Are artists obligated to be activists? For Amiri Baraka, the answer was yes. Baraka, born Everett LeRoi Jones in 1934, first became known for establishing the Black arts movement in the mid 1960s. He imagined the movement as an attempt to be Black in form, accessible to Black people, and so effective it could be used as a weapon against racism. In further support of this movement he set up the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS) in Harlem with an aim at advancing the Cultural Revolution.
In Baraka’s essay about the meaning and potential of the Black arts movement, he discusses the new sense of empowerment he experienced when he discovered leaders such as Malcolm X, who did not always encourage a non-violent approach when fighting back against racism. This empowerment led to the realization that in order for Black intellects to achieve the recognition they deserve, they would have to move away from the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village art scene that was popular in New York at the time. Baraka further championed the idea that politics and art should be combined and that attempts to maintain separation between the two only resulted in setbacks to the progression of Black intellects and artists.
Baraka began casually meeting other Black poets and soon recognized the need for a more formal and organized community of Black intellects and artists. After the murder of Malcolm X, Baraka and others left the downtown scene and moved to Harlem to, as Baraka described, “avenge Malcolm’s murder.” They rented a brownstone on 130th and Lenox and led a parade of Black artists down 125th street announcing the arrival of their self-titled organization, Black Arts, and the beginning of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. In 1965, despite the internal turmoil Baraka and other Black Arts members were dealing with, they successfully brought drama, painting, poetry, music and dance, throughout Harlem, every night, for eight weeks. And while BARTS was formally in place for only a year, its impact was one that could be seen throughout the country, and is still to this day seen as one of the original efforts of blending art with politics.
Baraka passed away this year, but his movement lives on and his work continues to be revered by artists who seek to deliver a message of social justice through their creative pursuits.
By Victoria Brown