The Black Arts Movement and “A Nation Within a Nation”

*This post is part of our online roundtable celebrating the 20-year anniversary of the publication of Komozi Woodard’s A Nation Within a Nation

Artist Ron Blackburn painting an outdoor wall mural in Chicago. (John H. White, Flickr).

I first read Komozi Woodard’s A Nation Within a Nation not long after it was published in 1999. I had just begun a project on the origins and development of the Black Arts Movement. One major issue with which I wrestled at the time was the relationship of Black Arts to Black Power. I was familiar with some of the more famous characterizations of that relationship, such as Larry Neal’s pronouncement that Black Arts was the “aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept” in his 1968 essay “The Black Arts Movement.” Neal’s comment seemed apt, but what did that mean materially on the ground?

At that moment, what we now think of as “New Black Power Studies” had not really begun. Other than documents from the Black Power/Black Arts era itself, most accounts of Black Power and Black Arts tended to remain on the level of the general and the abstract, talking about those movements as if we already knew what they were in their particulars. Very little scholarship existed about the specifics of Black Power, Black Arts, and their grassroots activities, institutions, journals, and local manifestations. There were exceptions, of course, such as Gerald Horne’s Fire This Time, Lorenzo Thomas’s “The Shadow World: New York’s Umbra Workshop & Origins of the Black Arts Movement,” Eugene Redmond’s Drumvoices, and Jerry Ward’s essays on the Nkombo circle in New Orleans and the Southern Black Arts Movement. But the literature was pretty thin.

Such scholarship as it existed, again with a few exceptions, tended to represent Black Power and Black Arts politics as operating on the symbolic rather than the practical grassroots level. That is to say that Black Power was represented most often by fiery speeches and dramatic gestures, such as members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense bringing guns into the halls of the California State Capitol, not door-to-door canvassing, phone banks, and the other nitty-gritty activities of grassroots political organizing.  However, I was (and am) a son of what my grandfather called “the great and sovereign state of New Jersey” with a strong family tie to Newark. In my home state, Amiri Baraka was (and perhaps for many still is) more familiar as a political figure than as a poet and playwright. I had known since childhood that Baraka and the Committee for a Unified Newark/Congress of African People (CFUN/CAP) had been key in the election of the first Black mayor (Kenneth Gibson) of a major East Coast city in 1970. I was enough of a political activist to understand that such success does not happen, especially in a city long dominated by machine politics like Newark, without a lot of nuts and bolts work. (What I did not know then was how critically important Amina Baraka and the Women’s Division of CAP were to this success.)

So in a lot of ways, it seemed to me like my questions and as yet unsubstantiated hunches conjured A Nation Within a Nation out of the air. That is to say that it not only revealed the concrete details of the rise of CFUN/CAP in Newark, but it provided a good model for how a politically engaged local Black Power history (with considerable national reverberations) anchored in deep and scrupulous primary research might be done. Not only did Woodard dive into the archives (in the old school sense of the term) and do time-consuming though essential interviewing, but to a large extent he created an archive that did not exist before, an archive that Black Arts and Black Power scholars have used since its release on microfilm (“The Black Power Movement. Part 1, Amiri Baraka, from Black Arts to Black Radicalism”) in 2000. Woodard’s approach to his subject greatly influenced my own approach to the Black Arts Movement—attempting to provide a national overview while remaining sensitive to the details of local variation. For one thing, as far as I was concerned, A Nation Within a Nation confirmed something that I suspected: it was a fool’s errand to try to separate Black Arts and Black Power. If the movements were siblings, they were conjoined twins.

However, A Nation Within a Nation made other contributions, many of which hold up today. Though it was a relatively small portion of the book, the sections on the intellectual as well as the practical contributions of Amina Baraka, Muminina Salimu, and the other women of CFUN/CAP anticipated and helped inspire later work on the ways Black women shaped Black Power and Black Arts from the inside, notably Ashley Farmer’s important 2017 Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era. This was true, Woodard argued (and Scot Brown and, especially, Farmer later demonstrated at more length), even in organizations guided by Maulana Karenga’s intensely masculinist Kawaidaism, such as the US organization and CFUN/CAP. As Woodard suggests, without a major reorganization of CFUN/CAP after a split in the leadership in 1969, a reorganization that was guided largely by the Women’s Division, the group would quite likely have collapsed before Gibson’s successful campaign was launched.

I felt at the time, and still do to some extent, that Woodard’s “New Black Convention Movement” framework was a little too mechanical. Nevertheless, he made the extremely important point that such meetings as the first CAP convention in Atlanta in 1970 and the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, were vital to creating a sense of communication and community among the ideologically heterodox and sometimes feuding groups and institutions that comprised Black Power and Black Arts.

Of course, as Woodard pointed out, these conferences and conventions were also where communication broke down, community fractured, and movements declined or disappeared. These issues were demonstrated most prominently in conflicts between so-called “revolutionary nationalists,” such as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, and so-called “cultural nationalists,” notably Karenga’s US—and in later battles between Marxists (basically Maoists) and cultural nationalists in CAP and the African Liberation Support Committee. As Woodard showed, sometimes these fractures were seen not only in the debates at the conventions, but also, as in the case of the Panthers and the Kawaidaists, in which groups participated and which did not. That, too, is inevitably part of the history of any radical political formation.

Simply on the basis of providing a detailed account of a significant strand of Black Power and Black Arts in which Amiri Baraka played a key role, A Nation Within a Nation still holds up. I recently reread it as I worked on a current project on Baraka, which includes a chapter that examines Baraka’s work and the landscape and soundscape of Newark. As in any study, especially one that breaks new ground, there are some moments that are somewhat iffy or thin in retrospect. (Woodard’s discussion of Amiri Baraka’s career before his return to Newark in 1965 seems a little perfunctory now, for example. Of course, that portion of Baraka’s life and work was not really the point of the study.)

Despite now having twenty years of serious scholarship on Black Power, Black Arts, and Black political struggle in Newark—as seen in Farmer’s monograph, Kevin Mumford’s Newark: A History of Races, Rights, and Riot in America (2007), Zenzele Isoke’s Urban Black Women and the Politics of Resistance (2013), and Michael Simanga’s Amiri Baraka and the Congress of African People (2015)—Woodard’s book remains an invaluable source of information and analysis. In other words, not only is A Nation Within a Nation a foundational text for New Black Power Studies, but its contribution is still timely in this moment.

On a more personal note, Woodard’s study remains meaningful to me because of my continuing attachment to the place in which Amiri and Amina Baraka worked (and Amina Baraka still works). My father, born in Newark and a true political centrist, is a big fan of Baraka’s poetry in large part because, despite some large ideological differences, he feels that Baraka was a real Jersey guy. (That Baraka was a great poet helps, too.) He also believes that Ras Baraka is the best mayor Newark has ever had (admittedly a low bar), both because of Ras Baraka’s policies and honesty, and because Ras Baraka’s mayoralty embodies the commitment of his family to the advancement of the city and the state. I agree with him on these points and so did the thousands of Black Newarkers who turned out to pay tribute to Amiri Baraka at his funeral in Newark’s Symphony Hall in 2014, a crowd for a funeral of a poet unlike any other of which I’ve heard. A Nation Within a Nation was for me the first detailed description of what this commitment comprised and how it worked practically.

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