The New Black Aesthetic is perhaps the most political movement in American letters. While individual writers have addressed racial issues for centuries, these loosely associated poets, most of whom came to prominence in the 1960s, employ both form and content expressly... [more]
The New Black Aesthetic is perhaps the most political movement in American letters. While individual writers have addressed racial issues for centuries, these loosely associated poets, most of whom came to prominence in the 1960s, employ both form and content expressly in the name of black nationalism, radical black politics, and black identity. Rather than simply address African American topics, the New Black Aesthetic strives to create an independent African American culture through art.
Indeed, the New Black Aesthetic is characterized by its insistence on community. The poetry does not exist for the sake of some universal artistic truth, as much of European Modernist poetry demands. Instead, New Black Aesthetic poetry exists as a cultural vehicle, a teaching-tool for social empowerment. It draws upon oral traditions, attempting to reflect black culture by speaking its very tongue.
Much of the poetry captures linguistic styles and rhythms based on black speech, as well as the rhythms of jazz and be-bop. For example, the lyric poet Michael S. Harper writes in luminous language and be-bop cadences about the black experience in America. His 'Dear John, Dear Coltrane' contains some of the most powerful lyric poetry written this century -- particularly the laments for Coltrane and the brutally beautiful pianist, Bud Powell.
As the New Black Aesthetic plunges its hands into black cultural consciousness, it also tends to employ theatrical aspects into its form. Cruising on the waves of vernacular speech, some poets prefer to disperse their poetry via live readings. Poets such as Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka lend highly electrified vocal stylings to their already intense letters. Baraka's poetry is powerful and lyric with pronounced rhythms; he often improvises verse that is as astounding as his original works, playing off the dynamic of the audience to make the poetry a collaborative experience.
And Sanchez takes her poetry to the streets, showering all who walk by with her emotional wash. On the page, her poems are spare in their beauty. When this tiny poet takes the stage however, she is wholly transformed into her "speakers" -- wailing with the pain of a child-victim of political torture, or bounding with the joy of a woman in love. For both artists, poetic performance is a means of social communication, a way to stir the black community to form its own identity and meanings.
While most of the writers in this movement address politics directly in their poems, they share the conviction that they can nominate any subject for their work and write in any diction or form, regardless of the forms and subjects legitimized by the Eurocentic canonical tradition. In the end, perhaps the New Black Aesthetic is not so much political as it is militantly cultural, attempting to claim a poetic tradition separate from the mainstream.