In the mid-1960s, African American artists and intellectuals formed the Black Arts movement in tandem with the Black Power movement, with creative luminaries like Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Cade Bambara, and Gil Scott-Heron among their number. In this follow-up to his award-winning history of the movement nationally, James Smethurst investigates the origins, development, maturation, and decline of the vital but under-studied Black Arts movement in the South from the 1960s until the early 1980s. Traveling across the South, he chronicles the movement's radical roots, its ties to interracial civil rights organizations on the Gulf Coast, and how it thrived on college campuses and in southern cities. He traces the movement's growing political power as well as its disruptive use of literature and performance to advance Black civil rights.
Though recognition of its influence has waned, the Black Arts movement's legacy in the South endures through many of its initiatives and constituencies. Ultimately, Smethurst argues that the movement's southern strain was perhaps the most consequential, successfully reaching the grassroots and leaving a tangible, local legacy unmatched anywhere else in the United States.
Smethurst (Brick City Vanguard), a professor of African American studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, delivers an in-depth account of the cultural and political life of Black artists and activists in the South from the 1960s to the '80s. Delving into the emergence and institutionalization of the Black Arts movement in cities such as Atlanta, New Orleans, and Memphis, Smethurst profiles writers and artists including Amiri Baraka, Kalamu ya Salaam, Ebon Dooley, and Toni Cade Bambara, who drew inspiration from the bus boycotts and student sit-ins of the '60s, the rise of Black Power, and anticolonialist uprisings in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Smethurst details the creation of institution spaces for Black theater, Black arts, and Black literature at universities across the South, and argues that these initiatives showed greater continuity of community support than peer institutions in the North. He also makes a persuasive case that the Black Arts movement gave rise to high-profile cultural events such as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and laid the groundwork for more recent organized efforts for African American self-expression and community empowerment. Scholars of African American literature and history will relish the granular look this influential yet often overlooked artistic movement.