The Black Arts Movement was the artistic branch of the Black Power movement. It was started in Harlem by writer and activist Imamu Amiri Baraka. Time magazine describes the Black Arts Movement as the “single most controversial movement in the history of African-American literature – possibly in American literature as a whole.”
Both inherently and overtly political in content, the Black Arts Movement was the only American literary movement to advance social engagement as an essential ingredient of its aesthetic. The movement broke from the immediate past of protest and petition (civil rights) literature and dashed forward toward Black Power.
In a 1968 essay, “The Black Arts Movement,” Larry Neal proclaimed Black Arts the “aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept.” As a political phrase, Black Power had earlier been used by Richard Wright to describe the mid-1950s emergence of independent African nations. The 1960s’ use of the term originated in 1966 with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee civil rights workers Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) and Mukasa Dada (Willie Ricks). Quickly adopted in the North, Black Power was associated with a militant advocacy of armed self-defense, separation from “racist American domination,” and pride in and assertion of the goodness and beauty of Blackness.
Creative Resistance involves a wide variety of artistic forms: music, memes, posters, banners, plays, street theater, poetry, animation, fiction, comic books, fashion, film and much more. Art adds vitality and energy to advocacy and reaches people at deeper emotional levels, conveying what cannot be said with the mere recitation of facts.
In the process of creating art there is a tremendous opportunity to build deep support for the issues the movement is working on.
Art is good for our communities and artistic collaboration is a bonding experience. We make art together, not just because of the changes it can bring to the world around us, but because of the way it changes us internally. The relationships built create community and solidarity that is essential in a successful social movement. The art that is created reaches out to people who see the protest, installation or other event. All of this adds up to empowerment of the individual, community and movement.
In this respect, art is a catalyst, on multiple levels, for change.
To be effective in our activism it is not enough to provide facts, figures and graphs and reach people in their heads. In order to change people, we have to reach them at a deeper, more emotional level.
Throughout history, the most effective political activists and revolutionaries have married the arts with campaigns for social change.
Think of the iconic photos of us being attacked by dogs and having the fire hoses turned on us; of police brutalizing and murdering us throughout our sojourn in America. These iconic images will be carried with us forever because they reached into the depths of us.
Another powerful artistic tool is music. Music draws people in and can open the door to a movement’s message. From hip-hop to jazz to soul, there is musical activism. Music is also a tool for creating solidarity and confidence as activists face difficult situations.
The Steamfunk, Dieselfunk, Sword and Soul, Rococoa and Cyberfunk YOU find trivial, or irrelevant to liberation and revolution are actually powerful tools in the service of protest and political and social actions.
An Afrikan proverb teaches Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter – the destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in.
“Culture” refers to the collection of expressions that make a society. In the world it is dance, music, art, fashion, language, food, etiquette, religion and folklore. In ourselves it is the stories we believe about who we are, what we can accomplish, our values, world views; it is the lens through which we interpret our realities.
These are the stories that rule our lives; that tell us who we are and who we should want to be, what we can achieve and how we’re supposed to fit into the world around us. These are the stories that maintain our political and economic systems.
As activists, we must understand where culture has power over us and where it has power to support us. We must understand how culture has the strength to heal our wounds and grow our movements. Above all, we must take the time and make the effort to engage it. Cultural resistance is a central function of changing society. How can we shift any system of oppression if we don’t shift the culture that loyally believes in it?
At the State of Black Science Fiction Convention, we are providing safe spaces for transformation; retraining and healing ourselves from damage done by the legacies of oppression. We are building a sense of community, of unity, of shared values, an alternative world view, and a commitment to making the struggle for social justice through the speculative arts an integrated part of our lives.
The stories we live by, the values we hold, our creative expression, how we build community: this is the realm of culture. This is why we cannot rely on fact sheets, marches and manifestos alone. This is why we desperately need to recognize that culture has to be on the front lines of any resistance movement. Because whether we acknowledge it or not, culture is not just a piece of the battle, it is the very ground on which the battle is being fought. We have been so focused on the guns that keep firing at us—the student debt, the bank bailouts, mass incarceration, privatization, neo-colonialism, war–that we rarely take a moment to look at the landscape on which we stand. It is time we examine the hills and the holes of our battlefield and make some decisions about what terrain we actually want to fight on.