This article explores implicit as well as explicit debates over modernity among African American artists at the 1966 World Festival of Black Arts held in Dakar, Senegal, honing in on moments that reveal tensions among the artists as well as between artists and the US officials who sponsored their appearance there in the wake of the hard-fought passage of the US Voting Rights Act. The Dakar festival was a pivotal, if fraught, moment announcing a new era of independent global black cultural production and modernity. It was also haunted by an earlier and arguably more expansive anticolonial cultural politics that had been integral to the lives and careers of such participants as Katherine Dunham, Langston Hughes, and Duke Ellington. The uneasy, unacknowledged presence of a broader anticolonial cultural politics, and an urgent sense of the unfinished struggle against racial injustice in the United States, are evident in the challenges faced by Dunham, as well as in the boycott of the festival by Harry Belafonte and James Baldwin. The intrusion of unresolved histories and liberation struggles erupted in significant controversies within the festival and in charges leveled against the festival by outside critics. At stake in these controversies was the question: how best to create a cultural politics that enabled collective thinking about vexing challenges faced by postcolonial societies, including resolving questions of power and authority after inheriting colonial state structures and unifying societies with often staggering ethnic and linguistic diversity? This article seeks at once to place the festival in the context of such challenges and criticisms and notes the ways in which the festival enabled new possibilities, indeed a new moment, in global black modernity.

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