One month after Malcolm X's assassination in February 1965, the highly respected writer LeRoi Jones moved from Manhattan's Lower East Side to Harlem, from the integrated world where he was a celebrated poet, essayist, and playwright to the black one, where he intended to develop a more political and spiritual art. In Harlem, Jones founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. At that moment, the Black Arts Movement was born.
Poets and musicians of the Black Arts movement were compared to preachers. "LeRoi Jones (who took the name Amiri Baraka in 1968), Don Lee, Sonia Sanchez, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, The Last Poets - check out the readings they gave in churches," says theologian James Cone. "The poets and the music gave a language to what was happening with black folks at that time."
Their art both celebrated and lampooned the idea of Jesus upon which black America had rested its hopes for so long. Some painted their visions of a black Jesus.
Black Art romanticized Africa as the home of kings, queens, mathematicians and holy men, as though blacks were reaffirming, "God is in Africa, we are of Africa, God is in us." This black aesthetic lived in the culture of the street, presaging rap music and hip-hop.
The Black Arts movement was not entirely separate from organized religion. Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets wrote poetry inspired by his practice in the African religion of Yoruba. Although Oyewole makes it clear that going to Church "was totally against the revolutionary rules," black artists "took Jesus and made him [theirs]," rewriting and redrawing to create Jesus in the image of a black man. Writer LeRoi Jones locates the heart of black art in Sunni Islam. "As you begin to beat your way back through the symbols," wrote Jones, "getting close to the source of what Black art is, you begin to see that it comes out of Islam. The closeness of man with natural evidence of Divinity is what art was about in the beginning - to reveal, to manifest Divinity that man can understand; to make images that reveal Divinity, that reveal the presence of the One Force that animates everything."