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Artistry in Black: The Black Arts Movement, Part I

By Useni Eugene Perkins

(Edited Version of "Evolution of Black Art: From The Black Chicago Renaissance to The Chicago Black Arts Movement- 1935-1975 (An Abbreviated Interpretation) by Useni Eugene Perkins.

Presented by Omni Virtual University

The Relevancy of the Black Arts Movement

Those who claim that art from the Black Arts Movement (BAM) is dated and has little relevance to today’s Black community fail to acknowledge that there is no timeline for appreciating quality art. Art from the early European renaissance is still being praised and revered because it has been preserved in white institutions and glorified in the canon of western art. Quality Black Art should receive no lesser appreciation or recognition.

A critical assessment of Black Art during any period must be examined in relationship to the continuum of art that precedes it. This is to suggest that the genesis of Black Art must be traced to the venerable civilizations of humanity which, from all genealogical studies, began in the ancient civilization of Kemet.

It is the opinion of this writer that Black art should reflect the cultural and historical ethos of its people at any given period in history. To achieve this supposition, it will go through many changes and modifications. Nonetheless, its basic principles must neither be compromised nor acquiesce in the face of the racist diatribe and elitist doctrine that is contrary to the liberating struggle of Black people. Indeed, the fundamental principles of Black art must be preserved so that future generations can be the beneficiaries of its historic and creative legacy. As Dr.Haki Madhubuti so aptly articulates:

The best way to fight an alien culture is to live your own."

Chicago’s Black Arts Movement, also known as BAM, followed in the footsteps of the Black Chicago Renaissance which began in the mid-1930s and faded in the early 1950s. This is to imply that the Chicago Black Arts Movement must be interpreted as a continuation of the Black Chicago Renaissance. In this regard, we can reasonably say that artists from each generation are influenced by the generation of artists that preceded them. Until recently, the Black Chicago Renaissance had not received the academic scrutiny given to the fabled Harlem Renaissance which began to decline in the late 1920s. This void could be attributed to the supposition that some scholars failed to discern the important role that the Black Chicago Renaissance played in the expansion of Black esthetics in America. Although, at first, the Black Chicago Renaissance lacked the number of talented artists who were active in the Harlem Renaissance, its status as an important Renaissance was beginning to resonate in the mid-1930s. As was true of the confluence that developed between the Black Chicago Renaissance and BAM, the same relationship existed between the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Chicago Renaissance.

The Black Chicago Renaissance and the Works Progress Administration (WPA)

The majority of artists who gave birth to the Black Chicago Renaissance received some support from the Federal Arts Program (FAP) which was attached to Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "New Deal" Works Progress Administration (WPA). The FAP provided modest grants and job opportunities to help them launch their careers. The Illinois Writers Project, Federal Writers Project, and the Federal Project were beneficiaries of the WPA. In addition, many of these artists were awarded small grants from Julius Rosenwald, the philanthropist and co-founder of Sears, Roebuck, and Company. His grants to Black artists, associated with WPA programs, contributed greatly to the expansion of arts in the Black community.

One of the most ambitious of the WPA projects was "The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers" which was a collection of studies by WPA writers that Brian Dolinar noted, “…was the first-ever attempt to present a comprehensive social history of African Americans in Illinois”. The studies from this stellar project were never completed or published because the priorities of World War II limited funds for arts programs.

Some of the Artists who contributed to Chicago’s Black Arts Movement

As the Black Arts Movement expanded nationally, Chicago became one of its most active cities. Indeed, it was becoming the epi-center for poets, writers, musicians, photographers, performers, and visual artists.

Among the writers and poets were Don L.Lee (Haki Madhubuti), who became one of its most vocal leaders, Carolyn Rodgers; Jewel Latimore (Johari Amini); Sterling Plumpp; Sigmond Wimberli; Ebon; Amus Mor; Walter Bradford; Sister Zubena; Sandra Opuku; Brandi Barnes; Mike Cook; Cecil Brown; Cleveland Webber; Alicia L. Johnson; Angela Jackson; Paulette Pennington- Jones; Sam Greenlee; and Willie Dixon.

Among the visual artists were Jeff Donaldson, founder of African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AFRICOBRA), Murry D. Pillars, Bill Walker, Norman Parrish, [Ancestor] Ramon Price. Douglas Williams, Roy Lewis, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Wadsworth Jarrett, Napoleon Jones Anderson, Arlene Crawford, and Dr. Lorenzo Pace who, after leaving Chicago in the late 60s, became a nationally acclaimed sculptor. His historic monument, entitled "Triumph of the Human Spirit", honors the enslaved Africans who were buried near the CourtHouse in Lower Manhattan. It is an extraordinary achievement.

Among the musicians were Muhah Richard Abrams, [Ancestor] Kelan Phil Cohran, Steve McCall, and Lester Bowie who founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Other notable musicians who emerged from this period were Paul Weston, Troy Robinson, Kahil El Zabar, Roscoe Mitchell, Douglas Ewart, Kwame Steve Cobb, George Lewis, and Charles Walton. We can also add to this list The Sun Drummer which was founded by Harold HamptonAtu” Murray. (Although the name connotes singularity, it actually represents a plurality to indicate that the drummers who participated in it were of one musical and spiritual accord.)

Many of the above artists were members of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) which promoted the works of the artists in various workshops and specialized groups. Most of the writers were under the capable supervision of Hoyt Fuller, editor of The Black World which helped many Black writers to gain national recognition. OBAC also had a theater group which was led by Val Gray Ward, founder of the Kuumba Workshop. One of OBAC’s major achievements was creating The Wall of Respect which drew accolades from other Black communities for its creative images of Black people. This historic mural was conceived by Bill Walker (considered to be the "Father of the mural movement") who led a collaboration of artists to create this mural on the wall of an old building located at 43rd and Langley. "The Wall of Respect" became a cultural icon that was revered and respected by the Black community.

Also, during this period there were approximately 18 "Afro" [ barber] Shops. 9 Theater groups, 6 Black Art Galleries, 6 Black Publishing Companies, 7 Black Book Stores, and over 25 Black cultural institutions and organizations. Without a doubt, the Chicago Black Arts Movement contributed to making the Black community a vibrant and cultural environment that raised the consciousness of Black people as they became more knowledgeable and appreciative of their African heritage.

In addition, Chicago was fast emerging as a major city for Black theater. Some of the theater groups that began to flourish during this period were: Kuumba Workshop, co-founded by Val Gray Ward, (“the voice of the Black writer), eta Performing Arts[which later became and is currently known as ETA Creative Arts], X-Bag, Tiafa Builders, Tempo Players, Newer Still Productions, Black Ensemble Theater, founded by Jackie Taylor, and the LaMont Zeno Theater. From this emergence, the Black Theater Alliance (BTA) was formed. Later, the BTA became the model for the Midwest Black Theater Alliance (MBTA) which included Black theater groups from Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Indiana. Chicago was also able to attract such outstanding Black plays as, "What the Wine Sellers Buy", "The River Niger", "My Arms Too Short to Box with God", and "No Place to be Somebody", all of which had successful runs in Chicago.

Other prominent artists in the Black Theater Movement were:

Clarence Taylor, Paul Carter Harrison, Soyini Madison, Douglas Mann, Chuck Smith, Spencer Jackson and Family, Runako Jahi, and Pemon Rami. Special recognition should be given to [Ancestors] Abena Joan Brown and Okoro Harold Johnson who played major roles in almost every aspect of Chicago’s BAM.

Also, the Muntu Dancers, founded by Darlene Blackburn (Later led by Joan Gray), Aloyo Children Dance Theater, and the Nawaja Dancers became familiar performers during most of BAM’s Black Cultural events.

(To be continued in Part II)

References / Recommended Readings*

The official bookstore of Omni Virtual University is When you click on titles that are linked below and make your book purchases, a portion of the proceeds from those sales go to support our work.

*Evolution of Black Art: From the Black Chicago Renaissance to the Chicago Black Arts Movement-1935-1975 ( An Abbreviated Interpretation) by Useni Eugene Perkins

*Nommo: A Literary Legacy of Black Chicago (1967-1987)An OBAC Anthology, Edited by Carol A. Par

*Home is a Dirty Street: The Social Oppression of Black Children, by Useni Eugene Perkins

*Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, Edited by LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal

*The Black 70’s, Edited by Floyd Bourbor (Contains essays by Dr. Margaret T.G Burroughs, Haki Madhubuti, and Useni Eugene Perkins)

*Black Arts: An Anthology of Black Creations, Edited by Ahmad Alhamisi and Harun Kofi Wangara

*Black Metropolis. By Sinclair Drake

*SOS: A Black Arts Movement Reader: Edited by John H. Bracey Jr., Sonia Sanchez, and James Smethurst

*The Black Arts Movement-: Creating a Cultural Identity (Lucent Library of Black History)

Poetry From The Masters: The Pioneers. Edited by Wade Hudson

Black Writing from Chicago: Edited by Richard Guzman with a Foreword by Carolyn M. Rodgers

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