"Liberation is impossible if we fail to see ourselves in more positive terms. For without a change of vision, we are slaves to the oppressor's ideas and values --ideas and values that finally attack the very core of our existence. Therefore, we must see the world
in terms of our own realities."
Larry Neal, "Black Art and Black Liberation," 1969
Conceived as the "aesthetic and spirtitual sister of the Black Power Concept," the Black Arts Movement (BAM) arose in the mid-1960s
to develop a body of art that would provide "a change of vision" in the perception of African American
identity. Like the New Negro Movement of the 1910s and 1920s, BAM, spanning a period from the mid-1960s into the 1970s, was a flourishing of artistic endeavor
among African American writers, poets, playwrights, musicians, and visual artists who believed that
artistic production could be the key to revising stereotypes of African American inferiority and sub-humanity --stereotypes that lay
at the heart of American racism.
As African American writer James Baldwin noted in the 1920s, "no people that
has ever produced great literature and art has ever been looked [upon] as distinctly inferior."
United in this belief, a number of African American artists sought to rekindle the efforts of their 'New Negro' predecessors during the modern civil rights movement.
Yet, despite the homage artists associated with BAM would pay to 'New Negro' writers like Langston Hughes or cultural theorists like Alain Locke, the "Black Power Concept" to which the artistic movement was aligned
structured a departure from the agenda of African American artists of the early twentieth-century. Rather than creating artwork that would encourage white America to look upon African Americans more positively, BAM artists were exclusively intereseted in improving black Americans' perception of themselves.
The call for Black Power, first issued as a challenge and later as a rejection of integrationist aims, arose in the mid-1960s with the belief that African Americans and black peoples living abroad would never be liberated from a racist society if they did not address internalized assumptions of inferiority. Advancing African American liberation through self-determinacy and, in time, Black Nationalism, the "Black Power Concept"
directed African Americans to seperate from mainstream (understood as white) society to determine "who are black people, what are black people, and what is their relationship to America and the rest of the world."
To address these questions, BAM cultural theorists and artists reasoned that a black aesthetic--a distinguishing mark of black culture--was required to help the African American community perceive itself as Black--an appellate that, by the 1960s, would mean not only beautiful, but also pride in the legacy of African American achievement, self-identification with black peoples spread throughout the African diaspora, and an active participation in the sociopolitical upliftment of the black community. Defining "Black" art exclusively as cultural productions that faciliated the Black Power "revolution" in African American self-perception, BAM theorists and adherents directed African American artists to work collectively to develop a black aesthetic for each field of art. Whether the daring juxtapostions of jazz or the biting
rhythms of poetry, this black aesthetic was intended to advance the liberation of African American self-perception--black peoples seeing themselves and their world "in terms of their own realties."
This website, Perceptions of Black, is designed as a resource for further study of the cultural and political dynamics of BAM through the lens of African American art's historically "invisible" creators--African American visual artists. These artists, most specifically charged with visualizing an empowered Black identity during BAM, held a unique position in the 1960s art world--one that was, in parts, alitenated from both white and black America. It is from this position that the art of African American visual artists aligned and in opposition to BAM offers particular insight into how perceptions of Black--art and identity--feuls the ongoing debate regarding the placement of African American culture in America.
Galleries | Aesthetic Debate | Bibliography