The Black Arts Movement Experience The spirit of the 1960s’ Black Arts Movement is captured in Amiri Baraka’s “AM/Trak,” which addresses the theory of the underlying relationship between art and culture. This simple theory of how culture works and how art reflects and influences the culture that produces it was the whole purpose of the literary movement led by Baraka. In order for one to understand their own experiences, they must acknowledge what factors have influenced how they have shaped their lives.
By doing so, they will self-consciously discover and create themselves. The basis of Baraka’s poem, “AM/Trak” illustrates the defining concept of the Black Arts Movement; the notion of creating identity influenced by experiencing racial and social alienation. The development of a modernized black culture is continually drawn to question because there are many outliers that can influence the basic fundamentals of experience. “What makes experience such an important concept for Baraka is how it frames the relation between the individual and the collective”(Punday 782).
The Black Arts Movement was a period of an assembled reaction against several things including the Korean War, capitalism, and the assassination of Malcom X. Although Baraka incorporates these historical events into “AM/Trak”, the history of the Beats is approached more by expressing an individual’s reaction, rather than a single technical change or influence of history on society. The appreciation of the degree of exposure from an artist or individual models how the Beats linked the identity of black culture to specific trials and tribulations.
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A desirable relationship between culture and society is a focalized theme in African American literature, but has been obliterated by the constant severance between historical transitions and the lack of ethical alertness (Quayson 1). Isolation of the African American population from white America has been influenced by harsh racism and inequality for several centuries. Although the discrimination thrived for thousands of years, the collective attitude towards the relations of the past began to deviate into a different outlook in the 1960s.
The black community began to celebrate an emphasized change when exercising their self-proclaimed freedom of personal expression to improve social and economic conditions of the African American community (Yost 2). In order to establish a distinct black identity against the social reality of separation, they incorporated music, literature, and other forms of art as a way of advocating their presence not only in the United States, but the world.
Baraka captures the true meaning of the new scholarly awakening with the influence of the Beat-generation by describing John Coltrane in “AM/Trak”, in which he uses a distinct style of writing to portray not only the life of the artist, but specific annotations of his music. The musical embodiment of his work prevails that he was undoubtedly a major contributor to the spirit of the 1960s’. By analyzing Coltrane’s passion and transformation during this decade with extreme expression and struggle against racism, “AM/Trak” is brought to life: Trane was the spirit of the 60’s
He was Malcom X in New Super Bop Fire Bahhhhhh Wheeeeeee . . . Black Art!!! (152-155). The poem is a clear representation of not only the musical development of John Coltrane’s career and repressed life, but also the importance of how African-American musical expression extrapolates the expectations and contributions of individuals under the pressure of alienation (Quayson 3). According to literary critic, Henry Lacey, Baraka uses imagery to encompass the variety of ways the poem portrays the inspiring musician to be the “interpreter of the Black experience” through his music (Lacey 14).
The different stages of achievements, hardships, and responses during Coltrane’s life are a direct narrative of the same ones produced throughout the history of the Black American life. There is an undeniable similarity of technical elements displayed in Amiri Baraka’s writing that support the same individualist revolution. One painful aspect of the African American experience begins with the lack of consciousness influenced by authority and pressure. Baraka begins the second section of the poem by describing the early experiences of Coltrane’s career in a very degrading fashion.
The mood of the poem immediately digresses when Baraka mentions the names of alto saxophonist, Johnny Hodges, John Burks Gillespie, and Eddie Vinson and Blues vocalist, Big Maybelle (Lacey 15). Amiri even incorporates an allusion from Langston Hughes poem “Jazzonia,” in which he writes ”Trees in the shining night forest” (Lacey 16). The tree is used as a direct reference to the lack of originality Coltrane embodies while he works with the Joe Webb Blues Band, followed by Miles Davis.
As the poem continues, the depression of the main character develops into a substance addiction and even an abusive relationship with a fellow musician, Davis. In fact, Amiri uses the word “honk” to symbolize the repetition of his continued unimportance at performances and as cry for help in the only way he knew how to; musical expressionism. It was not until Coltrane could accept his past and everything he had learned, that he could regain full consciousness of his true identity and potential future as a great musician.
Similarly, the Black Arts Movement began in spite of depression and the constant repetition of haunting racism. More specifically, the death of civil rights activist, Malcom X, hindered Amiri Baraka’s determination to reform the presence of the African American culture in the United States. Consequently, the African American culture endured a period of recovery, as did Coltrane. Coltrane quest to continue searching for his identity as a musician began again by joining Thelonious Sphere Monk, co-founder of bebop, in part four of “AM/Trak” (Lacey 18).
Baraka’s disjunctive mood swings represent how Coltrane conveys his emotions with Monk’s unique style of expressionism and unexpected musical transitions to understand music on a deeper level. Which then leads to the entire Be-bop movement. Coltrane uses this time as a period of regaining consciousness of the experiences that have shaped him. There was nothing left to do but be where Monk cd find him that crazy mother fucker duh duh-duh duh-duh duh duh duh duh duh-duh duh-duh duh duh duh duh duh-duh duh-duh duh duh duh uh Duuuuuuuuuuuuhhhhhh (71-80). At first glance, the lines representing Monk’s compositions differ from any syntax or vocabulary used in the previous allusions. Baraka uses the distinct sounds of Monk’s work in a disjunctive manner that can only be approached if read aloud. When read aloud, the simple word transforms into a series of playful melodies. “Trane stood and dug / Crazy monk’s shit,” provides substantial evidence that the short time spent with Monk, Shadow Wilson, and Wilbur Ware had a lasting impact on John Coltrane’s career.
In fact, it also suggests the sources essential to his success in music were also responsible for shaping his identity despite past alienation and struggle. Similarly to many African Americans during the Blacks Art Movement, Coltrane was allowed to completely expose himself. “This was Coltrane’s College. A Ph motherfuckin d / Of Master T Sphere” (100,104). As Amiri Baraka wrote the poem, he also established symbolism that the reader may relate to exemplify Coltrane’s efforts to battle several obstacles.
Accordingly, in American society graduating college and especially receiving your PhD is one of the highest accomplishments recognized in our country. Utilizing this metaphor near the end of section four not only summarizes his success, but also leads the reader to question, ‘What’s Next? ’ because of the lengthy section that follows. “AM/Trak” undergoes another mood change as section five introduces the destructive forces of class struggle and maintaining true identity after being exploited by the public.
Although the poem portrays the hardship of life of a musician and inspiration leader, Lacey refers to Coltrane as the “prophetic voice of his age” (Lacey 18) or as described in the poetry “A man/ black blower of the now” (121-122). However, Baraka does not immediately persuade the reader to believe that Coltrane has collectively reshaped the Be-bop movement and the black cultural identity; he forces them to establish an answer themselves based on their individual experience after reading the poem.
Based on the dynamics of writing style portrayed in the poetry, Coltrane influences future musical generations to come with the creative features within that clearly influenced the Black Arts Movement within the text, the validity of the following quote by literary critic, Joyce A. Joyce, “An understanding of Negro expression cannot be arrived at without a constant reference to the environment which cradles it,” can be useful in making a final decision as the reader. Amiri Baraka continues the poem by concentrating the rest of the text on his own impression of Coltrane’s influence on the Blacks Art Movement, musicians, and society.
He precisely acknowledges the relationship between the collective and individual response to the end of the revolution of identity and creation of the reputable quartet: “Jimmy Garrison, bass, McCoy Tyner, piano, Captain Marvel Elvin / on drums, the number itself-the precise saying / all if it in it afire aflame talking saying being doing meaning (169-171). The quartet inspired the African American community to become believers and to preserve their true identities despite social alienation and harsh racism.
If the band expressed their opinions and identity freely, then the entire black culture should have possessed the same rights without limitation as well. Fortunately, at the end of the poem, the Black Arts Movement was reflected as the turning point in accepting cultural identity; a representation of their contributions that shaped the historical experience. But did the Black Arts Movement really change “black” and “white” cultures and criticism? Literary critic, Joyce A. Joyce disagrees with the idea that white America has changed its attitude toward the African American population.
Although there has been a significant transformation in the merger of black literature and white literature in our society through out the past century, African Americans are usually forced to adopt the mainstream values and lifestyles of those of in the modern American society. Joyce disassociates Black literary criticism with mainstream analyses because African Americans have a unique duty to express their own ideas without a predetermined and uniformed consciousness based on culture or even color (Joyce 339-341).
The poet’s opinions remained somewhat vague until the narration of the poem alters from Trane to Amiri Baraka, the poet himself. His vulnerability exposes his current condition and state of mind when recollecting his wearisome life compared to Trane’s portrayed personal anecdote expressed in his music: ( I lay in solitary confinement, July ‘67 Tanks rolling thru Newark and whistled all I knew of Trane my knowledge heartbeat and he was dead They said
When Baraka was confined in prison for the Newark riots of 1967, Lacey notes that “the poet attributes his survival to the memory of Coltrane’s music” (Lacey 19). As the poem concludes, Baraka decides to choose life over death because he is influenced by character of his own work of art and the actual inspirational of the power of his music. Most scholars would agree with Gayle, Jr. claim that, "The question for the black critic today is not how beautiful is a melody, a play, a poem, or a novel, but how much more beautiful has the poem, melody, play, or novel made the life of a single black man?
How far has the work gone in transforming an American Negro into an African-American or black man? " (Joyce 340). This is perhaps an attempt to illustrate the fact that both the artist lives are surrounded by changes revolved around freedom of expression through art and alienated culture. Without enduring these experiences, good or bad, the identity of an individual cannot be defined, nor the basis of an individualistic black culture. Work Cited Lacey, Henry C. "Baraka's "AM/Trak" Everybody’s Coltrane Poem. Obsidian II: Black Literature in Review. 1. 1-2 (1986): 12-21. Print. Joyce, Joyce A. "The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism. " New Literary History. 18. 2 (1987): 339-341. Print. Punday, Daniel. "The Black Arts Movement and the Geneaology of Multimedia. " New Literary History. 37. 4 (2006): 777-794. Web. 7 Dec. 2011. Quayson, Ato. "Self-Writing and Existential Alienation in African Literature. " Research in African Literatures. 42. 2 (2011): 30-45. Web. 1 Dec. 2011.
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