A Fist For Africa: The Concept of Africa during the Black Arts Movement

Poster by Sindiso Niyoni

Poster by Sindiso Niyoni

Part of what came out of the Black Arts Movement was this response to previous notions that Africa was this primitive place that lacked history. The response that many African Americans made was to exaggerate their own images in a style that was “African”, but their concept of what was African was equally narrow-minded.

The picture above is titled My Africa Is and features the neck and face of a woman who is presumably African. Behind her is an orange background with some kind of patterned design. The border of the picture is brown and at the bottom is the title of the work in alternating colors of orange and purple.

The woman does not face forward but presents the audience with her profile. Her eyes are closed and her mouth is slightly open. She wears what appear to be tight gold necklaces around a long neck and a large orange hoop hangs from her ear. Her hair is cut short with a small bush in the back and from the top of her head, her hair takes on the shape of a closed fist.

The closed fist is a symbol that rose out of the Black Arts Movement. It symbolizes the want of unity between African Americans and solidarity. It was also seen as a symbol for resistance against anything associated with white mainstream ideals. Part of this solidarity included embracing African culture however, this culture was construed into a narrow concept by African Americans. This narrow-mindedness can be seen throughout The Cotillion by John Oliver Killen where characters advocated for things such as natural hair and afros versus straight hair.

The fact that this woman is dressed is what appears to be traditional African garb can represent how people in America viewed people from Africa. Instead of the previous approach where it was mainstream to view Africans as exotic and “other”, African Americans portray the African people as proud. While the woman in this picture is portrayed proudly, the art and dress from the Black Arts movement fails to represent a broader idea of Africa. Black art at the time suggests that Africans dressed and carried out their daily lives in only one way, ignoring the wide spectrum of African culture.

Solidarity was a major focus for most African Americans especially during the Black Arts Movement. Part of this togetherness was to embrace the concept of Africa and adopt it.

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