Reconsidering the Black Arts Movement, the Pan-African
Cultural Festival & the Black Panther Party
International Section

 Michael A. Antonucci

Dean Houari Bellatreche spoke with profound sincerity while delivering his welcoming address on the opening day of “The Black Arts Movement in the United States and Algeria” conference (BAM | Algeria) held at Abdelhamid Ibn Badis University in Mostaganem, Algeria. Engaging an audience composed primarily of undergraduates from his institution, but also including graduate students, visiting scholars, faculty members, and government dignitaries, Dean Bellatreche explained that he was “proud that our university is a platform for recognizing [The Black Art Movement] and the historic and honorable role that Algeria has playedin its development, by defending just [political] causes and saying no to colonialism, to imperialism, and segregation.” Speaking less than a month before the nation’s presidential elections, the Dean was keenly aware of the political dialogue unfolding in Algeria. His words found a backdrop in the weekly demonstrations that had been staged throughout the country on Friday afternoons during the months leading up to these elections. Within this context, Bellatreche, along with conference organizer Dr. Abdeljalil Youcef Larbi, and their many colleagues at the university, worked to make the BAM | Algeria conference a vehicle for exploring Algeria’s revolutionary history and providing students with a means of tracing the depth of their nation’s imprint on international politics and culture.

With a cold November rain falling and a strong breeze blowing inland from the Mediterranean, the Dean explained that the roots of the conference were ultimately located in events that took place in Algiers, fifty years earlier, during the first Pan-African Cultural Festival.

Reflecting on the summer of 1969, Bellatreche reminded his audience that “twenty-seven liberation movements from around the world (converged) during the Pan-African festival, allowing Algiers to claim the title[s] ‘Capital of the Third World’ and ‘Mecca of Revolutionaries . . . .’” He then went on to state, “African American activists, principally [members of] the Black Panthers, found refuge in Algeria, which supported and defended them.” The Dean went on to remind his audience that “These revolutionaries were privileged and protected exiles in the Algerian capital.” For the next two days, during the panels, plenaries, and keynotes that followed the Dean’s opening remarks, conference participants awakened a sense of the formal experimentation, expressive freedom, and aesthetic liberation that musicians, performers, writers, and artists brought to Algeria from the across the African continent and throughout the diaspora for the festival during the summer of 1969.

Recalling the Pan-African Cultural Festival in this way, the Dean’s words provided participants and presenters at the 2019 BAM | Algeria conference with a center point for connecting Black Arts, African American artists, and activists to the people of Algeria. The depth and power of these connections became increasingly evident to the students and scholars who gathered in Mostaganem to discuss the transnational dimensions of the Black Arts Movement. Moving along a pathway blazed by Nathan Hare with his essay from the Black Scholar, “Algiers 1969: A Report on the Pan-African Cultural Festival,” conference-goers examined the indelible impressions that Black America and Black Americans had made upon their Algerian hosts a half-century ago. Ultimately, as ideas and information traveled from the auditorium events into the lecture halls and on to break-out sessions, a deeper, more complete understanding of the artistic and political legacy of the Black Arts Movement in Algeria began to take shape. Conference-goers acknowledged the way that Black Arts Movement architect Hoyt Fuller, poets Haki Madhubuti (then Don L. Lee) and Ted Joans, vocalist Nina Simone, saxophonist Archie Shepp and numerous other Black musicians from the United States, had contributed to the Pan-African Cultural Festival. By doing so, the 2019 BAM | Algeria conference came to refresh the iconic image of Shepp kissing the ground upon his arrival in Algiers for the Festival to affirm his proclamation: “We are still Black, and we have come back. Nous sommes revenus!

This sense of recovery and return seemed to bring the 2019 BAM | Algeria conference direction and purpose. Conversations about Algeria’s place in the struggle to liberate Africa, Black music, as well as African American literary production and visual art flowed through the corridors of Abdelhamid Ibn Badis University. These discussions served to bridge the various gaps—political, cultural, linguistic, and theoretical—that had separated the art and the artists of the Black Arts Movement from the everyday experiences of contemporary Algerian students. During the conference, participants proved to be quite adept at connecting cultural and historical issues of the late-1960s to complex economic and social questions invested in the present moment.

The energy generated as a result of these exchanges was considerable. Anticipating the potential of the 2019 BAM | Algeria conference, Obsidian had the foresight to commission this special section. By providing an opportunity for me to collect and arrange these materials as guest editor, the journal made it possible to continue the process of expanding and revising considerations of the Black Arts Movement and its legacies. This section gathers works by international scholars and culture workers who explore questions relating to the literature and visual arts of the Black Arts Movement as well as its musical dimensions. It opens with an essay from Matthais Domingo Mushinski entitled, “The Fact of Black Nonreality: Cecil Taylor in Paris.” Mushinski’s essay examines the power that place holds for free jazz while discussing the music, both within configurations created by the 1969 Pan-African Cultural Festival and the Black Arts Movement as a whole. By mapping Taylor’s geographic movements, Mushinski sketches the musician and his developing aesthetic vision during the mid-1960s. The study acknowledges this Black artist’s efforts to articulate a distinct sound within and against listening environments composed of European and white American audiences. Mushinski makes a case that Taylor’s white audiences—most notably music critics writing about his work—were consistently endangering his project by bringing it into a cycle of consumption that included frequent misreadings and dismissals.

Through the course of his discussion of Taylor’s sound experiments, Mushinski lays out a set of questions concerned with audience and reception. Similarly, Kada Wafaa also takes on issues of audience in “AfriCOBRA: African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists.” In this essay, she discusses the development and growth of this Chicago-based group of Black avant-garde visual artists. Attending to the ebb and flow of the collective’s membership, the essay brings consideration to several major AfriCOBRA exhibitions. Delivering this survey of the projects, products, and careers of the artists who contributed to the AfriCOBRA collective, Wafaa’s study also brings attention to particular individual artists, including Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, and Barbara Jones-Hogu.

Shifting focus from Wafaa’s examination of the AfriCOBRA collective and Black Arts Movement visual art of the 1960s and 70s, Obsidian’s section on the 2019 BAM | Algeria conference continues in an interview with conference organizer Abdeljalil Youcef Larbi and Abdelhamid Ibn Badis University faculty member Nadia Abdelhadi. In the course of the interview, Larbi speaks to his sense of the 1969 Pan-African Cultural Festival, finding connections between its proceedings and his experience with the BAM | Algeria conference. Larbi and Abelhadi also address Algeria’s tradition of revolutionary radicalism and their experience teaching African American studies to the current generation of Algerian university students. By doing so, the interview provides a foundation for reading Selma Bekkai and Saliha Benkechida’s essay “Nous, Noirs Américains Évadés du Ghetto: The Fleury Four Hijacking Hope.” In their investigation of Algeria’s status as the “Capital of the Third World,” Bekkai and Benkechida deliver an account of the two airline flights that were diverted from the United States to Algiers with the intention of supporting the International section of the Black Panther Party.

Bekkai and Benkechida’s examination of the Black Panther Party’s relations with the Algerian government from 1969–1973 anticipates the two texts that conclude this special section of material presented at the BAM | Algeria conference. In “Alger, Mon Amour & the Heartbroken Revolution (A Reflection),” performance artist and poet Stéphanie Melyon-Reinette engages the enduring Algerian legacies of revolution and liberation.

Conjuring the voices of Frantz Fanon and Guadeloupean poet and revolutionary Sonny Rupaire, Melyon-Reinette places these figures into direct conversation through an imagined epistolary exchange. Their letters explore the romantic aura that Melyon-Reinette regards as shaping and informing received images of Algeria. A number of questions raised about the revolutionary romanticism in “Alger, Mon Amour & the Heartbroken Revolution (A Reflection)” receive treatment in Emily O’Dell’s essay “Revolutionary Spatialities and Transcultural Solidarities at the 1969 Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algeria.” Exploring claims made in support of Algiers’ holding the title of the “‘Mecca of Revolutionaries,’” O’Dell amplifies and expands the received archival record concerned with the 1969 festival, gathering personal interviews and collecting eyewitness accounts about its many dimensions from Vinnie Burrows, Courtland Cox, James Garrett, and Elaine Klein Mokhtefi. O’Dell’s efforts locate points of convergence and sites of intersection between the Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algeria and the Black Arts Movement in the United States and, thereby, offer an enthusiastic response to Dean Bellatreche’s welcome address and its call for conference participants to recognize his university and Algeria as “a space of light and exchange” while carrying out their work in “the name of memory, duty, and hope.”

Hare, Nathan. “Algiers 1969: A Report on the Pan-African Cultural Festival.” The Black Scholar, vol. 1, no. 1, Nov. 1969, pp. 2–10, doi:10.1080/00064246.1969.11414447.

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