Black History Month: Celebration of the Black Arts Movement

Calling all black people

Calling all black people, man woman child

Wherever you are, calling you, urgent, come in

Black people, come in, wherever you are, urgent, calling you, calling all black people

Calling all black people, come in, black people, come on in.

– SOS, Amiri Baraka

As we reflect upon African-American history and culture during Black History Month, we turn our attention this year to the Black Arts Movement (BAM). The “sister” or aesthetic counterpart of the Black Power Movement, BAM prioritized the need for personal and social transformation of their voices through political, cultural and artistic expression.  Fueled by the explicit critiques of Western inequality made by Malcolm X and John Coltrane’s dismantling of Western music, artists and activists came forth to create politically engaged work that rejected traditional endeavors and explored the African-American experience.

During the 1960s and 70s, BAM’s widespread influence served as a powerful force in supporting the Black Power and Black Liberation Movements.  Though broad in scope, the basic credo of BAM was 1) to create a true “Afro American Art,” 2) to create a mass art, and 3) to create a revolutionary art. As writer and influential leader in the movement Amiri Baraka described, “it was clear there was a torrent of inspiration that lifted the Black artist communities across the country.” Formally beginning with the creation of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS) in New York City, artists and intellectuals met to teach and present their work.  While the theater lasted for only a year, similar organizations and theatres formed across the country in a revolutionary fashion, all calling for a cultural nationalism. This new form of Black empowerment graced the stage in forms of dance troupes and performance art; it called out for writers and spurred the growth of magazine and journal publications such as Ebony and Jet; it thrived on college campuses among Black intellectuals. This was a revolutionary display of expression that united the consciousness of African-Americans, recognizing and celebrating Black voices.

Because of its grassroots outreach to a massive audience, many scholars regard the legacy of BAM to be one of the most influential arts movements in the country’s history. It dramatically altered public funding for arts programs, challenged boundaries of “high art” and pop culture, and served as a catalyst for similar movements in Asian-American and Native American communities. And as BAM is crucial to understanding modern African-American and American literary history, many works by today’s artists and performers – including Toni Morrison, Samuel L. Jackson, and August Wilson – are influenced by the ideas of BAM.

9781625340306SOS – Calling All Black People: a Black Arts Movement Reader, edited by UMass professors John H. Bracey, Jr. and James Smethurst and poet/professor emeritus of Temple University Sonia Sanchez, is a collection of key writings from the Black Arts Movement. With over fifty contributors in five genres, this anthology includes works of fiction, poetry, and drama in addition to critical writings on issues of politics, aesthetics, and gender. Topics range from the legacy of Malcolm X and the impact of John Coltrane’s jazz to the tenets of the Black Panther Party and the music of Motown. Essence Magazine’s Patrick Henry Bass called it a “tour-de-force collection of the greatest writers and thinkers . . . during one of the most electrifying periods in American arts and letters.” For more information on the book, please visit our website.

In March, UMass Press will be hosting two events related to the publication of SOS – Calling All Black People:

March 2, 2015: Presentation at the Augusta Savage Gallery

March 30, 2015: Reading by the editors at 4 P.M., Bernie Dallas Room, Goodell Building


Emily Esten is an editorial Intern at UMass Press. She is a junior History/Digital Humanities major at UMass Amherst.