Disruptive nationalisms:
aesthetics, markets, and the
anti-audience of Black media

by Richard Purcell

This essay[1] [open endnotes in new window] returns to a pivotal moment in the late 1960s and early 1970s to explore how media-makers and activists aligned with the Black Arts Movement (BAM) and Black Power Movement navigated the tension between the need to attract “audiences” for the purposes of cultivating resistant forms of Black subjectivity and the need to combat forces of mainstream commodification. I argue that Black Power-aligned media-makers’ theorizations of Black aesthetics carry with them an emergent discourse about the creation of and the changing market for Black art in an age of media’s massification during the second half of the twentieth century. More specifically, I posit that within these discourses an anxiety emerges over the commodification not only of the Black artwork but also of a Black audience for this artwork. Such commodification comes into conflict with the central ideological and political work of radical Black Power politics of collective self-determination outside of—and in resistance to—capitalism. And that resistance is expressed both through cultural nationalism and various kinds of transnational and intercommunal visions that emerge out of Black radical thought during this historical moment.

Put another way, the dilemma then facing Black Power-aligned media-makers and artists is this: Can “the technology of the oppressor,” to borrow Huey P. Newton’s phrasing (Newton 9), be harnessed towards reproducing and expanding a counter-hegemonic community? For BAM and Black Power-aligned artists, the question captures their ambivalent engagements with mass media.

Such media has the goal of capturing audiences and so forms what the media theorist Dallas Smythe will call at the end of the 1970s “the audience commodity.” In his essay, “Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism,” Smythe defines the “audience commodity” as the commodity produced during media consumption, specifically through the creation of audiences to sell to advertisers. Smythe argues that advanced capitalism is what he called a “consciousness industry” (1).[2] One of the most important mass-produced goods of advertiser-supported communications during late-twentieth century monopoly capitalism is, in fact, “audiences and readerships” (3). But the time people spend watching and reading is also a fraught and capricious time. As Smythe puts it, the laborer, in reproducing labor power, “might be responding to realistic conditions which may on occasion surprise and disappoint their advertisers” (6).

Ultimately, for Smythe, the political significance of the audience commodity does not lie in the traditional Marxist concept of the alienation of workers as they produce commodities in general. Instead, it resides in

“the alienation of workers from the means of reproducing themselves” (7).

For Smythe, the means of reproducing oneself is not just the rest we do between each workday. Instead, such unorganized time has political potential. However, when the aggregate of viewer/readership is transformed into an “audience,” the value of such surplus time, which can be used for cultivating revolutionary ideas, gets captured by capital (7). Smythe’s essay was published in 1977, almost a full decade after the height of BAM. But I would venture to say that his political-economic analysis of the “audience commodity” already concerned the emergent Black Power-aligned media-makers.

What connects Smythe to BAM and Black Power intellectuals and artists, in particular, is their shared interest in what audience formation could usurp—that is, the potentially revolutionary use of surplus-watching/reading-time. For the intellectuals and artists examined in this article, like many other artists and media-makers in the post-1968 period, the social activities of reading and viewing constitute key sites of struggle over the reproduction or, alternatively, the capture of Black radical and revolutionary collectivity.[3] Unleashing this surplus time from its capture by capitalist mass media, they argue, is a vital step towards a larger political goal: using mass media to seize the means of capitalist social reproduction. To advance this aim, Black artists and media-makers have explored whether the formulation of a Black Aesthetic—and the insertion of this aesthetic into mainstream media—can disrupt late-stage capitalistic mechanisms of audience formation to create another object: an anti-audience whose attention is freed from reproducing capitalist structures of labor time and consumption practices.

Generally speaking, the BAM emerged out of a series of disparate local and often grassroots organizations of Black artists and intellectuals that began to emerge in the early 1960s and that expanded after the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. It is primarily associated with Amiri Baraka’s formation of the Black Arts Repertory Theater of Harlem, but there were in fact a multitude of Black arts organizations across the United States, including in cities like Philadelphia, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Chicago. BAM challenged the literary and critical movements of the New American Poetry, the New York Intellectuals, and the New Criticism primarily through establishing an alternative body of publishing venues for Black writers as well as developing critical methods and terms to assess the work of these same artists. This dominating trinity was, in part, what Amiri Baraka, Hoyt Fuller, and others would call “the mainstream” of literary style, intellectual culture and criticism. However, while BAM artists formulated their critique of the mainstream in relation to dominant literary institutions, what has been critically underappreciated is their focus on mainstream media institutions like television and cinema. In contrast, not only did Larry Neal and Don L. Lee write film reviews in the pages of Black World and The Liberator but, as I will discuss, Neal and Baraka saw cinema as a key form in BAM aesthetics to counter on a mass scale the “cultural imperialism of…white communictions media” (Neal, 350). In so doing, Black Power-aligned artists and media-makers contested “the mainstream” as the dominant media platform for the attention of Black people.

Despite conflicting accounts of the BAM, all agree that the Black Aesthetic describes an intertwining of Black liberation with aesthetics. Yet a fraught “blind spot” in contemporary Black Studies’ assessments of the Black Aesthetic has been the tendency to largely ignore BAM and Black Power-aligned artists and critics’ rigorous interrogations of the relation between the ideology of Black liberation and the political economy of mass media. For this reason, I enter into a discussion of the Black Aesthetic through the writing and editorial work of Hoyt Fuller. There are a number of reasons why his approach to the “Black Aesthetic” is crucial within the context of an emergent Black Arts Movement. Arguably, Fuller is one of the first intellectuals to emerge out the BAM who attempted to manage the material, aesthetic and political complexities involved in merging avant-garde Black ideas within mass culture.[4] For this reason, Fuller’s role as editor of Negro Digest/Black World—a mass circulation magazine within the John H. Johnson Publishing empire of the 1960s—and his attempts to disseminate the ideas of a “Black Aesthetic” on a national (and perhaps global) scale make his engagement with the Black Aesthetic a crucial place to start.

Here I trace Fuller’s cultivation of this concept of the Black Aesthetic within the pages of the magazine Negro Digest/Black World and its reappearance in the commentary around Melvin Van Peebles’ film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). While Fuller only implicitly addresses the relation between the commodification of the art object and the commodification of the audience in his editorial decisions for Negro Digest/Black World, we see a more direct engagement with the audience commodity in the critical reception of Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasss Song. By describing how Fuller, Van Peebles, and others engaged the problem of producing an audience for a “Black Aesthetic” across two important mass media forms—the magazine and the cinema—I seek to emphasize the unavoidable problematic that inextricably links two levels of struggle—that is, ideological struggles over aesthetic and political representation with political economy issues, on the one hand, and dealing with the evolving function of media at a crucial moment of late-stage capitalism.

Discussions of the Black Aesthetic amongst BAM artists and intellectuals after 1968 thus offer an explicit theorization of the contradictions that emerge between the formation of Black radical community through mass media and the formation of a Black audience. This fact has invaluable bearing in our contemporary platform era of late-stage capitalism media consumption, a point which I will further elucidate at the article’s conclusion. As I will show, Fuller, Van Peebles, and others saw the potential of cultivating a Black “anti-audience” through print, cinema and other mechanisms of mass media. The idea that emerges from Fuller and the debates around Van Peebles’ film is that the representation of Black struggle via a Black Aesthetic is not determined by the mechanisms of audience capture. Although their efforts were medium-specific (print magazine vs. cinema), both Fuller and Van Peebles attempt to use the mechanisms of audience capture against itself.

The imperative that Black Power-aligned media-makers constitute and address a Black collective subject finds itself in tension with the capitalist imperative to mine and constitute new subject positions for consumers, including Black consumers. BAM’s theorization of a Black Aesthetic unfolds against and in opposition to the commodification of avant-garde tactics. It presents an alternative imagination of a Black aggregate belonging that oscillates between cultural nationalism and broader forms of proletarian and transnational left solidarity. The Black Aesthetic is not just a style or mode of representation but requires a kind of vocational work by way of Black participation in an alternative “attention economy” cultivated for revolutionary purposes. The anxiety expressed by artists and theorists of Black Power-aligned media occurs at the juncture between the desire to advocate for a collective act of participation within this alternative “attention economy” and the risk that a wider dissemination of the Black Aesthetic through mass media will reproduce the audience commodity. It is this ambivalence that I track in this essay.

The Black Aesthetic against the audience commodity

First published in 1942, Negro Digest was presented as a “Black” version of Reader’s Digest.
Fuller and Johnson’s revival of the magazine in 1961 and eventual evolution of the magazine into Black World mirrored its shift into a key outlet for the Black Aesthetic.

In 1961, John H. Johnson, the founder of the Johnson Publishing Company and publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, asks veteran journalist Hoyt Fuller to revive Negro Digest. First published in 1942, Negro Digest is presented as a Black Reader’s Digest. Yet, instead of a Black version of the middlebrow conservatism of Reader’s Digest, Fuller and Johnson’s revival becomes perhaps the most widely circulated outlet for what the historian of Black literary and print culture James Smethurst has described as

“high-level African American political commentary and cultural expression aimed at a black audience” (208).

Especially after 1965, Fuller pushes Negro Digest towards an intellectual engagement with both the Black Arts and Black Power movements—a shift that will also occur at other Johnson-owned publications. Fuller’s interest in Black Power and Black Arts is a hallmark of his intellectual development towards Kwame Nkrumah’s Marxist Pan-Africanism, as well as a recognition of the impact of desegregation and decolonization on Black political consciousness. In this sense, the 1961 relaunch of Negro Digest/Black World is unique. While the majority of John H. Johnson’s Black magazines are traditional, advertisement-driven publications, with Hoyt Fuller’s second run of Negro Digest/Black World a decision is made to make it a “commercial” free periodical, which means Johnson decides that the magazine will not place advertisements within its pages, which is a radical departure from the 1943-1961 run of this and the rest of Johnson’s publications.

Johnson himself cites the rise of the Civil Rights movement as well as lack of “ready outlets” for Black writing as his impetus for relaunching Negro Digest/Black World.[5] Also, Johnson is staking the magazine’s financial success on the legitimacy Fuller already earned amongst BAM artists as well as from the more community based, grassroots publishing and political work Fuller did in Chicago in the 1960s.[6] But as Albert Kreiling and James Hall both state, the absence of advertising does not necessarily mean Negro Digest/Black World is free from Johnson’s intentions to monopolize Black readership across his various magazine properties, which one could easily describe as an effort at audience segmentation. Johnson rehires Fuller to develop a Johnson property antithetical to the advertisement-driven layout and content conventions of Jet and Ebony Magazines and one that actively published and elaborated the “Black aesthetic” under the market imprimatur of Johnson’s commercial publication cache. Such a business move shows that Johnson had designs for Negro Digest/Black World that sought to capitalize on growing Civil Rights unrest. This is done, to a certain extent, as part of a media format war to further coopt Black readership away from Black weekly newspapers and into Johnson’s own publications, which market an aspirational Civil Rights agenda within its content tethered to advert-driven Black access to the U.S. marketplace.[7]

Fuller’s reinvention of Negro Digest unfolds within a wider context; there is an explosion of Black-owned presses dedicated to engaging an alternative market for Black art, especially avant-garde art and criticism. And the explosion of Black-owned presses and alternative aesthetic markets occurs here within the emergence of a wide-variety of alternative and underground presses as well as media during the Long Seventies.[8] For example, in 1965, the Detroit-based Black artist Dudley Randall founds Broadside Press. Poet Haki Madhubuti follows Randall two years later and founds Third World Press in 1967. It is also during this period that a string of Black Arts inspired journals and magazines, such as Liberator, emerge around the flourishing Black arts and intellectual scene.[9] However, while Broadside and Third World Press explicitly reject Black popular culture in favor of a mix of cultural nationalism and Black avant-gardism, Fuller explores the possibility of cultivating a readership for avant-garde aesthetics within the context of popular print media.

Specifically, Fuller is experimenting with how to bring into being an imagined aggregate Black subjectivity for BAM’s “Black” artwork and Black aesthetic within commercialized mass media. Fuller’s editorial staff publish predominately Black writers all along the ideological spectrum throughout his run with Negro Digest/Black World, although those that appear the most are the luminaries of the BAM. And while poetry dominates its pages, Negro Digest/Black World gives an incredible amount of space to book reviews and cultural criticism during the height of its influence from 1968-1971 (Thompson 243-244).