Ode to Gil’s Black Aesthetics*

7 09 2008

Frustrated by the failure of the American Civil Rights Movement’s quest for racial and social progress but fueled by Black Power rhetoric, the Black Arts Repertory/Theater School was founded in Harlem, New York in 1965, an event marking the birth of the Black Arts Movement. Sharing a nationalist agenda with the Black Power Movement, the Black Arts Movement politicized African American literature, seeking to break free from European cultural standards and develop its own Black Aesthetic, one that would link an authentic African culture to an existing African American popular culture.

In defining a Black Aesthetic, proponents of the Black Arts Movement realized that their music and poetry could not be divorced. As cultural theorist Larry Neal (1968) wrote:

“Listen to James Brown scream. Ask yourself, then: Have you ever heard a Negro poet sing like that? Of course not, because we have been tied to the texts, like most white poets. … The key is in the music. … Our music has always been the most dominant manifestation of what we are and feel, literature was just an afterthought, the step taken by the Negro bourgeoisie who desired acceptance on the white man’s terms. And that is exactly why the literature has failed. … But our music is something else. The best of it has always operated at the core of our lives, forcing itself upon us as in a ritual. It has always, somehow, represented the collective psyche. … What this has all been leading us to say is that the poet must become a performer, the way James Brown is a performer –  loud, gaudy and racy.”

The Black Arts Movement failed to develop a method for its cultural analyses and by the mid-1970s, the Movement had all but died. Its performative art in tune with a Black Aesthetic did not though; it lived on in harmonious mixes of poignant poetry and strong beats. Enter Gil Scott-Heron.

Gil Scott-Heron – The bottle (Strata East Records, 1974)

[*based on a paper I wrote in 2001 to escape the encyclopedic horror of a literature course at university]

Neal, L. (1968) ‘And Shine Swam On. An Afterword’. IN: Napier, W. (ed.) (2000) African American Literary Theory. A Reader. New York: New York University Press, pp. 69-80.