Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 10, 2020
Jo-Ann Morgan The Black Arts Movement and the Black Panther Party in American Visual Culture Routledge Research in Art and Race. New York: Routledge, 2019. 212 pp.; 32 color ills.; 56 b/w ills. Cloth $155.00 (9781138605923)

Within its front matter, this book is described as examining

a range of visual expressions of Black Power across American art and popular culture from 1965 through 1972. It begins with case studies of artist groups, including Spiral, OBAC [Organization of Black American Culture], and AfriCOBRA, who began questioning Western aesthetic traditions and created work that honored leaders, affirmed African American culture, and embraced an African lineage. Also showcased is an Oakland Museum exhibition of 1968 called “New Perspectives in Black Art,” as a way to consider if Black Panther Party activities in the neighborhood might have impacted local artists’ work. The concluding chapters concentrate on the relationship between selected Black Panther Party members and visual culture, focusing on how they were covered by the mainstream press, and how they self-represented to promote Party doctrine and agendas.

Finally, the notoriously neglected Black Arts Movement is receiving well-deserved scholarly attention in the academic establishment. For decades, the legendary 1920s Harlem Renaissance overshadowed not only the phenomenal Black Arts Renaissance that began in the 1960s but also the critical Black Chicago Renaissance that flowered in the 1940s. Scholars are realizing that step by step, each of those cultural movements built on the genius and kinship of earlier generations. The poet and playwright Langston Hughes came of age in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s; then he matured while mentoring younger artists, first in the Black Chicago Renaissance with his Suitcase Theater and finally in the burgeoning Black Arts Movement, during which he encouraged fledgling poets like Sonia Sanchez. By the 1950s, Hughes inspired a young LeRoi Jones (later to be known as Amiri Baraka) with his jazz poetry in New York City’s Greenwich Village, where jazz musicians gathered in search of a new voice.

A new generation of scholars is discovering those lost African American artists and writers and taking measure of the phenomenal impact of the poets, actors, playwrights, musicians, filmmakers, artists, and photographers of the Black Arts Renaissance. If Sonia Sanchez, John H. Bracey Jr., and James Smethurst (as editors) have examined the Black Power generation’s literary and poetic legacy in SOS—Calling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader (University of Massachusetts Press, 2014), then Jo-Ann Morgan brilliantly presents that generation’s visual arts legacy in The Black Arts Movement and the Black Panther Party in American Visual Culture. After teaching and researching this subject, Morgan is the right scholar to introduce the stunning genius of the 1960s black cultural revolution. She traces the deep roots of that black awakening not only to the fiery prophecy of Malcolm X but also to the African American artists of the Black Chicago Renaissance.

By 1963, veterans of the New Deal cultural programs during the Great Depression gathered in Romare Bearden’s Greenwich Village studio to establish the artists’ group known as Spiral and to discuss new ways to relate to the burgeoning civil rights revolution. Charles Alston (1907–1977) and Hale Woodruff (1900–1980) had participated in the New Deal’s Federal Art Project inside the Works Progress Administration (WPA), specifically the easel and mural division. Indeed, Alston’s Harlem studio was a school for the marvelous Jacob Lawrence, who produced epics like The Migration Series. Bearden discovered a new generation that was hungry for that African American art history. However, the paucity of teaching materials was so dire that Bearden, working with Harry Henderson, had to write Six Black Masters of American Art (Doubleday/Zenith, 1972).

The hunger of that younger generation was never limited to New York City. In Chicago, artists like Barbara Jones-Hogu wanted to know what had happened to important artists from the 1940s, such as the legendary Elizabeth Catlett; they found Catlett living in exile in Mexico. (Catlett’s Negro es Bello II [1969/2000, color lithograph] graces the cover of this book.) Jones-Hogu flowered in the illustrious AfriCOBRA circle in Chicago. AfriCOBRA, an abbreviation of African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, was founded in 1968 by Jones-Hogu, Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Jae Jarrell, and Gerald Williams. Morgan explains: “Although she lived and worked in Mexico, printmaker and sculptor Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012) shared with AfriCOBRA a commitment to making art accessible through prints. In significant ways she was already advancing a Black aesthetic even before there was a Black Arts Movement” (47). During the 1940s, Catlett was drawn to Mexico not only because of muralists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros but also because that was where an important graphic studio—Taller de Gráfica Popular—was experimenting with art for social change. Catlett developed her art in several cities, including Chicago: she worked with the young poet Margaret Walker and with artist and educator Margaret Burroughs, who established the South Side Community Art Center and founded the DuSable Museum in her living room. In 1942 Walker was the first African American writer to win the Yale Younger Poets award for her first collection, featuring as its title poem “For My People.” Half a century later, Walker and Catlett collaborated when the artist’s lithographs were brought together with the author’s poems in a special portfolio, For My People, issued by the Limited Editions Club in 1992.

In addition to going into chronological depth, Morgan explains the geographical scope of the Black Arts Movement—reaching from the Greenwich Village art studios of Romare Bearden and Bob Thompson, to Chicago’s great mural The Wall of Respect, to the Leaders and Martyrs mural in Oakland, California—as well as the burgeoning genius of Emory Douglas, the Black Panther Party, and Angela Davis.

As Sanchez and Baraka transplanted the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (or BARTS) experiments from Harlem to the San Francisco Black House and the San Francisco College black studies program, they fused with poets, essayists, and playwrights like Marvin X, Eldridge Cleaver, and Ed Bullins and recruited brilliant students like Jimmy Garrett, Danny Glover, and the aforementioned Emory Douglas. While Garrett wrote a powerful play, We Own the Night, and Glover left the pool rooms for Sanchez’s theater workshop, Douglas discovered his genius in the art workshop. That cultural self-discovery was intimately connected to the political awakening of the Black Power generation, and in San Francisco and Oakland that was chiefly articulated in the surge of the revolutionary Black Panther Party. The black awakening of the 1960s was so massive that it reached from college campuses to prisons. If Black Panther founders Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton came from the black student movement at Merritt College, then Eldridge Cleaver was radicalized in such California prisons as Soledad, Folsom, and San Quentin. Morgan describes Cleaver as a “visual thinker” (118); he developed into a writer with an eye for photography and a splendid visual vocabulary. It was Cleaver who conceptualized the iconic Black Panther image that made a distinct physical statement for masculine self-defense: Afro haircut, black beret, blue shirt, black leather jacket, and guns as well as a bandolier across the chest. He also set the stage for the iconic 1967 photograph of Newton seated on an African-style wicker chair and armed with a spear in one hand and a rifle in the other. Morgan convincingly suggests the parallels between that 1967 physical statement and that of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s 1806 oil painting Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne. Although the Black Panther Party was vivid with masculine ethos, Morgan recalls the exceptionality of the radical feminists Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver, as well as the symbolic politics of black liberation fused with women’s emancipation. Ironically, the next generations would remember the Black Panther Party more for the Afro hairdo than for revolution; however, Morgan reminds readers that the politics the Afro represented developed earlier, in the hands of the paradigmatic jazz vocalists Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone. Both Kathleen Cleaver and Davis embodied the lyrics to the iconic song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”

In conclusion, Morgan has delivered an invaluable gift not only for college students and teachers but also for a general readership hungry for more knowledge on the Black Arts Movement. Although the stunning visual presentation might speak for itself, the reader is offered a bounty of visual history and artistic insights. Veterans of the Black Power generation will cherish this nearly encyclopedic volume.

Komozi Woodard
Professor of History, Public Policy & Africana Studies, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York