Behold the Land: The Black Arts Movement in the South
UNC Press, 2021
Reviewed by Holly Genovese
In Behold the Land: The Black Arts Movement in the South, James Smethurst reckons with the gaps in his study of the Black Arts Movement writ large as well as the larger erasure of Southern Black people from the movement. Smethhusrt argues that “though Black Arts in the South has received the least sustained scholarly attention of all the major sections of the country where the movement flourished, it was perhaps the most consequential in its impact.” Movements in the North and West were indebted to and in conversation with Black artistic institutions throughout the South.
Though Smethhurst acknowledges that the Black Arts Movement was influential across the South, his focus is on Atlanta and New Orleans. While these cities did have institutional support and large infrastructures for the Black Arts, this focus implicitly minimizes the role of art in the rural and suburban South. Smethurst powerfully argues that Black people, and a large Black population, made the South. The South was defined and created by black struggle.
Smethurst argues that the foundation for Black Arts in the South was laid not by the Civil Rights Movement but the Old Left and the Popular Front throughout the South. This is not to say that the Civil Rights Movement was not significant—and in fact, Smethhurst does emphasize the importance of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in radicalizing young artists—but that the infrastructure for leftist Black Art was created long before the traditional timelines. Much of Smethhurst’s focus is on the infrastructure of radical art in the Black South rather than the art itself. The narrative focuses almost exclusively on the institutions created during the Popular Front. He writes, “the work that Popular Front artists and activists did in the South in such institutions as Southern Negro Youth Congress, the People’s Defense League, the arts departments and institutions of HBCU’s and so on, inspired and prefigured the notions of how artists should relate to the community that marked Black Arts literature and visual arts.” Equally important is that though many people involved in these movements moved North, they were still Southerners.
Smethurst cites the importance of the Communist Party of the United States of America and SNCC, as well as institutions like the Free Southern Theater (FST), which moved to New Orleans for increased infrastructural support in 1964. Though the goal of the FST was to serve the broader Black South, most of the theater workers came from the North. Performing content focused on Civil Rights in rural areas meant that performing with the FST came with an inherent risk. The FST was committed to developing the work of young Black, southern actors and other theater workers, but the divide between the Urban South and the rural Black South where they wanted to serve was large.
The more well-known BLKARTSOUTH became especially important in the making New Orleans a hub of Black Art once more. BLKARTSOUTH split from FST, and most of their talent was local to New Orleans. Instead of focusing on touring throughout the South, their emphasis was on developing local talent and providing opportunity for artistic and ideological growth. BLKARTSOUTH was not just significant in its own artistic contributions but in inspiring other similar organizations in cities across the South.
Turning from New Orleans-based organizations’ emphasis on local talent, Smethhurst then focuses on Atlanta organizations’ attempts to make the city “a national center of Black Arts and Black Power.” This, in turn, began to put the South at the center of community-based Black “high” culture as well as popular culture.” In Atlanta, Black Arts organizations became involved in electoral politics. This necessitated coalitions with Black organizations across the city with differing goals but also created the financial infrastructure for the arts to thrive in the city. Smethurst also argues that much of the direct action and campaigning was done by radical organizers. Smethshurt claims that a “dialectic of the local and the national arose.” But in Atlanta, a tension between local artists and residents and the high arts defined Black Arts in the city for some time. One of the most important institutions to arise at this time was the Institute of the Black World (IBW), the first Black think tank. Essential to the IBW was the promotion of visual art, literature, and music.
Though support for Black Arts diminished throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Smethhurst argues that grassroots support for Black Art throughout the South today is the fruition of the South Black Arts Movement. He cites examples like Project Row House in Houston, the Ashe Cultural Center in New Orleans, and various projects in Jackson and Atlanta. The large-scale dismissal of Black art throughout the South may have strengthened grassroots and community efforts to preserve it.