When Earth, Wind and Fire’s Maurice White took to the stage playing an electric kalimba in the 1970s, he was drawing on a deep well of inspiration. The iconic African instrument, sometimes called a thumb piano, had first been electrified in the 1950s by Phil Cohran, a pioneering musician who called his kalimba a “frankiphone.”
Cohran had been the trumpet player for Sun Ra Arkestra, a big band the likes of which no one had heard—or seen—before. Sun Ra was a self-ascribed cosmic philosopher and, for his fans, he brought to Earth the music of the spheres. Cohran left the Arkestra to return to Chicago, where he founded the Artistic Heritage Ensemble and worked with other musicians, artists, dancers, poets, and writers in the vast collaboration known as the Black Arts Movement.
The Black Arts Movement of Chicago is the subject of a film by two Washington State University Vancouver associate professors of English, Thabiti Lewis and Pavithra Narayanan. The 50-minute documentary took four years to make. It’s quick-cut style keeps viewers riveted and hungry to learn more about a period of American history that birthed a rich aesthetic based on Black American experience.
The Black Arts Movement (BAM) of the ’60s laid foundations, says Lewis, for the funk of Parliament/Funkadelic and Kool and the Gang; the soul of Earth, Wind and Fire; and contemporary styles like hip-hop (which is based on the collaborative aesthetic of sampling) and the Afrofuturism of Bootsy Collins and contemporary science fiction.
But it’s not just music, Lewis points out, that makes the BAM such a powerful force in American culture. When Gwendolyn Brooks became, in 1950, the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize, she was performing on the streets, in bars, prisons, and wherever she could learn about what other Black people were experiencing. Brooks, and other Black poets, fearlessly experimented with the rhythms and syntax of language, bringing legitimacy and a heightened aesthetic to Black Vernacular English.
As Lewis says of his undergraduate years, “Whenever I had the chance to read BAM writers, I did so. Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Eugene Redman, Nikki Giovanni—I took up that moment because what they were doing with language was challenging notions of universality. This was really fascinating to me and made me want to become a literature scholar.”
BAM created a lot of art but also, Lewis says, a lot of institutions that continue to thrive in Chicago and other cities. Schools and museums that teach and celebrate African heritage inspire young Chicagoans to this day. Haki Madhubuti founded Third World Press as not only a publishing house, but a workshop for aspiring writers. Muralists democratized art by painting, among others, a Wall of Respect which beautified a neighborhood and “not just an elite gallery.”
John Johnson, the owner/publisher of Jet and Ebony, teamed up with Hoyt Fuller to publish Black World, a journal that pushed Black writers to think deeply, read widely, and arguably, laid the foundations for Black studies and other ethnic studies programs taught in universities around the world.
With such vast contributions to American culture, it’s no wonder Lewis and Narayanan are pushing ahead with a book-length account of the movement. Based in part on his own experience, on the interviews he and Narayanan conducted for their documentary, as well as on contributions by other collaborators, Lewis aims to show that Chicago was a “matrix, an intellectual and cultural center” that was “an infectious source” of spiritual and revolutionary inspiration for multiple generations of Americans of all colors.
On the web
BAM! Chicago’s Black Arts Movement documentary preview (from Pavithra Narayanan)
Poet Nikki Giovanni reads her classic poem, “Ego Tripping.”
Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks reads her poem “We Real Cool.”
Haki R. Madhubuti founded Third World Press. In addition to being a pivotal figure in the Black Arts Movement as a publisher, he is also a prolific poet and non-fiction writer. Here, he reads “Don’t Cry…SCREAM!”
AfriCOBRA is an artists’ collective founded in Chicago in 1968 with the intention of creating a Black aesthetic. Over the years, many Black Arts Movement visual artists and members of the Organization of Black American Culture have been members. COBRA is an acronym meaning, at various points in its history, the Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (“bad,” in this case, meaning very good indeed) and Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists.
The Wall of Respect, according to the AfriCOBRA website, was painted by members of Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) on Chicago’s South Side in 1967, and became “a visual symbol of Black Nationalism and Liberation that continues to inspire and encourage images makers all over the world.”
The DuSable Museum, according to its website, was founded in 1961 by teacher and art historian Dr. Margaret Burroughs, a key personality in the Black Arts Movement, and other Chicago residents. The DuSable Museum is one of the few independent institutions of its kind, and is dedicated to the collection, documentation, preservation and study of the history and culture of Africans and African Americans.