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Artistry in Black: The Black Arts Movement, Part II

By Useni Eugene Perkins

Presented by Omni U Virtual University

[An edited version of "Evolution of Black Art: From the Black Chicago Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement-- 1935-1975 (An Abbreviated Version)]

"The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative." Ancestor Paul Robeson

The most active years of Chicago’s Black Arts Movement took place from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies. During this period, it gave birth to the Afro-Arts Theater founded by [Ancestor] Kelan Phil Cohran and the South Side Center for the Performing Arts founded by noted Playwright Ted Ward. It was also the catalyst for the weekly "On The Beach Black Arts Festival'' which took place at the 63rd Street Beach in 1967 and 1968. This festival, founded by Betty Conda, featured all aspects of Black Art and was arguably the largest weekly Black Arts Festival of its kind in America.

A crowning achievement of the Chicago Black Arts Movement was its prominent role in providing leadership for The Second World Black and African Festival of Art and Culture which was held in Lagos, Nigeria in 1977. Dr. Jeff Donaldson served as chairman of the North American Zone and was assisted by Hoyt Fuller, [Ancestor] Abena Joan Brown, and Dr. Haki Madhubuti.

The Black Chicago Renaissance and Entertainment

Not only was Chicago's Southside community known as "Bronzeville" emerging as a viable arts community, but it was also simultaneously being complemented by a thriving entertainment community that featured nightclubs like Club Delisa, Rhumboogie, and the Grand Terrace. However, the most prominent place for entertainment was the Regal Theater which hosted some of the most outstanding performers of that period. Featured on its stage were Count Basie, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Erskine Hawkins, Billy Eckstein, Arthur Prysock, Lionel Hampton, Al Hibbler, "Mom's" Mabley, Cab Calloway, Red Foxx, "Peg-leg" Bates, The Ink Spots, and a galaxy of other prominent entertainers. Next door to the Regal Theater was the Savoy Ballroom where dancers would showcase dances uniquely indigenous to "Bronzeville". Also, because of Blues singers like Big Bill Boozy, Robert Williams, Etta James, Lil Green, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Howling Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson, Chicago was becoming a major breeder of the blues which made it the Blues capital of America. There should be no mistake, Bronzeville was not an imitation of Harlem but had its own ethos of excitement and charm.

Indeed Chicago was becoming a mecca for Black artists. It was the founding home of the DuSable Museum of African American History, originally known as the Ebony Museum, which was the first community-based museum of its kind in America. Across the street, from this historic institution, was the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC) which became a major venue for artists to develop their craft, display their work, and fellowship with other artists. Today, it is the longest-tenured Black cultural institution of its kind in America, In proximity to these two institutions was the Abraham Lincoln Center where some of Langston Hughes' and Ted Ward's plays were performed. It also served as the venue where St. Claire Drake and Horace Cayton wrote their classic study of Negro life in Chicago entitled, "Black Metropolis". Other institutions that promoted Black culture were the historic George Cleveland Library, noted for its outstanding Vivian Harsh Collection of Black Literature, The Parkway Community House, an affiliate of the Congregational Church of the Good Shepherd, and the Wabash YMCA where Carter G. Woodson developed the framework for Negro History Week. In addition, Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks, two of the most acclaimed writers of the Black Chicago Renaissance, lived in Bronzeville.

Artists from the Black Chicago Renaissance also played an important role in the founding of the National Conference of Negro Artists. Dr. Margaret Taylor Goes Burroughs was one of the artists who conceived the conference and Marion Perkins, a self-taught sculptor, gave the keynote address at its inaugural conference, held in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1959. His address, entitled "The Problems of The Negro Artist", referenced the stereotypic Black images which were so commonly portrayed in the western media. To efface this practice he stated:

Unfortunately, our own indifference and lack of social alertness have contributed much to the continued existence of such caricatures of Negro life. I would like to point out that our artists and sculptors can play a major role in replacing the stereotype[s] with the true image of Negroes and Negro life”.

As already stated, BAM germinated from the Black Chicago Renaissance and was the beneficiary of such seasoned artists as Dr. Margaret Burroughs, Margaret Walker, Marion Perkins, Margaret Danner, Dudley Randall, Hoyt Fuller, Charles White, Frank Marshall Davis. Elizabeth Catlett, Bernard Goss, Frank London Brown, Etta Moten Barnett, Romare Bearden, Katherine Dunham, Archibald Motley, Willard Motley, Gwendolyn Brooks, Eldzier Cortor, Alice Browning, and Lorraine Hansberry. Although it may not have always been evident, the BAM artists were heirs to the legacies created by some of these artists.

“Just as the Harlem Renaissance had laid the groundwork for the Black Chicago movement, so the lingering influence of the Black Chicago Renaissance put elements in place to assist in the birth and growth of the Black Arts Movement.”[1]

Black Chicago Renaissance Artists Who Were Active in The Chicago Black Arts Movement

At first, many of the Black Chicago Renaissance artists were critical of the artistic merit of the young BAM artists and avoided having an artistic relationship with them. However, when it became apparent that the BAM was not a passing fad, they began to acknowledge the sincerity of these young artists, even if their craft left much to be admired. Some of these Black Chicago Renaissance artists are profiled below:

[Ancestor] ALICE BROWNING – Ms. Browning was the founder and publisher of "The Negro Story" which was the precursor to "The Negro Digest". Although the magazine lasted for only two years, it featured articles by Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Frank Marshall Davis. She also hosted an annual "Black Writer’s Conference" which attracted many of the BAM writers.

[Ancestor] Dr. MARGARET T-G. BURROUGHS – Co-founder of the DuSable Museum and one of the prime organizers of the South Side Community Arts Center, Dr. Burroughs was among the most active Black Chicago Renaissance artists who supported the BAM. As an artist of many genres: lithograph, oil paintings, sculpture, literature, poetry, and a cultural icon, her involvement in BAM is immeasurable.

[Ancestor] HOYT FULLER – A distinguished writer and scholar, Hoyt Fuller edited the Negro Digest/Black World and was a literary shepherd to many of the young BAM writers. He also convened OBAC’s renowned "Writers Workshop" which contributed to the development of writers such as Haki Madhubuti, Johari Amini, Sterling Plumpp, Carolyn Rodgers, Sam Greenlee, Walter Bradford, Angela Jackson, and many others.

[Ancestor] GWENDOLYN BROOKS – In the beginning, Gwendolyn Brooks was not a strong supporter of BAM but, later became one of its staunchest advocates. As she began to interact with many of the young BAM writers, especially Haki Madhubuti and Carolyn Rodgers, Ms. Brooks saw the great potential of these young writers and became a major benefactor to many of them. Not only was she a cultural mother to many of Chicago’s BAM writers but also to such outstanding writers as Sonia Sanchez, Nicki Giovanni, and Etheridge Knight.

[Ancestor] DR. LERONE BENNETT JR. – The eminent scholar, journalist, and historian played an important role in Chicago’s BAM because he knew and influenced many of the young BAM artists who were striving to make Black art a viable component of the Black Power Movement. In his role as Senior Editor of Ebony Magazine, he promoted Black art and was active in many of the BAM programs and activities. His seminal book,"Before the Mayflower", became an iconic narrative of the important role Africans and African Americans played in the shaping of world history.

[Ancestor] F. H. HAMMURABINamed after the King of ancient Babylonia, Mr. Hammarbi had a major influence on many of the BAM artists. His "House of Knowledge", located behind the DuSable Museum of African American History, was a major resource that provided artists with information about many aspects of African history and culture. Mr. Hammarubi had traveled to Africa many times and would share his knowledge with all who wanted to have a better understanding and appreciation of African societies.

THEODORE "TED" WARDOne of America’s premier playwrights was also a major voice in the Chicago Black Renaissance, Mr. Ward was committed to helping young artists hone their skills in all aspects of theater. As a drama instructor with the Chicago Park District, he was a mentor to Clarence Taylor and [Ancestor] Okoro Harold Johnson, both of whom played prominent roles in Chicago’s expanding Black theater movement. Mr. Ward also established the South Side Center for the Performing Arts which became an important venue for many of BAM’s outstanding playwrights which included Ed Bullins, Ronald Milner, and Ben Caldwell.

[Ancestor] OSCAR BROWN, JR. Having established himself as one of America’s premier and multi-talented artists during the fifties, Oscar Brown, Jr. continued to showcase his talents in the Black Arts Movement. He was a mentor to many of Chicago’s BAM artists and premiered several of his musical plays which included "Slave Story", and "Summer in the City". He also wrote, directed, and produced a musical, "Opportunity Knocks" which was performed by members of the Black P Stone Rangers organization.

Chicago Black Renaissance and Civil Rights

The Black Chicago Renaissance began to decline at approximately the same time the new Civil Rights Movement was being resurrected in the wake of the following four events:

The 1954 ruling of the Supreme Court in Brown v Board of Education, which cited that "in the field of education the doctrine of separate but equal has no place”.

The August 28, 1955, brutal killing of 14-year-old Chicagoan, Emmet Till in Money, Mississippi by white vigilantes.

The December 1, 1955 arrest of NAACP volunteer worker Rosa Parks for refusing to yield her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus.

In September 1957, Governor Orval Faubus did not comply with a federal order and refused to admit nine Black students to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

These events, and others that followed, made it unequivocally clear that the struggle for equality, self-determination, and self-reliance would constitute a movement of Black resistance yet to be seen in America. Like the Phoenix Bird in Kemetic mythology, Black Americans began to rise from the epochs of social, political, and economic ashes of racial injustice that denied them full rights as American citizens. Now, they were poised and reinvigorated to confront these vestiges of discrimination and racism with new resolve and determination. The Phoenix bird had risen again and Chicago would never be the same. Although some of the Black Chicago Renaissance artists were not directly involved in political issues, some like Richard Wright, Ted Ward, Marion Perkins, Frank Marshall Davis, and Arna Bontemps were associated with the John Reed Clubs. This is not to suggest that conservatism was the hallmark of some Chicago Black Renaissance artists but that they were primarily seeking to express a sense of racial pride and dignity in their work. In fact, it could be conjectured that they were an extension of the “New Negro” conceived by Alain Locke, the guru of the Black cultural intelligentsia.

For example, Richard Durham, who studied at Northwestern University, was an outspoken critic of white supremacy and a staunch advocate of Black History. His passion for Black History motivated him to write and produce over ninety scripts on Black History for a radio series called "Destination Freedom". The show won national acclaim and was a two-time recipient of the “Scribes for Excellence Award” presented by the Colorado Association of Black Journalists. The multi-talented Oscar Brown Jr. was one of the show’s principal commentators. Mr. Durham’s writings continued to be acclaimed during the Black Arts Movement. He also wrote the first Black television series for channel eleven entitled "Bird of the Iron Feather". This show was directed by Okoro Harold Johnson who played a major role in the development of Black Theater in Chicago and was the co-founder of Chicago’s Black Theater Alliance.

The Black Arts Movement and Black Power

Although the Civil Rights Movement made great strides in combating discrimination and racism, many young Black artists became disenchanted with its ideology of non-violence and began to adopt an ideology of "Black Power" which was articulated by Charles Hamilton, Stokely Carmichael, and H. Rap Brown in the late sixties. It became obvious to these young Black artists that, if their art was to be relevant to the Black community, it had to showcase and articulate the myriad of problems that prevented the Black Community from obtaining equality and freedom under a system of white supremacy.

Larry Neal, one of the architects of the Black Arts Movement, defined this ideology as “ … radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. Black Art is the esthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black Americans.”

The Black Arts Movement must be interpreted within the context of this ideology to understand why many young Black artists used their work to reflect the struggle being waged by Black people throughout America. Although at first, the term, "Black Art'', was only sparingly being used in its infancy stage, it became more apparent as the natural expression of the art being created by Black artists. Many people credit Imamu Baraka with coining this term when he started the Black Arts Repertory Theater in Harlem in 1964. Later, he opened the Spirit House in his hometown of New Jersey. After the assassination of Malcolm X, Baraka wrote a poem entitled," A Poem for Black Hearts", which characterized the new poetry of the Black Arts Movement.

Regardless of how or where BAM originated, its impact on the Black community was monumental. Black artists were beginning to establish their own criteria for defining the relevancy of art, even if it opposed the criteria of the barons of western art who believed their interpretation was sacred as the Holy Grail.

This impact could be discerned in the anthology, "Black Fire", which was edited by Leroi Jones and Larry Neal and considered to be the generic anthology on the Black Arts Movement.

(Continued in Part III)

Blog Note

[1]Steven C. Tracey

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.

*The Magic of JuJu: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement by Kalamu Ya Salaam *Evolution of Black Art: From the Black Chicago Renaissance to the Chicago Black Arts Movement-1935-1975 ( An Abbreviated Interpretation) by Useni Eugene Perkins

*Poetry from the Masters: Black Arts Movement: an introduction to African- American Poets, Edited by Useni Eugene Perkins

They Seek A City: Chicago and the Art of Migration, 1910-1950: Edited by Sarah Kelly Oehier

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