American Quarterly 57.4 (2005) 1243-1251
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The Black Arts Movement and Its Scholars
Studies of the Black Arts Movement have come a long way since the early 1990s. At that time, David Lionel Smith published a visionary essay, "The Black Arts Movement and Its Critics," bemoaning the "paucity" of scholarship on the efflorescence of African American culture, intellectualism, and politics that spanned the 1960s and 1970s. The essay complains that "the most rudimentary work" remains incomplete, and recent scholarship tends to be "openly hostile" and "deeply partisan." Consequently, the movement comes across as an "unappealing" and counterproductive confusion of social theory, aesthetics, nationalism, ethnic chauvinism, and sexism, a negative portrayal that oversimplifies the era's ideological and historical circumstances. Thus, Smith calls for "careful and balanced scholarship" to set the record straight.1
Since David Lionel Smith's clarion call for scholars in 1991, "careful and balanced scholarship" has slowly but surely emerged. William L. Van Deburg, Madhu Dubey, Eddie S. Glaude, Adolph Reed Jr., James C. Hall, Jerry Watts, Wahneema Lubiano, Phillip Brian Harper, and Winston Napier have all researched the ways in which aesthetics, race, gender, sexuality, and class have intersected during the movement.2 Two books published this past year, James Edward Smethurst's The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s and Cheryl Clarke's "After Mecca": Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement, advance this research by approaching the movement in two different but complementary ways. Smethurst's The Black Arts Movement is an enormous repository of information, and stands as the best resource to date about [End Page 1243] the African American figures, cultural institutions, and ideological contexts of the movement's early stages. After making a case for the great ideological impact of the Left on African American culture, intellectualism, and politics after the cold war, Smethurst examines the regional development and national coherence of the movement in terms of various cultural and intellectual institutions such as periodicals, universities, and artistic groups. Since The Black Arts Movement hardly proceeds past 1970, "After Mecca" helpfully covers the period from 1968 to 1978, concentrating on the interconnections of race, gender, and sexuality. By extrapolating ideological meaning from African American poetry, Clarke argues that the movement's general valorization of men, patriarchy, masculinity, and heterosexuality created stifling conditions for black women. In response, certain black women wrote literature, especially poetry, to redress this problem. Ultimately, at stake in The Black Arts Movement and "After Mecca" is how best to achieve critical purchase on the movement's chronology, its ideological background and agency, its regional diversity and national coherence, and its politics of inclusion/exclusion along lines of gender and sexuality. Smethurst and Clarke enable readers to determine the Black Arts Movement's place in longer American history and its present-day legacy in U.S. academia, society, and culture.
For years to come, students, teachers, and scholars of the Black Arts Movement will turn to The Black Arts Movement for an informative history of African American culture and society. Smethurst concentrates on the "dialectic" between the movement's "regional variations" and the achievement of "some sense of national coherence institutionally, aesthetically, and ideologically, even if it never became exactly homogenous" (7). Smethurst's key critical maneuver is to determine what makes a movement either a local or a national activity. Of course, the fact that certain protagonists and institutions of the Black Arts Movement resided in and exploited specific regions in the United States justifies Smethurst's emphasis on the dialectic. But exactly when and how did such residence and exploitation attain national significance? How did the movement evolve toward national "coherence" (58, 177) when it enjoyed "no real center," that is, "no predominant organization or...