- The Poetics of Black Aesthetics
The most compelling antiracist scholarship makes clear what many have known all along—that blackness is an imaginatively resourceful counterclaim to the legalized thefts and systemic denigrations through which racism has been constituted and practiced. Blackness is “a structure of feeling,” Alys Eve Weinbaum writes, “produced in reaction to the particular forms of racism that structure the racial formation within the United States.”1 Needless to say, this capacious structure of feeling has inspired a compelling array of aesthetic practices that are at the center of American cultural life. For much of the twentieth century, these practices took shape against forces of circumscription, as racism functions like a machine that determines what kind of expressions are granted cultural visibility and value. Enter the Black Arts Movement (BAM), the aesthetic arm of Black Power, which worked to jam racism’s machinery and insist upon distinctly black histories, mythologies, and imaginations so that black aesthetic forms (and the structures of feeling they index) could flourish—sharply, forcefully, and without apology—in contradistinction to the [End Page 168] white-washing of American culture and the violence it inflicts and occludes.
Evie Shockley begins Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry with the Black Arts Movement and its assertion of black aesthetics. With a blunt significance, BAM helped make possible her book’s primary subject: the complex and various ways black poets of the twentieth century figured blackness into their poetic experimentations. While she holds fast to the assertion at BAM’s core and its political necessity, Shockley also brings nuance to caricatured images of its militant and rigid dogmatism and notes its ongoing history of reflective transformation. Equally important is Shockley’s succinct historicization of BAM. She places the movement and its arguments within the context of U.S. racism’s punitive erasures. BAM, she asserts, “derives from an analysis of American culture that understands its denigration, demonization, and outright exclusion of black people and their ways of seeing and being in the world as an effective tool for perpetuating African American disenfranchisement” (3–4). BAM made the broad claim that aesthetic forms and practices made by and for black people would cut through the delusions upon which a racist society relies. This argument not only instigated black aesthetic production but became a tool for creating (and bringing into relief) canons of black cultural production. Many who might reject BAM outright, short-circuiting to caricatures of its militant propaganda, are likely to accept the idea that cultural identifications transmit affirmative powers that resonate politically. Shockley argues that the sedimentation of this political argument into common sense is a testament to BAM’s centrality and points to its various and complicated iterations across twentieth-century black poetics.
Shockley’s balanced portrayal of BAM suggests that its limitations were not necessarily inherent to the movement or its aspirations but reflect instead the severities of the society it was contesting. And there definitely were limitations. Shockley points out that BAM was motivated by and produced essentialist stances—though it wouldn’t be wrong to call them “strategic”—that became exclusionary rules. For example, BAM attempted to set a standard in which black artists create work only for black audiences. Given the extent to which dominant white culture absorbs black cultural productions, [End Page 169] this stricture is certainly understandable, but it’s also implausible, particularly “for a people,” Shockley explains, “whose experience has been bound up in the U.S. and the Western cultural tradition for hundreds of years” (5). The concepts of gender and sexuality underlying BAM likewise proved to be troublesome. Mapping out a distinctly black cultural territory, BAM—and the Black Power movement from which it emerged—reinforced the notion of the heterosexual man heading the family, community, and nation. As Shockley puts it, this positioning of “the black man as the focal point of racist oppression and the frontline warrior in the fight against racism” in turn coerced women into ignoring the specific forms of racial and...