On Black Aesthetics: The Black Arts Movement

By Candice Frederick
July 15, 2016
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Side view of African American girls in a line wearing berets and uniforms
Young Black Panthers

© Bob Fitch

As we continue to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Black Power Movement at the Schomburg, Kiani Ned, Communications intern at the Center, discusses the role of black aethestics: 

What is the Black Aesthetic? Formally, the words “black” plus “aesthetic.” Together these words may mean “an aesthetic utilizing blackness.” Or, “an aesthetic for black people.” The term “Black Aesthetic” can be traced back to the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s but the function of black aesthetics transcend time and medium.

The Black Arts Movement, also known as the Black Aesthetics Movement, is often regarded as as the artistic and cultural sister movement of the Black Power Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Leroi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka, moved to Harlem to establish the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. His establishment of BARTS is considered the birth of the Black Arts Movement (BAM).

Artists involved in the the Black Arts Movement were adamant in their aim to reveal the particularities—struggles, strengths, and celebrations of African Americans through the creation of poetry, novels, visual art, and theater. Embedded in these works was a palpable emphasis on Black economic and cultural autonomy that was akin to the teachings of the Black Power Movement and Black Liberation Struggle.

Photo of Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver looking off camera
Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver

© Jeffrey Blankfort

BAM had its roots in the northeastern United States, but spread quickly to the south and the west coast with the transnational movements and communal exchange of artists like Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Askia Touré, and Ntozake Shange. Literary groups such as Umbra Workshop of Manhattan and Third World Press of Chicago were born out of the movement and were the source of radical and progressive literature that was distributed around the United States. This influx of printed media allowed black people and black artists to present their experiences and thoughts as a means of forming community and expanding existing narratives around what it meant to be black in the United States and the world.

“Black Aesthetic” was used to describe works of art, literature, poetry, music, and theater that centralized black life and culture. In acknowledging the historical usage of the term and understanding blackness to be iterative—something that is evolving, abundant, and prolific—we can begin to understand that the creativity of black people contributes, always, to a black aesthetic.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Black Power Movement and another chapter in a nationwide and worldwide conversation about the intrinsic value of black lives to the powers that be. The Schomburg Center will be celebrating the 50th anniversary through an expanded in-house exhibition in February 2017 and upcoming programming about the movement of yesterday and today. Join the conversation about the legacy of the Black Power Movement on the Schomburg’s blog channel:

And through our two-part digital exhibition: