The Black Arts Movement & Literary Activist Period

I threw myself into the Black Arts Movement in 1968; three years after BAM began with the publication of my first collection of anti-drug poetry, Dope Hustler’s Jazz. The Black Arts Movement is known as the most important event certainly in African American literature, and perhaps, even overall American literature, in modern times. It came about after the death of Malcolm X when Beat Movement poet, author, and editor LeRoi Jones moved to Harlem, changed his name and established the Harlem Repertory Theater; an event that garnered movements across the country that developed into the esthetic arm of the Black Power Movement.

The events that brought about the book were these:

bam1I had just finished my involvement in a neighborhood organization called the Betterment League. The organization was created to try to distract the young people in our community from heron and other drugs which were taking a toll on the community in terms of lives wasted, increased crimes, violent streets and a higher school drop-out rate. The neighborhood was the Amsterdam Projects Community which interlaced with the newly gentrified Lincoln Square Center area of high arts and culture and rich white folks.

I served as kind of a minister of information. I controlled the organization’s communications with the community and the public. I led a small band of dissidents within the group who wanted to tackle the problem of drug dependency head-on instead of only pacifying the community’s youth with summer distractions like resort outings, team sports and cultural programs – we knew the source of the drugs in the neighborhood – my group of dissidents wanted to follow the lead of the Black Panthers in confronting those endangering our community. The Elders in the organization held the power and they were unmovable. I resigned from the Betterment League to strike out on my own.

I had gone on more than one occasion to pull friends out of neighborhood drug-dens full of neighborhood guys I knew. Sometimes I even sat and listened to the conversations and saw groups of them go to a back room to shoot-up. These were neighborhood guys I knew and grew up with so they were tolerant of my interfering and some of them even admired me for pulling certain of them away from the den. A close friend who got strung-out on heron decided to join a rehabilitation program in Harlem, after I repeatedly towed him off from the den. It was while visiting him there that I got the idea that my liberation poetry could be directed towards the problem. I realized right off that the poems had to be realistic and depict the problem in an authentic manner. In a short while, because of my familiarity with the dope scene, I was able to assemble enough anti dope material to publish Dope Hustler’s Jazz in the summer of 1968, a year of American trauma.

Over the next four years I delivered another collection of anti-drugs poetry and a collection of short fiction with the same theme. In 1969, the Negro Book of the Month Club gave me an award for my anti-drugs efforts and I was invited to read my works at venues around New York City and upstate colleges.