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Mirrors of Deception: Visualizing Blackness in the Poetry of Chicago Black Artist Johari Amini
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The Black Arts Movement (BAM) has become an increasingly popular subject of critique in recent years. Despite the participation of some of the most prolific women writers, artists, and activists of this period, including Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Mari Evans, Audre Lorde, and June Jordan (some of whom did not define themselves as “black artists”), male artists and intellectuals are given credit for shaping and codifying the aesthetic and political ideologies of the BAM. Cherise Pollard reminds us that:

As they articulated black manhood through the pen, the gun, the penis, and the microphone, male poets in the Black Arts Movement defined and reified revolutionary black male identity. . . . [M]any [black women poets] worked both within and against the men’s assumptions about the relationships between race and gender and art and politics.

The work produced by women writers and artists characterized the ideological and propagandistic relationships between race, sex, and art in ways that deserve careful examination. In his extensive project, Afro-Blue: Improvisations in African-American Poetry and Culture, Tony Bolden provides an overview of this subject as it relates to women poets, stating that “much of black vernacular culture, like American culture generally, is male-centered, and [i]s a product of that culture.” An acknowledgement of the ways in which male writers and intellectuals of the BAM, such as Haki Madhubuti, Maulana Karenga, Amiri Baraka, and Larry Neal “had not yet learned to question the narrow framework in which gender is theorized in black culture” is integral to an exploration of the ideals of this period (25). Indeed, scholars are now beginning to recognize the complexities of the aesthetics of this historical period in ways that move beyond popular critiques of its masculinist ideological foundations. Such interests privilege other aspects of BAM that recognize its artists’ varied approaches to executing its ideals.

Black American writers of preceding generations had debated, discarded, and negotiated questions of cultural representation, nationhood, and the role of the black writer in the articulation of such concepts, and BAM writers of the 1960s and ’70s would continue to do the same. Looking at the goals of the BAM through the context of local initiatives, in such cities as Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, and Chicago, is useful for engaging the ways in which BAM principles were experimented with and sustained by black artists in particular communities. Although New York is often understood to be at the center of most of the artistic productivity of the BAM, due in part to a migration of innovative black writers there during the 1950s and ’60s (Nielsen 79), the Movement would be shaped in other regions of the U. S. as well. In Chicago, for instance, black artists were affiliated with the Organization for Black American Culture (OBAC), a multi-media initiative that would continue to thrive well into the decade of the eighties. As James Smethurst suggests in a valuable historical survey of BAM, “the numerous direct exchanges and interconnections between African American cultural and political activists in Chicago and Detroit made the Black Arts movement in those cities exceptionally vital” (180).

For members of OBAC, both writing and the production of other media of expression was germane to the communication of the organization’s specific objectives. For example, under the direction of such members as artist Jeff Donaldson, one of the “captains” of AFRICOBRA, the visual arts branch of OBAC, the efforts of local artists to translate its ideals into visual media would be realized in the construction of the in/famous “Wall of Respect” on Chicago’s South Side. As Margo Natalie Crawford writes,

The OBAC visual arts workshop decided to shape the mural around the following categories: rhythm and blues, jazz, theater, statesmen, religion, literature, sports, and dance. In each of these categories, the workshop members created a list of the black cultural “heroes” who would be represented on the Wall.

Like other OBAC works, the “Wall of Respect” was intended to reflect the concerns and interests of black urban communities, and it would draw significant attention from local and national authorities that perceived it to be a message of radical and potentially violent insurgence...

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