An Analysis of Kalamu ya Salaam’s The Magic Juju: An Appreciation of the Black Art’s Movement
by C. Liegh McInnis*
In The Magic of Juju: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement, Kalamu ya Salaam presents a thorough understanding of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), including a fundamental definition, which includes a concise articulation of the Black Aesthetic, a definitive timeline that includes those elements, movements, and individuals that inspired or led to BAM, an assessment of the various genres and multitude of artists who embraced or reflected BAM, a discussion of the successes and failures of BAM, an evaluation of the critics of BAM, and ending by showing how BAM continues to influence the American and global artistic landscape, even as many Historical White Colleges/Institutions (HWIs), mainstream literary magazines, and African American artists desiring to ingratiate themselves to the white power structure do all they can to ignore, minimize, and/or erase the brilliant legacy the Black Arts Movement.
“My primary task is to define and contextualize BAM. My secondary task is to identify the critical organizations, publications, and individuals, along with dates and places of activity. My tertiary task is to address misconceptions, myths, and unsubstantiated critiques that are often propagated in place of actual information” (x).
As such, Salam’s The Magic of Juju and so many more studies are needed to reclaim and teach the truth that had it not been for BAM many of the artistic opportunities that exist for African Americans, within and beyond the academy, such as Callaloo, African American Review, and Cave Canem, would not exist. Yet, too often, those very folks who are recipients of the work done by and the legacy left by BAM are the very beings who tarnish BAM’s legacy. At the second annual Mississippi Book Festival, I attended a panel for Jesmyn Ward’s latest book, The Fire This Time, which, indeed, includes some excellent essays. The panel consisted of Ward and four other noted poets and scholars, Kiese Laymon, Garnette Cadogan, Honorée Jeffers, and Kima Jones. The discussion focused mostly on the desire of writers not wanting merely to petition the white establishment for justice but to explore and present the beauty and genius of African-American culture. When the Q&A segment of the panel began, I asked the first question: “In 2016 we still have works, such as Coates’ Between the World and Me, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Invisible Man Got the Whole World Watching, and, now, The Fire This Time, discussing the evil of racism and white supremacy, yet none of these books seem to take the next step to embracing or promoting Black Nationalism and economic self-determination. At what point do we as writers—as poets, fiction writers, and essayists—begin to reconsider and promote Black Nationalism and economic self-determinism?” There was a prolonged pause to my question, a pause that I had not expected. Then, after each writer looked, back and forth, to each other, poet and scholar Honorée Jeffers provide an answered that shocked me to my core with its false statement and hyperbole. First, she led with the false statement. “The Black Arts Movement hated James Baldwin.” Then, she continued with hyperbole. “Africa’s economic self-determinism was based on the slave trade.” Not only was I shocked by Dr. Jeffers’ response, I was horrified that her response was being transmitted globally as CSPAN was broadcasting this panel for the Mississippi Book Festival. With two sentences, Dr. Jeffers had managed to symbolize the hatred that the academy has for BAM while becoming the epitome of the manner in which BAM has been misrepresented over the past forty-one years. Thus, Salaam’s The Magic of Juju is greatly needed to counteract the blatant lies and hatred that is used to minimize African-American genius and the ability of art to act as a tool to liberate African people from the jaws of white supremacy. Ultimately, Salaam executes the act of sankofa by reminding African Americans that what is being faced in 2016 is no different than what was faced in 1966. As such, The Magic of Juju is affirmation for why African Americans must document their own history and teach their own history as a contextualizing and liberating aspect of the present because Mike Brown’s and Sandra Bland’s deaths are no different than Emmett Till’s. Then, possibly, African Americans can produce creative work that surpasses begging whites to be nice to them and create works to educate and inspire African Americans that they have the ability to create their own institutions of cultural, educational, judicial, and economic sovereignty.
The first strength of The Magic of Juju is that Salaam is detailed and careful to show that excellent/well-crafted African-American artistry existed and had a socio-political thrust long before BAM and that many of the specific and major organizations of BAM has their genesis before BAM became an “officially named or documented” movement. In one of his many examples, when Salam is discussing African-American theatre, he shows that “Marc Primus’ Afro-American Folkloric Troupe, founded in San Francisco in 1962, was a precursor to BAM developments in Black theatre and in dramatized presentations of the New Black Poetry” (109). This information shows that the artists of BAM originated from a thorough history of aesthetic discipline, that BAM artists engaged in specific intellectual modification and development of an aesthetic, and that BAM was a complex ocean formed from many rivers that converged into one movement of art used for African-American liberation. Quoting Primus, Salaam shows how specific and diverse cultural and artistic individuals and organizations combined to produce BAM.
“…a branch of Carter Woodson’s National Association for the Study of Negro Life in San Francisco from the 1930s…combined with the DuBois Club (Marxist) in 1955 to form the S. F. Negro Historical and Cultural Society…[Several artists] attended classes because they wanted to be involved in some action that would change the plight of black folks…And the philosophical schism which developed in the Afro-American Association helped clarify where we stood in the debate on economic systems. All of this was before the 60s. By the time the Black Muslims injected the idea of nationalism into the debate, we [the artists who had been working with the various aforementioned organizations] were already Black Nationalists, having rejected international communism from the instruction in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man” (110).
Salaam continues to show even more artistic rivers existing before BAM that all converged to create BAM:
“The DuSable Museum by Margaret and Charles Burroughs in 1961 is chronologically a BAM precursor. The Afro American Folkloric Troupe in 1962 in the Bay Area, the founding of Soulbook in 1964 also in the Bay Area, and the 1964 founding of Free Southern Theatre in Jackson, Mississippi, also predate what is conventionally believed to be BAM’s inception. More importantly, these activities highlight BAM’s decentralized nature, evidencing simultaneous BAM activities in various parts of the nation” (xii).
Without the understanding of BAM’s development, one is unable to understand its historical significance, its lingering effect, why so many people in power continue to hate and be afraid of BAM, and how internal and external forces have caused BAM to be marginalized in the academy and in popular culture. While Salaam is able to show the manner in which in fighting and ego impacted BAM greatly, he also shows that BAM has been rejected by HWIs, mainstream publications, and many African Americans working for HWIs and mainstream publications because BAM’s goal was to enable African Americans to liberate themselves from these discriminatory institutions and create their own. “Especially when we speak of resistance and alternative, it is important to understand that a true resistance is not simply a protest. BAM was not trying to be like Euro-centric cultural movements painted Black. BAM had a completely different worldview. BAM did not seek inclusion. BAM’s goal was revolution” (xii). Unfortunately, as Salaam eventually shows, just like the free breakfast and lunch programs and the development of Head Start were merely a way for the U. S. government to coopt SNCC’s concept of Freedom Schools and The Black Panther’s concept of providing free breakfast and lunch to inner city communities as a way to control the educational curriculums disseminated to black folks, HWIs and mainstream publications eventually embraced those elements of black artistry that sought to integrate/acquiesce into the power structure rather than destroy that power structure so that a more humane and nurturing structure could be developed. Salaam states that “Traditional American foundations defunded BAM institutions and established alternative ‘acceptable’ institutions, targeting the BAM audience” (5). Quoting Baraka, Salaam shows the specific manner in which public and private funding was used to neutralize BAM.
“Douglas Turner Ward’s Negro Ensemble is perhaps the most famous case in point. During a period when the average young blood would go to your head for calling him or her a knee-grow, the Fords and Rockefellers could raise themselves up a whole-ass knee-grow ensemble. But, that’s part of the formula: Deny reality as long as you have to and then, when backed up against the wall, substitute an ersatz model filled with standard white racist lies which include some dressed as Negro art. Instead of black art, bring in Negro art, house nigger art, and celebrate slavery, right on!” (5).
This is not to say that Salaam asserts that all black writers working at HWIs or being published by mainstream publications are purposefully working against the interest of black folks. But, it is to say that the genius of the American Empire is that, unlike the Roman and British Empires, it has been able to sustain itself by coopting/assimilating the best rebelling and liberating efforts of its oppressed into fuel for its machine. As such, black writers desiring to be published or win awards from mainstream journals and presses are less likely to create art that address issues, such as police brutality, mass incarceration, and economic exploitation unless it involves petitioning whites to be saviors or to raise to the heroic feats of their Christian and democratic rhetoric.
After Salaam establishes that BAM is a result of the excellent/well-crafted African American artistry that existed prior to the 1960s, he shows that the fuel for BAM, allowing it to be more broad-based than even the Harlem Renaissance, is that BAM practitioners fundamentally perceived of themselves as “being of the people rather” than being elite saviors of the people because they were influenced by people and organizations, such as Malcolm X, the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). RAM and SNCC’s methodology of engaging and using black folks from the lower economic class became the primary mode of operation of BAM that separates it from the Harlem Renaissance and the NAACP, as well as much current literature, causing BAM to reject the concept of art for art’s sake. Salaam shows that a primary goal of BAM was to educate African-American artists and communities about art’s ability to remind African Americans of their human worth and to revive in African Americans the vision and energy to reach their human potential. Quoting noted literary scholar Hoyt W. Fuller, Salaam writes,
“…art itself would achieve a fresh interpretation rooted in the lives, the aspirations—in a word, the experiences—of the community. The idea was revolutionary; it proposed that the usual approach to artistic expression which had been foisted upon Black people over the centuries had, of and in itself, inhibited when it did not destroy the Black creative impulse; and it suggested that the seeds of liberation—political and economic and social, as well as aesthetic—would be planted in the Black psyche through the new approach to artistic expression. The interest then was primarily political: art for the sake of Black empowerment was the principle” (46 – 47).
What made RAM, SNCC, and BAM special—effective—was not just that they understood that educating African Americans about their historical beauty and worth made them no longer ashamed of themselves. What made RAM, SNCC, and BAM special is that they understood that poor blacks could be leaders and could develop their own answers and that art could be one way to accomplish this goal. More specifically, a leader like Malcom X and organizations, such as RAM and SNCC, could cause poor back people to realize that they have a meaningful voice in a way that Martin Luther King, Jr., and the NAACP were not able to do. Thus, Salaam shows how X changed the manner in which Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, and many other writers wrote by providing examples of pre-X and post-X writings. As an aesthetic and political influence, X’s use of black rhythm and dialect affirmed the humanity of all African Americans by showing that black intellect (the idea and the manner in which the idea is presented) is equal to if not more powerful than white intellect, especially in its ability to liberate African Americans psychologically from white oppression by showing that the ideas of the greatest philosophers can be understood, articulated, and even modified by and presented through African-American dialect. Bing influenced by and connecting with X, RAM, SNCC, and other Black Power individuals and organizations, BAM was reeducating African Americans in the difference between a thug and a revolutionary, which was needed because most African Americans could not see themselves as revolutionaries and their self-hatred could only allow them to perceive folks like X as thugs. Quoting Baraka, Salaam shows how this transition of definition and ideology arose in BAM. “The ‘Destruction of America’ was the Black Poet’s role…to contribute as much as possible to that. But, now, I realize that the Black Poet ought also try to provide a ‘post American form,’ even as simple vision, for his people” (71). Even today, this notion remains relevant as the mass of black folks struggle to develop the best way to change or destroy the system that treats the killing of unarm black people and the refusal to fund properly all school districts as normal and proper.
Another strength of The Magic of Juju is that Salaam allows the practitioners of BAM to speak for themselves.
“The characterization of BAM as insular, uncritical, and monolithic is easily disproved simply by reading the BAM publications that are now historical documents. Unfortunately, some of the most important of these publications are not widely available to the casual reader. Thus, I have quoted at length from Yardbird, [Soulbook, Negro Digest/Black World, Journal of Black Poetry, Black Art Black Collective, Black Scholar,], and Black Theatre not only to illustrate the breadth and depth of BAM but also to give the full picture of the dynamic critical back and forth that was a BAM hallmark” (121 – 122).
Salaam’s text is pregnant with primary sources—including personal letters, magazine/journal publications, and anthology publications—that transform The Magic of Juju into a literal talking book. By doing this, Salaam counters the lies and misconceptions of BAM with the unabashed truth of historical documents that refute the false reasons provided for why academies minimize or ignore BAM. Further, the documents show that the lies, such as BAM hated James Baldwin, and many others and misconceptions of BAM are so egregious that one can only accept/believe that the removal of BAM from the academy has been a systematic act committed by white and black scholars who have found it necessary to demonized BAM to ensure the power and status quo of the academy as the primary gatekeeping institution of a neo-white supremacy that serves its need and survival by ensuring that the mass of African-American minds are never filled with art that believes in them enough to encourage their own awaking into a sovereign people no longer dependent upon and controlled by white institutions. This ability to reinvestigate BAM documents makes it almost impossible for white and black scholars to retard a movement of self-determinism on the basis that BAM practitioners were overly emotional, hate-mongering hacks but were profound critical thinkers who desired nothing more than to enable black people to think for themselves and build institutions that provided African Americans to fulfill the whole of their humanity rather than being confined to the spaces reserved from them someone else.
Through his detailed research, Salaam makes it clear that to understand the complexity of BAM is to understand the complexity of African Americans. Just as African Americans are multiregional, multitalented, and multi-ideological, so was BAM. To show this, Salaam deconstructs the notion of BAM as a centralized, one dimensional monolith to reveal the various shades of people and ideologies that formed BAM. “The Black Arts Movement is an artistic manifestation of the collective Black Power-oriented political activity that happened in the sixties and seventies. As an artistic movement, BAM is unique in American literary history because it is so closely aligned to a political movement” (ix). The text contains a lot of lists, steps, classifications, and definitions as Salaam seeks to show that the Black Power Movement (BPM) and BAM, like the Civil Rights Movement (CRM), was not just some emotional, half-cocked random happening. Rather, BAM was a very well-planned and organized movement that reflected, impacted, and inspired critical thinking of how best to craft art to heal, educate, and inspire African people. One essential move Salaam makes is his ability, simultaneously, to celebrate poet, playwright, essayist, and activist Amiri Baraka as an essential aspect of BAM while setting the record straight that Baraka was not the be all and end all of BAM. By doing this, Salaam keeps people from thinking of BAM or all African American art in terms of “Before Amiri (BA)” and “After Amiri (AA).” This approach works to widen even more the readers’ understanding of the diversity of BAM, especially the notion that BAM was a folk or people’s art and movement, reacting to the needs of the masses and not a movement that attempted to dictate to the masses. This point can teach younger African-American artists not to be misled by America’s desire to promote the ultra-super individual over the collective and to seek diversity in their own backyard, which can lead to even more successful organizations, such as Cave Canem, that are built from a plethora of black geniuses combining or collaborating to use their resources to provide even more artistic and economic opportunities for African-American artists.
Salaam’s approach to show the multidimensionality—region, gender, and ideological—nature of BAM makes it clear that disagreement and intense debate is not necessarily a negative element, especially when they function to widen and diversify the nature of the movement. BAM practitioners understood the complexity of African Americans in a way that they sought to create a living aesthetic and movement that did not prescribe ideology from on high to the masses but sought to understand where the masses of African Americans had been, where they were, and what they needed, purposefully creating space for this discussion and growth to occur.
“Moreover, this movement was dialectical in that it was not a simplistic following of one premise to its logical conclusion, but rather an ongoing, dynamic, and constantly developing interplay of theory directing practice and, in turn, shaping the development of new theories, and also of individually developed dreams and ideas attempted and/or actualized by grassroots groups across the nation who, in the process of making the ideal into reality, created new dreams and ideals” (2).
Yet, being more than just theory or rhetoric, Salaam uses primary sources, such the Free Southern Theatre’s production of Slaveship, to show how a Broadway production developed from a local/regional traveling production in which both a theatre company and an actual production is modified by an exchange of ideas into something designed not merely to protest against mistreatment but to express the need for black folks to see themselves as their own saviors, able to establish their own institutions. And, Salaam is just as detailed when showing how BAM evolved equally, if not often faster and more vibrantly, in the Midwest and West Coast. “Thus BAM, which nominally started in New York, actually came to fruition in the Bay Area and in the Midwest. Additionally, many people frequently moved back and forth between the various locales” (47). This information can prove vital to young African Americans who are constantly told that “black folks just can’t seem to agree on anything,” which can function to limit the ability of African Americans to develop and maintain movements and organizations. Again, Salaam shows that disagreement is not an innately negative or destructive element and that disagreement can be used to strengthen one’s position or idea or to merge one’s idea or organization with another to accomplish a goal. This understanding of various ideas and organizations that comprised BAM can also serve to teach young people that quitting because one disagrees with another position is never effective and that mature critical thinking is finding a way for two people or two organizations to work collectively to resolve an ill, such as racism, sexism, or poverty.
Continuing the notion of BAM as a multidimensional movement, Salaam cites publications, recordings, and conferences to denounce the notion that BAM writers rejected older writers, such Robert Hayden, James Baldwin, Frank Yerby, and others.
“Such teachings are a gross oversimplification at best and at worst are outright lies. Yes, BAM often condemned the politics of some of the Black writers who preceded BAM, but a political rejection of assimilationist politics does not equate with a wholesale rejection of older writers…One of the most persistent, and yet totally undocumented, myths taught about BAM is that Robert Hayden and older poets in general were attacked by BAM adherents. Although this is repeated from classroom to classroom, the claim was never validated. The truth is complex but understandable. Simply put, there was a major ideological spilt on the issue of integration. The split was about content not craft. Hayden was frequently published in Negro Digest and Black World, and was included in major BAM anthologies, such as [Stephen] Henderson’s Understanding The New Black Poetry and [Dudley] Randall’s Black Poets” (54, 62).
And while Eldridge Clever attacked James Baldwin in Soul on Ice, Baldwin was loved by the vast majority of BAM. Yet, it is ironic that the same people who claim that BAM hated Baldwin never say that Baldwin hated Richard Wright, even though many of them use Baldwin’s “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and “Many Thousands Gone” as justification to remove Wright from university curriculums. How is it that Baldwin can offer a detail, objective critique of Wright and not be cited as hating Wright, yet the next generation of writers cannot do the same of Baldwin without being accused of hating Baldwin? Something’s afoot, and it’s what Baldwin himself coined as “selective naiveté,” which is especially selective when HWIs and the mainstream publishing want to ensure that no other generation of African-American writers ever comes close to accomplishing what BAM did, which is using art to get a substantial number of African Americans to consider the possibility of self-determination as an alternative to integration. Moreover, Salaam’s text can teach younger African-American writers that thorough objective critique does not connote a lack of respect or love. It simply means that the next generation must always evaluate that has occurred before it so that it can have a clear understanding of what worked, what did not work, and what can work today, especially when it comes to engaging lingering issues, such as still too view vehicles for black writers to be published and ways in which community based folk and grassroots African-American arts can connect with those arts traditionally produced/celebrated in academia as a way to connect African Americans from the streets with African Americans in academia to develop even more ideas and movements that impact the K – 12 curriculums that can increase the literacy rate and overall critical preparation of black babies.
The apex of The Magic of Juju is “Chapter Five: Black Arts Movement Publications” as it shows BAM to be the most productive and influential era of African-American literature, especially in regard to self-contained productivity. Unlike the Harlem Renaissance, which produced only one black owned journal, Fire!!, which published only one issue, according to Askia M. Toure and Salaam, BAM produced approximately nineteen journals. When one combines that with the anthologies and sound recordings, BAM is clearly the publishing blueprint upon which Callaloo, African American Review, Obsidian, and even Cave Canem are built. In short, none of these would exist without BAM. Yet, unlike many—not all—of these current publications and institutions, in BAM publications one can find dissenting and debating voices about the nature and role of literature and the African-American writer. Whereas, in Callaloo, African American Review, and Angels of Ascent, which is an anthology that was edited by Charles Rowell—co-founder of Callaloo, one can never read black voices that are well-crafted that also reject integration for self-determinism. Are we to believe that there is not one well-crafted African-American poet and fiction writer who happens to embrace self-determinism over integration? This is why works like The Magic of Juju are necessary. It seems that those current creative writers, editors, publishers, and professors who perpetuate the lie that BAM was a monolith are, in fact, the monoliths themselves, working to limit the diverse African-American voices from seeing the light of day, which enables them to ingratiate themselves to the white power structure. Remembering Langston Hughes’ essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” today’s landscape does not seem to be that different than the 1920s as Hughes would attest: “The Negro artist works against an undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstandings from his own group and unintentional bribes from whites. ‘Oh, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are,’ say the Negroes. ‘Be stereotyped, don’t go too far, don’t shatter our illusions about you, don’t amuse us too seriously. We will pay you,’ say the whites. Both would have told Jean Toomer not to write Cane” (1270). And, one current critic to be addressed later would have told Baraka not to write “Black Art.” As such, there are not enough literary journals, anthologies, and presses that produce enough art aimed to interest and inspire blacks to read in the same way that BAM did. “One way to view BAM, especially with respect to Negro Digest/Black World, is not only as a literary movement but also as a major ‘literacy’ movement, which encouraged reading among a mass population” (80). This is vital because literacy, organically, promotes/produces, critical thinking in the masses, which is sorely needed as far too many African-Americans remain in communities and school districts in which poor funding makes it almost impossible to develop the critical thinkers needed provide solutions to the ongoing poverty, violence, and robbery as well as the pimpism of politicians who bank of the black community being illiterate.
Yet, the BAM practitioners seemed to realize, early, that one or two journals would never be enough to contain the souls of black folks. The emergence of nineteen journals over a period of ten years shows that BAM understood that there was a regional and national need for several types of journals as they evolved organically from each other. “Dingane Joe Goncalves, a Civil rights/Black Power veteran of CORE, had been selected as Black Dialogue’s poetry editor, but as more and more poetry poured in he conceived of the idea to start Journal of Black Poetry” (70). As a microcosm of BAM, Negro Digest and Black World are a perfect example of the manner in which a literary journal could reflect the changing sensibilities of a people. “Although Negro Digest (1942 – 1951, revived 1961 – 1976) was the oldest of all the publications, it initially had a typically (for Johnson Publications) middle-class ‘imitation of life’ orientation. When Hoyt Fuller became the editor in 1961 that orientation slowly began to change. By the spring of 1970, when the publication became Black World, the magazine was fully supportive of a BAM perspective and Hoyt Fuller emerged as a leading BAM proponent” (78 – 79). The large number of journals display the diversity and dimensionality of African Americans, allowing readers to understand that individuals can have the same level of love for African Americans but have different notions of how best to improve the lives of African Americans. “BAM publications represented a triad of perspectives, forming BAM literary and aesthetic practices. Journal of Black Poetry, Soulbook, and Black Dialogue represented the Black Power-oriented, activist side of the triangle…The other two sides were the literary, represented by Negro Digest/Black World, and the scholarly, represented by Black Scholar” (77). This, again, shows that diversity and disagreement does not always connote an antagonist. Understanding this point makes it difficult for current scholars to use their personal issues with members of BAM as an excuse to limit the manner in which BAM is taught in classes. In fact, the debates found in the pages of BAM periodicals should serve as excellent guides to high school and college students that thorough and intense debate often breeds well-informed ideas and decision making, enabling current students to develop themselves into the needed cadre of scholars to resolve the issues plaguing their own community rather than waiting for outsiders to save them. Often, outsiders only bring gentrification, which serves only to move the poor people of color to another space where they can be ignored rather than saved.
For all the wonderful elements of The Magic of Juju, there are two lacking elements. One, Salaam does not dedicate enough time and space to textual analysis of any of the genres—poetry, fiction, drama, film, music, or television. While he does cite the excellent textual/aesthetic analysis of Carolyn Fowler and others, much more must be done to refute contemporary works, such as Carl Phillips’ Coin of the Realm, which is a very interesting collection of literary criticism, but, when Phillips turns his attention to the work of BAM, he becomes classically myopic, minimizing the work for the inability of the subject matter to be “universal” while completely ignoring the actual mastery of literary device of many of the BAM writers. One the one hand, Phillips becomes obsessed with promoting the notion that works, such as Baraka’s “Black Art,” do not rise to the level of great poetry because “this poem makes a point of driving away a number of potential audiences: whites, women, Jews, gays, liberals, and even blacks—those deemed, by Baraka, the wrong sort….the poem is finally an example of how identity can narrow a poem’s scope, and can obscure the talents of the writer that Baraka can be…Political poetry of this sort…does make for poetry that’s more limited” (162). Interestingly, Phillips asserts that Hughes’ “Island” is a more effective poem than “Black Art” because “when we remove those lenses [of specific identity], we don’t find ourselves unable to see any other possibilities for meaning” (163). Essentially, Phillips is asserting that poems like “Black Art” are not to be valued if they speak from a specific identity circumstance because literary works that speak from a specific identity circumstance are limited in their ability to connect with readers not of that identity or circumstance. Yet, Phillips seems to be forgetting what Hughes, himself, states in his seminal essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” about the desire of the black poet to be universal. “But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America—this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible” (1267). As such, Phillips seems to be the very type of poet that inspired Hughes to write his essay: “One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, ‘I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,’ meaning, I believe, ‘I want to write like a white poet,’ meaning subconsciously, ‘I would like to be white.’ And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself, and I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet” (1267). I wonder if Phillips knows that it was Hughes who defended Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem from W. E. B. DuBois’ negative critique, specifically because the novel unashamedly engages and celebrates aspects of the African-American community that are unique to that community. Or, maybe, Phillips has never read the end of Hughes’ essay when he declares:
“Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing ‘Water Boy,’ and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty. We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries, and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves” (1271).
In this vein, Phillips’ critique of “Black Art” necessitates that Salaam and others who are well-versed and well-skilled in the aesthetic of BAM, at every opportunity, provide abundant textual/aesthetic analysis (work their juju on the text) to combat the often myopic and subjective analyses, such as Phillips, that masquerade as objective analysis. Thus, Salaam needed to provide more analysis of aesthetic devices so that readers could understand fully that it was the how (mastery of literary device) that moved readers and listeners equally if not more than the what (subject matter/position). BAM writers were revolutionary in their use of diction, poetic and prose structure, and in their use of language to investigate the “sign-signified” relationship as a metaphor of the primary purpose of BAM, which was to expose the gap between the Christian and democratic rhetoric of white Americans and their behavior. As such, The Magic of Juju should be fifty to one hundred pages longer so as to allow for more specific and detailed textual/aesthetic analysis of all the genres of BAM.
Only in “Chapter Six: BAM Recording” and “Chapter Eight: BAM and Black Music” does Salaam come close to the specific textual/aesthetic analysis that he provides in What Is Life?, when he presents an extended itemization of the blues aesthetic as literary aesthetic. While I admit that I am one who writes first and primarily for the page, Salaam is able to show that the performative must be respected in the same manner as the page because the performative has elements of language mastery that are on par with page mastery. In both chapters he shows that for black music the performance was always something different than the recording. In fact, the recording is viewed as merely a limited photocopy, if not thumbnail, of the live performance. Thus, Baraka’s poetry album, It’s Nation Time, “demonstrated the full range of Baraka’s poetics, including the avant-poetics of ‘Peace in Place,’ which is difficult, if not impossible, to appreciate on the page without having heard it performed” (102). Whereas the recording is an attempt to capture the technical essence of the performative spirit, for BAM the performance was always about freeing the spirit in a manner that moves the artist and the audience into metaphysicality. So, for many of BAM’s practitioners, the page represented the confines of the studio, and their desire was to craft a new poetry form that would be able to make the page talk, one way or another, though dissection and linguistic liberation of words and structure with verbal acrobatics, through coining/creation of new words and structures, or through implosion of concepts and structures. Salaam shows that, ultimately, the exploration of the phonetic power and possibility of language became the essence and the magic of juju that anchored BAM’s quest. The desire was to do for sound/phonetics what Saussure did for image and concept by reintroducing black folks to their forgotten selves. In Blues People, Baraka called this an understanding of the “changing same” of black culture. The truth is that every ten years or so there is a need for a “New Negro,” as Alain Locke declares in his seminal essay. Yet, often, this New Negro is not something that had not existed before but a merging of the old foundations that continue to work with new strategies necessitated by new issues. For example, by 1980, the black café and the black church had been commercially and culturally divided until Prince musically and lyrically reintroduced sex (the body) to salvation (the soul) by reintroducing Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Muddy Waters, and Aretha Franklin to James Brown, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, and Parliament Funkadelic. Fifteen years earlier, in the same manner, BAM reintroduced black audiences to the lost spirit of themselves in the form of Langston Hughes, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and James Weldon Johnson, which had been muzzled if not eradiated when poured into the “structure” of European writing. In fact, BAM seemed to “hear” and “feel” Hughes on a spiritual level their Negro distractors did not and worked to follow Hughes’ directive of shattering the glass of universality to liberate black genius. Accepting Wright’s notion from his “Blueprint for Negro Writing” that African-American writers would never be able “to create a more intimate and yet a more profoundly social system of artistic communication between them and their people” until they learned to love and embrace “blues, spirituals, and folk tales…” (1382), BAM writers embraced black sound/music as an intellectual activity, connecting it to the discourse of Malcolm X and other socio-political activists.
“The musicians were ahead of Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal, Askia Muhammad Toure, and any other BAM writer in creatively acknowledging Africa’s influence on developing Black social movement as content and inspiration for aesthetic work, and explicitly advocated Pan Africanism…Both Malcolm X and John Coltrane represented the combination of an innovative articulation of a blues people sensibility and an avowedly anti-Western/pro-Africa stance, inherent not only in the meaning of their message/music but also in the aesthetics they employed” (132, 134).
To this end, more needed to be presented to show just how this aesthetic evolved and could be documented as an example of BAM’s intellectual and cultural accomplishment. This can then become a guide for young African-American writers, especially those interested in self-determination, to be able to understand the importance of developing and being able to articulate their aesthetic so that they cannot be summarily dismissed merely because their politics are threatening to the power structure.
The second lacking element of the text is that the index is very minimal and poor. The vast amount of information within the text demands a much more expanded index to allow the book to be more accessible and to serve as another document, itself, to testify to the depth and wide-reaching phenomenon that BAM was. But, this can be easily resolved with the next edition of the book. Accordingly, the “Study Guide” and the section, “Photographs, Documents, and Historical Archives,” which appear at the back of the book, function to give the text accessibility for the classroom that the index lacks. And while a lacking index may not appear to be a major issue, it speaks to an essential but rarely discussed aspect of BAM, which was the goal of BAM practitioners, especially the artists, the aid in the intellectual/aesthetic development of the audience. One of the primary reasons that so much current popular/mainstream black art is so devoid of intellectual substance is because the artists, themselves, lack intellectual/aesthetic substance and there has been little work done to enlighten/expand the aesthetic range and depth of the audience. In quoting Free Southern Theatre co-founder John O’Neal, Salaam shows that BAM understood that for the art to flower as a socio-political agent of change that the audience must be educated about the process and destination of the art: “In the creation of a relevant theatre the development of an active and critical rather than a passive audience is the most important task” (115). There must be a circular relationship between the artist and the audience, and the artist must accept a role/responsibility in engaging the audience in a manner that expands the audience’s aesthetic as well as socio-political knowledge base. As long as black artists refuse to accept this responsibility, they will continue to confine themselves to an audience that is not interested in their own growth or the growth of the art, making it almost impossible to create art that can have a fundamental impact upon one’s human condition.
A final strength of The Magic of Juju is Salaam’s ability to be completely objective and empirical, using, again, documents to address BAM’s deficiencies and refute the long-standing lies about BAM. Engaging the three biggest criticisms of BAM—that BAM was a dictatorial movement of monolithically, that BAM was racist, and that BAM was sexist, Salaam uses the private and published words of BAM practitioners to show that BAM was an imperfect movement that, unlike its distractors, sought to recognize and overcome its issues. In the case of being a racist movement and the level to which whites could help or engage BAM, he shows that BAM’s stance was always nuanced and evolving.
“BAM’s anti-White stance was in specific opposition to the traditional behavior of American Whites toward people of color both here and abroad…Second there was an ongoing debate within BAM about the participation of Whites at any level—the positions ranged from no participation whatsoever to operational and tactical unity on an issue by issue basis. Indicative of this range is the inclusion of John Sinclair in the Broadside anthology on Malcom X. Sinclair was a founder of the White Panther Party and considered a revolutionary “John Brown” type poet” (185).
Further, in “Chapter Five: BAM Publications,” Salaam shows that the journals and anthologies of BAM, especially those on the West Coast, literally invented multiculturalism, forcing HWIs and mainstream publications, once again, to coopt an idea of BAM and sell it as their own.
“Early issues of Journal of Black Poetry published not only Black, African, and Caribbean writers; they also published Asian and South American writers…Umbra alumni David Henderson and Ishmael Reed moved to California and began publishing America’s first self-avowedly multicultural publications…The focus was not simply ‘color blind’ interracialism but instead a prescient confluence of writings from communities of color whose commonality was struggle for self-determinism and self-defense more than on behalf of a liberal sense of abstract humanism” (86, 87).
And concerning sexism, Salaam adds:
“As for the charge of sexism and homophobia, there is no doubt that they were correct. Yet, BAM was no more sexist and homophobic than American society in general, and, in specific cases, much less blatant. Moreover, there was a great deal of struggle and against sexism and much of that struggle is documented in BAM and Black Power publications, especially Black Scholar” (186).
To support his position, Salaam provides documented statements and publications by men and women, most notably Askia Toure, Maulana Karenga, Haki Madhubuti, Wanda Coleman, and Carolyn Fowler. With Toure and Karenga, he provides published documents to show how both men struggled internally and externally to insure that women were equally included in the aesthetic development and policy decision making of BAM. Salaam shows that at one conference in the 60s, Toure made it a point to invite a female representative onto the stage so that there would be a female voice in that discussion. (Many years later at the Neo Griot Conference at the University of Missouri at Columbus, I personally witnessed Toure do the exact same thing. When a group of us were at someone’s home and Toure realized that only young men were seated at the table, Toure stated, “Young brothers, let some of these young sisters sit and this table. Don’t make some of the same mistakes that we made in the past.”) Also, Salaam provides a 1976 quote from Karenga to show that it was never the intent of the men of BAM to regulate black women to the place of second-tier beings:
“It is undialectical and in brutal contradiction to the needs of our struggle and development to divide the question of how males should be from how women should be, and what women should do and become from what men should do and become. For the question posed thus becomes itself part of the ideological arsenal of the established order employed to further hack humanity and our people in half, to foster false and deforming relationships between female and male, and, in the process, pervert the human image and human essence” (187).
Salaam also adds “Given the often cited criticism that BAM neglected women writers, it is interesting to note that of the four most important and popular BAM poets (Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Don L. Lee/Haki Madhubuti, and Sonia Sanchez), two are women. Moreover, one of the most famous and most widely anthologized BAM poems is Mari Evans’ ‘I Am a Black Woman’” (55). This information allows young African-American artists/scholars to know that they do not have to flee or avoid the legacy of BAM and can be nurtured and inspired by it. This can be especially helpful for those young scholars who are still trying to navigate their way through the waters of feminism and Black Power politics by realizing that BAM has never asked African-American women to deny any aspect of themselves and that the two ideologies can be used to support each other as women of color continued to find themselves marginalized due to gender and race.
By providing the successes and failures of BAM, Salaam is able to show that the ultimate demise or lessening of the impact of BAM was a result of any idea or movement of a people that attempts to separate itself from an established system that profits from the oppression of that people rather than as a failure of African Americans who are unable to maintain a movement due to being unintellectual or just plain petty. Salaam is transparent about the personal ills of BAM. “When the position in question has both personal and social implications in terms of mates, friends, and associates, invariably what starts out as an ideological debate, quickly degenerates into backbiting, infighting, and self-destructive activities. Given its radical departure from the then existing norm, we should not be surprised that BAM was in constant internal turmoil as well as periodically mired in ‘bickering and backbiting’” (10 – 11). Yet, he juxtaposes those personal failures with mounting evidence of the manner in which the publications, musical recordings, paintings, plays, films, and television programs inspired by BAM changed the world by forcing the mainstream to be more inclusive of African Americans or risk having more African Americans choose BAM and Black Power over failed integration. Thus, like the lies perpetuated about Reconstruction being a failure because of African-American ineptitude and SNCC ending merely because African Americans wanted to rid themselves of whites, works like The Magic of Juju are needed to provide a nuanced and complicated truth about a nuanced and complicated movement, which has been flatted into a one dimensional knew-jerk of low-grade art and hate politics. As such, Salaam does well to retrieve BAM from the lies and toilet bowl assessment of the mainstream, allowing documented sources to tell the full story of BAM, warts and all, proving that the all of BAM outweighs the warts. The importance of remembering/documenting BAM is to refute the lie that African people do not have the intellectual and moral ability to build and maintain self-determining institutions. Additionally, remembering BAM makes it more difficult for the establishment to recreate/reestablish the old gate-keeping system that limits published African-American writers to those who merely mimic and petition the white power structure for a limited seat at its table. Ultimately, to remember BAM is to remember that African-American artists have proven that African Americans have the ability to do more than beg or petition their oppressors to be good to them. BAM is shining evidence that African Americans have all they need to resolve the ills of poor education, poverty, and violence and create a world in which they are able to fulfill their human potential.
Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” The Norton Anthology of
African American Literature. Edited by Henry Louis Gates and Nellie y. McKay. W. W. Norton Company, 1997.
Phillips, Carl. Coin of the Realm. Graywolf Press, 2004.
Salaam, Kalamu ya. The Magic of Juju: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement. Third
World Press, 20016.
Wright, Richard. “Blueprint for Negro Writing.” The Norton Anthology of African American
Literature. Edited by Henry Louis Gates and Nellie y. McKay. W. W. Norton Company, 1997.
C. Liegh McInnis is an English instructor at Jackson State University, the former editor/publisher of Black Magnolias Literary Journal, the author of eight books, including four collections of poetry, one collection of short fiction (Scripts: Sketches and Tales of Urban Mississippi), one work of literary criticism (The Lyrics of Prince: A Literary Look at a Creative, Musical Poet, Philosopher, and Storyteller), one co-authored work, Brother Hollis: The Sankofa of a Movement Man, which discusses the life of a legendary Mississippi Civil Rights icon, and the former First Runner-Up of the Amiri Baraka/Sonia Sanchez Poetry Award. His work has appeared in The Southern Quarterly, Bum Rush the Page, Down to the Dark River: Anthology of Poems about the Mississippi River, Black Hollywood Unchained: Essays about Hollywood’s Portrayal of African Americans, Black Gold: Anthology of Black Poetry, Sable, New Delta Review, Black World Today, In Motion Magazine, MultiCultural Review, A Deeper Shade, New Laurel Review, ChickenBones, Oxford American, Journal of Ethnic American Literature, and Red Ochre Lit.