The movement was inspired by the revolutions in China, Cuba and successful African and Asian independence movements, as well as the rise of black power in America.

The deaths of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Patrick Lumumba and the politicisation of black students together with the Watts uprising in 1965 resulted in unprecedented opportunities for radical black arts and politics. Despite victories in civil rights, there was anger over continuing oppression which caused regular uprisings. The movement reached its peak in the early 1970s producing some of the most radical music, art, drama and poetry. In the visual arts, many artists associated with the movement addressed issues of black identity and black liberation. While there was not a distinctive aesthetic, many artists used appropriation, photo-screen printing and collage.

Artists associated with the black arts movement include Benny Andrews, Cleveland Bellow, Kay Brown, Marie Johnson Calloway, Jeff Donaldson, Ben Hazard, Jae Jarrell, Wadsworth Jarrell, Ben Jones, Carolyn Lawrence, Dindga McCannon, John T. Riddle and Lev T. Mills.