Black Arts, Black Artists, and Black History

Guest post by James Smethurst, author of the forthcoming Behold the Land: The Black Arts Movement in the South.

One fascinating and frightening aspect of our current moment in the United States is ways that history has been brought to the fore of contemporary political conversations and policy.  The heated, sweeping, and seemingly endless debates over the 1619 Project and the 1776 Commission at all levels of civil society are remarkable to me , and sometimes raise more questions than answers. The Black Arts Movement (BAM) and its sense of the mythic nature of history might be able to help navigate the murky path between true versus pseudo-history, and also illuminate what feels true to an audience or community. That is to say that BAM was deeply invested in the questions of how, for whom, and to what ends history is used.

A seeming contradiction of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s is that it was deeply engaged in thinking about tradition and ancestry, but not much in history and historical art as chronicles and memorials of events. Black Arts was generally very focused on the frame for understanding history, but less preoccupied with recounting those events. (There were, of course, exceptions to this, such as the historical poems of Sam Cornish.) For the most part, when Black Arts activists did take up what we might consider to be key milestones and movements of the historical past, such as the Middle Passage, they foregrounded the mythic dimensions of those events in such a way that the Black shaping and interpretive frame was foregrounded so that Black audiences were able to connect with the artistic works on very basic levels. As Larry Neal wrote of Amiri Baraka’s play Slave Ship, “The episodes of this ‘pageant’ do not appear as strict interpretations of history. Rather, what we are digging is ritualized history. That is, history that allows emotional and religious participation on the part of the audience.”

One reason for this, perhaps, is that Black Arts participants to some degree felt relieved of the responsibility for being actual historians in the sense that many Black artists before them had been. The field of U.S. history with respect to anything to do with African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century was dominated by white males who were racist, either by omission or commission,  such as U.B. Phillips, the dean of historians of the antebellum South, and  “Dunning School” and its presentation of Reconstruction as a time of carpetbaggers, scalawags, and easily manipulated or savagely violent Black freed men and women, needing the social discipline of Jim Crow. The mainstream historians’ organizations, notably the American Historical Association, were indifferent, when not actually hostile, to Black (and radical) scholars.

This is to say that these circumstances often inspired in Black artists a particular sense of obligation to use their craft to present a narration and interpretation of historical events (e.g., Nat Turner’s revolt, African American participation in the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era), that intervened in the telling and study of  history and even historiography. At the heart of these interventions was the desire to show African Americans as historical agents whose efforts were aimed specifically toward the liberation of African Americans in particular and the expansion of U.S. democracy in general. One can see this history and historiographical imperative among Black artists as far back as the nineteenth century. Frances E. W. Harper’s Iola Leroy was as much a Black re-visioning of the proto-Bourbon accounts of the slave era, the Civil War, and Reconstruction as it was a call for African American unity in the face of the segregationist assaults on the legacy of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow segregation. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s turn of the twentieth century poems of the Civil War and the Black soldiers, such as “The Colored Soldiers” and “W’en Dey ‘Listed Colored Soldiers” were in much the same vein as were the African American historical pageants, notably W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1915 Star of Ethiopia, during this period.

With the rise of Black Studies in the 1960s and 70s and a new generation of Black Power/Black Arts-influenced Black historians writing and publishing accounts and narratives, Black artists shifted their foci toward historiography and the mythic shape of history. “What was the form of slavery/what was the form of jim crow/& how in the hell wd they know…” asks a late Black Arts era poem by Ntozake Shange that she included in Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo.

This notion of history as myth might give us some insight into the obsessive efforts of Donald Trump and the Republican Party to overturn, repeal, and erase policies associated with Barack Obama. Some of this obsession had do with actual practical opposition to socialized medicine, environmental initiatives, labor rights, immigrant rights, and so on. Some of it no doubt had to do with Trump’s obsessively jealous comparison of his popularity with that of Obama. However, it seems to me that what Trump and his base objected to was the meaning of Obama, which is not simply the possibility of Black citizenship, but Black power and Black self-determination, or the myth or vision of a nation state in which such power and the ability to control one’s destiny as a people is a fundamental part of the United States. As seen in the 1776 Commission, the alt right and contemporary white nationalism is at least as much a vision of history, and the telling of history (or historiography), of a “white” republic built on both a certain kind of exclusion, expulsion, and extermination, but also, as the New York Times registered in its 1619 Project, an inclusion based on Black subservience. So it strikes me sometimes that one of the greatest influences of Black Arts on our moment is not only how it has profoundly marked how everyone in the United States understands what art is, what and who art is for, and how it is supported and produced, but on the debates about what it means (and has meant) to be a citizen in the United States. The question of how we read the past, what ideological, spiritual, and emotional frames we use has everything to do with our understanding and telling of the present and future. Black Arts and Black Power not influenced how many of us approach history and historiography in a positive way, but they also exist as a negative vision, a fear drawn on by white nationalists and their enablers from the former President on down as noted and predicted by Public Enemy, a group born out of Black Arts, Black Power and Black Studies at Adelphia University, in Fear of a Black Planet:

What is pure? Who is pure?
Is it European? I ain’t sure
If the whole world was to come through peace and love
Then what would we be made of?

James Smethurst is W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American History at University of Massachusetts Amherst. His books include The African American Roots of Modernism: From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance and The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s.