists moved the Black Power Movement forward while expanding its reach — art functioning as a conduit for liberatory messages is unquelled in freedom work.
Their legacy carries on in the works of Staceyann Chin, Aja Monet, Tayari Jones, Jacqueline Woodson, Warsan Shire, Nayyirah Waheed, Angie Thomas and Alysia Harris, who are among the contemporary brigade of revolutionary Black women authors and poets who center the experiences of Black girls and women and whose work exemplifies Black resistance and resilience.
Sanchez had it right when she wrote:
“For we the people will always be arriving
a ceremony of thunder
waking up the earth
opening our eyes to human
And it'll get better
it'll get better
if we the people work, organize, resist,
come together for peace, racial, social
and sexual justice
it'll get better
it'll get better.” — Sonia Sanchez
— Feminista Jones is an author and activist.