DOI link for Black aesthetics
Black aesthetics book
Dating from colonial times, the history of black people in North America involved slavery, oppression, and struggle. When the United States broke with England during the revolutionary era, the quarter of the population that was black was not covered by the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. From the early days of the founding of the Republic, growing numbers of black and white people agitated for the abolition of slavery. During pre-Civil War times some black leaders, like Martin R. Delany, advocated black nationalism while others, like Frederick Douglass, recommended social reform and integration. It was in this period that pioneering American blacks migrated to Haiti and others founded Liberia. Later, in the World War I era, Marcus Garvey promoted black independence in Africa while Booker T. Washington believed that full citizenship of blacks in America should be earned gradually by hard work, vocational education, and moral improvement. Taking issue with Washington’s conciliatory program, W. E. B. Du Bois demanded redress from white America, militantly urging immediate political enfranchisement as a means to economic and educational progress. Like Garvey, Du Bois promoted pan-Africanism; his last years were spent in Ghana. These diﬀerent political programs-conciliation and integration, militant reform and redress, and nationalism and African freedom, all rooted in nineteenth-century black American history-surfaced forcefully in the black liberation movement during the Cold War era. There were two main phases of the postwar struggle for black liberation:
(1) the civil rights movement dating from 1954 to 1964, and (2) the black power movement lasting from 1964 to 1973. The year after the landmark Brown versus Board of Education decision was rendered in 1954 by the Supreme Court, making public school segregation illegal, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for illegally refusing to take a seat in the back of a city bus. A city-wide, year-long black boycott of the bus line and the contemporaneous creation of the Montgomery Improvement Association headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., initiated acts of nonviolent civil disobedience and political organizing, which would characterize the movement
for a decade to come. Institutionalized in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference founded in 1957, King’s Christian-inspired liberal integrationist philosophy would reach its peak of publicity and persuasiveness in 1963 in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered during the massive March on Washington, and in 1964 in his obtaining the Nobel Peace Prize. At this point the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted by Congress. A year later the Voting Rights Act was signed into law. In the meantime, several signiﬁcant events had occurred. Early in 1960, four black college students staged a prolonged sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s store and were soon joined by other students. Over the next few months dozens and dozens of similar sit-in demonstrations were held throughout the South. By the end of the year the black student movement formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee-a group that during the next year agitated for integration by launching a Freedom Ride, ending in the arrest and imprisonment of several dozen peaceful protesters. The ﬁrst such Freedom Ride, lasting two weeks and ending in violence, was undertaken in May 1961 by thirteen black and white people under the sponsorship of the Congress of Racial Equality. The idea was to challenge segregation laws at interstate bus terminals, which in September 1961 were ﬁnally desegregated by the Interstate Commerce Commission. What characterized the decade-long civil rights movement were widespread and growing resistance to segregation, the formation of activist nonviolent organizations, the philosophy of racial integrationism, and signiﬁcant victories registered in the courts and in the mass media. Having the right to eat in restaurants with and ride buses with white people
did not measurably improve the economic or political situation of black people. Life in large urban ghettos as well as small rural towns remained miserable for large numbers of blacks. Despite gains in civil rights, urban riots broke out in many Northern cities. The Watts riot in Los Angeles during August 1965 came to symbolize black discontent and rage, which existing civil rights organizations and philosophies could not channel. During the years from 1966 to 1968, Martin Luther King launched Poor People’s Campaigns as a way to protest the economic plight of black people. However, his previous coalition of white liberals, black middle-class activists, and the black poor fell apart, signaling a new phase in the struggle for black liberation. It was during this period that the calls for black power made by Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and others fell on receptive ears. The earlier method of nonviolence and the previous goal of integration both seemed increasingly untenable. Inspired by anticolonial movements in the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia, and especially Africa, new leaders called for black nationalism and sometimes for revolution. Pride in negritude, marked visibly by the growing popularity of African names, dress, and hairstyles, manifested itself in an increasingly radical politics, symbolized memorably by the formation of the Black Panther Party in 1966 and by the black power salutes of two American athletes receiving Olympic medals in 1968. What distinguished the decade of the black power movement from the earlier
decade of the civil rights movement were the dramatic turns to separatism and nationalism rather than integrationism as political goals; to riots, armed resistance, and revolution rather than nonviolence and passive resistance as methods; to the black lower class and poor people rather than the black and white middle classes as activist constituencies; and to racial pride, negritude, and Africanism rather than white Euro-American conventions and norms as standards of value. During the period of the black liberation movement in America, a
rebirth-a “New Renaissance”—occurred in black arts, including poetry, drama, ﬁction, and literary criticism.1 It was especially during the days of the black power movement that black criticism took on a new urgency and vigor, as, for instance, in the work of the writer-critics Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal, the editor Hoyt Fuller, and the academic critics Addison Gayle, Jr., Stephen Henderson, and Darwin T. Turner. During the 1970s and the 1980s, two noteworthy phenomena occurred. First, a younger generation of black critics emerged, as was evident in the contributions of Houston A. Baker, Jr., and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Second, a distinctive black feminism came to the fore, notably in the critical works of, among others, the writers Toni Cade Bambara, Mari Evans, Audre Lorde, and Alice Walker as well as the academic critics Barbara Christian, bell hooks, Gloria T. Hull, Barbara Smith, Erlene Stetson, and Mary Helen Washington. Finally, much energy was expended in scholarship and pedagogy centered around the institutionalization of black studies programs, which ﬁrst began to appear in the late 1960s and which preoccupied university intellectuals through the 1980s.