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  we failed to thoroughly train the masses of the people

to totally claim ownership of the Movement.



Books by Askia M. Touré

From the Pyramids to the Projects: Poems of Genocide and Resistance!  / Dawnsong:The Epic Memory of Askia Toure

African Affirmations: Songs for Patriots Biography - Toure, Askia Muhammad Abu Bakr el (1938-)

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Rudy Interviews Askia Touré

On Dawnsong! And the Black Arts Movement

Part I


Rudy: What do you consider the central aspects and tenets of the Black Arts Movement? Wasn’t this poetic flowering much larger than its ideological center?

Askia: The BAM rested upon the basic foundations of what Dr. Du Bois, Henry Highland Garnet, and Martin R. Delany defined as a “Nation-within-a-Nation.” Added to the rather poetic definitions of these 19th century visionaries were the twentieth-century experience of the Garvey movement, and the historical and political analysis of Harry Haywood, whose volume, Negro Liberation defined the national and class structure of the African-American Nation, and its actual Land-base stretching from approximately Delaware to East Texas, the so-called Southern Black-Belt. Political scholar Harold Cruse, in his seminal essay, “Rebellion or Revolution,” defined our current situation as “Domestic Colonialism”—that the Black Nation was White America’s “domestic colony.”

Within this definition, the Northern Migrations, creating “Inner Cities” (“Bantustans”?) were migrations into the modern United States; the overall South itself  being seen as a mainly agricultural semi-colony of the United States.

The Black Arts Cultural Revolution wasn’t a movement of “poets,” it was a massive cultural revolution led by some revolutionary poet-activists, linked with “New Music” rebels, visual artists, dramatists, actors, film-makers, dancers, scholars, cultural workers, theorists, and others. In fact, it was the largest U.S. mass cultural movement in the twentieth century . . . It was also the quest of a Generation to find its Identity, and therefore, its overall Destiny.

“Who are you? Brother Malcolm asked us. What is your name (as opposed to the Slave-masters’: Kunta Kinte, as opposed to “Toby,” or “Sam” or “Willie”)? What did your Ancestors write, speak or teach about Humanity’s place in the universe?  Our Generation’s mission was the Quest for an answer to Malcolm’s seminal questions.

Mundane Specifics: In 1964 key political, cultural activists met in New York to launch the beginning stages of a Cultural Revolution, which was to function as the cultural wing of the Black Liberation Movement, whose goal was Freedom and Self-Determination for the African-American people. That Self-determination included revolutionary/Liberation Struggle up to, and including, Separation, if the African-American people desired.

Rudy: Is there a neo-BAM afoot? Or are we just celebrating past victories, as seems evident in Furious Flower?

Askia: How can there be a “neo-BAM” when most people putting these immature attitudes forward, haven’t studied the seminal writings, developed the deep self-discipline, and made the overall spiritual dedication, and self-sacrifice, to our people and Ancestors, that necessitates creating a Cultural Revolution, and leading a revolutionary life?

My thinking is 180 degrees from your question, in that it questions your assumptions.

Rudy: When you are called an architect of BAM what does that mean for you? What was your distinct contribution to the movement that was, say, different from that which Amiri Baraka (Le Roi Jones) or Marvin X added to the character and substance of BAM.

Askia: One critically important thing that has failed to be mentioned. The BARTS in Harlem didn't just "fail" or "run out of steam." Amiri, Larry, and I were attacked because we championed Bro. Malcolm X, & Liberator magazine's special "Malcolm X" issue. In Feb., ' 66, the Harlem Black Community organized a  Malcolm X mass march from 110th St. to the Audobon, led by Queen Mother Audley Moore. Thousands participated, a year after the Assassination.

Larry Neal and I (who wrote key articles praising Malcolm in Liberator) were there, along with Amiri Baraka. Later, reactionary Islamic extremists pulled a coup at the BARTS: word on the street was that they physically attacked Amiri. They trapped me and several local activists inside the Theatre, pulled guns, and announced that they were going to assassinate myself--"and that n----r, Larry Neal." Amiri's friend Bro. Charlie and two of Malcolm's bodyguards saved my life as we backed out of the BARTS. The next day, a bomb was thrown into my apartment, which I shared w/two young RAM activists . . . we were long gone, though.

Amiri was back in New Ark. I was Underground. Larry Neal, the brilliant young poet and scholar, was shot down in the street, by Charles Patterson & those maniacs! Harlem embraced him, and luckily Bro. Larry recovered.

In the interim, I went South w/SNCC and co-wrote the "Black Power Position Paper," with writer-activists, William Ware and Donald Stone. Afterwards, I got a call from Sonia Sanchez, and went out from Atlanta to San Francisco State University.

Later, I returned to Harlem, in ' 68; and Comrade Ernie Allen, co-editor of Soulbook, and I participated in Part II of the BAM, by organizing the "Loft" movement on 125th St. Our Loft was called "The Black Mind," and we joined in with the Original Last Poets (of whom I became a mentor), whose Loft was named the "East Wind."

These lofts, in conjunction with Barbara Ann Teer's National Black Theater Workshop, the Studio Museum in Harlem, led by our Black Dialogue editor, and comrade, Ed Spriggs and with Robert McBeth and Ed Bullin's New Lafayette Theater, and Ernie McClintock's theater, became the major institutions which led the Second Phase of the Harlem BAM (roughly '68 to '74) which was in continuous contact w/Imamu Baraka's Spirit House in New Ark. Baraka's "Spirit House Movers" often performed @ our Loft-theaters, and visited the New Lafayette Theatre.

Rudy: What was wrong with BAM that caused its lost of steam?

Askia: In the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, the United States suffered a major recession, plus international conflict with Iran. This led to the election of the notorious, right-wing reactionary Ronald Reagan to President. Immediately he had Congress to cut “War on Poverty” funding and destroy the fragile “safety nets” of the Inner City masses of poor working people.

An Inner City which was already reeling from the massive government-sponsored drug assaults, beginning in the late 60s/early 70s, which ran from heroin (from South-east Asia’s “Golden Triangle”) to Angel Dust, and finally “Crack” and powdered cocaine from Columbia, Peru, and finally Mexico.

With an Inner City depression, and an unrelenting Drug Plague directed at the Black working masses, then we lost hundreds of thousands of people who supported the Liberation Movement/BAM.

Rudy: Some complained about its racialist and restricted cultural orientation, and since the 1980s, its patriarchal, macho, and homophobic character.

Askia: As for the Movement’s weaknesses, as far as I’m concerned, being young and inexperienced, we failed to thoroughly train the masses of the people to totally claim ownership of the Movement. At 68-70, the Peak Period, we had hundreds of institutions, independent schools in most major cities, a myriad of BAM theaters, Muslim mosques, Yoruba temples, Afrocentric Churches, hundreds of independent Black writers workshops, New Music Centers/clubs, art galleries, etc. But, in most cases, we were only able to hold on to them for about a Decade.

Also, in another area, there were many aspects of sexism among many Black male activists; but no more so than any other nationality or ethnic group. This sexism manifested especially among “culturalists” who seemed to be romanticizing what they fantasized as being “traditionally” African or Islamic. Our Liberation sisters stood up, led the fight to “re-educate” the brothers: criticizing them in various groups and formations. Coupled with more progressive-minded brothers, serious discussions and enlightened debates began among the Liberation Organizations, such as the RNA, the African Peoples Party, the League of Revolutionary Struggle, the All-African Peoples Revolutionary Party.

There was growing discussion about gender oppression, but before the formations could develop positions on these key questions & issues, they were attacked by the FBI’s COINTELPRO, and many formations were destroyed or seriously crippled.

While we’re speaking on this subject, I’d like to point out that the mainly-white, bourgeois “feminists” and their oreo flunkies utilized a strategy to characterize—and character assassinate—the BAM as sexist/patriarchal/homophobic formations, only led by males.

In the BAM/BLM, key Black women liberation cadres were deliberately written out of history! These sista-liberators were scholars, editors, organizers, dramatists, and BAM theorists. I’ll name a leading few: Writer-activist-scholar, Mari Evans, one of BAM’s major theorists, Dr. Carolyn Fowler, Sister-poet-educator, Carolyn Rogers, poet-Doctor Johari Amini, poet-Doctor Rikki Lights, Sister-activist, Barbara Hamilton, Sister-organizer, Barbara Carter, cultural-worker, Sis. Dorothy White, Poet-editor Nikki Grimes, poet-writer-editor Jacqui Earley, internationally renown, poet-educator, Nikki Giovanni, major scholar-activist-poet Sarah Webster Fabio (the professor of both Huey Newton and Bobby Seale!), community organizer/activist Marianna Awaddy, Sister-poet, Kamako Baraka, renown actress-cultural theorist-priestess, Barbara Ann Teer, renown writer-activist, Tony Cade Bambara

Most of the beautiful, dedicated women wrote for the revolutionary journals, the leading Liberation Organs of the BAM/BLM. I’ll close here by pointing out that the massive journal, Black World, was edited and led by the Hoyt W. Fuller, a gay man who was nationally loved, respected and championed by the “homophobic” BAM male cultural workers!

As writers and theorists, we struggled around key aspects and issues of our BAM. One historically famous event, arrogantly captured by Yale scholar, Kimberly Benson, was the New Lafayette panel on We Righteous Bombers by Kimberly B. Bass. This play which Bass/Bullins "borrowed" from Albert Camus' We Just Assassins. Ernie Allen and I debated Bob McBeth, Larry Neal & Marvin X on the ethics of that issue.

As a "sexist," I demanded that BAM sisters take the stage @ New Lafayette, and be included in the panel. I stood up, asking them to join; however, though present in large numbers, they shyly declined.

This event was important, both historically & culturally, because it recorded the struggles & issues within BAM, around revolutionary values and ethics, in our Community, within the institutions we created.

Rudy: What media or art figures or organs, more than any other, put BAM on the map and made it creditable and, let’s say, respectable?

Askia: The leading theoretical and ideological journals of the Black Arts Cultural Revolution were the revolutionary journals:

Black America, RAM’s theoretical journal, ‘63

Soulbook, RAM’s cultural journal, ‘64

Black Dialogue, ‘65

The Journal of Black Poetry, ‘66

Black Theatre, ‘67

Liberator magazine, ‘61

Black World, ‘68

I was an editor of Black Dialogue, an Editor-at-Large of the Journal of Black Poetry, an Editor of Black America, and staff writer for Liberator magazine. (I worked closely with the editorial staff and activists of Soulbook, when I was working and teaching in the Bay Area.)

I moved around the Country—Eastcoast, Mid-west, South (where I helped to lead SNCC from Civil Rights to Black Power—in Mississippi. and Atlanta). In the Bay Area, where I worked with Sonia Sanchez, Nathan Hare, Bob Cayou, and others in pioneering Africana Studies at San Francisco State University. One of Sonia’s and my brightest students, was a quietly modest, dedicated young man named Danny Glover. I taught him African History, Sonia taught him African-American Literature.

My friend and comrade, Marvin X and I worked with lawyer William Patterson, Jim Lacey, and others in creating the Huey P. Newton Defense Committee, when Huey was shot and jailed by the police.

Both Larry Neal and I worked with, and were mentored by, political scholar, Harold Cruse, both at Liberator magazine, and in Black Harlem. My slave name was Rolland Snellings.

In 1965, Liberator magazine named Leroi Jones “Playwright of the Year,” and me “Poet of the Year.” Liberator magazine was where Larry Neal, who was easily the leading Black cultural critic of our Generation, developed the foundation for his major literary criticism of the 70s and 80s. How many of these “neo-BAM” people have heard of Larry’s and my revolutionary essays at Liberator? How many of them have even heard of the Black Nationalist/Socialist Liberator magazine? And by the way, the major BAM theorists—Larry Neal, Carolyn Fowler, Sarah Fabio, Ernie Allen, Askia Toure—were Rev. Nationalists/Third World Socialists—not backwards “racialists”!

BAM was not attempting to be “respectable” in the bourgeois sense of the term. In 1966 to 70, hundreds of U.S. cities were burning, as the Black masses rose up in rebellion, in the greatest mass rebellions since the slave revolts. “Burn, baby, Burn! Black Power! and “Nation Time!” were the cries of the angry, black working masses. It was the height of the African-American Intifada—and we were liberation fighters—poets—Griots!

The Black working masses of Harlem, Brooklyn, Detroit, Chicago, Newark, Detroit, New Orleans, Frisco, Oakland, Cleveland, Atlanta, etc. made the BAM “creditable.” There were black radical scholars, like Stephen Henderson, Vincent & Rosemary Harding, Addison Gayle, Jr. who also championed our vision and poetry as revolutionary. 

The aroused Black masses gave us their stamp of approval: they allowed us to teach themselves, and their children Black History, Liberation Politics, Drama, Literature, Art, Dance, Music, etc. (which was why the U.S. govt. had to drug them and their children with heroin & “crack” by the hundreds of thousands, so that the BAM/BLM could “run out of gas,” as you so pleasantly put it).

Rudy: You were at the very beginning of the Black Studies movement. It seems to have had its bloom in Henry Louis Gates at Harvard and his alliance with Bill Gates. What happened?

Askia: Black Studies had to be co-opted—and sold out! I ask that you speak more thoroughly with my mentor, Dr. Nathan Hare on this. What you spoke about as “blooming,” many consider Skip Gates as the Colin Powell of the Black Studies movement.

Rudy: Did you see the 60s arts movement as a contemporary extension of the Harlem Renaissance in that Langston Hughes was the Poet?

Askia: Certainly. Remember Baba Langston Hughes was our Umbra mentor. He used to speak w/our Umbra writers & editors weekly. He was our living Role Model. He critiqued our work, and got us published in many international anthologies. I saw our main difference with the Harlem Renaissance as our being more consciously political, mass-based (less elitist) and our brilliant revolutionary journals led our movement politically, theoretically, and ethically. We were an independent Movement. 

Rudy:  How do you think BAM contributed to Asante’s Afrocentrism and the rise of Def Poetry Jam and Russell Simmons, if at all?

Askia: We, the BAM, were the Archetype, Role Model, the massive Senior Movement, the Foundation upon which Asante & others could build from. Also, even Skip Gates stands upon our shoulders! We are the Elder Griots who helped develop the East Coast Climate, and Example(s)—Sonia, Amiri, Askia, the Last Poets—for the rising new, hip-hop Generation.

Rudy:  In 1973, Arnold Adoff, The Poetry of Black America, anthologized three of your poems: “Floodtide” (dedicated to “black tenant farmers of the South”), “Tauhid” (dedicated to “Pharaoh Sanders and the youth of the Black Nation”), and “Juju” (dedicated to “John Coltrane, priest-prophet of the Black Nation”). 

What elements in these poems still resonate today? How has your approach or poetics matured since you were a young man in your twenties and early thirties?

Askia: My early poems three of which you mentioned, were the examples of a growing Vision which sought to embrace the immediate Slave past, and integrate it into an Overview which would embrace Ancient & Pre-colonial Africa, the Maafa of chattel slavery, and the continuing effort to become a Free People once again, developing an identity based upon a somewhat fragmented, "neo-African" folk-culture.

Being from Dayton, Ohio (though Southern-born), I embraced and embodied the folklore and animal tales of the Southern oral tradition, which survived via my grandparents and the writings and language of our local Poet Laureate, Paul Laurence Dunbar. (Our grade school teachers used to read his dialect poetry daily to us.)

My poem, "Flood-tide," was loosely based upon the meter of Dunbar's "The Corn Song," which captured the syncopated rhythms of the "sankey" and other Pre-blues forms.

"JuJu," the first BAM epic poem, was an initial attempt to forge an epic out of the vision, rhythm, and mythic/metaphorical voice of the Coltrane-led New Music, or Cosmic Music explosion: the expansion involved in the turn away from the West—and "nightclub jazz"—into an embracing of the Cosmic Universe.

This new revolution in consciousness, led by Trane, Sun Ra, Pharaoh Sanders, etc., was complemented by the fiery cadences of minister Malcolm X, who functioned as prophet/visionary, a goad & griot of a revolutionary, Eastern morality emerging among us . . . 

The poem "Tauhid" was a primitive oral poem almost taken word for word out of Malik's mouth. These early, youthful poems served as the initial rough sketches towards an epic, apocalyptic Consciousness (as critic Lorenzo Thomas speaks of my vision), which would grow into the Body of Work which is the Isian/Osirian epic.

As for my "poetics," we're speaking of a forty year expanse where—as I explained on my DVD—I had to search for, embrace & absorb, the epic and lyrical writing of international masters, such as Pablo Neruda in his "Canto General," where he conceived of South American man/woman in the Eden of that vast continent; & also be inspired by W.B. Yeats' resurrection of the ancient Celtic heroes/heroines alive in their primal civilizations before their colonization by Anglos.

I also embraced and explored the Negritude masters, especially Cesaire and Senghor. Cesaire's "Notebook," along with Fanon's writing helped shape my concepts of colonial Being from the inside . . .

Finally to show a continuity of vision is why I included "JuJu" in Dawnsong!—as the original "seed" within the Nile Valley epic . . . but first, I had to do a lot of developing—especially in terms of rhythm, meter, metaphor the study of the elegy, iconography, etc.

My admiration for Dr. Joyce is that she's a scholar not only of African-American literature, but also of African literature—and the griot tradition. Dr. Jerry Ward seems to agree, in that  he spoke of her introduction of Dawnsong! as being very intelligent.

Rudy Interviews Askia Touré 2>>

Dawnsong!The Epic Memory of Askia Toure By Askia M. Touré. Introduction by Joyce A. Joyce. Dawnsong! won the 2003 "Stephen Henderson Poetry Award." – presented by the African-American Literature and Culture Society of the American Literature Association.

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Askia Muhammad Touré, right alongside Amiri Baraka , Larry Neal, Sonia Sanchez, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, etc., is considered one of the principal architects of the 1960s Black Arts/Black Aesthetic movements. A member of the legendary Umbra Group and of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Touré has remained an activist poet of conscience throughout his years. His other books include Earth (1968), JuJu: Magic Songs for the Black Nation (with playwright Ben Caldwell / 1970), Songhai! (1972), and From the Pyramids to the Projects (1990), which won an American Book Award. Widely published in Black Scholar, Soulbook, Black Theatre, Black World, and Freedomways, his poems and essays have embodied the ideology of a people seeking to reclaim their images and history. His recent publications include two collections of poetry Mother Earth Responds: Green Poems and Alternative Visions (Whirlwind Press), and African Affirmations: Songs for Patriots (Africa World Press). 

posted 12/16/04

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Ancient African Nations

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