Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School (BARTS) and the Black Arts Movement


Black Arts Movement

Black Arts Movement creator Amiri Baraka (center) is shown with BAM musicians and actors in 1966

The Black Arts Movement consisted of black artists, poets, writers, actors and musicians during the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s (The Black Arts Movement). As a division of the Black Power Movement, these artists wanted to create lasting political change and called themselves Cultural Nationalists (as opposed to Revolutionary Nationalists such as the Black Panthers). The poet Imamu Amiri Baraka founded the movement after activist Malcolm X’s assassination. The art was intended to be created by the black community for the black community in order to achieve artistic and civil liberation.

A pamphlet for BARTS during its first (and only) year in operation


The establishment of the Black Arts Movement coincided with the opening of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School (BARTS) in Harlem. The school’s opening was accompanied by a jazz concert that brought together prominent musicians, artists and innovators. The movement eventually spread across the nation to places like Chicago, Detroit and San Francisco (Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School). Baraka envisioned a school inside the same landscape as the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, a time when Harlem functioned as a similar cultural center for black artists and writers (Wormser). Some of the famous BARTS artists include Sun Ra, Albert Ayler and Sonia Sanchez. Theatre pieces countered black theatre origins where whites would perform their own plays about the black community while wearing blackface (Black Theatre). All of the BARTS pieces were written and performed by black artists and writers. Baraka contributed material as well through his Black Magic Poetry collection (Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School).

Many FBI instigators were assigned to monitor BARTS because it was the first black arts school of its time (Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School). The FBI were present at initial meetings and classroom discussions, including educational lectures on African-American history. During the 1970s, the government attempted to redefine educational environments and replace current black influencers with new educators who condoned political movements. This shift is said to be one reason why BARTS did not stay open for more than one year. Another reason is that the black community, at large and especially in Harlem, lacked the economic means to continue its initiatives (Salaam).

Criticism of the Movement

Baraka and the Black Arts Movement eventually had internal issues that arose toward the end of the movement and in the decades that followed (Salaam). Baraka himself said that nationalistic art should have limited and clearly defined boundaries, or “a razor to cut away what is not central to National Liberation.” This statement was heard by most people only after the end of BARTS, showing the processual memory of the Black Arts Movement. Baraka saw many black writers and poets as disrupting the Black Arts Movement instead of staying open to new ideas and perspectives. The Black Arts Movement’s hyper-masculinity intentions existed because of how black men felt degraded by white people throughout history, but this in turn alienated many female writers. Baraka felt that many black female writers fit into a “capitulationist” mold, meaning that their work was not strong or resistant enough to make a difference (Lewis). The movement also received criticism for being anti-Semitic, homophobic, shocking and violent. This became apparent through reviews during the 1980s and 1990s; therefore, the movement was analyzed in hindsight (Salaam).

The Women's Liberation Movement occurred alongside the Black Arts Movement. Many women in used BAM to address issues of gender inequality.
The Women’s Liberation Movement occurred alongside the Black Arts Movement. Many women in used BAM to address issues of gender inequality.

Female artists countered the Black Arts Movement’s intentions by independently publishing their work toward the end of the movement (Lewis). Sonia Sanchez, a BARTS alumna, published more than 15 poetry collections, as well as many children’s books. Audre Lorde published poetry dealing with love and lesbian relationships. Bell Hooks explores the combined influences of race, capitalism and gender and their roles to oppress black voices. She has also published articles in academic journals and publications after the end of the Black Arts Movement. Maya Angelou is a well-known writer, singer and poet who spoke about the importance of protest through literary work. All of these female writers gave a voice to the women who felt hesitant to write their own pieces of resistance.

Commemorating BARTS

Material memories lie in the pieces of art and literature created at BARTS

Although the repertory theatre and school were short-lived, the Yale University library currently contains 34 documents and materials from BARTS, mostly collections from the poet Langston Hughes (Collection of Material). Much of the material from the Black Arts Movement notes the emergence of activist speech (such as spoken word and call-response compositions), music and performance during this decade. The movement also encouraged independent publishing in order to avoid discriminatory censorship. BARTS inspired many other black theatres and schools across the nation, including New Jersey’s Spirit House theatre space, which was also founded by Baraka. In 2015, the Black Arts Movement celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Many modern artists and writers, including Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, said that they have been shaped by the movement and BARTS itself (Salaam). The Black Arts Movement has since been named one of the most controversial moments in the history of African American literature, and possibley American literature as a whole.

Although BARTS has been torn down and replaced by urban developments, it was temporarily able to provide a home for black artists and writers and served as a material memory of a time where their civil rights and political treatment were still uncertain. While the Black Arts Movement has endured its critics, BARTS remains unscathed. Perhaps if it had lasted longer, it would have received its own criticism. However, it is clear that BARTS allowed the creation of Black Power poetry, performance and artistry in a way that could not have been possible before its establishment.

Sources (Media Sources Also Linked in Content)

“Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School.” Omeka RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.

“Black Theatre.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.

“Collection of Material Relating to the Black Arts Repertory Theatre & School.” Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Yale University, 8 Feb. 2007. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.

Lewis, Femi. “Women of the Black Arts Movement.” ThoughtCo. N.p., 4 Feb. 2017. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.

Salaam, Kaluma Ya, and Reginald Martin. “Historical Overviews of the Black Arts Movement.” Modern American Poetry. University of Illinois, n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.

Wormser, Richard. “The Harlem Renaissance.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.

“The Black Arts Movement (1965-1975).” Black Past. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.

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4 thoughts on “Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School (BARTS) and the Black Arts Movement”

  1. I like that you’re looking at how art and ideology can be joined to motivate people in a really political way. The Black Arts Movement brings up a lot of interesting questions about the role of artists and famous people in politics – are they bringing something new to the movement or perpetuating the problems it already has? How can they be politically powerful? In that way it’s adjacent to my topic as well :

  2. I’d agree that the Arts Movement is just as important as any other movement during this period; pop culture holds so much power over the way we interact with the world around us. The Black Scholar, the first African American academic journal, was instituted in order to help promote the curation of these cultural movements, along with other analysis-type articles; I think the two go hand-in-hand to show the impact the arts and education have together on how society views a culture/group of people and the way those people use it to shape their ideologies. To read up more on The Black Scholar, check out my post:…rnal-of-its-kind/

  3. I came across the Black Arts Movement in my research on Gil Scott Heron as well; he was really influenced by the movement when he went to university, so it was helpful to learn more about it here! I also think it was interesting to read about the criticism the movement faced, and compare that to the controversial options Heron had in relation to the Black Power Movement. Great article!

  4. Arts have always been a very powerful way to create a community and common narrative. I focused on Wadsworth Jarrell and AFRICOBRA, which although it was never a official school, had some of the same intentions. Its interesting though, the most recognizable name mentioned above was a female writer despite the prejudice against them.

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