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Larry Neal

(1937—1981)


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(1937–1981), poet, essayist, editor, playwright, critic, filmmaker, folklorist, and one of the Black Arts movement's spiritual journeymen.

Born Lawrence Paul Neal to Woodie and Maggie Neal in Atlanta, Georgia, on 5 September 1937, Neal grew up in Philadelphia with his four brothers. Larry Neal graduated from Lincoln University and then completed a master's degree at the University of Pennsylvania. He spent most of his adult life in New York.

Although he was a prolific essayist, Neal is perhaps best known for editing Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing with Amiri Baraka. This collection, published in 1968, was among the early attempts to define the aesthetic of the new Black Arts movement. Neal's essays included in Black Fire and elsewhere are recognized as some of the most cogent statements of that aesthetic. Neal was committed to politics in his life and writing; but he insisted on artistic rigor as well as revoluntary intent in literature.

Neal produced reviews of artists ranging from Lorraine Hansberry to Ornette Coleman. His critical essays—on social issues, aesthetic theory, literary topics, and other subjects—appeared in such periodicals as Liberator Magazine, Negro Digest, Essence, and Black World. Neal wrote two plays, The Glorious Monster in the Bell of the Horn (1976) and In An Upstate Motel: A Morality Play (1980). He published two collections of poetry: Black Boogaloo: Notes on Black Liberation in 1969 and Hoodoo Hollerin’Bebop Ghosts in 1974. Much of his poetry engages African American mythology, history, and language, but few poems simplify ideological issues. Instead Neal allowed for complexity and contradiction in his poems. His poems were frequently anthologized during the era but have received little critical attention since then. Some of Neal's work was collected and published posthumously in 1989 under the title Visions of a Liberated Future: Black Arts Movement Writings.

Larry Neal also edited several journals and magazines during his career. These include Journal of Black Poetry, the Cricket, and Liberator Magazine. Throughout his career Neal worked closely with Baraka; their collaboration began publicly in 1964 when both men helped to create the Black Arts Repertory Theater in Harlem. Neal's involvement with performance art expanded as he wrote films for television and private companies. Neal taught and lectured at several universities including City College of New York and Yale, Howard, and Wesleyan universities. He made television appearances, gave interviews, and profiled other main players in African American artistic life during his career. As a resident of New York's Sugar Hill section, Neal participated in and shaped the social climate of the city.

Larry Neal died of a heart attack at the age of forty-three on 6 January 1981. His significance in African American letters is primarily established by his influence on and engagement with the Black Arts movement.

Callaloo 8.1 (Winter 1985), a special issue dedicated to Larry Neal.

Elizabeth Sanders Delwiche Engelhardt

Subjects: Literature — United States History.


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