A couple of weeks ago, the Etheridge Knight Festival of the Arts presented Indianapolis with an extraordinary gift. Now in its 21st incarnation, the festival, created by Eunice Knight-Bowens, is named in honor of her brother and one of this city's most renowned poets.
Etheridge Knight lived a hard life, doing time in prison and struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. But he was also possessed of an eloquent, resonant voice, which managed to reach an enormous audience. When he died in 1991, poets from across the country came to Indianapolis for a reading in his honor at the Athenaeum.
Those of us who were lucky enough to be at the Athenaeum that night witnessed what amounted to one of the exclamation points in Indianapolis' cultural history. Something similar took place April 19, in the splendidly refurbished hall of the Indiana Landmarks Center, formerly known as the Old Centrum.
"An Evening With the Legends" was a gathering of four poets, Amiri Baraka, Mari Evans, Haki Madhubuti and Sonia Sanchez — all of whom were either founding or pivotal members of the Black Arts Movement that coalesced in the wake of the assassination of Malcolm X during the mid-1960's.
To get a sense of the significance of this event, imagine finding such prototypical Beat poets as Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure on the same stage. Or, for that matter, a collection of Modernist masters like Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot.
Let's just say the iconic quotient in the room on April 19 was formidable.
The place was packed. In part, I suspect this was thanks to the participation of local poet, essayist, and activist Mari Evans. If Indianapolis were to adopt the appellation of Living Treasure, as they do in Japan, to recognize the true masters among us, Ms. Evans would surely be first in line. The audience leapt to its feet when she made her way to the stage.
But something else was going on. This was not just any gathering of literary stars. The Black Arts Movement represented a particular and provocative approach to art and society. It still does. As Kaluma ya Salaam has written, "Both inherently and overtly political in content, the Black Arts movement was the only American literary movement to advance 'social engagement' as a sine qua non of its aesthetic. The movement broke from the immediate past of protest and petition (civil rights) literature and dashed forward toward an alternative that initially seemed unthinkable and unobtainable: Black Power."
Since the first election of Ronald Reagan, the arts in America have been under virtual siege. Conservative politicians have, to a large extent, succeeded in caricaturing the arts as pointy-headed, liberal, elitist and commercially out of touch with mass appetites.
Arts advocates have tried to defend themselves against these attacks by arguing for the arts' democratization, emphasizing inclusive outreach programs and cultural diversity — the idea that the arts are the one place in America's multicultural gumbo where we can all hold hands and get along.
The legacy of the Black Arts Movement suggests we tack in a radically different direction. By unabashedly asserting that they were black, other, and systematically oppressed, these artists didn't just challenge the validity so many Americans traditionally placed on the idea of cultural assimilation or the melting pot. Their insistent focus on the nature of power relations in our society — making power's many guises an unavoidable subject in the poetic landscape — also unmasked attacks on the arts as attempts on behalf of the status quo to reduce forms of expression to entertainment aimed at keeping us fat, pleased with ourselves and dumb.
If you read the history, it is tempting to think the Black Arts Movement was volatile but brief, its social impact negligible.As Mari Evans pointed out in her remarks, black males today are in serious trouble, one out of three black males born today is expected to go to prison. Sonia Sanchez warned that, at this rate, a truly African-American population might be extinct in this country come the 22nd century. But then, the country also has its first black president, a fact that doesn't validate Black Power so much as give it a tragic spin.
Art that makes social change part of its aesthetic takes a big risk. It dares to be judged not just in terms of how it affects what goes on in peoples' heads, but by what goes on in the world. This is usually a losing proposition. That's why when artists who have been through a fiery time together reunite, they often do little more than recall the way things were.
But the artists who assembled on April 19 were not looking back. Their performances were driven by unabated urgency. Their language was often charged with the ring of prophecy. They were black, yes, but the power they spoke of — the ways it is abused and how that defines us — is ultimately colorblind.