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The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Community

Larry Neal
Community and Culture
- Larry Neal, "The Black Arts Movement," essay, Drama Review, Summer 1968, excerpt (PDF)

According to Stokely Carmichael in "Toward Black Liberation" (see Theme IV: PROTEST), black power demands that African Americans free themselves from the white "dictatorship of definition, interpretation, and consciousness" and claim the right to define themselves in their own terms. In his essay "The Black Arts Movement" critic, poet, and playwright Larry Neal (1937-1981) applies the principles of self-determination espoused by Carmichael and others to the arts and concludes that blacks must reject Western cultural values.

Born in Atlanta, Neal grew up in Philadelphia. After graduating from the predominantly black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1961 and taking an M.A. at the University of Pennsylvania in 1963, he moved to Harlem. There he met influential black writers and intellectuals and took the lead in promoting art that spoke exclusively to and for African Americans. In 1964, with Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), he founded the Black Arts Repertory Company, and in 1968, again collaborating with Baraka, he edited Black Fire, an anthology of essays, poems, and plays by young black writers. In that same year he published "The Black Arts Movement." The rhetoric of the essay bristles with the passions of 1968, a year that included the disillusioning Tet offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, widespread urban rioting, and the Democratic national convention with its bloody violence. Most of "The Black Arts Movement" deals with the political role of black theater, but in its first section, excerpted here, Neal addresses broader cultural issues. The essay seeks to provoke a change of consciousness around the concept of blackness and the nature of being black. Its vision of black art defines community in separatist terms. Joining the advocates of black power, Neal calls for a nation within a nation grounded in a distinctive African American culture. (2 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. Evaluate Neal's call for a separate black "symbolism, mythology, critique, and iconology" in light of the remarks Malcolm X made about the power of image making in his Rochester speech (see #10: Global Community).
  2. What, according to Neal, is the black artist's role in the black community?
  3. In what ways is Neal's essay an exercise in community building?
  4. For what audience is Neal writing?
  5. Compare Neal's image of the black community to that offered by Hughes in "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." Does Neal speak for Hughes's "low-down folk"?
  6. How does the essay seek to redefine the meaning of the word "black"?
  7. What implicit criticism of the New Negro Movement does Neal offer?
  8. Where would Neal's argument fall in the art-or-propaganda debate conducted by Du Bois and Locke (see Theme III: PROTEST, #10)?
  9. Where would his position fall in the black art debate conducted by Schuyler and Hughes (see #5: Race as Community)?
  10. How does Neal's argument reflect Malcolm X's call for a more globalized conception of black identity?
  11. Evaluate the validity of Neal's argument. Does Neal's essay itself fall outside of the Western cultural tradition? Can black art exist in isolation from the cultural mainstream? Has it since 1968?

Framing Questions
  •  How has the African American community defined itself?
  •  How has the African American community functioned in the lives of its members?
  •  How have changing notions of African American identity affected definitions of African American community?

"Black Arts Movement": 2 pages
Supplemental Sites
Larry Neal, brief biography, in The African American Registry

Larry Neal, chronology, in the online journal Chicken Bones: A Journal for Literary and Artistic African American Themes

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Image: Larry Neal; photographer and copyright holder unknown. Digital image from Lincoln University of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Permission pending.

1. Community as Place   2. Community on Film
  3. Community & Self-Help   4. Image, Community 1939   5. Race as Community
6. Community & the Folk   7. Community & Memory
8. Community & Culture   9. Image, Community 1968   10. Global Community

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

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Revised: August 2007