The Black American Arts Movement (c. 1963—1978)
Exploring the Aesthetics of Race, Representation, and Resistance
Cameron Van Patterson, M.A.
Doctoral Candidate, African & African American Studies
Intended Audience: Secondary and Post-Secondary Students
Scope and Sequence
The structure, order, and length of this lesson plan may vary, so instructors should make adjustments as needed in order to adapt the lesson to their respective learning needs and environments. Ideally, this lesson would be taught over the course of a week at the secondary level, so as to allow students adequate time to engage and comprehend relevant learning materials. Each section of this lesson plan can be taught in one, one-to-two-hour class session with a minimum of three class sessions or periods.
- Discuss the introductory overview and lead students through a discussion of the readings. Have students respond to the corresponding discussion questions.
- Over the course of two or three class sessions, lead students through an in-depth discussion of each section topic. Teachers should incorporate interactive learning activities and multi-media content into their lessons. Some materials have been suggested throughout this unit.
- On the final class session dedicated to this lesson, review the focus points from each section. Divide students into three groups and have each group prepare a presentation on sections I, II, III, or IV of this unit.
After participating in this learning exercise students should be able to do the following:
- Assess the social and historical significance of the Black American Arts Movement.
- Define and Critique its primary aims, achievements, and contemporary legacy.
- Discuss and Evaluate the work of various artists within the movement, and explain its significance within the broader context of African American history.
- Demonstrate their comprehension of the meaning or significance of key terms, concepts, events, works of art, and people.
The decades in American history marked by the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements were also defined by significant contributions in the visual and performing arts by African American artists whose artwork was inspired by many of the social and political themes, issues, and ideas expressed in these movements for social justice.
From the creation of "revolutionary theatre" and the attempt to develop a "black aesthetic" in African American literature, to the formation of black visual arts collectives like Spiral (1963), Kamoinge Group (1963), the Organization of Black American Culture/O.B.A.C. (c. 1967), the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists/AfriCOBRA (c. 1968), and the evolution of "free jazz"—African American artists during the 1960s and 1970s sought to invest their work with a formal sense of purpose and meaning that reflected the spirit of resistance evidenced by struggles for racial justice and equality during these turbulent decades. The effort to capture the zeitgeist of African American cultural and political nationalism in art was particularly centered on the idea of defining a black aesthetic that connected African Americans to their African ancestry, while speaking to the specific context of their experience in America. In this sense, the American Black Arts Movement embraced a pan-African worldview, while attempting to fashion a uniquely black aesthetic informed by the trials and triumphs of African American history.
The Black American Arts Movement (BAAM) encompassed a myriad of creative art forms including literature, poetry, music, visual art, dance, theatre, and film. Many of the artists who self-identified with the movement also considered themselves political activists, but they predominantly saw themselves, first-and-foremost, as artists. While many defined themselves as black artists, they also resisted that categorization, preferring instead to be seen simply as artists. Notwithstanding their insistence upon creative and political freedom, artists such as Romare Bearden, Roy DeCarava, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Elizabeth Catlett, Larry Neal, Sun Ra, and numerous others emphasized their blackness in revolutionary new ways that redefined the meaning of African American identity just as the New Negro Movement of the 1920s had done forty years earlier. It is this pattern or "trope of the New Negro," according to Henry Louis Gates, which artists and activists during this period came to embody for a new generation of African Americans.
In this sense, one may think of the Black American Arts Movement as a critically different, yet repetitious manifestation of black social, historical, political, and cultural awareness expressed through the arts. In short, the BAAM reflected a renaissance in the consciousness of black identity that changed the cultural landscape of America. This lesson plan explores the relationship between the aesthetic and political dimensions of the movement through the lens of artwork created by some of its most engaging artists and writers. Each aspect of the lesson plan will help students think critically about key questions raised within the movement, and their implications for how we discuss African American art today. Related subjects for discussion may include, but are not limited to visual art practices such as abstraction, collage, performance, photography, revolutionary theater, activist poetry, jazz, soul, and rock-n-roll. Additional topics include race cinema, experimental film, and, finally, Blaxploitation films and images from the 1960s.
- "The Black Arts Movement" by Thomas Aiello—Source: Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century
- "Black Arts Movement" by James Smethurst—Source: Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition
Questions for Discussion
- How and where did the Black American Arts Movement begin? What were its aims and principle objectives?
- What role did cultural, political, and economic empowerment play in the BAAM? How might this movement have inspired future generations of African American artists?
- How were the themes and ideas expressed in the Black Power Movement reflected in African American music from this time period?
Units of Instruction
I. The New Negro Legacy of Racialism and Radicalism
Once students have a general sense of the history and significance of the BAAM, engage them in a discussion on the intersection of art and identity. Use the readings and discussion questions in this section to help students think critically about the concept of a "black aesthetic." Emphasize the historical debate in African American culture around the place of race and politics in art.
Focused Reading Questions
- How does Langston Hughes' essay, "The Negro Artists and the Racial Mountain" (1926), relate to some of the themes and debates raised by artists within the BAAM?
- Do you agree with Hughes or Countée Cullen about how one should define him or herself as an artist?
- "Countée Cullen on Race in Art" (1924) by Countée Cullen—Document type: Editorial
- "The Negro Artists and the Racial Mountain" (1926) by Langston Hughes—Document type: Essay
- "The Negro-Art Hokum" (1926) by George S. Schuyler—Document Type: Editorial
- "Negro in Art" Symposium—Source: Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century
- Locke, Alain—a biography by Daniel Donaghy—Source: Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century
After reading the articles by Hughes and Cullen, divide the class into two groups and have them debate the issues raised by these two artists.
Questions for Discussion
- Is African American art unique? Why or why not? What is George S. Schuyler's position on this question?
- To W. E. B. Du Bois, all art is or should be propaganda. That is, it should propagate the best interests of the lives it imagined in its pages and on its canvases. Du Bois argued that Negro art should function as a means of bringing about "racial uplift," and he explicitly argued that artists should serve the interests of African Americans by adopting racial themes in their work. Do you agree or disagree with Du Bois's contention? In what ways did Du Bois anticipate the call for a "black aesthetic" within the Black Arts Movement?
- Identify and discuss some of the similarities between Alain Locke's emphasis on the importance of Africa and African ancestry in African American art, and the renewed focus placed on Africa within the BAAM.
II. Representing Blackness, Representing Identity
This lesson focuses on the attempts of African American artists and writers who participated in the BAAM to define a black aesthetic. Students should be encouraged to think critically about the advantages and limitations associated with racialized art, but they should also think about the social and historical context in which such art forms developed and why so many African Americans felt it necessary to redefine themselves racially.
Lead students in an art project where they create a two collage self-portraits. The first self-portrait should reflect how they see themselves. The second self-portrait should reflect how they think other see them. Allow students time to share their portraits with each other, and compare and contrast their two portraits.
- Baraka, Amiri—a biography by Magda Romanska—Source: Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century
- Neal, Larry—a biography—Source: Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century
- "The Black Arts Movement" by William R. Nash—Source: The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature
Questions for Discussion
- According to William Nash, "the term 'Black Arts Movement' describes a set of attitudes, influential from 1965 to 1976, about African-American cultural production, which assumed that political activism was a primary responsibility of black artists. . .Larry Neal, one of the movement's founders, noted in his essay "The Black Arts Movement" (1968) that this agenda made the Black Arts Movement "the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept."
Do you agree or disagree with Neal's political agenda? How is it related to Du Bois' position on art and politics? Should politics be apart of artistic expression, or should art transcend politics? Is all art political? Discuss these questions with a partner in small groups of four.
- Analyze the following quote from William Nash and formulate your own question for small group discussion.
"In the mid-1970s artists began a serious effort to replace the essentialism of the Black Arts Movement with something more expansive. As a result, the movement foundered around 1976, leaving space for other attempts at defining black identity to come to the fore. One such effort came from a small but active group of African-American writers dissatisfied with the principles of the Black Aesthetic. Often referred to as the New Breed, these writers—including Ishmael Reed, Al Young, Cecil Brown, and Quincy Troupe Jr.—"found the Black Aesthetic too prescriptive and narrowly political" and "felt the battleground was not the street but the mind. They wanted to dethrone the Western mind from the seat of intellectual power and prestige."
III. Gender and Power in the Black American Arts Movement
How did African American women impact the BAAM? What was their critique of the movement and how did they contribute to it? These are important questions that sometime get overlooked in popular histories of the Black American Arts Movement. This lesson focuses on women's involvement in the movement and how the movement contributed to the evolution of black feminism. Students should be encouraged to think about the intersection of race, class, and gender in this lesson.
Susskind, David, et al. A Raisin in the Sun. Based on the play by Lorraine Hansberry. Culver City, Calif.: Columbia Tristar Home Video, 1999.
Riggs, Marlon T., Nicole Atkinson, and Christiane Badgley. Black is–black ain't: a personal journey through black identity. San Francisco: California Newsreel, 1995.
Alma Woodsey Thomas (22 September 1891—24 February 1978) was an African American Expressionist painter and art educator. In 1972, Thomas became the first African American woman artist to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Discuss the painting by Thomas shown below with a partner. What do you like or dislike about this painting? Based on this painting, how would you define Abstract Expressionism?
- "Black Arts Movement: An Interpretation" by C. Bigby—Source: Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition
- "Feminism in the United States" by Patricia Hill Collins—Source: Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition
- Brooks, Gwendolyn Elizabeth—a biography by James Smethurst—Source: Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition
- "Black Arts Movement" by Julius Thompson—Source: Black Women in America, Second Edition
- "Black Power Movement" by Lloren A. Foster—Source: Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century
Questions for Discussion
- What are some of the issues raised in A Raisin in the Sun? What might Hansberry have wanted to convey to her audience in this play? Which character in the play do you identify with the most and why? What does this play reveal about the lives of black women at this time in American history?
- How does the black aesthetic related to questions about black identity raised in Marlon Riggs' film, Black Is, Black Ain't? Do you define your identity in terms of race? Why or why not?
- How does Patricia Hill Collins define black feminism? What was the relationship between the Black Power Movement and the Feminist Movement? What role did black women play in these movements?
- How did Gwendolyn Brooks impact the Black American Arts Movement? What is unique about her biography? Would you consider Brooks a feminist? Why or why not?
- How might the emergence of abstract art have challenged the idea of a black aesthetic? Can abstract art be political?
IV. Revolutionary Theatre, Free Jazz, and the Mural Movement
This lesson explores the way jazz was influenced by the black power movement. Students should listen and reflect on the music of jazz artists discussed in Sellman's article, and think about how the style of their music relates to the politics of the era. Students should also discuss Amiri Baraka's concept of "revolutionary theatre" after watching his play, The Dutchman, and reading his play Slave Ship. Finally, lead students in working together to make their own mural about the current issues and events that affect them today as a way to help them think about the goals and objectives of the mural movement of the 1960s.
Have students listen to Charles Mingus' "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting" (1959) and give them 10 minutes to respond to the music in a free writing activity. Ask them to focus on how the music makes them feel.
If possible, have students work together to design and paint a mural about current events and issues that they feel passionate about today. Relate this activity to the article by Aaron Myers and the history of the "Wall of Respect" in Chicago.
Freeman, Al, Shirley Knight, and Imamu Amiri Baraka. Dutchman. San Francisco: California Newsreel, 1992.
Baraka, Amiri. Dutchman and the Slave: Two Plays. New York: Harper Perennial, 1971.
Baraka, Amiri. Slave Ship: A One Act Play. Newark, N.J.: Jihad Productions, 1969.
- Read the section entitled "Jazz Experimentalists: Mingus, Coleman, and Coltrane" in James Sellman's article: "Jazz"—Source: Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition.
- "Black Theater Movement" by Anthony Chase, Thomas Dooney—Source: Black Women in America, Second Edition.
- "The Black Mural Movement" by Aaron Myers—Source: Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition.
Questions for Discussion
- How does Quincy Jones define jazz in the video interview from the Sellman article?
- What made experimental free jazz different from other styles within the genre? What do you like about free jazz? What do you dislike about it?
- What was revolutionary about Amiri Baraka's plays? How did he perform them? What were they designed to achieve?
- Who were some of the key figures and organizations involved in the Black Mural Movement? Why was this movement important? How is public art different from museum art?
Have each student develop (brainstorm, outline, etc.) and write a term paper with a coherent thesis that critically examines one aspect of the Black American Arts Movement. Students should be encouraged to do further research on whatever aspect of the movement they choose to write about. Students should also support their thesis with historical evidence and citations from the assigned readings.
Alternatively, students may propose to do a creative project related to one aspect of the BAAM in which they present their project to the class.
BAAM Historical Timeline
- Spiral, a collective of twelve African American artists including Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Emma Amos, Reginald Gammon, Richard Mayhew, and Alvin Hollingsworth, meet to discuss the commitment of African American artists to the civil rights movement and to debate the necessity of a black aesthetic.
- James Baldwin publishes The Fire Next Time, an indictment of racial injustice and a powerful warning of the coming chaos of racial violence and hatred.
- The March on Washington garners national attention for the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King delivers his famous "I Have a Dream Speech."
- Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Addie May Collins, four black girls attending Sunday School, are killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.
- President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
- W. E. B. Du Bois dies in Ghana at the age of ninety-five.
- The poet and playwright Leroi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) establishes the Black Arts Repertory Theater School in Harlem; Jones receives an Obie Award for his play Dutchman. He also publishes a volume of poetry, Dead Lecturer, which represents his departure from the apolitical Beats and signifies his burgeoning commitment to revolutionary activism.
- Martin Luther King Jr. publishes Why We Can't Wait, in which he argues that poor whites and African Americans are natural allies that should work together to change society.
- The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) is founded.
- Months after their disappearance in June, the bodies of slain CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman are found in a dam outside Philadelphia, Mississippi.
- President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
- Martin Luther King Jr. receives the Nobel Peace Prize.
- Malcolm X breaks with the Black Muslim movement to develop his own philosophy regarding the civil rights struggle and to found the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).
- Nelson Mandela is tried and convicted in South Africa; Tanganyike and Zanzibar join to form Tanzania; Malawi and Zambia become independent; Hutus overthrow Tutsi rule in Burundi.
- Cultural historians designate this year the beginning of the Black Arts Movement.
- President Lyndon Johnson signs into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, authorizing federal examiners to register African Americans wherever state officials have refused to do so.
- Rioting erupts in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, resulting in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, and an estimated $35 million in property damage; the riot ushers in a period of violent confrontation in America's inner cities.
- Claude Brown publishes his autobiography Manchild in the Promised Land documenting life in an urban community.
- Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) publishes his sole novel, System of Dante's Hell, an autobiographical coming-of-age story with a structure borrowed from the Inferno.
- Melvin B. Tolson publishes Harlem Gallery, Book 1: The Curator, a book of vignettes, conversations, philosophy, and commentary on the role of black artists, inspired by experiences in his art gallery in Harlem. Though the book is conceived as part of a series, Tolson will only publish the first volume.
- Malcolm X is shot and killed as he delivers a speech to the Organization of Afro-American Unity at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City; several hundred followers, including his wife and young children, are present.
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written with Alex Haley, is published after the author's assassination. A major literary achievement of the twentieth century, the work traces the evolution of Malcolm X's political, philosophical, and religious perspectives on the African American experience.
- Spiral holds its first and only group exhibition, 'Black and White' at the Christopher Street Gallery in New York. (Initially, "Mississippi 1964," was selected as the exhibition title to call attention to the murder of Core workers in Mississippi the year before, but a number of Spiral members felt the title was too political for their craft. "Black and White" was subsequently chosen as a more moderate expression of the artist's civil rights alliance. The art exhibited by Spiral, all crafted in shades of black and white, includes Romare Bearden's Mysteries and Reginald Gammon's Freedom Now.
- Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale found the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, California; the party soon expands to become a national organization.
- U.S. Senate confirms Constance Baker Motley as a district court judge; she is the first African American woman on the federal bench.
- Martin Luther King Jr. launches his Chicago campaign to call attention to discrimination in housing, jobs, and education in the North; rioting erupts in the city a few days later and the National Guard is mobilized to restore order in Chicago and elsewhere.
- CORE votes to endorse the concept of "black power," while the NAACP publicly disavows the concept.
- Margaret Walker publishes the novel Jubilee, which was originally her doctoral dissertation. The book is both a transcription of the oral history of her great-grandmother and a broad depiction of the South during the Civil War era.
- Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) publishes Home: Social Essays, which chronicles the increasingly nationalistic politics of the author. It also reflects a growing impatience with gradualism, as African Americans continue to experience slow to no progress in civil rights and social equality.
- The First World Festival of Negro Arts is held in Dakar, Senegal.
- The "Art of the American Negro" exhibit is sponsored by the Harlem Cultural Council.
- The Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) paints The Wall of Respect, a mural on Southside Chicago building dedicated to African American leaders like Muhammed Ali, W. E. B. DuBois, and Malcolm X.
- Martin Luther King Jr. announces his opposition to the Vietnam War, alienating some of his strongest supporters in government, including President Johnson.
- Kathleen Cleaver becomes communications secretary for the Black Panther Party.
- The Studio Museum in Harlem and the Anacostia Museum of Culture and History in Washington, D.C. are established.
- Ben Jones, Ademola Olugebefola, and other members of the Weusi artists' group open the Nyumba Ya Sanaa Gallery in Harlem as an alternative to mainstream exhibition spaces for black art.
- In a unanimous vote, the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Loving v. Virginia that the state's anti-miscegenation law is unconstitutional, nullifying all remaining similar laws in fifteen other states.
- Black Panther leader H. Rap Brown becomes the chairman of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Romare Bearden and Carroll Green Jr. co-curate "The Evolution of Afro-American Artists: 1800–1959" at the College of the City University of New York.
- Carl Stokes of Cleveland, Ohio, becomes the first black mayor of a major American city. The "Negro in American Art" exhibition at the Frederick S. Wright Gallery, UCLA opens.
- The Urban Arts Corps, an inner-city theater program to showcase performers of color, is founded in New York City by Vinnette Carroll, who serves as its artistic director.
- Ishmael Reed's first novel The Free-Lance Pall Bearers, is published. It is a parody of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and establishes Reed as a satirical critic of the black literary tradition.
- Muhammed Ali is stripped of his heavyweight title and convicted of draft evasion for refusing to serve in Vietnam.
- The Kerner Commission warns that America is becoming "two societies—one black, one white—separate and unequal."
- Gwendolyn Brooks becomes poet laureate of Illinois.
- Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, is tried and convicted of the shooting death of a white policeman; several months later, three members of the Black Panthers are arrested and charged with carrying out a machine-gun attack on a police station in Jersey City.
- Despite their outstanding performances in the 200-meter sprint, John Carlos and teammate Tommie Smith are stripped of their medals and ejected from the Olympic Village for raising their gloved hands in the Black Power salute while the national anthem plays.
- Eldridge Cleaver publishes Soul on Ice, a collection of essays and prison writing that becomes central to the literature of the Black Nationalist movement.
- The attorney Marian Wright Edelman is the congressional and federal agency liaison for the Poor Peoples' Campaign, which brings an estimated 50,000 demonstrators to Washington, D.C.
- The longest-running drama of the 1968–1969 off-Broadway season is To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, adapted posthumously from the unpublished writings of Lorraine Hansberry.
- Nikki Giovanni publishes her first collection of poems, Black Feeling, Black Talk. The work features explosive political and revolutionary themes as well as intimate and personal ones; her poems are performed, often in combination with gospel music.
- Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, where he is assisting sanitation workers on strike; rioting occurs in 125 cities in the weeks that follow. His alleged assassin, James Earl Ray, is arrested in London.
- Senator Robert Kennedy, former U.S. attorney general and champion of civil rights, is assassinated as he leaves a rally celebrating his victory in the California Democratic primary.
- Mulana (formerly Ron) Karenga, a noted theorist of Black Cultural Nationalism, begins a campaign to make Kwanzaa a recognized black holiday.
- Amiri Baraka founds The Black Arts Repertory Theater School.
- OBAC changes its name to the Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists (COBRA) and later to the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA) in support of Pan-Africanism. Members of AfriCOBRA include Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, and Barbara Jones-Hogu.
- The Museum of the National Center for Afro-American Art is established in Boston.
- American Greeting Gallery, New York and the public relations firm Ruder and & Finn sponsor traveling exhibits, "New Voices" and "30 Contemporary Artists," to support contemporary African American art.
- The Studio Museum in Harlem hosts "Invisible Americans: Black Arts of the 30s," in response to the Whitney Museum of Art's exhibition of art from the 1930s which omitted the work of African American artists.
- William T. Williams, Guy Garcia, and Melvin T. Edwards join to form Smokehouse and paint murals in Harlem.
- The African Arts Magazine is established at the University of California at Los Angeles.
- African American members of the U.S. House of Representatives form the Congressional Black Caucus to address the concerns of black and minority citizens.
- Under Executive Order 11458, President Richard Nixon creates the Office of Minority Business Enterprise in the Department of Commerce.
- Molefi Asante and Robert Singleton found the Journal of Black Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles.
- "Harlem on My Mind" is exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. African American artists and art critics angered by the exhibit's depreciative treatment of African American art establish the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC).
- The Studio Museum in Harlem hosts "X to the Fourth Power," a group exhibition featuring the work of William T. Williams, Sam Gilliam, Melvin Edwards, and Steven Kelsey, a white artist.
- Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark are murdered in a raid by Chicago police.
- Romare Bearden founds the Cinqué Gallery in New York City.
- The "Chicago Seven" trial begins. Anti-war radicals including Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin are tried for intent to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention. An eighth defendant, Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, is tried separately. Seale is bound and gagged in the courtroom after several outbursts.
- Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, is published.
- Maya Angelou's first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is published. Her work demonstrates how individual experience is related to broader political movements and the community as a whole.
- Black population of the United States is 22,580,289, or 11.1 percent of the total population. There are 11,831,973 women.
- The activist and scholar Angela Davis is placed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list; after a nationwide police search, Davis is arrested and charged with murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy.
- Earl Graves publishes Black Enterprise magazine to promote African American economic development.
- Of all black women in the labor force 17.5 percent are employed in domestic service, 25.7 percent are in other service positions, 23.4 percent are in sales and clerical positions, and 10.8 percent are in professional positions.
- Jimi Hendrix, a rock music innovator and superstar, dies of a drug overdose, depriving the world of a visionary artist whose work transcended the racial divisions of his time.
- "African American Artists, New York and Boston" is exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
- Women, Students and Artists for Black Art (WSABAL) for Black Art Liberation is organized in New York City.
- The Studio Museum in Harlem and the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston host "AfriCOBRA I."
- Art Students enrolled in Professor Jeff Donaldson's African American art history course at Northwestern University host the Conference on the Functional Aspects of Black Arts (CONFABA) to discuss how African American visual art can be made more meaningful for the black community.
- Faith Ringgold participates in the "People's Flag Show," a protest against laws restricting the use of the American flag. She is arrested along with fellow artists John Hendricks and Jean Toche.
- By a vote of 8 to 0, with Justice Thurgood Marshall abstaining, the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the draft evasion charges against Muhammad Ali, ruling that Ali, a Muslim, was objecting to military service on religious grounds. Ali returns to boxing.
- Ernest Gaines publishes Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. A historical novel drawn from slave narratives, it will become widely acclaimed.
- The Black Aesthetic, edited by the literary critic Addison Gayle, is published. It is a collection of essays by prominent African American writers and theorists discussing the Black Arts Movement.
- Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong dies.
- "Where We At, Black Women Artists, 1971," is exhibited at the Acts of Art Galleries in New York. The exhibition features the work of Dinga McCannon, Faith Ringgold, and Kay Brown, women who later found the "Where We At" artists' collective to address the traditional exclusion of African American women artists from organizations like Spiral.
- The Whitney Museum of American Art organizes the exhibition "Contemporary Black American Art," and later schedules the solo exhibits of black art.
- Marking an historical first for African American visual artists, Romare Bearden and Richard Hunt have solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art.
- Alma Thomas is the first African American woman artist to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
- Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Congress, announces her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president.
- An estimated 8,000 African Americans from all regions of the United States attend the first National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana; the convention approves a platform of demands that includes reparations for slavery, proportional representation for blacks in Congress, the abolition of capital punishment, increased federal spending to fight drug trafficking, and a guaranteed annual income of $6,500 for a family of four.
- NAACP reports that unemployment among African Americans is greater than at any other time since the Great Depression.
- The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment—the forty-year study of the effects of untreated syphilis on several hundred black men living in rural Alabama—is leaked to the press; public outrage brings about the end of the worst medical scandal in U.S. history.
- U.S. Supreme Court rules against the St. Louis Cardinals star Curt Flood in his attempt to be declared a free agent so he can avoid being traded. Flood argues that baseball's reserve clause is tantamount to slavery. The court disagrees, holding that Flood is free to leave baseball and is not forced to play the game, but is only obligated by his contract to play for the team that holds the contract. Flood sits out a year, which makes him a free agent. While ending his career, Flood's case and his willingness to sit out a year leads to the development of free agency for future players.
- Ishmael Reed publishes Mumbo Jumbo, his third novel and the work considered to be his masterpiece. It is a pastiche of a variety of genres and media—film, music, history, and the occult among them—and takes place primarily in Harlem during the Jazz Age.
- Jackie Robinson dies.
- Marian Wright Edelman founds the Children's Defense Fund to lobby for health, welfare, and justice for children and their families.
- The National Black Feminist Organization is founded.
- Virginia Hamilton publishes M.C. Higgins, the Great, which wins the American Library Association's Newberry Medal for the "most distinguished contribution to literature for children published in the United States," the National Book Award, the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, and the International Board of Books for Young People Award.
- Elaine Brown becomes the first and only female chairperson of the Black Panther Party.
- The Sixth Pan-African Congress convenes in Tanzania.
- With his 715th homerun, Hank Aaron breaks the record of Babe Ruth; although Aaron is considered one of the all-time greatest baseball players, he receives death threats and hate mail as a result of breaking Ruth's record.
- In the case of Milliken v. Bradley, the Supreme Court nullifies an attempt to implement the "metropolitan integration" of predominantly black schools in Detroit with those of nearby white suburbs; Justice Thurgood Marshall calls the ruing "an emasculation of the constitutional guarantee of equal opportunity."
- The radical black feminist Combahee River Collective is founded in Roxbury, Massachusetts.
- The composer, bandleader, and performer Duke Ellington dies.
- NAACP wins a court order to integrate Boston schools by busing black children from Roxbury to predominantly white schools in Charlestown; the transition is marked by racial violence.
- New York Times reports that the FBI wiretapped conversations of civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Elijah Muhammad dies and is succeeded by his son, Wallace D. Muhammad, as the head of the Nation of Islam; Wallace rejects his father's separatist teachings, adopts orthodox Islam, and changes the name of the organization to the World Community of al-Islam in the West.
- The Congress of African Peoples (CAP) launches the Black Women United Front.
- Bill Russell becomes the first black NBA player elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame (opened in 1959).
- David C. Driskell, African American artist and art historian, organizes "Two Centuries of Black American Art," an exhibition held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
- Black Art: An International Quarterly (now The International Review of African American Art) makes its debut. Jan Jemison, Val Spaulding, and Samella Lewis established the magazine to lend visibility to the work of African American visual artists.
- The Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles and the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia are established.
- Alex Haley publishes his autobiographical novel Roots, which traces his family history for seven generations. More than 1.6 million copies of the work are sold within the first six months of its publication and it is translated into 22 languages, becoming a cultural phenomenon.
- Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf appears on Broadway.
- The National Alliance of Black Feminists is formed.
- Residents of Soweto and other black townships begin violent protests against apartheid.
- Paul Robeson, college All American and early National Football League star, dies at seventy-seven. After leaving sports Robeson became even more famous as one of nation's leading singers and actors and also played an important role in the civil rights movement.
- Alex Haley receives the National Book Award and a special Pulitzer Prize citation for Roots, the part-fact, part-fiction epic that traces his maternal lineage back to an enslaved West African ancestor; the book is later turned into a successful television miniseries.
- The Second World Black and African Festival of Art, FESTAC '77, is held in Lagos, Nigeria.
- The Cleveland Museum hosts "The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts."
- Louis Farrakhan breaks with Wallace D. Muhammad and reestablishes the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad's original precepts of black separatism.
- The African American scientists Guion S. Bluford, Frederick D. Gregory, and Ronald McNair join the space program and begin training as astronauts for future space missions.
- After being denied admissions to the Medical School at the University of California at Davis, Allen Bakke charges the school with "reverse discrimination;" the Supreme Court orders the school to admit the white student, claiming that Bakke had been denied "equal protection of the law.
- Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon wins the National Book Critics Circle Award.
- Sharon Harley and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn's Afro-American Woman: Struggles and Images is published. It is the first anthology of black women's history.
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