Konch Magazine - Living in the Black Arts Movement by Aishah Rahman

Living in the Black Arts Movement To unlearn the Great white idea to back it through my core. Some piece of European truth That has dearly come apart Emaciates my blood And manipulates my heart. I have come to understand That art devoid of me is Genocide at best. Excerpted from Bill Gunn’s Black Picture Show Published by Ishmael Reed Publishing Company They tell me that the Black Arts Movement began in the sixties, climaxed in 1965 and ended “somewhere in the early 80’s.” But not by my life’s calendar. In order for to write about my role in the Black Arts Movement I have begun with my personal gestation period of searching for a black aesthetic and trace my path to when I blossomed into a playwright of the Black Arts Movement. The Harlem of my girlhood was one where in the original grimy building of the Schomburg Library where Jean Blackwell Hutson, former editor and later chief of the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture and Ernerst Kaiser, critic and Schomburg librarian, seminal curators of the Schomburg Collection on the Black Research and Culture guided me through W.E.B. DuBois, where on 116th Street and Lenox Avenue P.S. 184, white communist teachers, (exiled to teach in Harlem) taught their pupils about Langston Hughes and Harlem Renaissance writers with a vengeance, where New York Communist Leader Ben Davis, Paul Robeson and painter Norman Lewis were regular guest speakers and where I was inculcated at an early age with the knowledge that art and politics were inseparable. I migrated downtown to the West Village smack dab into the apolitical Beat Generation white literary movement where I was the only one and wanted to ask the two brown beat poets what the Black Mountain School and the New York School and the New Critics had to do with being black in America and which meter, which iambic whose pentameter, which literary school for me? I moved from the West Village for the East Village where I wasn’t the only one and where, at the time, the confluence of African countries’ overthrow of colonialism and African-Americans ‘call for Black Power merged with our search to transcend Western forms in all areas in our search for a Black Aesthetic. Black Arts was “Cuba Si and Yanqi No” and “Fair Play for Cuba” parties and dancing in the streets in front of the Harlem’s Hotel Theresa where Cuba’s Prime Minister Fidel Castro sought sanctuary while attending a session of the United Nations. Black Arts, then was On Guard for Freedom and Organization of Young Men and The Harlem Writers Guild bursting into the Security Council gallery on February 16, 1961 and in those initial seconds becoming instantly awed and revered. When we regained our composure we remembered our mission in that darkened chamber where our presence was a fissure, a fault line in the gathering of august men dividing the plunder of the Congo. Our voices ruptured the air, as Adlai Stevenson, Ambassador to the United Nations, rose to deliver his maiden speech to the world. We raised the brutalized images of the Congo’s Premier Patrice Lumumba, betrayed by Britain, France, Belgium and the U.S. and delivered to his enemies. Years later, the Belgians admitted that they’d been in on his murder; the United States still won’t admits its complicity. We raised photos of his widow, Pauline, walking ahead of the mourners her head shaved, her breasts bared before the world. What novel could compare to that? In that time of heated up politics the Lower East Side was roiling with arts and politics and music. It was the Fruit of Islam bowties and bean pies uptown and Elijah’s The Final Call for three African American southern states. Life was political clinics taught by Harold Cruze at Bobb Hamilton’s loft where the sistas and brothas pondered together, trying to entangle the American riddle. What about Art? What about economics? What about galloping capitalism and its universal color coded exploitation? Isn’t integration asking for a piece of Pox American and do we really want to integrate into a burning house? And “responsible” middle class leaders, replying, “yes, yes. That’s what we want. We want the whole American hog, white man. Your money and maladies, your middle class blues. That’s what we want.” Gradually my inchoate artistic ideas began to take shape. I was committed to the truth telling of black lives (especially black women) in the face of silence and I knew we African Americans were a jazz people who lived improvisatory lives in multi-realities so why couldn’t The Music be adapted as a dramatic structure? From following content. My first play was Lady Day: A Musical Tragedy produced in 1972 by Bob Kalfin of the Chelsea Theater. He was committed to staging the unexpected. Lady Day was the premiere production The Brooklyn Academy of Music. Paul Carter Harrison directed, Archie Shepp was the composer and Cecil Norfleet, Roger Robinson and saxophonist Clifford Jordan were some of the actors. In Lady Day, I wanted to challenge the myths surrounding the legendary singer and make clear the confluence of gender and racial oppression that was Holiday’s reality. And through the years in all my plays and prose my goal remains to reveal Afro-American stories framed in African-American cultural forms. My struggle is ongoing. In my most recent work, Pigmentocracy Blues, a novel that traces a renowned family of daughters from the Civil Rights era, through the Black Arts Movement, Integration, to Post Racial and Fade-to-White America, my Jazz aesthetic is full blown. Black Art is our Tree of Life. It keeps on renewing itself as each generation offers a new cultural form. The legacy of our Black Arts Movement is that our children know now that at least in our artistic practice we don’t have to assimilate. Yes, it’s all right to practice cultural sovereignty. Multitudes in the diaspora, if not the mainstream, will hear and respond. Black Arts was all our spirits and passions of that time expressed in a memorable concert one golden afternoon in The East Village with The Music played by flat footed black boys who flowed in from Philly, breezed in from Detroit, D.C., Arkansas, Chicago and St. Louis. Jazz musicians wearing fezzes and blowing 360 degrees of music on out looking axes while we poets and painters followed them pied piper to the Sun (Ra) trying to imitate them cause The Music was so way way ahead. “So why not have a concert in the afternoon at the Fillmore East on Second Avenue, next to the Ukranian store that sells the white blouses with the embroidery, next to the magazine stand with a soda fountain that sells egg creams, opposite the fat pork sausages hanging in the butcher shop, across the street from the Jewish deli? A free concert against segregation, police brutality, and colonialism said the hip owner of the Fillmore East. No advertising, just word of mouth. I’ll get the band. Be there. Inside the East. Everybody is throbbing with the storms raging across the land but we are also mellowed out in the anticipation of The Music. Aishah Rahman, born Virginia Hughes (born 1936, New York City,died 2014,Mexico) was an African American playwright. Rahman grew up as a foster child in Harlem. She received a B. S. in political science from Howard University in 1968. Lady Day: A Musical Tragedy (1972) was a play about Billie Holiday. Unfinished Women Cry in No Man's Land While a Bird Dies in a Gilded Cage, juxtaposing the decisions of five unwed mothers with the death of Charlie Parker, premiered in 1977. She wrote a blues musical A Tale of Madame Zora (1986), based on Zora Neale Hurston's life. In collaboration with Akua Dixon Turre she wrote the libretto for Anybody Seen Marie Laveau?, an opera about the New Orleans voodoo practitioner Marie Laveau.