Black Creativity: on the Cutting Edge

African-American art has had a long history, but its latest flowering may be the most promising of all

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Almost two decades later, black writers and artists, musicians, dancers and actors find themselves in an era of creativity unrivaled in American history. The current efflorescence may have begun with the literature and criticism by black women published in the early '80s, especially the works of Ntozake Shange, Michele Wallace, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. These women, and those who came later, were able to reach both the traditional large readership, which is middle class, white and female, and a new black female audience that had been largely untapped and unaddressed.

Assigning a single starting date for an upsurge in creativity is an exercise in arbitrariness: the year 1987 will do as well as any. That was when August Wilson's Fences premiered on Broadway and Toni Morrison published her masterpiece, Beloved. Both would receive Pulitzer Prizes. In that same year, PBS aired Henry Hampton's Eyes on the Prize, the six-part documentary on the civil rights era, and Cornell scholar Martin Bernal published Black Athena, a highly controversial account of African sources of classical Greek civilization. Meanwhile, Spike Lee and Wynton Marsalis were establishing themselves as masters of film and jazz.

The new energy among black artists is related to economic developments. First of all, the rise of a black middle class has provided for black art a market that is independent of whites. Then there are the institutional factors. Blacks now have a significant presence as agents, editors and reviewers. Blacks run and own record companies. They produce films, back concerts. The old "black talent -- white management" pattern has finally started to break down.

But economic circumstances have done more than just alter the roles of blacks as consumers and producers of art. They have also influenced the very nature of the new black art. For African Americans, it is the best of times and the worst of times: America has the largest black middle class and the largest black underclass in its history. The current achievements in black culture are unfolding against this conflicting socioeconomic backdrop. Despite remarkable gains, a sense of precariousness haunts the new black middle class and the art it creates and takes to heart. The economic advancement remains newfound and insecure. Hence the new black art displays a peculiar love-hate relation to the defiant culture of the inner city: an anxious amalgam of intimacy and enmity. Beneath it all is the black bourgeoisie's deep-seated fear that they're only a couple of paychecks away from the fate of the underclass.

In some ways it is a fissure that runs through much black art of this century. One school of representation has focused on man as the subject of large, impersonal forces -- racism, sexism, poverty. The other has dwelt on a transcendent self in which fulfillment is achieved despite these forces. Black art today represents an uncanny convergence of the two schools, and so replicates the class tensions within a black America that sees itself as both an object of a baneful history and the author of its own history. The buppie and the B-boy represent two salient cultural styles that are, in the end, less at odds than many assume.

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