Black Aesthetic

I'm Funky, But Clean, Lev Mills 1972
(Source: Richard J. Powell, Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century
[Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1997], 143)

The idea of a Black Aesthetic as a central component of economic, political and cultural empowerment came about in the 1960s as the Black Arts Movement came into presence. Yet the foundations for a Black Aesthetic have been in existence since before the Middle Passage. But, what exactly is a (or the) "real" Black Aesthetic?

Considering how popular such an aesthetic has become for African Americans who possess very different political perspectives from people like Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, or Nikki Giovanni, we must consider how the Black aesthetic accounts for both the specificities as well as the differences that characterize African American communities (not to mention other communities in the African Diaspora).

"The young writers of the black ghetto have set out in search of a Black Aesthetic, a system of isolating and evaluating the artistic works of black people which reflect the special character and imperatives of Black experience," writes Hoyt Fuller in his essay, "Towards a Black Aesthetic" (Gayle, The Black Aesthetic). The Black Aesthetic is a way of perceiving the world through the unique experiences of a militant, self-aware African America. It is a way of perceiving form as more than simply aesthetic beauty. It is also a set of criteria by which readers can judge whether a particular work or art is truly 'black'.

According to Fuller the Black Aesthetic is the realization that after hundreds of years of being told they are not beautiful, Black Americans have stood up to realize and reclaim their beauty, to shout it through their art. It goes further than any afro or dashiki, further still than any hip lingo or mystique. The Black Aesthetic reflects the Black Experience.

Likewise, the Black aesthetic reflects the need for change. One of the primary reasons for the use of drama and performance in the BAM, is that it emphasizes change as its very lifeblood. As Larry Neal writes, "drama is the best realization of the Black aesthetic because it shows the Black person 'in transition'" (Neal, Visions of a Liberated Future).

Julian Mayfield seems to agree in his essay, "You Touch My Black Aesthetic and I'll Touch Yours" (Gayle, The Black Aesthetic). Mayfield proclaims that the Black Aesthetic is, "in our racial memory, and the unshakable knowledge of who we are, where we have been, and, springing up from this, where we are going." The Black Aesthetic comes from the experience, from the history of Black people and the road they have traveled through this country. Mayfield explains that if the Black Aesthetic is anything it is "the search for a new program... the search for a new spiritual quality, or the recapture of an old one, lost and buried deep in our African past." History, Black History, is the basis of the Black Aesthetic, a modern-day realization and representation of one's identity based on one's past.

Mayfield emphasizes tolerance and difference as integral to the Black aesthetic. Writers such as Ron Karenga would utilize the Black aesthetic as a strict normative code to determine what is 'truly black' as opposed to 'Negro.' In this regard, Mayfield is much like Larry Neal. Both are interested in recognizing complexity and difference as supplying an important principle to Black militants. As opposed to the Euro-American model of revolution which stressed discipline and identity, Mayfield and Neal seem to promote complexity and difference.

The Black Aesthetic has to do with the realization of the link from past to present and the decision to create a revolution for the people through art, for example, to explain the importance of this link to the people. As Mayfield eloquently puts it, "the Black Aesthetic has to do with both love and killing, and learning to live, and survive, in a nation of killers, so that our children may breathe a purer and freer air."

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