“A Black aesthetic is based upon the conviction that Black people share a complex of perceptions that do not have the same meaning for other people. While it is true that all humans, have certain basic physiological and emotional traits, socio-historical experience divides us into ethnic groups whose members have more in common with each other than with members of other groups, even though there may be overlapping. We all belong to ethnic groups. Ethnicity is inescapable. There is no such thing as a “universal” person.” ~ from “Some Thoughts on The Black Aesthetic” by Eugenia Collier
While a flourishing hippie subculture was feasting upon the remnants of the literary and social counterculture once cultivated by the pioneers of the Beat Generation, Black literature was experiencing yet another cultural quickening in the form of the Black Arts Movement. A broad contingent of artists, critics, authors and intellects who eschewed the duplicity of Black authorship past which found our most nimble writers contorting themselves and their uniquely Black experience into a form more palatable for a mainstream white aesthetic now carved out independent publications, art houses, theaters and workshops. The call for Black Power, rising political resentment and a renewed embrace of the ideals of social separatism saw the revival of a “do for self” ethic sweep through the Black community. The old Civil Rights era alliances of the previous decade had shriveled and died upon the vine. Black people were shifted once again to membership along the social fringe.
Those arising during the Black Arts period began to wield this exclusion as an incentive for the development of an insular artistry deeply rooted in the language, style and existence of Black people which came to be defined as the “Black aesthetic”. A diminished appreciation for historical nuance often finds a more comprehensive story about the movement left untold. Much like the locational specificity of the Harlem Renaissance overshadows discussion about Black authorship outside of Harlem or Negritude in the Black Francophone diaspora, it is most often the case that the Black Arts Movement as a mystical literary milestone eclipses deeper scrutiny of any cluster of regional activity which contributed to its occurrence. The burden of fault rests with both poor scholarship and a lack of prominent documentation on how the movement transformed the creative landscape for Black artists throughout the country. Nommo: A Literary Legacy of Black Chicago is a history which serves to both amend and extend that record.
Nommo documents the creative and critical literary content generated by members of the Chicago axis of the Black Arts Movement operating through the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) over the course of 20 years at the time the book was published. Throughout their 30 year tenure, OBAC organized three artist workshops consisting of Visual Arts, Theater and Writing which provided spaces for peer review and mentoring. The Visual Arts Workshop was able to complete a longstanding mural known as the Wall of Respect at 43rd and Langley. The Theater Workshop found itself in a prodigious era as Chicago’s urban magnetism assembled the creative synergy which culminated in the Kuumba Theater, Southside Community Art Center and Afro-Arts Theater. The Writer’s Workshop saw a diversity of authors from varying levels of professional notoriety move through the nourishing space to bolster one another towards more keen insights and greater acclaim.
Nommo captures the essence of this extraordinary collective through writings which appeared in both the individual works of featured artists along with the OBAC writing journal also titled Nommo. The writing frequently manages to be both profound and overwhelming when one attempts to read the text without pause. Occasionally it veers off in directions which appear to be ideologically enigmatic such as Carolyn M. Rodgers’ “Black Poetry-Where It’s At” which found me pondering to myself if these were not merely a group of reckless young adults who had become fascinated with the sound of their own voice. She uses the space of her commentary to elaborate on the various forms and directions being created, evolved and engaged by Black poets in her generation. It is not until you reach the section entitled “Remembering Hoyt W. Fuller” that you can reflect deeply upon the measure and meaning of advancing the Black aesthetic. Rodgers’ determination to characterize the nuances of Black poetry as they existed then was rooted in a desire to stretch the boundaries of acceptable literary discourse where Black people were taught to circumscribe portions of their language and being in order to fit into the classical (read: white) construct being studied in academia. She refused.
While it is left to one’s imagination to consider how the plays were interpreted on stage, the works of members from the Theater Workshop are exhibited including “Masque Etude” with its rich symbolism and spartan, poetic dialogue or the reflective examination of an interracial relationship of convenience from “Mr. Gooden’s House”. The poetry, prose and essay material assembled here searches out these tiny kernels of the Black experience and seeks to magnify their importance that we might appreciate, acknowledge and analyze them as art. The Black aesthetic as understood by Hoyt W. Fuller was not simply amplifying the widely touted sentiment that “Black is beautiful”, but building upon that notion further for if we value things of beauty then let the elements of Blackness be appraised the highest amongst Black people.
In closing with their reflections upon the life and legacy of Hoyt W. Fuller, the daring stance taken by OBAC is shown to be helmed by a fearless defender of Blackness. Fuller towers above this anthology existing still as the guiding light behind its formation. Throughout the tiny vignettes of his life, I found myself hungering to know and understand even more than these selections were able to express in the space of such brevity. Nommo is a text worthy of continuous examination. While no organization finds themselves advancing the Black aesthetic with such a rigorous and thorough program as OBAC did in their time, it remains important to our children that we link together the body of material already extant in order that they might learn early in life what is beautiful, valuable, worthy and artful about the Blackness they inherit. It ain’t just a pigment. It is a legacy.