The Black Arts movement, sometimes called the Black Aesthetics movement, was the first major African American artistic movement since the Harlem Renaissance. Beginning in the early 1960s and lasting through the mid-1970s, this movement was fueled by the anger of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Ann Petry, and other notable African American writers.
The artistic movement flourished alongside the civil rights marches and the call for the independence of the African American community. As phrases such as "black is beautiful" were popularized, African American writers of the Black Arts movement consciously set out to define what it meant to be a black writer in a white culture. While writers of the Harlem Renaissance seemed to investigate their identity within, writers of the Black Arts movement desired to define themselves and their era before being defined by others.
For the most part, participants in the Black Arts movement were supportive of separatist politics and a black nationalist ideology. Larry Neal wrote in an essay "The Black Arts Movement" (1968) that the movement was the "aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept." Rebelling against the mainstream society by being essentially anti-white, anti-American, and anti-middle class, these artists moved from the Renaissance view of art for art's sake into a philosophy of art for politics' sake.
The Black Arts movement attempted to produce works of art that would be meaningful to the African American masses. Towards this end, popular African American music of the day, including John Coltrane's jazz and James Brown's soul, as well as street talk, were some of the inspirational forces for the movement. In fact, much of the language used in these works was aggressive, profane, and shocking—this was often a conscious attempt to show the vitality and power of African American activists. These writers tended to be revolutionaries, supporting both radical and peaceful protests for change as promoted by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. In addition, they believed that artists were required to do more than create: artists also had to be political activists in order to achieve nationalist goals.
Leading writers in this movement included Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), whose poetry and plays were as well known as his political prowess, and Haki R. Madhubuti (Don L. Lee), a poet and essayist who sold more than 100,000 copies of his books without a national distributor. On the other hand, Ishmael Reed—an early organizer of the Black Arts movement—later dissented with some of the movement's doctrines and became inspired more by the black magic and spiritual practices of the West Indies (in what he called the "HooDoo Aesthetic"). Other organizers and essayists include Larry Neal, Ethridge Knight, Addison Gale Jr., and Maulana Karenga.
Nikki Giovanni was one of the first poets of the Black Arts movement to receive recognition. In her works, she advocated militant replies to white oppression and demonstrated through her performances that music is an inextricable part of the African American tradition in all aspects of life. Poet Sonia Sanchez was another leading voice of the movement. She managed to combine feminism with her commitment to nurturing children and men in the fight for black nationalism. Sanchez was a member of the Nation of Islam from 1972 to 1975, and through her association with the Black Arts movement, she managed to instill stronger support for the role of women in that religion.
Two major Black Arts presses were run by poets: Dudley Randall's Broadside Press in Detroit and Haki Madhubuti's Third World Press in Chicago. From 1961 to 1976, the most important African American magazine was Negro Digest (renamed Black World in 1970); its editor, Hoyt Fuller, published the works of the Black Arts poets and prose writers. Landmark publications of the movement include Black Fire (1968), an anthology of Black Arts writing edited by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal; The New Black Poetry (1969), edited by Clarence Major; The Black Woman (1970), the first major African American feminist anthology, edited by Toni Cade Bambara; The Black Poets (1971), edited by Dudley Randall; and Understanding the New Black Poetry (1972), an anthology edited by Stephen Henderson.