Thursday, October 3, 2013

Umbra Magazine and the Black Arts Movement

A host of new Black Arts and Black Studies journals provided vital forums for the development of a new generation of writers and artists: Umbra, Liberator, Negro Digest/Black World, Freedomways, Black Scholar, Cricket, Journal of Black Poetry, Black Dialogue, Black America, and Soulbook. Larry Neal and Amiri Baraka edited Black Fire, a thick volume of poetry, essays, and drama, which drew national attention to the transformation that was under way among African-American artists.
--Komozi Woodard

Dear Friends,

We invite you to join us for the “Celebrating the Umbra Workshop” on November 1st at 6:00 at the CUNY Graduate Center in the Skylight Room (9100). This event brings together several of Umbra’s founding members, including poets, novelists, and activists Steve Cannon, David Henderson, Rashidah Ismaili, Joe Johnson and Ishmael Reed for readings and conversation.

All are welcome to participate, and we encourage you to forward this invitation to interested colleagues and friends. Please see the flyer below and the Center for the Humanities website for more information:

CHGC web banners_Fall 2013_v23


Friday, November 1, 6:00pm


Celebrating the Umbra Workshop

Steve CannonDavid HendersonRashidah IsmailiJoe Johnson and Ishmael Reed


The Skylight Room (9100)

Join us for a half century celebration of the Umbra Workshop! Founded on New York’s Lower East Side in 1961 and dispersed in 1964, Umbra’s influence on American literature continues to this day. The Umbra Workshop was comprised of an aesthetically diverse group of young artists, many with “a strong commitment to ‘nonliterary’ black culture.” The Workshop was nurtured by people as disparate as Langston Hughes and Andy Young, actively engaged in the Civil Rights Movement, in questions of diversity in letters, and, later, in the Black Arts Movement. The first in a series of gatherings, this event brings together several of the founding members, including poets, novelists, and activists Steve CannonDavid HendersonRashidah IsmailiJoe Johnson and Ishmael Reed for readings and conversation and focusing on some of the complex aesthetic, political, social, and literary relationships that informed this legendary Workshop.

Cosponsored by IRADAC and the PhD Program in English, The Graduate Center, CUNY. This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Free and open to the public. All events take place at The Graduate Center, CUNY, 365 Fifth Ave btwn 34th & 35th. The building and the venues are fully accessible. For more information please visit or call 212.817.2005 or e-mail

Umbra and the Black Arts Movement by Kalamu ya Salaam

The Black Arts Movement (BAM) spans the period from the mid 1960's to the mid 1970's.  If you are looking for a specific author or book from the BAM period, use one of the search engines at the top of almost all web pages.

Kalamu ya Salaam
photo credit: Troy Johnson,
The following article, written by Kalamu ya Salaam, was originally published in The Oxford Companion to African American Literature (New York, Oxford University Press, 1997), and is used with the permission of the author.
Both inherently and overtly political in content, the Black Arts Movement was the only American literary movement to advance "social engagement" as a sine qua non of its aesthetic. The movement broke from the immediate past of protest and petition (civil rights) literature and dashed forward toward an alternative that initially seemed unthinkable and unobtainable: Black Power.
In a 1968 essay, "The Black Arts Movement," Larry Neal proclaimed Black Arts the "aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept." As a political phrase, Black Power had earlier been used by Richard Wright to describe the mid-1950s emergence of independent African nations. The 1960s' use of the term originated in 1966 with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee civil rights workers Stokely Carmichael and Willie Ricks. Quickly adopted in the North, Black Power was associated with a militant advocacy of armed self-defense, separation from "racist American domination," and pride in and assertion of the goodness and beauty of Blackness.
In a 1968 essay, "The Black Arts Movement," Larry Neal proclaimed Black Arts the "aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept." 
Although often criticized as sexist, homophobic, and racially exclusive (i.e., reverse racist), Black Arts was much broader than any of its limitations. Ishmael Reed, who is considered neither a movement apologist nor advocate ("I wasn't invited to participate because I was considered an integrationist"), notes in a 1995 interview,
I think what Black Arts did was inspire a whole lot of Black people to write. Moreover, there would be no multiculturalism movement without Black Arts. Latinos, Asian Americans, and others all say they began writing as a result of the example of the 1960s. Blacks gave the example that you don't have to assimilate. You could do your own thing, get into your own background, your own history, your own tradition and your own culture. I think the challenge is for cultural sovereignty and Black Arts struck a blow for that.
History and Context. The Black Arts movement, usually referred to as a "sixties" movement, coalesced in 1965 and broke apart around 1975/1976. In March 1965 following the 21 February assassination of Malcolm X, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) moved from Manhattan's Lower East Side (he had already moved away from Greenwich Village) uptown to Harlem, an exodus considered the symbolic birth of the Black Arts movement. Jones was a highly visible publisher (Yugen and Floating Bear magazines, Totem Press), a celebrated poet (Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, 1961, and The Dead Lecturer, 1964), a major music critic (Blues People, 1963), and an Obie Award-winning playwright (Dutchman, 1964) who, up until that fateful split, had functioned in an integrated world. Other than James Baldwin, who at that time had been closely associated with the civil rights movement, Jones was the most respected and most widely published Black writer of his generation.
While Jones's 1965 move uptown to found the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS) is the formal beginning (it was Jones who came up with the name "Black Arts"), Black Arts, as a literary movement, had its roots in groups such as the Umbra Workshop. Umbra (1962) was a collective of young Black writers based in Manhattan's Lower East Side; major members were writers Steve Cannon, Tom Dent, Al Haynes, David Henderson, Calvin C. Hernton, Joe Johnson, Norman Pritchard, Lenox Raphael, Ishmael Reed, Lorenzo Thomas, James Thompson, Askia M. Tour' (Roland Snellings; also a visual artist), Brenda Walcott, and musician-writer Archie Shepp. Tour', a major shaper of "cultural nationalism," directly influenced Jones. Along with Umbra writer Charles Patterson and Charles's brother, William Patterson, Tour' joined Jones, Steve Young, and others at BARTS.

Video and Photos taken June 2008 during the exhibit: Amiri Baraka Evolution of a Revolutionary Poet hosted by Zambezi Bazaar in Leimert Park, Los Angeles, CA
Umbra, which produced Umbra Magazine, was the first post-civil rights Black literary group to make an impact as radical in the sense of establishing their own voice distinct from, and sometimes at odds with, the prevailing white literary establishment. The attempt to merge a Black-oriented activist thrust with a primarily artistic orientation produced a classic split in Umbra between those who wanted to be activists and those who thought of themselves as primarily writers, though to some extent all members shared both views. Black writers have always had to face the issue of whether their work was primarily political or aesthetic. Moreover, Umbra itself had evolved out of similar circumstances: In 1960 a Black nationalist literary organization, On Guard for Freedom, had been founded on the Lower East Side by Calvin Hicks. Its members included Nannie and Walter Bowe, Harold Cruse (who was then working on Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, 1967), Tom Dent, Rosa Guy, Joe Johnson, LeRoi Jones, and Sarah Wright, among others. On Guard was active in a famous protest at the United Nations of the American-sponsored Bay of Pigs Cuban invasion and was active in support of the Congolese liberation leader Patrice Lumumba. From On Guard, Dent, Johnson, and Walcott along with Hernton, Henderson, and Tour' established Umbra.
Another formation of Black writers at that time was the Harlem Writers Guild, led by John O. Killens, which included Maya Angelou, Jean Carey Bond, Rosa Guy, and Sarah Wright among others. But the Harlem Writers Guild focused on prose, primarily fiction, which did not have the mass appeal of poetry performed in the dynamic vernacular of the time. Poems could be built around anthems, chants, and political slogans, and thereby used in organizing work, which was not generally the case with novels and short stories. Moreover, the poets could and did publish themselves, whereas greater resources were needed to publish fiction. That Umbra was primarily poetry- and performance-oriented established a significant and classic characteristic of the movement's aesthetics.
Related Books
Paperback: 300 pages
Publisher: Third World Press; 2 edition (January 30, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0883781964
ISBN-13: 978-0883781968
A contextual historical examination of the civil rights movement and the artists who inspired it, this recollection depicts this storied era and how these artists signified the affecting change they helped create. The exploration details the development of the Black Arts Movement'from precursor activities such as the Umbra Workshop to transitional activities such as Ntozake Shange's choreopoem "for colored girls who considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf"'and gives in-depth information about the role of prominent poets, such as Amiri Baraka, and the influence of black music.

Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: McFarland (February 1, 2005)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0786422645
ISBN-13: 978-0786422647
In 1965 Dudley F. Randall founded the Broadside Press, a company devoted to publishing, distributing and promoting the works of black poets and writers. In so doing, he became a major player in the civil rights movement. Hundreds of black writers were given an outlet for their work and for their calls for equality and black identity.
Though Broadside was established on a minimal budget, Randall's unique skills made the press successful. He was trained as a librarian and had spent decades studying and writing poetry; most importantly, Randall was totally committed to the advancement of black literature. The famous and relatively unknown sought out Broadside, including such writers as Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Walker, Mae Jackson, Lance Jeffers, Etheridge Knight, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde and Marvin X and Sterling D. Plumpp. His story is one of battling to promote black identity and equality through literature, and thus lifting the cultural lives of all Americans.
When Umbra split up, some members, led by Askia Tour' and Al Haynes, moved to Harlem in late 1964 and formed the nationalist-oriented "Uptown Writers Movement," which included poets Yusef Rahman, Keorapetse "Willie" Kgositsile from South Africa, and Larry Neal. Accompanied by young "New Music" musicians, they performed poetry all over Harlem. Members of this group joined LeRoi Jones in founding BARTS.


Black Arts Movement Conference, 

March 1-2, 2014 

University of California, Merced

1ST Floor Lantern (Kolligian Library)
8:00 –  8:30 AM         Registration, Coffee/Tea and Light Refreshments
8:40 – 9:00 AM          Welcoming Remarks by Gregg Camfield, Professor, UC Merced
9:15 - 10:30 AM         Introduction of Sonia Sanchez, Askia Toure and Amiri Baraka
by Marvin X

10:45 – 12:00 PM       Black Power and Black Arts Roundtable (Lakireddy Auditorium)
                                    Nigel Hatton, Moderator
                                    Sonia Sanchez, Poet, Playwright, Teacher
                                    John Bracey, UMass Amherst
                                    James Smethurst, UMass Amherst
                                    Amiri Baraka, Producer, Writer, Activist
                                    Marvin X, Playwright, Activist,
                                    Askia Toure, Black Power/Black Arts
12:15  – 1:15 PM        Luncheon

  1:30  – 2:30 PM        Marvin X, Keynote Speaker

  2:45  – 4:00 PM        Original Gangsta Poets
                                    Marvin X, MC
Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Al Young, Juan Felipe Herrera
                                    Genny Lim, Judy Juanita

4:30  –   5:40 PM        Northern and Central California Voices of the Black Arts Movement Installation
                                    Merced Multicultural Arts Center
                                    Kim McMillon (Moderator)
S.O.S. – Calling All Black People:  A Black Arts Movement Reader
Discussion with editors:  John H. Bracey Jr., Sonia Sanchez, and James Smethurst

6:00 –    7:00 PM        Dinner

7:30  –  10:00 PM       Theatre of the Black Arts Movement
Introductions by Kim McMillon
(Excerpts from the plays of Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Marvin X, Ishmael Reed, Lorraine Hansberry, Judy Juanita, and George Wolfe) Performed by Michael Lange, Adilah Barnes, and UC Merced Students
(Must have purchased ticket for this event)

                                    Lantern, 1st Floor Kolligian Library
9:00 –  9:45 AM         Registration, Coffee/Tea and Refreshments

10:00 –11:15 PM        Black Studies & the Black Arts Movement (Lakireddy Auditorium)
Dr. John Bracey (Moderator)
Dr. Nathan Hare
                                    Jerry Varnado
Terry Collins
Judy Juanita
James (Jimmy) P. Garrett

11:30 – 12:45 PM       Multicultural Panel (Lakireddy Auditorium)
Manuel Martin-Rodriguez, UC Merced Professor (Moderator)
                                    Juan Felipe Herrera, California Poet Laureate
                                    Genny Lim, Poet & Activist
                                    Al Young, California Poet  Laureate Emeritus
Ishmael Reed, Poet, Playwright & Activist
1:00 –  2:00 PM          Lunch

2:15 –  3:15 PM          Ishmael Reed, Poet, Playwright, & Activist
Keynote Speaker

3:30  – 4:45 PM         Black Panthers & The Black Arts Movement (Lakireddy Auditorium)
                                    Billy Jennings, founder, Panther Exhibit
                                    Sean Malloy, Professor, UC Merced
                                    Emory Douglas


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