Larry Neal Is the Forgotten Founding Father of the Black Arts Movement

Larry Neal, an influential writer and critical thinker, perhaps not widely recognized today beyond academic circles, left an indelible mark on the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s. His journey began as a staff writer for Liberator magazine, where he quickly rose to the position of arts editor. The articles that Neal wrote for this radical publication, over a period of just two years, led him to become a leading figure within New York’s literary scene. Alongside Amiri Baraka and AB Spellman, he co-founded The Cricket magazine, a short-lived yet authoritative publication that offered critical and political dialogues on music. Neal’s contributions to influential titles such as Ebony and The Drama Review remain relevant, emphasizing his enduring influence in shaping a discourse that intertwines Black aesthetics with Black liberation.

This month sees the publication of a volume of essays by Neal compiled and introduced by editor Allie Biswas for a new audience to enjoy. To mark the release of Any Day Now: Toward a Black Aesthetic, she engages here in a discussion with Meleko Mokgosi, an artist and Co-Director of Graduate Studies in Painting and Printmaking at Yale School of Art, about Neal’s multifaceted contributions to formalizing the concept of a Black aesthetic.

Any Day Now: Towards a Black Aesthetic, ed. Allie Biswass, 2024, book cover. Courtesy: David Zwirner Books

Allie Biswas I first came across Larry Neal through the research I carried out for The Soul of a Nation Reader (2021), an anthology I co-edited which featured writings by and about Black American artists. My feeling is that just a handful of figures are associated with the Black Arts Movement and a lot of those names are political figures related to the Black Power movement, such as the Black Panthers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The impetus behind publishing a book of Neal’s articles came from wanting people to know about a now relatively unknown critic, who had interesting, uncompromising opinions on politics, literature and music, and expressed those opinions with style.

Meleko Mokgosi

I hadn’t encountered his work until the anthology either. In the essays by Neal that I’ve read since, I’ve been particularly interested in how he sought to engage with specific audiences, whether through his writings in journals or magazines like Ebony. He once wrote that art should not alienate the artist from the community, rather it should address ‘the needs and aspirations of Black America’. His insistence on being in dialogue with a broader public, reveals how the cultural producer can play a key role in liberation movements. This is somewhat similar to the argument Walter Benjamin made in The Author as Producer, where he urges artists to intervene through the means of production. Therefore conversation is not only about form versus content, but adds production as a third term of engagement.

In Neal’s writing, the identification of the artist or writer with the public is evident in the way he uses language. For example, there is a passage in his 1968 ‘Black Arts Movement’ essay where he discusses W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and how the movement should actively destroy double consciousness, before concluding the passage with: ‘Can you dig it?’ I found this strategic use of colloquial call-and-response within a polemical text fascinating.

Portrait of Larry Neal
Portrait of Larry Neal. Courtesy: David Zwirner Books

AB I’m glad that you picked up on the language; Neal was always able to balance serious, polemical writing with moments of colloquial speech. At other times, his writing was entirely informed by the cadence of a Black American vernacular, particularly when he was writing about music for The Cricket.

MM In addition to his use of language, as an artist and educator, I admire Neal’s persistence in trying to untangle the concept of aesthetics from one situated within the European continental philosophical tradition, as exemplified by a quote from the January 1960 issue of Negro Digest in which he wrote: ‘there is no need to establish a black aesthetic; rather, it is important to understand that one already exists’. He proposes that black aesthetics are fundamentally anti-Eurocentric and intimately tied to the lifeworld of the black subject. Or to put it another way, in so far as the black aesthetic is latent, it always already exists within the black subject and therefore only needs to be unearthed. Philosopher Paul C. Taylor makes a somewhat similar argument about Black aesthetics. He uses the term ‘racialism’ to refer to the notion of ‘Black’ as a racial category that can not only be essentialist but critical, allowing cultural producers a way of defining an aesthetic project that speaks of and to the creation and maintenance of Black life-worlds.

AB I think what you just said connects very closely to Neal’s interest in two things: music and drama. When describing the essence of these disciplines, he often emphasized the concept of ‘soul’. To Neal, soul encompassed everything. In an essay for The Liberator, published in 1966, he wrote: ‘The writer contains the soul of his people – their songs, myths, folkways, and proverbs. And this unique involvement in the soul of his people should force upon him a certain responsibility for their spiritual life.’ Neal viewed the Black Arts Movement as the spiritual sister of the Black Power concept.

I should also mention Janheinz Jahns book Muntu (1961), which proposed that African art is rooted in rhythm and spirit. Neal and his peers were influenced by this book. Jahn’s commentary repeated ideas that they were beginning to think about themselves; to view poetry and drama as physically expressive mediums.

Janheinz Jahn’s Muntu
Janheinz Jahn, Muntu, 1961, book cover

MM Neal puts emphasis on affect or feeling, a notion that I think resonates with part of Mary Kellys – my mentor’s – teaching and approach to object analysis. Kelly often discusses the importance of the rhetorical and psycho-somatic effects of an artwork in relation to what art historian Meyer Schapiro termed the non-mimetic elements of art; that is, how we respond to institutionalized practices and the material conditions of both the artwork and the context in which it is experienced. While Neal does not specifically discuss affect in this way, I think it is important to point to the fact that he too was looking at how art affected our emotional register.

AB I think he’s saying that a person should expect art to create an impact. Which means art is a way to reconnect with reality or experience it with more purpose. For Neal, that meant being connected to the truths of being a Black person living in America. 

MM I’d like to briefly return to the polemical nature of his writing. One quote particularly stood out to me: ‘What the Western white man calls an “aesthetic” is fundamentally a dry assembly of dead ideas based on a dead people; a people whose ideas have been found meaningless in light of contemporary history. We need new values, new ways of living.’

Although I’m fascinated by his insistence on the disavowal of previous discourses, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if he were to have created or proposed a parallel discourse instead of a counter discourse. I bring this up is because Eurocentricism is continuously seen as ‘common sense’ or as the established convention through which everything is perceived. Therefore, even anti-Eurocentrism is Eurocentric by the mere fact that a response to it keeps re-centering it. That’s why it’s a question of creating a parallel discourse, not a counter-discourse.

Liberator Magazine
Liberator, 1968–69

AB Well, as Neal points out in his 1968 essay, ‘The Black Arts Movement’, which now can be understood as the official manifesto for the movement: ‘To accept the white aesthetic is to accept and validate a society that will not allow him to live […] The new aesthetic is mostly predicated on an ethics which asks the question: whose vision of the world is finally more meaningful, ours or the white oppressors?’ He also states in this essay that the movement wasn’t interested in protest literature because implicit in that concept is an appeal to white morality.

The work that he was doing as a writer was part of a political movement that advocated for Black nationalism. To not put across an argument that was vehement would hardly have been convincing.

MM I see what you’re saying, but I don’t believe his intention was solely focused on dismantling. While he may not have explicitly presented an alternative discourse, he did offer alternative perspectives on aesthetics.

AB There was always a critical element to his essays, and I hope that people reading Any Day Now are surprised by some of his writing and even made to feel uncomfortable by it. Meleko, perhaps we could end by touching on how you think artists now are thinking about blackness in their work?

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Black Allegiance to the Cunning, 2018
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Black Allegiance to the Cunning, 2018, oil on linen, 2 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: the artist, Corvi-Mora, London, and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

MM From studio practices to group crits, I’ve recently observed a trend towards opacity when considering blackness or the question of otherness. Given the large amount of attention the market is paying to Black figurative painting, it’s understandable that this would be a growing response. But the artist whose work contains opaque narrative strategies also does not want to present themselves as ‘transparent’ as this would enable an institution to reroute the work’s narrative for its own purpose Writers such as Édouard Glissant have been helpful to many artists, myself included, because his take on opacity is less about obscurity and more a way of engaging with the irreducible, which in turn allows for a subject to be seen in more nuanced ways. The larger challenge for many young Black artists has been how to reconcile themselves with a strategic essentialism, which hopefully aligns with their desired discourse.

In contrast to Neal’s time, there has been a generational shift when it comes to how people think about aesthetics, exemplified by recent discussions around post-black art, the afrotrope and afro-fabulation. Neal’s work is really important because it opens up the space of aesthetics and conjoins it with a different approach to the ethics of representation, liberation politics, forms of critique and the promise of cultural producers.

Main image: Barbara Jones–Hogu, Unite, 1971, screen print, 57 × 76 cm: Courtesy: National Museum of African American History and Culture

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