Today, October 7, 2009, marks the 75th birthday of one of the most important, influential, and creatively innovative writers and critics in U.S. history and one of the most significant African American artists and intellectuals of the past century. Highly gifted and creatively proficient in many different genres of literature--poetry, playwriting, cultural criticism, the essay, fiction, music and literary theory, history, and criticism, as well as journalism Baraka is also a consummate community organizer and political/cultural activist, theoretician, and strategist who has founded and/or been an integral part of many different social, cultural, and political organizations and is widely considered the leading force behind the legendary Black Arts Movement (BAM), a national cultural phenomenon that revolutionized American writing and cultural expression in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Amiri is the legendary and prolific author of over 30 books (!), an esteemed member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a past winner of the American Book Award, the Langston Hughes Award, and fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts. Baraka also taught literature, music history, cultural history, politics, and African American Studies for over 30 years at State University of New York--Stony Brook, Columbia, Yale, and Georgetown universities. His voluminous body of work consists of many essays, short fiction, a novel, cultural criticism, political analysis, an acclaimed editor of numerous literary and cultural anthologies, and music history and criticism as well as twenty five plays, and literally hundreds of extraordinary poems. After nearly five decades of intense and committed work Amiri Baraka is a modern literary giant with a global following and a living icon of the various Black Liberation Movements of the past half century.
In celebration of a life and career that has had (and continues to have) a tremendous impact and influence on many writers, artists, and politically engaged intellectuals throughout the world the following articles, essays, poems, fiction, excerpts from plays, and social commentary by Baraka and other writers and activists are offered in tribute to a great artist and compassionate, dedicated human being who has always made a concrete difference in terms of not only living in the world but most importantly changing it. These offerings are shared as an expression of our deep and heartfelt appreciation for Baraka's ongoing effort and stunning contributions. Enjoy...
As Amiri Baraka turns 75, Newarkers celebrate
By Carrie Stetler
October 1, 2009
Amiri Baraka hasn’t mellowed with age.
One of the last surviving authors of the Beat Generation, and an enduring symbol of Newark’s political turmoil four decades ago, Baraka turns 75 next week.
|Poet Amiri Baraka reads a poem at Skippers|
Poet Amiri Baraka reads a poem about Sarah Vaughan
While his native Newark has changed dramatically since the late 1960s, Baraka has not. For more than four decades, the controversial artist has continued his role as the city’s most famous gadfly and remains unrepentant about his poem "Somebody Blew Up America," which cost him the title of New Jersey poet laureate in 2002 after it was denounced as anti-Semitic. (It is a charge Baraka still refutes.)
"I’m just about the same," says Baraka, whose birthday is Wednesday, although he admits that, in recent years, he’s had to slow down a little. "You have to cut back on your schedule. I used to pop up early in the morning, stay up late and work through the night, and now I don’t do that quite as much. You have to make do with what you can do."
He does, however, plan on attending the five-day birthday celebration that Newark residents are planning in his honor, starting Saturday with jazz vespers at Bethany Baptist Church, which Baraka attended as a child. It continues with readings of his poetry, a Baraka art exhibit and a symposium on his political activism.
"Seventy-five years is quite a milestone," said Sandra West, curator of the African-American room at the Newark Library, who helped organize the event. She’s known Baraka since she was a teen in the late 1960s, when he encouraged her poetry writing as a founder of the Black Arts movement, which urged African-American artists to explore their own culture.
Although Baraka shifted from black nationalism to communism more than 40 years ago — just one in a series of personal and political transformations from the Beat era through the 1970s — he’s clung to the same revolutionary ideals.
He still denounces adversaries with terms like "neocolonial" and "petit bourgeois." And although he is a fan of President Obama — "To forget the enormous step forward he represents is destructive,’’ he says — black leaders who disappoint Baraka are derisively branded "negroes." That’s what he has called every Newark mayor from Kenneth Gibson--one of the nation’s first black mayors whose 1970 election owed a large debt to Baraka’s support--to former mayor Sharpe James and present-day mayor Cory Booker.
But Newark politicians seem to understand that this is part of the deal with Baraka. And despite his invective and ceaseless interrogations ("Why is the head of police white? ...Why can’t Symphony Hall be restored?... Why is there no museum dedicated to local history?"), they speak of him with respect and even affection.
Says Booker, "I have a problem with people who criticize but do nothing to change things, but that’s not Amiri Baraka. He’s always been a dedicated servant of the city. He’s utterly sincere in his desire to make Newark a better place. He comes from a noble American tradition of fighting for change, which includes pamphleteers like Thomas Paine to civil rights leaders. I will have nothing but love for Mr. Baraka."
Some of that love is undoubtedly due to Baraka’s charisma and virtuosity as an orator, which haven’t flagged since his post-riot heyday.
"He has a deep capacity to be charming, and in certain settings, when he doesn’t have to be the Amiri Baraka of public notoriety, he’s enormously funny," says friend Clement Price, who teaches New Jersey history at Rutgers University and is head of its Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience. "It’s hard to love a one-dimensional activist. But someone like him, who can make you laugh, it’s hard not to love them."
Baraka is still deeply entrenched in the cultural and civic life of the city, an eloquent booster who loves to recount Newark's bygone days. He can tell you, for instance, that 60 or 70 years ago jazz pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith lived on the same street as Ed Koch, who went on to become one of New York’s most famous mayors.
Despite critics who call Baraka a crackpot and a holdover, he’s maintained his international reputation as a writer. And his significance to Newark is indisputable, says Price. "He is a central figure in the demographic shift that transformed Newark from a predominantly white city to a predominately black city."
Born Everett Leroy Jones in Newark to a social worker and postal employee, he was in college when he changed the spelling of his middle name to Leroi. He later moved to New York and quickly drew notice as a poet, befriending Beat Generation luminaries like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who remained a close friend until his death in 1997.
Baraka gained fame with his 1964 play, "Dutchman," a metaphor for the racial tensions of the era and the anger of African-Americans.
But Baraka left the limelight and returned to Newark, changing his first name to Imamu Amiri Baraka after he converted to Islam. Later, he dropped the "Imamu,’’ transforming from black nationalist to a communist in the 1970s.
Since, Baraka has weathered political and professional turmoil — sometimes self-created — as well as personal tragedy. In 2003, his daughter Shani, a Newark schoolteacher and basketball coach, was murdered in Piscataway by the estranged husband of her half-sister. She was one of the five children of Baraka and his wife, Amina, also a writer and activist. His son, Ras, now a principal at Central High School, was Newark deputy mayor in 2002. He also has a daughter, Lisa Jones, from a previous marriage to Hettie Jones; they divorced in the 1960s.
"It was a deadly kind of blow," he says of Shani’s death. "That was something that not only stunned this family, but the whole town."
Through it all, Baraka has continued to write poems, fiction, plays and essays, particularly on one of his favorite topics — black music in America. He’s authored more than 50 books, so many he’s lost count. His latest is "Digging: The Afro-American Soul of Classical Music," published in May. He’s still asked to speak — everywhere from Georgetown to Croatia — but he says demand has slackened since he lost the poet laureate title.
Although some regard his post-1960s work as little more than polemic, others say he remains one of the most important African-American authors in the nation. "I don’t think there’ll ever be another like him," says Cornel West, Princeton University’s renowned African-American studies scholar and a friend. "He’s a Renaissance man, a genius who has always been true to himself. He looks at the world through the lens of poor people and working people. He’s a man who has always been on intellectual and moral fire."
His influence continues to be felt by young authors in the city and beyond. Pulitzer-prize winning author Junot Diaz, who grew up in the Parlin section of Old Bridge, says Baraka was an inspiration to him when he was a student at Rutgers University. In 1990, Diaz and other students participated in demonstrations that included a demand to get Baraka tenure in the all-white English department, in which he was a professor. His tenure was denied that same year.
"He was a controversial figure, still is. But my God, what a poet," says Diaz. "How he fired up all of us young writers of color."
Baraka is thankful for the Newark tribute in his honor, but hopes much of its focus will be on Newark’s past and its hopes for the future. "It’s worth it if it helps educate people about the history of the city, about the struggle we’ve gone through and it’s potential," he says.
"What can I say? If people want to do it, I can’t be opposed to it."
"But apparently, there’s some kind of insistence on letting everyone know that now I’m 75," he adds drily. "I’m not as happy about that."
Amiri Baraka's 75th birthday events Tomorrow: Jazz vespers at 6 p.m. at Bethany Baptist Church, 275 West Market St., featuring piano player and composer Randy Weston. Admission is free.
Tuesday: Opening for exhibit of Baraka’s drawings from 6 to 8 p.m. at Aljira Center for Contemporary Art, 591 Broad St. Admission is free.
Wednesday: Birthday jam at the WISOMMM Cultural Center, 15 James St., featuring several jazz artists. Tickets are $50, which includes a light buffet, live entertainment and complimentary wine.
Thursday: “Baraka Book and Birthday Bash,” hosted by the Newark Public Library at 5 Washington St. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. There will be readings by young poets, a short film screening and a Baraka book signing.
Oct. 9: A symposium on “The Political Evolution of Amiri Baraka” will be held at 6 p.m. at Central High School Auditorium, 246 18th Ave. Admission is free. For more information, visit http://www.amirib75.com/
What Country Is This?
Rereading LeRoi Jones’s The Dead Lecturer (1964)
by Adrienne Rich
A splinter of language flares into mind before sleep, in crawling traffic or some waiting room of defunct magazines. So a few years ago a phrase began stalking me: A political art, let it be / tenderness . . . words of a poem from The Dead Lecturer by LeRoi Jones (afterward to become Amiri Baraka). I found the book, the poem (“Short Speech to My Friends”), then pored through the pages, as after some long or lesser interval one reads poetry as if for the first time. I’d been taken, unsettled, by these poems in the late 1960s; read some of them with basic writing students at City College of New York and graduate students at Columbia. My Grove Press paperback, with the young poet’s photograph on the cover, has titles and pages scribbled inside the back and front covers, faint pencil lines along margins. A traveled book, like a creased and marked-up map.
I read The Dead Lecturer again partly for the feeling of a time and place, personal and historical: New York in the late 1960s, surges of public expectation and anger, war news, assassination news, political meetings, demonstrations, posters and leaflets; a time lived in the streets, in community centers, lecture halls and student cafeterias, storefronts and walk-ups, coffeehouses and jazz clubs; living room and open-air poetry readings from the East Village to the Upper West Side to Harlem. A time when factions might clash but there was motive and hope in social participation. I read it again realizing, forty years later, how Jones’s poetics had furthered my sense of possibilities when I was writing the poems of The Will to Change and Diving into the Wreck. But I return to The Dead Lecturer here for reasons beyond the personal.
Amiri Baraka’s distinguished, embattled history as poet, small-press editor, essayist, playwright, political activist, autobiographer, and public figure is not what I want to write about here—even if I thought I could do it justice. Paul Vangelisti, in his foreword to Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, 1961—1995, and Robert Creeley, in a December 1996/January 1997 Boston Review essay, provide valuable perspectives on a major poetic career. But I would urge any serious student of the human scene, certainly any poet, who has not recently, or ever, read The Dead Lecturer: borrow a copy from the public library, from a friend’s bookshelf, or get hold of it secondhand. (“Used,” “As New,” “Slightly Worn,” say the mail-order book catalogues. The copy in my hands, both used and new, in different senses.) Many of the poems are included in Transbluesency, but The Dead Lecturer itself is out of print.
And it is a book, not an assemblage of occasional poems: a soul-journey borne in conflictual music, faultless phrasing. Music, phrasing of human flesh longing for touch, mind fiercely working to decipher its predicament. Titles of poems are set sometimes in bold, sometimes italics, implying structures within the larger structure. Drawing both on black music and the technical innovations of American Modernism, Jones moves deeper into a new poetics, what the poet June Jordan would name “the intimate face of universal struggle.”
But intimacy is never simple, least of all in poems like these where “inept tenderness” (“A Poem for Neutrals”) searches for an ever-escaping mutuality. Or, in “Footnote to a Pretentious Book”:
Who am I to love
so deeply? As against
a heavy darkness, pressed
against my eyes. Wetting
my face, a constant trembling
A long life, to you. My friend. I
tell that to myself, slowly, sucking
my lip. A silence of motives / empties
the day of meaning.
What is intimate
enough? What is
It is slow unto meaning for
any life. If I am an animal, there
is proof of my living. The fawns
of my age. But it is steel that falls
as a thin mist into my consciousness. As a fine
ugly spray, I have made
some futile ethic
“Changed my life?” As the dead man
pacing at the edge of the sea. As
the lips, closed
for so long, at the sight
There is no one to entrust with
meaning. (These sails go by, these small
And meaning? These words?
Were there some blue expanse
of world. Some other
at the roof
of the world
you could say of me,
that I was truly
No lyric of romantic loneliness and melancholy here. The title suggests an addendum to some literary classic presumed to have changed a life, but the mode is largely interrogative: “It is slow unto meaning for / any life. . . . Who am I to love / so deeply? . . . What is intimate / enough? What is / beautiful? . . . And meaning? These words?” Images bind these questions, render them sensuous: darkness and rain, the sucked lip, the young animals, steel “that falls / as a thin mist . . . . a fine / ugly spray,” the immobility of “the dead man / pacing,” “the lips, closed / for so long,” “motionless / birds.” Together they conjure a landscape of withholding, longing and mistrust. The speaker is not, cannot be, “simpleminded.”
In “An Agony. As Now.” (possibly one of Jones’s most-quoted poems—at least the first few lines) contactlessness and self-barricading are evoked but cannot utter themselves. Nor can “love” decipher them from the outside. But this is not simply one person’s crisis. Robert Creeley rightly saw in it “life . . . in a literal body which the surrounding ‘body’ of the society defines as hateful”—an unacceptable condition. It can be read as common existential anguish, but to ignore that surround of social hatred is to mistake the poem’s diagnostic power:
I am inside someone
who hates me. I look
out from his eyes. Smell
what fouled tunes come in
to his breath. Love his
Slits in the metal, for sun. Where
my eyes sit turning, at the cool air
the glance of light, or hard flesh
rubbed against me, a woman, a man,
without shadow, or voice, or meaning.
This is the enclosure (flesh,
where innocence is a weapon. An
abstraction. Touch. (Not mine.
Or yours, if you are the soul I had
and abandoned when I was blind and had
my enemies carry me as a dead man
(if he is beautiful, or pitied.
It can be pain. (As now, as all his
flesh hurts me.) It can be that. Or
pain. As when she ran from me into
Or pain, the mind
silver spiraled whirled against the
sun, higher than even old men thought
God would be. Or pain. And the other.
yes. (Inside his books, his fingers. They
are withered yellow flowers and were
beautiful.) The yes. You will, lost soul, say
’beauty.’ Beauty, practiced, as the tree.
slow river. A white sun in its wet
Or, the cold men in their gale. Ecstasy.
or soul. The yes. (Their robes blown.
empty. They chant at my heels, not at
or soul, as corrupt. Where the answer
moves too quickly.
Where the God is a self, after all.)
Cold air blown through narrow blind
white hot metal. Glows as the day with
It is a human love, I live inside. A bony
you recognize as words or simple feeling.
But it has no feeling. As the metal, is
hot, it is not,
given to love.
It burns the thing
inside it. And that thing
“Self-hatred” is too shallow a diagnosis for this condition. Here is self-wrestling of a politicized human being, an artist/intellectual, writing among the white majority avant-garde at a moment when African revolutions and black American militance seemed to be converging in the electric field of possible liberations. Experiencing the American color line—that deceptively, murderously, ever-shifting, ever-intransigent construct—as neither “theme” nor abstraction, but as disfiguring all life, and in a time when “revolution” was still a political, not a merchandising term, Jones’s poems both compress and stretch the boundaries of the case. “A Poem for Willie Best” (a well-known black character actor) scathingly quotes the dominant cultural “line” on “the Negro”: “Lazy / Frightened / Thieving / Very potent sexually / Scars / Generally inferior / (but natural / rhythms.” (Such terms may have gone underground but still inhabit popular imaginations, via television and film, African-American political and celebrity figures notwithstanding.) In addition to Best, the poetry’s geography includes Billie Holiday (as “Crow Jane,” after Yeats’s “Crazy Jane” poems), the civil rights leader Robert F. Williams, the poets Edward Dorn (to whom the book is dedicated) and Robert Duncan (cited in two poems), Sartre, Paul Valéry (“as Dictator”), Marx. Lyrically tough as deepest blues, they do not romanticize the black populace as some revolutionary vanguard:
It cannot come
except you make it
it is not
caught from. (The philosophers
of need, of which
I am lately
will tell you. “The People,”
(and not think themselves
to the same
trembling flesh). I say now, “The People,
as some lesson repeated, now,
the lights are off, to myself,
as a lover, or at the cold wind.
Let my poems be a graph
of me. (And they keep
to the line, where flesh
drops off. You will go
blank at the middle. A
die soon, Love. If
what you have for
yourself, does not
stretch to your body’s
music trails, or your fingers
from my arm
(“Balboa, The Entertainer”)
Out of the verse experiments of William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Robert Creeley, Jones had come into association with younger white contemporaries like Edward Dorn, Diane Wakoski, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Diane di Prima, Carol Berg. (All of these and others were published in chapbooks under Jones’s editorship through his imprint, Totem Press, along with his first collection, Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note.) In The Dead Lecturer he takes what he needs for breath and measure, committed to the break with anglicized formalism he calls for in “The Myth of a Negro Literature,” his 1962 address to the American Society for African Culture:
No poetry has come out of England of major importance for forty years, yet there are would-be Negro poets who reject the gaudy excellence of 20th century American poetry in favor of disemboweled Academic models of second-rate English poetry . . . . It would be better if such a poet listened to Bessie Smith sing Gimme a Pigfoot, or listened to the tragic verse of a Billie Holiday, than be content to imperfectly imitate the bad poetry of the ruined minds of Europe.
Yet the poems in The Dead Lecturer cannot be called derivative or said to belong to any single school, so imprinted are they with the intensity of Jones’s own personality, intellect, and location. It is the book of an artist contending first of all with himself, his sense of emotional dead ends, the limits of poetic community, the contradictions of his assimilation by that community, his embrace and rejection of it: searching what possible listening, what possible love or solidarity might exist out beyond those contradictions. It is the book of a young artist doing what some few manage or dare to do: question the foundations of the neighborhood in which he or she has come of age and received affirmation. Because Jones himself is implicated, this questioning is double-sided, and sides will be chosen.
“Short Speech to My Friends” moves to the crux of the matter. The voice in the first section of the poem rehearses utopian desire and opposes it against actual disjuncture:
A political art, let it be
tenderness, low strings the fingers
touch, or the width of autumn
climbing wider avenues, among the
and dignity of knowing what city
you’re in, who to talk to, what clothes
—even what buttons—to wear. I address
/ the society
the image, of
/ The perversity
of separation, isolation,
after so many years of trying to enter
now they suffer in tears, these others,
through the wooden doors of their less
than gracious homes.
The poor have become our creators. The
black. The thoroughly
Let the combination of morality
“Inhumanity”: dehumanization in the eyes of others, entrenched power that inflicts suffering without compunction, and the violence (mostly horizontal) embraced by those who feel no stake in the social compact. A “political art” cannot claim to imagine a “common utopia,” or evoke “tenderness” while enduring this dual inhumanity. But it must somehow bear tenderness for those who “after so many years of trying to enter their kingdoms, / now . . . suffer in tears.” (Or, in “Balboa, the Entertainer”: “But / die soon, Love. If / what you have for / yourself, does not / stretch to your body’s / end.”) The last three lines in this section of “Short Speech to My Friends” flash a signal toward The Wretched of the Earth (1961, translated in 1963), Frantz Fanon’s great study of colonialist violence, pathology, culture, and national consciousness. The poem’s structure spirals like a staircase, where “the society / the image, of / common utopia” turns sharply into “The perversity / of separation, isolation,” this turn signified by a full-stop and capital letter. And, since the poet is located between worlds, there is a necessary ambiguity to the pronouns, the “they” and the “our.”
The poem from which the book’s title is taken, “I Substitute for the Dead Lecturer,” carries Jones’s predicament to the edge:
What is most precious, because
it is lost. What is lost,
because it is most
They have turned, and say that I am
I have thrown
have left me alone, where
there is no one, nothing
save who I am. Not a note
nor a word.
Cold air batters
the poor (and their minds
like sores). What kindness
can I offer? Except
what is, for me,
ugliest. What is
for me, shadows, shrieking
they have need
of life. Flesh
should be theirs.
The Lord has saved me
to do this. The Lord
has made me strong. I
am as I must have
myself. Against all
thought, all music, all
my soft loves.
For all these wan roads
I am pushed to follow, are
my own conceit. A simple muttering
elegance, slipped in my head
pressed on my soul, is my heart’s
worth. And I am frightened
that the flame of my sickness
will burn off my face. And leave
the bones, my stewed black skull,
an empty cage of failure.
What can the practice of the middle-class, avant-garde artist offer to a downpressed and (formally) uneducated people who need poetry, beauty, as much as, or more than, any? To a people who possess elaborate cultural traditions of language and music—of which Jones is well aware, even if they are disdained by his middle-class professors at Howard University—yet from whom, in his present life, he feels ruptured? Fellow artists, unable to feel or hear Jones’s shrieking phantoms, have left him alone with it all: “They have turned, and say that I am dying. That / I have thrown / my life / away.” The voices are internal also: how to give flesh to shadows? This is the beset, conflicted art of one experiencing—allowing himself to experience—a split at the core: Who and what do I work for? What can I offer? What city am I living in? Who am I talking to?
There is no “universal” city but that defined by those who think they rightfully own the cities.
Such questions have engaged many other poets, in cultures outside North America, who believed that art must be a human resource in any genuine seismic shift, that it should belong to those who need it most. But rarely in North America has appeared so morally problematized, artistically self-critical a poetic document. Jones’s fusion of craft and emotional volatility can possess a furious eloquence reminiscent at times of Aimé Césaire.
Allen Ginsberg’s Howl broke expressive limits in 1955, beginning with the wreckage of intelligence (“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”) through the desperation beneath numbed, Freudianized, complacent postwar America. Howl transposed despair and alienation from individual pathology onto that society itself. In this it is one of our great public poems. But much of Beat-influenced poetry, catching on to the expressive open-form Whitmanic model and the un-Whitmanic machismo, minus Howl’s social insights, easily devolved into self-indulgence, penile narcissism, and tantrum.
In The Dead Lecturer there is neither rant (unless strategically placed) nor self-aggrandizing neurotic angst. There are, however, many sliding screens. “Black Dada Nihilismus” I read as bitter verbal extremism, a send-up of “Dadaist” and nihilist jabber, turned against Eurocentrism. Here it is said of Sartre, “a white man” who had strenuously opposed the French presence in North Africa: “we beg him die / before he is killed.” The injunction to “Rape the white girls” hurls back the deadly lie of white lynching tradition; to “Rape their fathers” an expression of sheer political impotence. Masks and voice-overs are strategic to the poem.
In the poem “The politics of rich painters” Jones mocks the discourse of an art clique he perceives as inhabited by “faggots.” Gay men are made to stand in for the capitalist art world, its class entitlement and hypocrisy. They become the target for rank homophobia, which the poet has failed to disentangle from class (and racial) rage; the language wobbles unsteadily between the two. Minus the homophobic stereotyping this could have been a brilliant satirical poem on the posturing of rich aesthetes:
will be Malraux’s? Or the names
Senghor, Price, Baldwin
whispered across the same dramatic
pancakes, to let each eyelash flutter
at the news of their horrible deaths. It is
a cheap game
to patronize the dead, unless their
deaths be accountable
to your own understanding. Which be
if not bank statements and serene trips
to our ominous countryside . . .
The source of their art crumbles into
The whimpering pigment of a decadent
Published in 1964, The Dead Lecturer is not just a transitional book in a long, controversial career. It is a landmark in itself. After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Jones broke with his former affiliations (including his wife and daughters); moved to Harlem, then Newark; identified for a time as a Black Nationalist, then turned away from Nationalism to international socialism and Third World Marxism; and became Amiri Baraka. In these readings I have wished not to biographize the poems except as Jones gives leave within them; “Let my poems be a graph / of me.” Rather, I am drawn and held by the poet as social being, trying to pierce layers of inhumanity and bad faith, including his own, with language.
For me, perhaps for others, the legacy of LeRoi Jones from this early book is to have made a poetry so personally exposed yet so wide-lensed, asking questions at the crossroads of experimentalism and political upheaval—questions about art, community, poverty, audience, skin, self. His torquing of language is organic to the work; he does not assume that either self-revelation or experiments in language can suffice. The reflexive, un-self-critical use of “jews” and “fags” as familiar, still-poisonous code names for class enemies certainly disfigures the poet’s achievement, along with misogyny and its images craving the woman victim. Jones was writing within conditions that continue to disfigure the American—and human—scene of which he was, and is, though oppositionally, a part. Even the erratics of his art continue to be instructive on that society.
And still there is this painful, visionary music:
What comes, closest, is closest. Moving, there
is a wreck of spirit,
a heap of broken feeling. What
was only love
or in those cold rooms,
opinion. Still, it made
color. And filled me
as no one will. As, even
I cannot fill
myself . . .
And which one
is truly to rule here? And
what country is this?
(“Duncan spoke of a process”)
by Calvin Reid
May 1, 2000
Interview with Amiri Baraka
"You take your life and talk about it any way that you can get into it."
As the car carrying PW's interviewer proceeds through Newark, N.J.'s black neighborhoods, one recognizes many of the street names--Hillside, Central Avenue, Newark Street--that crop up in Amiri Baraka's fiction. It's not surprising; Baraka's writing has always been characterized by the habitual retelling of his life's story--his intellectual and emotional development; his conflicts and his strident, impassioned political transformations.
Born and raised in Newark, Baraka (or LeRoi Jones, as he was known until 1967) still lives in a black middle-class neighborhood not very far from where he grew up. The house where the car stops is large and old and thoroughly lived in. The ground floor is a comfortable warren of light-drenched rooms filled with wood furniture and hung with paintings and prints. Baraka rakes back his long and graying hair as we talk in a small room lined with books. Just as in the photographs of LeRoi Jones from the late '50s and early '60s, Baraka's eyes--wide open, animated and sly--command attention. The writer is short, perhaps five feet, six inches. He's a bit stooped in posture and, as a result of diabetes, rail thin. His dark green pullover and darker slacks hang loose on his frame, but his movements are quick and energetic. His conversation is informally erudite, mildly but comically profane and inflected in the colloquial, hip manner of the black jazz musicians he has written about for decades.
The publication of The Fiction of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka this month (Lawrence Hill Books; Forecasts, March 6, 2000) will introduce Baraka's fiction to a new generation of readers. The book includes the two published works that established his reputation as a fiction writer: Tales, a collection of short stories that includes the surreal masterpiece "The Screamers," and The System of Dante's Hell, a Joycean autobiographical work of idiosyncratic linguistic invention. The volume also includes 6 Persons, an unpublished novella that assembles all the clashing phases of his life into a pointillistic, grumbling, literary self-examination. 6 Persons chronicles Baraka's life up to Malcolm X's murder in 1965, the point at which he broke with the white downtown literary scene (and left his white wife and their two children) and moved to Harlem to found the Black Arts Repertory Company and later the Black Arts Movement.
An uncompromising, albeit cultish and mercurial black political activist, Baraka has radically shifted political ideology in ways that have often left both his admirers and detractors incredulous. After years as an aggressive black nationalist and black arts aesthetician, he became an extreme left-wing Marxist in the 1970s.
Yet despite these political makeovers, his fiction has remained formally inventive, vividly p tic and deeply emotional. Baraka is a seminal American poet, an Obie award-winning playwright (The Dutchman, 1964), a pioneering black jazz critic and a deft literary essayist. His work draws both from African-American vernacular culture (particularly the improvisational legacy of the blues, jazz and black music in general) and the black American literary tradition, with its demands for social justice. He has combined these influences with the experimental techniques and forms associated with the American and European 20th-century literary avant-garde. Baraka's fiction, probably his least known body of work, manages to be both formally difficult and relatively accessible and synthesizes these seemingly antithetical traditions into vibrant works of the American literary imagination.
From Newark to the Air Force
Baraka was born in 1934. His mother was a housewife and his father was a postal worker and an elevator operator. His family emphasized the arts, and at family gatherings, "you had to sing or dance or tell stories or something," he remembers. "You couldn't just sit there, the old folks would think something was wrong with you. 'You can't sing, boy?'" He remembers piano, drum and trumpet lessons, drama class and art school. "My sister and I sang duets."
Small but intense, he was an all-around high school athlete. He won medals in track, played second base, point guard in basketball and was a halfback on the football team. "I love sports. If I had been a little bigger, I would never have been a writer." Baraka also remembers the games of the old Negro Baseball League champions, the Newark Eagles. "We used to go to see them all the time. I knew all the players."
After attending Rutgers ("there was about three black people there") briefly, in 1952 he enrolled in Howard University in Washington, D.C., the pinnacle of black scholarship for upwardly mobile African-Americans of the period. He remembers Howard with a mixture of pride and irritation. His time there is fictionalized in The System of Dante's Hell, in the story "The Alternative" from Tales and in 6 Persons. But he also flinches at memories of the school's stifling propriety and "the whole caste-color-system" that rewarded light-skinned blacks at the expense of the dark. "Petty little bourgeois, middle-class Negro madness," says Baraka.
Baraka tells PW he got thrown out of Howard "a couple of times"; "I was more interested in reading and hanging out," than attending classes. "There were always people jammed up in my room. We thought we were intellectuals and we tried to embarrass the Negr s whenever we could."
Originally a premed student, he switched to literature, studying Dante, the 17th-century English p ts and the moderns Stein and Joyce. He praises "some good teachers," like the late p t Sterling Brown, who grounded him in both European classics and in black American culture, particularly "the importance of the blues; that it was first a verse form and then the music flowed from that."
Kicked out of school (he never graduated), he headed back to Newark and joined the air force in 1954. And although he calls it "the worst thing I could have done," he also admits that the air force was "where I really got most of my education." A weatherman and a B-36 gunner, he was stationed in Puerto Rico and ended up the base librarian. Soon, the library became an informal classroom for "about eight, nine of us, black, white, Mexican. I would order TheHistory of Western Music and each night there would be something else we would listen to, say, 'Well, what do they mean by counterpoint? Oh, that's what it is.'"
And books. "All kinds of books, man--we read Proust in there, all kinds of wild shit that I would never have read--Thomas Hardy, whatever. We'd read the whole New York Times bestseller list, which was BS like it is now, though I think it was a higher level of bull then. I remember this fellow saying, 'What's a Kafka?' I said I don't know what a Kafka is. Order it. Then we'd spend a week reading Kafka. We actually taught ourselves a great deal."
He was also writing poems and sending them to the New Yorker, the Kenyon Review, the Sewanee Review and the Hudson Review. "I would send them all out and they would come back quick. I should have saved those rejections."
In the end, though, Baraka was kicked out of the air force, too. He had too many books in his room--airmen were allowed to have only the Bible and one book--and among them was TheCommunist Manifesto. "Someone said I was a Communist. As it turned out, 40 years later, now it's true," says Baraka laughing.
Discharged from the service, he returned to Newark in 1957, "determined to go to New York." He got a job at the Gotham Book Mart on West 47th Street and moved into an apartment on East 3rd Street in the East Village, "$28 a month for three rooms, no heat. I remember my mother wept when she dropped me there because the place was so shabby." He married the writer and p t Hettie Cohen in 1958, and they began publishing Yugen, an underground literary magazine devoted to the work of other p t luminaries of the beat generation. (Baraka remarried after leaving that marriage; he now has seven children with the p t Amina Baraka).
By the early 1960s, he was reading at different places in the Village, and had published his first volume of p try, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, and his first works of jazz criticism (including Blues People and Black Music, two noted critical histories of blues and jazz). He knew the beat scene and other notable writers of the period: "I met [p t] Jack Micheline down in the Village. Allen [Ginsberg] was in Paris. I sent him a letter on toilet paper asking was he for real. He sent me a letter back on better toilet paper saying that he was tired of being Allen Ginsberg. Allen and I were friends after that."
At the time, he was trying to free his p try from the influence of Robert Creeley and Charles Olson. "I decided I would consciously write another way. So I decided to put what I was writing about in my mind as a visible focus, but just write spontaneously off that image." He also let the line of his p try extend across the page. "Other p ts had a tendency to write a short, terse, well-defined kind of line," Baraka explains. "Once I let go of that preconception about the line, I found that the ideas that I wanted to talk about but couldn't, would come out, just flow out. I don't know if I consciously wanted to write fiction. It became that." The result was an extended, prosaic line of verse that prefigured the style of Dante's Hell and 6 Persons, which was written in 1973-1974.
While his work is admittedly autobiographical, Baraka says the books are not an extended memoir. "You take your life and talk about it any way that you can get into it. Some of it's fiction, some of it's like illusion, some of it's would-be, never-be and added-on-to. Some of it's literal. But it's fiction in the sense that it ain't happen like that. It's not linear. It's all kind of ways. Back and forth and up and down; reflections. The mind works like that if it's not put into the straitjacket of trying to recall literally what happened. Ultimately, what you try to get is what was the feeling of that period, what was the emotional charge of that period."
The language in these works is complex, allusive and fragmentary, like thought, but it is also emotional, capturing the raw vernacular of those times, and Baraka's characterizations of whites, homosexuals and Jews will no doubt offend all three groups. "People will jump on me about it," Baraka says. "I was going to make it politically correct, but looking at it, I thought, 'Well, that was then.' I certainly would not have described certain things that way now. In my wild mind that was the way I saw those things. I know some of it is very abrasive."
"I never wanted my fiction to be formal American literature because that's boring to me," Baraka says. "While this stuff might be more difficult, it's much more interesting to write." Surprisingly for such a pivotal literary figure, he has three unpublished novels, written since the 1970s, all in the same streaming, hallucinatory, machine-gun-paced syntax. Baraka shrugs. "The editor of 6 Persons said, 'I can't read that. Why don't you write something clear like Dante?' I said, 'What? A few years ago you told me Dante was unreadable.'"
Baraka has had a long and idiosyncratic publishing career. "My relationships with publishers haven't been great," he says. He declines to talk about his editors. His longest publishing relationship was with William Morrow, but he has also been published by Grove Press, Third World Press, Doubleday, Bantam and Thunder's Mouth Press. The Italian publisher Marsilio is currently publishing his p try and will publish a collection of essays on music later this year. He is represented by Sterling Lord Literistic.
"I'm going to try and get some books published by major publishers and continue to do my own publishing," Baraka says. "I've published a lot of my own works." The unpublished novels include Burning Mirror ("It will give you the mood of the late '70s and the political shenanigans going on"); Why Are You Saying This ("a book about the rise of the buppie, the Negro academic"); and Negrocity ("an overview of all the backwards Negr s I've ever known"). There is also a book of short stories called Tales of the Out and the Gone. And Third World Press is publishing a nonfiction work, Jesse Jackson and Black People, sometime this year.
"Wherever I speak," says Baraka, "I always urge that writers publish their own writing. Don't wait for these people [corporate publishers] to discover you, they're only going to try and turn you into them. Get your own galleries, get your own venues. You've got to have an alternative superstructure to this one, an alternative to this commercial culture."
The logic of retribution: Amiri Baraka's Dutchman
African American Review
by Nita N. Kumar
The Black Arts Movement of the 1960s has been criticized for substituting a neo-African essentialism for what was identified as Western essentialism. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is among those who have critiqued the Black Arts Movement for promoting a "poetics rooted in a social realism, indeed, in a sort of mimeticism," in which the "relation between black art and black life was a direct one" (102). In place of the sociopolitical and empirical binarism of black and white, Gates advocates understanding "race" in the postmodernist terms of a "trope" in which the categories of black and white are not preconstituted. Amiri Baraka's work has been seen, from this postmodernist position, as advocating an essentialist and unproblematic conception of black identity.
This essay attempts to rethink the question of Baraka's binarism. The argument is that, while Baraka's retributive logic is focused on the need for assertion of ethnic and racial identity, his work also reveals complex negotiations with such binary categories as black/white and art/activism. In his essays and theoretical pronouncements Baraka sets up a fixed, non-dialectic opposition between black and white, and the categories have the double load of racial and metaphysical meaning. The white Western usage of black as a signifier of evil, death, and darkness is directly reversed, and white is made to carry the suggestions of sickness, death, and absence. When we analyze blackness in Baraka, we realize that it is both the goal to be passionately struggled for, and the innate being of the African American. The impassioned rhetoric that is built up in Baraka's essays around the terms black and white often projects the two worlds as mutually and self-evidently exclusive. Below the level of passionate rhetoric, however, the categories remain tenuously defined and shifting. Quite often the terms beg the question. "The Black Man must aspire to Blackness," says Baraka in "The Legacy of Malcolm X" (Home 248). If blackness is both the natural and the ideal state, then the term black evidently is not definitive, and needs to be defined. The charge of Baraka's propounding "black essentialism" also needs further examination, since the polarization of white and black in his work may be more apparent and strategic than real.
Rejection of the White World
What was the significance of Baraka's move from downtown New York to Harlem in 1965 and his resolute severing of ties with the white world? His essays written around this time are aggressively anti-white, and in them Baraka dwells on the necessity of destroying white culture in order to build black culture and consciousness. The white world is repeatedly described as evil, sick, and dying, and the creation of a positive black consciousness is crucially linked to the declaration of white culture as evil and insane. "In a time of chaos, in a time of trouble, we're asking for unity, black unity as defense against these mad white people who continue to run the world" (Baraka, Home 234). In a similar key, Baraka's compatriot Larry Neal, in "The Black Arts Movement," declares that the "motive behind the Black aesthetic is the destruction of the white thing, the destruction of white ideas, and white ways of looking at the world" (30). "Hate whitey" was the rallying point around which much of the black nationalist activity was being organized. "It was our intention," Baraka writes in his Autobiography, "to be hard and unyielding in our hatred because we felt that's what was needed, to hate these devils with all our hearts, that that would help in their defeat and our own liberation" (216).
This aggressive and unyielding anti-white position, which was a cornerstone of black nationalism in the middle and late 1960s, needs to be seen against the background of the integrationist Civil Rights Movement of the preceding decades. Martin Luther King's scheme of race relations proposed integration as a spiritual ideal that would engender acceptance and love between the two races. But Harold Cruse, in his influential book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, struck out at liberal Civil Rights leaders chasing the mirage of social integration, as if there existed "a great body of homogenized, inter-assimilated white Americans" with whom blacks could integrate (9). He rejected the notion of the melting pot and claimed that, while other ethno-religious groups had no desire to integrate with each other, American blacks alone had been mesmerized by this ideal. Black nationalism, he concluded, was the only viable course for blacks trying to forge their individual and collective identities.
These rejections of the white world, however, cannot simply be understood as realistic and attainable goals. In some cases they were inspired by the various struggles of independence being waged across Africa and Asia. There is, however, a crucial difference, since the African American could aspire to nationhood only in spirit, not material control of land. Therefore these gestures of rejection have to be seen primarily as ideological and rhetorical strategies for the empowerment of the community.
A gesture is capable of sustaining a goal only up to a point, beyond which it turns into its own caricature. Thus the real gains made by the rhetoric of difference can be appreciated only after its limitations have been acknowledged and put aside. An essential corollary to the goal of black consciousness is that it is often defined in terms of its rejection of, and independence from, the white world. One cannot help noticing the irony in the persistence of the concern with the white world in Baraka's essays, even as he obsessively rejects it. Of course, he did give material form to the gesture by severing ties with the white world in the downtown Village and moving to Harlem.
Dutchman (Theater review)
My argument here is that in his emphatic gesture of rejection of the white world and ostensible establishment of a black community Baraka, at least in spirit, seems to accomplish a dual task. While he sets out the objectives of independence and self-determination for African Americans in strong, bold terms, he simultaneously moves the debate about the nature and definition of blackness, and also that of whiteness, to a more abstract level. The change of the "trope of blackness," to borrow Gates's terms, into a "trope of presence" is not accompanied by a closure of meaning but by opening up possibilities. "Blackness" and "whiteness" become internalized categories. The enemy is not only the white person, who is easily identifiable, but the whiteness hidden in shades of blackness, where it can be more difficult to detect. Hence we find his retributive rhetoric turning not only against whites but also sometimes against blacks as well.
Blackness, for Baraka, is a value that the black person has to learn. "The Black Man must idealize himself as Black. And idealize and aspire to that" (Baraka, Home 248). While the attainment of "a united Black Consciousness" remains the goal, the possibility of its definition and attainment remains problematic. In his plays, Baraka engages with the issue of racial dialectic at the level of identity construction and representation even as he attempts explicitly to align the power of art with the larger political and social agenda of the African American community.
"We want 'poems that kill'": Baraka's Dutchman
A tendency see Baraka's plays as the apotheosis of the message of the Black Arts Movement can sometimes blind us to the innumerable complexities of his work. One perspective from which we can view his work is to see it not as the simple, straight-forward embodiment of the ideas of "nationalism" and "revolution," or as an expression of a "true black identity," but as an attempt to dislodge the received opposition between various binary categories such as aesthetic/politics, black/white, individual/community, mask/face, and Europe/Africa by simultaneously occupying a radically altered perspective and privileging marginalized positions.
Dutchman has been one of the most popular of Jones/Baraka's plays and hence one that has received abundant critical attention. In an influential and then-comprehensive study of Baraka's work, Baraka: The Renegade and the Mask, Kimberly W. Benston traces in the action of the play a typical tragic pattern: "the fall from innocence through hamartia, and from hamartia to catastrophe" (158). Through tracing the classic tragic pattern in Clay's fall, Benston places him historically as a pre-revolutionary victim who is also the harbinger of eventual black triumph. In a later essay, "Performing Blackness," Benston outlines two distinct theories of black selfhood and the formation of that selfhood by and in the "play" of language. He contrasts Ralph Ellison's vision of blackness as an endlessly mediated sign with what he suggests is Baraka's more "essential" figuration of blackness. "For Baraka," Benston says, the expressions of language and the body of blackness are diametrically opposed; discourse and being are not,as for Ellison, inextricable, and the possibility of "knowing" begins with anemphatic refusal of eloquence's prestige. Blackness, far from being inextricable from the paradoxes of its articulation, finally transcends representation.
Benston's excellent analysis of blackness based on Clay's "pumping black heart" speech in Dutchman is, however, a little misleading about the play, since it allocates to Baraka a position on blackness that belongs really to Clay, and not to the play as a whole. In the play, this essentialist view of blackness that lies beyond the representational realm is shown ultimately to be self-defeating and self-destructive, since it presumes an impossibility of communication.
Several other studies have also projected the play's concern with black "manhood" and identity, finding in Clay either a fulfillment or a failure of selfhood. C. W. E. Bigsby reads in this play a direct opposition between language and action, and he sees Clay as trapped in his articulateness. At the climactic moment, Bigsby says, Clay "relapses into language ... and discards the brutal sanity of action." He sees Clay, and Jones/Baraka too, as a black intellectual who recognizes "the simple logic of revolt" but "wishes to lapse back into the safety of words and the indirections of art." Drawing on the experience of Clay, Bigsby concludes, rather unproblematically, that the play "constitutes a temptation to substitute aesthetics for action" (398). George Piggford, in "Looking into Black Skulls: Amiri Baraka's Dutchman and the Psychology of Race," makes a similar argument by pointing to the divide between action and language and suggesting that the play posits the primacy of action but falls short of achieving black "manhood" because of Clay's inability to murder Lula. Piggford says that Baraka's text does not provide a curefor the "color problem" through an understanding of it. Though Fanon's"single answer" to the "color problem"is articulated by Clay--and thatanswer is "murder"--the problem isnot eliminated. For Baraka, a publicexpression of this answer is a necessaryfirst step but it is not--as Fanon wrongly assumed--the revolution itself. (78)
Piggford concludes his essay by contending that in Dutchman "Baraka both diagnoses the problem in American society--white dominance--and prescribes his cure: race revolution and murder" (82). Both Bigsby's and Piggford's readings seem to suggest that the play has thematically arrived at an unambiguous solution to the color problem--murder and revolution-which, however, it fails to achieve within its own plot.
My disagreement with these readings lies in their rather unproblematic assumptions that the play offers a definitive statement on blackness, suggests a binary division between art and action, then argues for the simple primacy of action over language and art. These assumptions rest largely on Clay's passionate speech, in which he scathingly argues for rage and murder as the solution to the neurosis of black people and says to Lula, "You don't know anything except what's there for you to see. An act. Lies. Device. Not the pure heart, the pumping black heart" (Baraka, Dutchman 34). This statement does suggest an existing, formed black sense of identity, perhaps even an essentialist and inaccessible one. To extend, however, these perceptions of murderous rage and a lived sense of reality from Clay to the play as a whole, and to interpret these as the central meaning and the monologic message of the play, is certainly not justified. My argument is that the play itself, as distinguished from Clay's perceptions, does not offer any simple duality, either between white and black or between art and action. Dutchman is not a definitive statement on, or an embodiment of, "blackness," but is rather an exploration of the various strategies of representation of black identity and the possibility of unraveling these. The play does not so much posit an authentic black sense of selfhood as explore the processes and modes of misrepresentation concerning it. It engages dialectically with racial domination in terms of representation and attempts to invest art and language with the power and immediacy of action.
The plot of Dutchman is bare and stark. Other than the background cast of Riders of Coach, and the brief appearances of Young Negro and Conductor, the play has only two characters, Clay, a twenty-year-old Negro, and Lula, a thirty-year-old white woman. The entire action of the play takes place in "the flying underbelly of the city. Steaming hot, and summer on top, outside. Underground. The subway heaped in modern myth" (3). Clay and Lula engage in flirtatious repartee that becomes increasingly sharp and terse. To Clay Lula is a white bohemian; to Lula, Clay is a typical middle-class young black, eager to achieve success on the terms laid down by white America. Lula becomes aggressive and insulting, calling him a "liver-lipped white man ... just a dirty white man" (31). Finally Clay slaps her and bursts into a long, uncontrollable, and dramatically powerful speech that begins to wrench away the middle-class fake-white-man facade and offer a glimpse into the tortured and conflicted psyche of a black man in America. He gains the upper hand but decides not to kill Lula. She, however, calmly stabs Clay while other subway riders look on passively, which suggests their complicity. She orders them to throw his body off the train. The train stops, and another young black man enters and sits near Lula. She follows his movements, hinting that the drama is going to be played out all over again.
Dutchman (Theater review)
To examine the issue of reality and representation, it would be instrumental to approach the play through Lula and her many faces. Lula is described in the play as "a tall, slender, beautiful woman with long red hair hanging straight down her back wearing only loud lipstick in somebody's good taste." Dressed in bright, skimpy summer clothes, she enters the subway "eating an apple, very daintily" (5). So far the details represent a realistic character not very difficult to comprehend and locate in a social context. As soon as she begins to talk, however, she breaks the rules of the game, or rather dictates both the game and the rules. Very deliberately she begins to invest herself with elusiveness, unpredictability, and mysteriousness, eventually acquiring an extremely powerful and threatening dimension. Lula is a strategist whose every word and move, in retrospect, are loaded with significance and deliberateness. Her strategies are concerned with, and belong to, the realm of looking, appearance, and representation of self and others.
Significantly, the opening action of the play revolves around looking and being looked at. After Lula enters the car, she stops beside Clay's seat, and the stage direction reads: "It is apparent that she is going to sit in the seat next to CLAY, and that she is only waiting for him to notice her before she sits." Clay sees the woman and "looks up into her face, smiling quizzically" (5; italics mine). She opens the dialogue by commenting on the weight she is carrying, to which he replies, "Doesn't look like much to me." Her retort, "It's so anyway," begins to hint, very unobtrusively, at the hiatus between "being" and "looking." After this bit of small talk, however, she confronts him head-on. "Weren't you staring at me through the window?" she says, and follows it with the more startling charge that he was staring through the window "down in the vicinity of my ass and legs" (8; italics mine). The talk soon shifts to what Clay looks like and Lula's delineation of his character. "Looking," both in its active sense of 'seeing' and 'perceiving' and in its passive sense of 'appearing,' forms a central preoccupation of this play. Lula invests this activity with deliberateness, consciousness, and motive. We can analyze Lula and her strategies of perception by considering her in the following ways.
Lula as a Postmodernist
The emergence of post-structuralism in the 1960s had radical implications for humanist thinking and the ideas of personhood. Instead of being a stable and determinate locus of meaning, the human being became a field of indeterminacy and interpretive freedom that pervaded every arena in postmodernist theory. In "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," Derrida, talking about interpretation and meaning, says:
There are two interpretations of interpretation.
The one seeks to decipher,
dreams of deciphering a truth or an
origin which escapes play and the
order of the sign and which lives the
necessity of interpretation as an exile.
The other, which is no longer turned
toward the origin, affirms play and
tries to pass beyond man and humanism,
the name of man being the name
of that being who, throughout the history
of metaphysics and of onto-theology--in
other words, throughout his
entire history--has dreamed of full
presence, of reassuring foundation, of
the origin and the end of play. (121-22)
Added to the idea of interpretation as play, rather than an activity sustained by an end or an origin, is the further problem that language itself is indeterminate, with endless possibilities of meaning open in it. As Jonathan Culler observes in On Deconstruction, "A Derridean would agree that the language game is played but might go on to point out that one can never be quite certain who is playing, or playing 'seriously,' what the rules are, or which game is being played" (130-31).
Derrida's book Writing and Difference, in which "Structure, Sign and Play" appears, was published in English in 1978, but in 1964, in Dutchman, Lula is already a Derridean in her interpretation of "self." She is, or rather represents herself as being, an indeterminate creature for whom being is a form of game playing. Soon after confronting Clay, she begins building up his persona through a series of conjectures that have no verifiable source. She informs Clay that he looks like he has been trying to grow a beard, that he lives in New Jersey with his parents, that he has been reading Chinese poetry and drinking lukewarm sugarless tea, and that he looks "like death eating a soda cracker" (8). These details have a certain amount of validity and reliability as conjecture and stereotyping, and the fact that most of this accords with Clay's life baffles him and puts him on the track of further expectation of referentiality. Because most of what Lula has said is true about his life, he insists that she must know his friend, Warren Enright, or be a friend of his sister, Georgia. Lula, however, pulls the rug from under his feet when she says, "I told you I lie a lot. I don't know your sister. I don't know Warren Enright." Lula is not only unconcerned with the verifiability of her conjectures, but is also not interested in their validity. To Clay's puzzled response, "I look like all that?" she replies nonchalantly, "Not all of it.... I lie a lot. It helps me control the world" (10). Lula certainly controls her interaction with Clay through whatever construction and direction she puts upon her language. The dialogue between the two is not so much an interaction, as a series of self-conscious inanities initiated and concluded autonomously by Lula, to which Clay responds as best he can. She talks about going to a party with Clay, about going to her house, about Clay's history and sociology--all, however, as self-conscious play on words and ideas. Lula entices, rebuffs, analyzes, and insults Clay with very little provocation from him.
Lula's stereotyping of Clay contrasts pointedly with her representation of herself as indeterminate, changeable, and unpredictable. Clay's efforts to locate and fix her image are rebuffed in a weary kind of manner. She meets his searching comments with the dismissive "I told you I wasn't an actress ... but I also told you I lie all the time. Draw your own conclusions" (27). Whatever information she does give about herself is supposed to come as a surprise to Clay. The reference to her age in her comment, "My hair is turning gray. A gray hair for each year and type I've come through," and the information that she lives in a tenement because it reminds her "specifically of my novel form of insanity," are unexpected bits of news to Clay (13, 24). Even her generalization about "life" as "change"--"Our whole story ... nothing but change"--is undercut immediately by the cryptic comment, "Except I do go on as I do" (28). Her changeableness and "playfulness," initially innocuous, turn menacing and finally destructive when she kills Clay after he has harangued her about himself and his tortured and hidden psyche. She becomes hard and businesslike as she says, "I've heard enough," and plunges her small knife twice into Clay's chest (37). Lula's apparent randomness takes on a sinister, premeditated aspect as she orders the other subway riders to throw Clay's body out, starts straightening her things and getting everything in order. It is as if she has timed and controlled the entry of the next young Negro who walks into the coach, completely oblivious of the preceding action. The suggestion of premeditatedness of Lula's plan is there in the play at the beginning, when the direction reads that she "begins very premeditatedly to smile," as well as at the play's end, and thus frames the main action of the play (4). Within the play, however, even her premeditatedness remains an element of her unpredictability.
Lula as the Dominant "Self"/The "Other" as the "Fake Self"
In marked contrast Lula's sense of her own identity, her perception of Clay is a series of stereotyped images hurled at him without any pretense or apology. She tells him disarmingly, "You are a well-known type" (12). She evokes every stereotype that has historically defined the African American, from the escaped slave to Uncle Tom to a "middle-class fake white man" (34). Stereotyping is the most efficient form of lying that helps Lula control Clay. The strategy by which she transforms stereotypes into structures of power and control is by working into the images an element of culpability, which can then become the reason for destroying the black man. "Everything you say [and do] is wrong," Lula tells Clay, and this works as the premise on which perceptions are built. As a nigger, he is an "escaped nigger"; as a non-nigger; he is "just a dirty white man." Not fitting the image of a real "nigger," he becomes a "liver-lipped white man" (31). Ridiculing Clay for wearing a jacket and tie, Lula tells him the brutal truth that these things belong to the tradition he ought to feel oppressed by. She characterizes him as either guilty or fake, with little possibility of an authentic existence.
The most condemning dimension of the stereotyped images in the play involves black sexuality. Although the sexual overtures here belong to Lula, they are made on the assumption of wayward sexual energy in Clay. Lula is undeterred by Clay's attempts to deviate from the image, and plays out the game of seduction, provocation, and castration determinedly. At the end, when she impales him, it is not clear whether the reason lies in the culpable sexuality she imagines in him, or in his refusal to conform to that image. When she begins to dance in "a rhythmical shudder and twist like wiggle," and calls on him to "rub bellies," he reacts with fury telling her, "You want to do the belly rub? Shit, you don't even know how" (30, 34).
Historically the white woman was used to castrate the black man with the accusation of rape. Here, however, a refusal to rape is an equally good reason for the sentence of death. Lula is aggressive and menacing and emerges as the face of an orchestrated, destructive white power. Lula deals with Clay's long outburst near the end of the play, beginning with, "Shit, you don't have any sense, Lula, nor feelings either," in an extremely crisp and businesslike manner (33). "I've heard enough," she says, and proceeds to plunge her knife into his chest. In the subway, in the world of the play, Lula's authority is supreme and unchallenged. Clay's act of assertion is an offense, a sin for which the only retribution is death. Lula, and all that she represents, becomes the reason as well as the agent of the destruction of Clay and his world.
Clay's long, accusatory harangue talks about his "pure heart, the pumping black heart," and traces the connection between black rage and black art that has been the focus of much critical attention. It has assured life and hearing to the play as surely as it means death for Clay. The force and conviction of this climactic speech are palpable. Its interpretation and the question of its framing, however--precisely because Clay's words are so raw and direct--remain open to difference. The speech has often been interpreted as a definitive statement by Baraka on certain key issues faced by the African American artist. Seen this way, the statement has been assumed to be a retributive, hard-hitting one which preaches that only a reversal of the binary position, which would put the "black man" in the position of assault, would offer a possibility of change. While there is no denying that the speech raises important issues, to treat it as the meaning of the play and to lay the weight of the play on it is to judge the whole by its part. There seems to be very little justification--in spite of the fact that Clay, like Baraka, is a poet--for treating Clay's voice as that of the playwright, without framing the speech within the structure of the play.
Clay's monologue is structured as a series of reversals and revelations. Assuming the control of speech, Clay for a while reverses the power relationship with Lula and the rest of the people in the subway car. This sense of power is perceived and expressed as the power to kill: "I could murder you ... and all these weak-faced ofays," Clay proclaims (33). This perception of his power, however, gives way to a revelation of the dilemmas and the inherent conflict at the root of this sense of power. Art, rage, and reason are represented as painfully locked together in the psyche of the black man in America. Clay projects African American art as a form of misplaced and transmuted rage in his oft-quoted references to Bessie Smith and Charlie Parker: "Bird would have played not a note of music if he just walked up to East Sixty-seventh Street and killed the first ten white people he saw." The disjunction between the mask and the self creates a neurosis with which the black man deals through its oblique expression in art. Through her music, Clay contends, Bessie Smith says, "Kiss my ass, kiss my black unruly ass" (35). Clay's solution to this neurosis is murder, which however, even in the process of its exposition, becomes rhetorical and metaphorical: "They will cut your throats, and drag you out to the edge of your cities so the flesh can fall away from your bones, in sanitary isolation" (36). This rhetoric of murder is instantly contrasted in the play with Lula's act of conducting a swift and real murder. This dialectic of speech and action is also an undercutting of one by the other. Lula's power of speech is undercut by Clay's discourse about the power of action, which is further undercut by Lula's demonstration of real power through action.
Lest this interplay of language, art, and action be interpreted at individual levels, the play takes care to make visible a car full of people who are the supporting agents whose role in the power game cannot be discounted. Thus the passionate but rather simplistic message of Clay's speech linking art with rage and valorizing rage over art is allowed to retain its urgency, even as the play puts it back in its more complex perspective by bringing in the larger context. The play also demonstrates the power of Clay's speech, which can reach the audience even though it is summarily dismissed by Lula. In a complex interworking, the play thus affirms as well as denies the validity of art in the process of self-liberation.
Clay's message of rage cannot be equated with Baraka's valorizing of an activist and committed art. When Baraka proclaims in his poem "Black Art" that "We want 'poems that kill'/ Assassin poems, Poems that shoot / guns," he is not displacing art by rage, but is rather struggling to invest art with more power (219). Nor can the play be seen as advocating an essentialist perception of black identity encapsulated in Clay's "pumping black heart" image. On the contrary, Baraka is here combating the forms of representation/ perception that become forms of persecution by denying blackness any possibility of viable existence. The source of this persecution, the play suggests, lies in a severing of modes of representation and discourse from any authentic context. Thus, in the dialectical, penetrative understanding embodied in the play, the retributive logic remains, but not merely in the form of physical violence. White violence is seen to be operating at the level of the construction of black identity, and it is at this level that the play seeks to contend with the oppressive structures of the binary, racial logic.
Baraka, Amiri (LeRoi Jones). The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones. New York: Freundlich, 1984.
--. "Black Art." The LeRoi Jones/ Amiri Baraka Reader. Ed. William J. Harris. New York: Thunder's Mouth P, 1991. 219.
--. Dutchman. Dutchman and The Slave. New York: Morrow, 1964. 3-38.
--. Home: Social Essays. New York: Morrow, 1966.
--. Raise Race Rays Raze. New York: Vintage, 1969. Benston, Kimberly W. Baraka: The Renegade and the Mask. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976.
--. "Performing Blackness: Re/Placing Afro-American Poetry." Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s. Ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr., and Patricia Redmond. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. 164-93.
Bigsby, C. W. E. A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama 3: Beyond Broadway. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.
Cruse, Harold. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. New York: Morrow, 1967.
Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction. London: Routledge, 1982.
Derrida, Jacques. "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." 1978. Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Ed. David Lodge. London: Longmans, 1988. 107-23.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.
Neal, Larry. "The Black Arts Movement." Drama Review 12.4 (1968): 29-39.
Piggford, George. "Looking into Black Skulls: Amiri Baraka's Dutchman and the Psychology of Race." Modern Drama 40.1 (1997): 74-85.
Nita N. Kumar, Professor of English at Shyama Prasad Mukherji College, University of Delhi, has a Ph.D. in African American drama. Her recent publications Include "Black Arts Movement and Ntozake Shange's Choreopoem" (Black Arts Quarterly, 2001) and "Invisible Women in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man" (Indo-American Review, 1999).
COPYRIGHT 2003 African American Review
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning
An Excerpt From:
Blues People: The Negro Experience In White America and the Music That Developed From It
William Morrow, 1963
by Leroi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka)
The Negro as Non-American: Some Backgrounds
When black people got to this country, they were Africans, a foreign people. Their customs, attitudes, desires, were shaped to a different place, a radically different life. What a weird and unbelievably cruel destiny for those people who were first brought here. Not just the mere fact of being sold into slavery--that in itself was common practice among the tribes of West Africa, and the economic system in which these new slaves were to form so integral a part was not so strange either. In fact, Melville Herskovits points out, "Slavery [had] long existed in the entire region [of West Africa], and in at least one of its kingdoms, Dahomey, a kind of plantation system was found under which an absentee ownership, with the ruler as principal, demanded the utmost return from the estates, and thus created conditions of labor resembling the regime the slaves were to encounter in the New World."' But to be brought to a country, a culture, a society, that was, and is, in terms of purely philosophical correlatives, the complete antithesis of one's own version of man's life on earth--that is the cruelest aspect of this particular enslavement.
An African who was enslaved by Africans, or for that mattter, a Western white man who was, or is, enslaved by another Western white man can still function as a kind of human being. An economic cipher perhaps, even subject to unmentionable cruelties--but that man, even as the lowest and most despised member of the community, remains an essential part and member of whatever community he is enslaved in; the idea being, even if an African from the GuineaCoast is sold or beaten into slavery by an African from the Gold Coast, there continues to exist, at the very least, some understanding that what the victor has reduced into whatever cruel bondage is a man--another human being. There remains some condition of communication on strictly human terms between Babylonian and Israelite or Assyrian and Chaldean that allows finally for acceptance of the slave caste as merely an economically oppressed group. To the Romans, slaves were merely vulgar and conquered peoples who had not the rights of Roman citizenship. The Greeks thought of their slaves as unfortunate people who had failed to cultivate their minds and wills, and were thus reduced to that lowly but necessary state. But these slaves were still human beings. However, the African who was unfortunate enough to find himself on some fast clipper ship to the New World was not even accorded membership in the human race.
From the actress Frances Anne Kemble's, Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation: "The only exception that I have met with yet among our boat voices to the high tenor which they seem all to possess is in the person of an individual named Isaac, a basso profundo of the deepest dye, who nevertheless never attempts to produce with his different register any different effects in the chorus by venturing a second, but sings like the rest in unison, perfect unison, of both time and tune. By-the-by, this individual does speak, and therefore I presume he is not an ape, orangoutang, chimpanzee, or gorilla; but I could not, I confess, have conceived it possible that the presence of articulate sounds, and the absense of an articulate tail, should make, externally at least, so completely the only appreciable difference between a man and a monkey, as they appear to do in this individual `black brother.' Such stupendous long thin hands, and long flat feet, I did never see off a large quadruped of the ape species. But, as I said before, Isaac speaks, and I am much comforted thereby."
There was no communication between master and slave on any strictly human level, but only the relation one might have to a piece of property--if you twist the knob on your radio you expect it to play. It was this essential condition of nonhumanity that characterized the African slave's lot in this country of his captivity, a country which was later and ironically to become his land also.
Perhaps more weight will be added to the idea of the foreignness of the African in the New World if we consider that not only were the Africans completely different in appearance from their captors, but there was not even a semblance of similarity between the various dialects those Africans spoke and colonial English. In Greece, there were slaves who taught Greek children their grammar and conducted classes in botany, as well as performing more menial tasks. The Romans employed slaves in the theater, in gladiatorial combats, and utilized the highly-educated foreign slaves as instructors. Epictetus, Terence, and Phaedrus were slaves. But the black slave in America had no chance for such intelligent diversion based on his skills or prominence in his own country. The African's sole purpose in America was, for the most part, to provide the cheapest agricultural labor possible to procure. Any deviation from this purpose was either accidental or extremely rare. (Even such a normal phenomenon as the "house nigra" was nonexistent on the smaller farms; on the larger plantation there were only one or two. Sometimes the house slave was merely the oldest or most infirm member of the owner's retinue; even after the advent of the African slave, for some time house servants on the larger plantations were indentured white persons.)
It is certain that it was this foreignness and the reluctance of the white American to think of the African as another man that helped early to fix the African's, and later the AfroAmerican's, place in American society--just as the color of the African's skin set him apart from the rest of the society blatantly and permanently. A freed serf, if he was lucky, could hope at least to matriculate into the lower rungs of the general society and perhaps find some genuine niche in the mainstream of that society in which to function as a citizen, a man. But the African, and later even the freed black, was always apart. A freed Negro, and there were quite a few of them even before the so-called Emancipation, would always remain an ex-slave. Otherwise, what was he doing in this country?
from the Academy of American Poets
Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoy Jones in Newark, New Jersey, on October 7, 1934. His father, Colt LeRoy Jones, was a postal supervisor; Anna Lois Jones, his mother, was a social worker. He attended Rutgers University for two years, then transferred to Howard University. He served in the Air Force from 1954 until 1957, then moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There he joined a loose circle of Greenwich Village artists, musicians, and writers. The following year he married Hettie Cohen and began co-editing the avant-garde literary magazine Yugen with her. That year he also founded Totem Press, which first published works by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and others.
He published his first volume of poetry, Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, in 1961. From 1961 to 1963 he was co-editor, with Diane Di Prima, of The Floating Bear, a literary newsletter. His increasing hostility toward and mistrust of white society was reflected in two plays, The Slave and The Toilet, both written in 1962. 1963 saw the publication of Blues People: Negro Music in White America, which he wrote, and The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America, which he edited and introduced. His reputation as a playwright was established with the production of Dutchman at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York on March 24, 1964. The controversial play subsequently won an Obie Award (for "best off-Broadway play") and was made into a film.
In 1965, following the assassination of Malcolm X, Jones repudiated his former life and ended his marriage. He moved to Harlem, where he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. The company, which produced plays that were often anti-white and intended for a black audience, dissolved in a few months. He moved back to Newark, and in 1967 he married African-American poet Sylvia Robinson (now known as Amina Baraka). That year he also founded the Spirit House Players, which produced, among other works, two of Baraka's plays against police brutality: Police and Arm Yrself or Harm Yrself.
In 1968, he co-edited Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing with Larry Neal and his play Home on the Range was performed as a benefit for the Black Panther party. That same year he became a Muslim, changing his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka. ("Imamu" means "spiritual leader.") He assumed leadership of his own black Muslim organization, Kawaida. From 1968 to 1975, Baraka was chairman of the Committee for Unified Newark, a black united front organization. In 1969 , his play Great Goodness of Life became part of the successful "Black Quartet" off-Broadway, and his epic historical play Slave Ship was widely reviewed. Baraka was a founder and chairman of the Congress of African People, a national Pan-Africanist organization with chapters in 15 cities, and he was one of the chief organizers of the National Black Political Convention, which convened in Gary, Indiana, in 1972 to organize a more unified political stance for African-Americans.
In 1974 Baraka adopted a Marxist Leninist philosophy and dropped the spiritual title "Imamu." In 1983, he and Amina Baraka edited Confirmation: An Anthology of African-American Women, which won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, and in 1987 they published The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues. The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka was published in 1984.
Amiri Baraka's numerous literary prizes and honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, the Langston Hughes Award from The City College of New York, and a lifetime achievement award from the Before Columbus Foundation. He has taught poetry at the New School for Social Research in New York, literature at the University of Buffalo, and drama at Columbia University. He has also taught at San Francisco State University, Yale University and George Washington University. Since 1985 he has been a professor of Africana Studies at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. He is co-director, with his wife, of Kimako's Blues People, a community arts space. Amiri and Amina Baraka live in Newark, New Jersey.
Amiri Baraka: Selected Poems
Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note
Lately, I've become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus...
Things have come to that.
And now, each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.
Nobody sings anymore.
And then last night I tiptoed up
To my daughter's room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there...
Only she on her knees, peeking into
Her own clasped hands
In Memory of Radio
Who has ever stopped to think of the divinity of Lamont Cranston?
(Only jack Kerouac, that I know of: & me.
The rest of you probably had on WCBS and Kate Smith,
Or something equally unattractive.)
What can I say?
It is better to haved loved and lost
Than to put linoleum in your living rooms?
Am I a sage or something?
Mandrake's hypnotic gesture of the week?
(Remember, I do not have the healing powers of Oral Roberts...
I cannot, like F. J. Sheen, tell you how to get saved & rich!
I cannot even order you to the gaschamber satori like Hitler or Goddy Knight)
& love is an evil word.
Turn it backwards/see, see what I mean?
An evol word. & besides
who understands it?
I certainly wouldn't like to go out on that kind of limb.
Saturday mornings we listened to the Red Lantern & his undersea folk.
At 11, Let's Pretend
& we did
& I, the poet, still do. Thank God!
What was it he used to say (after the transformation when he was safe
& invisible & the unbelievers couldn't throw stones?) "Heh, heh, heh.
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows."
O, yes he does
O, yes he does
An evil word it is,
Notes For a Speech
does not know me. Their steps, in sands
of their own
land. A country
in black & white, newspapers
blown down pavements
of the world. Does
what I am.
in the dream, an oblique
suckling of nerve, the wind
throws up sand, eyes
are something locked in
hate, of hate, of hate, to
walk abroad, they conduct
their deaths apart
from my own. Those
heads, I call
(And who are they. People. To concern
myself, ugly man. Who
you, to concern
the white flat stomachs
of maidens, inside houses
dying. Black. Peeled moon
light on my fingers
her clothes. Where
is her husband. Black
words throw up sand
to eyes, fingers of
their private dead. Whose
soul, eyes, in sand. My color
is not theirs. Lighter, white man
talk. They shy away. My own
dead souls, my, so called
is a foreign place. You are
as any other sad man here
"A closed window looks down
on a dirty courtyard, and Black people
call across or scream across or walk across
defying physics in the stream of their will.
Our world is full of sound
Our world is more lovely than anyone's
tho we suffer, and kill each other
and sometimes fail to walk the air.
We are beautiful people
With African imaginations
full of masks and dances and swelling chants
with African eyes, and noses, and arms
tho we sprawl in gray chains in a place
full of winters, when what we want is sun.
We have been captured,
and we labor to make our getaway, into
the ancient image; into a new
Correspondence with ourselves
and our Black family. We need magic
now we need the spells, to raise up
return, destroy,and create. What will be
the sacred word?
Monday in B-Flat
I can pray
But if I call
in a minute!
WHYS (Nobody Knows
The Trouble I Seen)
If you ever find
yourself, some where
lost and surrounded
who won't let you
speak in your own language
who destroy your statues
& instruments, who ban
your omm bomm ba boom
then you are in trouble
they ban your
own boom ba boom
you in deep deep
probably take you several hundred years
SOMEBODY BLEW UP AMERICA
(All thinking people
But one should not
To cover the other)
They say its some terrorist, some
A Rab, in
It wasn't our American terrorists
It wasn't the Klan or the Skin heads
Or the them that blows up nigger
Churches, or reincarnates us on Death Row
It wasn't Trent Lott
Or David Duke or Giuliani
Or Schundler, Helms retiring
the gonorrhea in costume
the white sheet diseases
That have murdered black people
Terrorized reason and sanity
Most of humanity, as they pleases
They say (who say? Who do the saying
Who is them paying
Who tell the lies
Who in disguise
Who had the slaves
Who got the bux out the Bucks
Who got fat from plantations
Who genocided Indians
Tried to waste the Black nation
Who live on Wall Street
The first plantation
Who cut your nuts off
Who rape your ma
Who lynched your pa
Who got the tar, who got the feathers
Who had the match, who set the fires
Who killed and hired
Who say they God & still be the Devil
Who the biggest only
Who the most goodest
Who do Jesus resemble
Who created everything
Who the smartest
Who the greatest
Who the richest
Who say you ugly and they the goodlookingest
Who define art
Who define science
Who made the bombs
Who made the guns
Who bought the slaves, who sold them
Who called you them names
Who say Dahmer wasn't insane
Who/ Who / Who/
Who stole Puerto Rico
Who stole the Indies, the Philipines, Manhattan
Australia & The Hebrides
Who forced opium on the Chinese
Who own them buildings
Who got the money
Who think you funny
Who locked you up
Who own the papers
Who owned the slave ship
Who run the army
Who the fake president
Who the ruler
Who the banker
Who/ Who/ Who/
Who own the mine
Who twist your mind
Who got bread
Who need peace
Who you think need war
Who own the oil
Who do no toil
Who own the soil
Who is not a nigger
Who is so great ain't nobody bigger
Who own this city
Who own the air
Who own the water
Who own your crib
Who rob and steal and cheat and murder
and make lies the truth
Who call you uncouth
Who live in the biggest house
Who do the biggest crime
Who go on vacation anytime
Who killed the most niggers
Who killed the most Jews
Who killed the most Italians
Who killed the most Irish
Who killed the most Africans
Who killed the most Japanese
Who killed the most Latinos
Who own the ocean
Who own the airplanes
Who own the malls
Who own television
Who own radio
Who own what ain't even known to be owned
Who own the owners that ain't the real owners
Who own the suburbs
Who suck the cities
Who make the laws
Who made Bush president
Who believe the confederate flag need to be flying
Who talk about democracy and be lying
WHO/ WHO/ WHOWHO/
Who the Beast in Revelations
Jesus get crucified
Who the Devil on the real side
Who got rich from Armenian genocide
Who the biggest terrorist
Who change the bible
Who killed the most people
Who do the most evil
Who don't worry about survival
Who have the colonies
Who stole the most land
Who rule the world
Who say they good but only do evil
Who the biggest executioner
Who own the oil
Who want more oil
Who told you what you think that later you find out a lie
Who/ Who/ ???
Who fount Bin Laden, maybe they Satan
Who pay the CIA,
Who knew the bomb was gonna blow
Who know why the terrorists
Learned to fly in Florida, San Diego
Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion
And cracking they sides at the notion
Who need fossil fuel when the sun ain't goin' nowhere
Who make the credit cards
Who get the biggest tax cut
Who walked out of the Conference
Who killed Malcolm, Kennedy & his Brother
Who killed Dr King, Who would want such a thing?
Are they linked to the murder of Lincoln?
Who invaded Grenada
Who made money from apartheid
Who keep the Irish a colony
Who overthrow Chile and Nicaragua later
Who killed David Sibeko, Chris Hani,
the same ones who killed Biko, Cabral,
Neruda, Allende, Che Guevara, Sandino,
Who killed Kabila, the ones who wasted Lumumba, Mondlane , Betty Shabazz, Princess Margaret, Ralph Featherstone, Little Bobby
Who locked up Mandela, Dhoruba, Geronimo,
Assata, Mumia,Garvey, Dashiell Hammett, Alphaeus Hutton
Who killed Huey Newton, Fred Hampton,
MedgarEvers, Mikey Smith, Walter Rodney,
Was it the ones who tried to poison Fidel
Who tried to keep the Vietnamese Oppressed
Who put a price on Lenin's head
Who put the Jews in ovens,
and who helped them do it
Who said "America First"
and ok'd the yellow stars
Who killed Rosa Luxembourg, Liebneckt
Who murdered the Rosenbergs
And all the good people iced,
tortured , assassinated, vanished
Who got rich from Algeria, Libya, Haiti,
Iran, Iraq, Saudi, Kuwait, Lebanon,
Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine,
Who cut off peoples hands in the Congo
Who invented Aids Who put the germs
In the Indians' blankets
Who thought up "The Trail of Tears"
Who blew up the Maine
& started the Spanish American War
Who got Sharon back in Power
Who backed Batista, Hitler, Bilbo,
Chiang kai Chek who WHO W H O/
Who decided Affirmative Action had to go
Reconstruction, The New Deal, The New
Frontier, The Great Society,
Who do Tom Ass Clarence Work for
Who doo doo come out the Colon's mouth
Who know what kind of Skeeza is a Condoleeza
Who pay Connelly to be a wooden negro
Who give Genius Awards to Homo Locus
Who overthrew Nkrumah, Bishop,
Who poison Robeson,
who try to put DuBois in Jail
Who frame Rap Jamil al Amin, Who frame the Rosenbergs, Garvey,
The Scottsboro Boys, The Hollywood Ten
Who set the Reichstag Fire
Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away ?
explosion of Owl the newspaper say
the devil face cd be seen Who WHO Who WHO
Who make money from war
Who make dough from fear and lies
Who want the world like it is
Who want the world to be ruled by imperialism and national oppression and terror
violence, and hunger and poverty.
Who is the ruler of Hell?
Who is the most powerful
Who you know ever
But everybody seen
Like an Owl exploding
In your life in your brain in your self
Like an Owl who know the devil
All night, all day if you listen, Like an Owl
Exploding in fire. We hear the questions rise
In terrible flame like the whistle of a crazy dog
Like the acid vomit of the fire of Hell
Who and Who and WHO (+) who who ^
Whoooo and Whooooooooooooooooooooo!
AMIRI B 10/01
In the Funk World
If Elvis Presley/ is
Who is James Brown,
I wanted to know my mother when she sat
looking sad across the campus in the late 20's
into the future of the soul, there were black angels
straining above her head, carrying life from our ancesters,
and knowledge, and the strong nigger feeling. She sat
(in that photo in the yearbook I showed Vashti) getting into
new blues, from the old ones, the trips and passions
showered on her by her own. Hypnotizing me, from so far
ago, from that vantage of knowledge passed on to her
passed on to me and all the other black people of our time.
When I die, the consciousness I carry I will to
black people. May they pick me apart and take the
useful parts, the sweet meat of my feelings. And leave
the bitter bullshit rotten white parts
Works by Amiri Baraka: A Selected Bibliography
- Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, poems, 1961
- Blues People: Negro Music in White America, 1963
- The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America, 1963 (editor)
- Dutchman and The Slave, drama, 1964
- The System of Dante's Hell, novel, 1965
- Home: Social Essays, 1965
- A Black Mass, drama 1966
- Tales, short stories 1967
- The Baptism and The Toilet, drama, 1967
- Black Magic, poems, 1969
- Four Black Revolutionary Plays, 1969
- In Our Terribleness, essays, 1970
- Slave Ship, drama 1970
- It's Nation Time, poems, 1970
- Jello, play, 1970
- Raise Race Rays Raze: Essays Since 1965, 1971
- Spirit Reach, poems, 1972
- African Congress: A Documentary of the first Modern Pan-African Congress (editor), 1972
- Hard Facts, poems, 1975
- The Motion of History and Other Plays, 1978
- The Sidney Poet Heroical, drama, 1979
- Poetry for the Advanced, 1979
- reggae or not!, 1981
- Daggers and Javelins: Essays 1974-1979, 1984
- The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, 1984; revised 2nd edition 1997
- The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues, 1987
- Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, 1961- 1995
- Wise, Why’s, Y’s, poems, 1995
- Funk Lore: New Poems, 1996.
- Somebody Blew Up America, poem 2001
- The Book of Monk, poems 2005
- Tales of the Out & the Gone, 2006
- Billy Harper: Blueprints of Jazz, Volume 2, Audio CD, essay, 2008
- Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music, essays, 2009
- The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America, 1963 (editor)
- Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, 1968 (editor with Larry Neal)
- Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women, 1983 (editor with Amina Baraka)
- Motherland (film) (2009)
- Ferlinghetti: A City Light (2008) .... Himself
- The Black Candle (2008)
- Corso: The Last Beat (2008)
- Oscene (2007) .... Himself
- Turn Me On (2007) (TV) .... Himself
- Revolution '67 (2007) .... Himself
- Polis Is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place (2007)
- Retour à Gorée (2007) .... Himself
- The Pact (2006) .... Himself
- The Ballad of Greenwich Village (2005) .... Himself
- 500 Years Later (2005) (voice) .... Himself
- Hubert Selby Jr: It/ll Be Better Tomorrow (2005) .... Himself
- Keeping Time: The Life, Music & Photography of Milt Hinton (2004) .... Himself
- Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed (2004) .... Himself
- Ralph Ellison: An American Journey (2002) .... Himself
- Strange Fruit (2002) .... Himself
- Piñero (2001) .... Himself
- Bulworth (1998) .... Rastaman
- Furious Flower: A Video Anthology of African American Poetry 1960-95, Volume II: Warriors (1998) .... Himself
- Black Theatre: The Making of a Movement (1978) .... Himself
- Fried Shoes Cooked Diamonds (1978) .... Himself
- One P.M. (1972)
Broderick, James F. Paging New Jersey: A Literary Guide to the Garden State. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2003.
Brown, Lloyd W. Amiri Baraka. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980. PS3552.A583 Z57
Campbell, James. Syncopations: Beats, New Yorkers, and Writers in the Dark. Berkeley: U of California P, 2008.
Elam, Harry J., Jr. Taking It to the Streets: The Social Protest Theater of Luis Valdez and Amiri Baraka. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997.
Grandt, Jürgen E. Kinds of Blue: The Jazz Aesthetic in African American Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2004.
Johnson, Cedric. Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2007.
Joyce, Joyce A. Black Studies as Human Studies: Critical Essays and Interviews. Albany: State U of New York P, 2005.
Lacey, Henry C. To raise, destroy, and create: the poetry, drama, and fiction of Imamu Amiri Baraka (Le Roi Jones). Troy, NY: Whitston Pub. Co., 1988 PS3552 .A583 Z75
Reilly, Charlie. ed. Conversations with Amiri Baraka. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994.
Watts, Jerry G. Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. NY: New York UP, 2001.
READING AND LECTURE
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY
NOVEMBER 1, 2007
THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
Volume 10, Number 2 · February 1, 1968
By Barney Rosset
To the Editors:
News of the maximum jail sentence of two-and-a-half years, for Negro poet and playwright LeRoi Jones, comes as a severe shock to every person concerned with freedom of artistic expression in our society.
Judge Leon W. Kapp, before pronouncing sentence, read one of Mr. Jones' poems aloud in court. As press reports noted, it was clear the judge applied the harsh sentence because the poem offended him. This, too, appeared to have been the issue when the judge refused to entertain a motion of appeal, or even to grant bail.
The conclusion, therefore, is inescapable that one of America's major young poets is in jail today not because he was found guilty of carrying arms as charged, but because his poems expressed ideas the judge found objectionable.
As publisher of several of LeRoi Jones' books, and specifically of the poem that incenses Judge Kapp, I find this outrageous sentence to be particularly odious. It is obviously out of all proportion to the charge. Morever, it flies in the face of all principles of free speech guaranteed to all citizens, whether white or black. It deprives LeRoi Jones of his freedom for the same reasons that Régis Debray was thrown into jail in Bolivia—the vengeful persecution of the writer for his beliefs. It makes a mockery of the concern we profess for the suppressed intellectuals in the Communist countries.
Every member of our community must feel this flagrant violation of the artist's freedom of expression as a threat directed at him. It calls for immediate and vigorous condemnation by all who believe in the even-handed application of justice, and who refuse to abandon intellectual liberty.
New York City