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The Black Arts Movement and Nikki Giovanni

Brett Weinstein/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons
Nikki Giovanni speaking at Emory University in 2008

In 1965, shortly after the assassination of Malcom X, poet, writer, and artist Amiri Baraka opened the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School (BARTS) in Harlem, a move that by many is viewed as the start of the Black Arts Movement.

Lasting for approximately 10 years, the Black Arts Movement was an American literary movement that was overtly political. Adopting the work of the Black Power Movement, the Black Arts Movement called on Black, Latino, and Asian American artists to write about their own cultures and histories, challenging the status quo of writing and activism.

Artists shared their struggles, stories, and celebrations through writing, theatre, and art. Embedded in the work of the movement was the emphasis on Black cultural and economic autonomy as a way to expand existing narratives of what it meant to be black in America. Black Arts centralized black art and culture, showing the strong literary and arts history and creations of Black artists.

The Black Arts Movement developed Black theatre groups and Black journals and poetry performances. Theatres were spaces where communities could hold meetings, and present poetry, music, dance, and theatre of Black writers and artists. The community nature of the theatres and cultural centers played an important role in the nature of a literary and arts movement focused on Black Power and a focus on Black voices and life. Black theatres and community theatre groups formed throughout the United States due in large part to the influences of the Black Arts Movement.

Credit Rich Egger
Rebekah Buchanan

In addition, the Movement developed and distributed national magazines focused on more radical literary works, usually not published by other literary journals. Journals such as Black Dialogue, Soulbook, Journal of Black Poetry, and Black World. In addition, there were Black Arts Presses such as Broadside Press in Detroit and Third World Press in Chicago. Both were influential in promoting established and emerging Black poets and are still publishing today. 

There were struggles in the Black Arts, which was criticized as being hyper-masculine and was often labeled as sexist and anti-Semitic. Yet, many female artists gained recognition as part of the movement. Authors such as Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and Nikki Giovanni have all become important and influential artists.

Although the Black Arts Movement only lasted around a decade, it’s impact is still visible today. Spoken Word and hip-hop are directly influenced by the work of the artists and poets of the Black Arts Movement. The use of performance poetry and Black Arts emphasis on orality—call and response between audience and artist—impacts the work of poetry slams and rap.

Participants in the Black Arts Movement established scholarly journals focusing on black studies and created innovative works, many of which are still active today.

The Black Arts Movement created a prolific, socially engaged literary movement—arguably the most important one in American history.

I share this brief overview of the Black Arts Movement to let listeners know of the opportunity to hear one of the major poets and activists to come out of the Black Arts Movement as she gives the Black History Month Keynote in the Grand Ballroom at Western Illinois University.

On Monday February 5th at 5:30 p.m. poet and activist Nikki Giovanni will be at Western Illinois University.

Born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1943, Giovanni became involved in the Black Arts Movement through her editing of Conversation, an art journal out of Cincinnati and helping to organize Cincinnati’s first Black Arts Festival. In 1968, she published her first book of poetry, Black Feeling Black Talk. In 1970 she edited and published, Night Comes Softly, an important anthology of poetry by black women. Since that time, she has published over 40 books as well as sound recordings. Three of her books have been New York Times and Los Angeles Times Best Sellers and she has produced numerous books of poetry, memoirs, and books for children.

Among other accomplishments, Giovanni was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, appeared frequently on the television series Soul!, was nominated for a National Book Award, has Keys to more than two dozen American cities, has received 7 NAACP Image Awards, received the first Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award in 2002, was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Spoken Word category, was Woman of the Year in three different magazines, and is a Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech University where she has worked for almost 30 years.

One of my favorite poems by Giovanni—although it is difficult to pick just one—is Rosa Parks. In it, she writes:

And this is for all the mothers who cried. And this is
for all the people who said Never Again. And this is about Rosa
Parks whose feet were not so tired, it had been, after all, an ordi-
nary day, until the bus driver gave her the opportunity to make

As we enter Black History Month, we have the opportunity to see another woman who has made history. Come be a part of WIU’s history on Monday. Hear Nikki Giovanni speak and experience her passion and her words.

Rebekah Buchanan is an Associate Professor of English at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.