The Gift of Amiri Baraka
If you are lucky, or blessed, you will meet someone of such wisdom, courage, creativity and conviction that their influence, the very force of their spirit, will abide with you for the rest of your life. If you are particularly blessed, their presence will inspire you to be your best and strongest self. Other than my own forebears, Amiri Baraka was that person for me, as he was for so many others.
I met Amiri at the age of 15 at 502 High Street, "the Hekalu," the headquarters of the Committee for Unified Newark. I was a wide-eyed, gung-ho street soldier. Amiri Baraka was our leader. He was also the first truly free black man I'd ever met. And he lived it with the combination of style and swagger that only he could pull off.
Amiri's gifts were prodigious, and so was his capacity for inspiration. That is because he walked his talk. His every word and breath was for liberationist revolution. He was the very embodiment of a committed, self-sacrificing revolutionary. And he did it with eloquence of pen and tongue, unerring courage and principles he refused to compromise, even when his well-being was at stake.
Amiri was my first intellectual model. His extraordinary powers of analysis, his stirring oratory, the great breadth of his learning, his magical way with words and images all conspired to give me a new appreciation for the value of dictionaries and inspired me to read widely and eclectically. I found myself ensconced in Lao Tze, Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah, James Baldwin, the Qur'an, the Egyptian Book of the Dead -- and, of course, the works of Baraka. Because of him, I and every brother I knew fancied ourselves to be wordsmiths. For us it was hip to be a poet and a "deep" thinker. We'd recite and pontificate wherever we were, stretching and testing our powers of rhyme, reasoning and recollection. By the strength of his example and his luminous literary countenance, Amiri gave birth to a whole generation of street-corner intellectuals, writers and political strategists, some of whom went on to become exceptional writers and thinkers in their own right.
My lifelong love affair with jazz also began under Baraka's tutelage. He brought to our weekly "Soul Session" gatherings musical geniuses like Sun Ra, Gary Bartz, Hamiett Bluiett, Grachan Moncur, the great John Hicks, Pharoah Sanders and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It was under Amiri's musical wing that I fell in love with Trane's "Giant Steps" and learned to appreciate what he called the "out cats," like Ra, Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman.
But Amiri's influence on me was more than cultural. My political consciousness was raised to center stage during those years under him. I'd had a smoldering sense of racial outrage since childhood, but under Amiri's white-hot oratory it burst into flame. His words gave shape and coherence to my swirling political thoughts and feelings. Amiri's disquisitions on the implications of political events, both national and international, were my first lessons in political analysis. Watching him channel his righteous anger, outrage and boldness into political action was my second lesson. He did not seem to stew over anything. Either he'd act on it or he'd leave it alone. In that sense he was the archetypical activist intellectual.
I think what was most remarkable about Amiri, and what impacted me most, his political brilliance notwithstanding, was his political courage. He exemplified it, embodied it. He was almost recklessly unafraid to speak his truth wherever, whenever and to whomever he thought it necessary. His willingness to stand up to the forces of white supremacy stripped it of its mystique and gave to me, and to untold numbers of black people, a sense of power over our own political destinies that might have been unthinkable before.
Who Amiri Baraka was, what he did and what he represented challenged me to stretch myself, to believe in my own power, in my ability to change the world. By example he gave me and so many other young people a sense of mission and meaning for our lives.
What I gained from the blessing of knowing Amiri Baraka, from learning from him in the crucial formative time of my youth, is precious beyond words. I've had many important influences in my life. Yet I have no doubt that without the presence of Amiri Baraka in it, I would not be the person I am today. And everyone in my world would be poorer for it.
This post originally appeared on Ebony.com.
Amiri Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones, b. 1934) is one of the major and most important writers of the past half century in the United States, as well as a longtime political and cultural activist and teacher since the early 1960s. 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 social organizer, 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 SUNY--Stony Brook, Columbia, Yale, and Georgetown universities.
The following two political essays were written in response to the Obama campaign for the U.S. Presidency. The first one entitled "Left Out, Left Back, Left Behind" initially appeared in the specific context of the national 'Black Left' political conference in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on May 30-31, 2008 and the second called "The Parade of Anti-Obama Rascals" was first published on June 21, 2008.
Cogent, insightful, feisty, toughminded, rigorous, and incisive these essays continue Baraka's profound intellectual and activist legacy of always speaking truth to power and challenging us all to seriously wrestle with, investigate, and engage the complex and often conflicted and even ambivalent dimensions of public discourse on radical politics, ideological committment, and the larger struggle for true Democracy in our society and culture. It is in that spirit of dialogue and shared hopes, dreams, anxieties, fears, and desires that we are proud to feature Mr. Baraka's most recent commentary in the online pages of The Panopticon Review.
The Left is still playing infantile games, maddening antics, childish in their pronouncement, backwards in their effect. But to play games in this bitter material world, a world imperialism has recreated as Hell, is to risk being regarded as a candidate for the loony pen.
At a recent Harlem debate about the presidential primary campaign, two “Leftists” and a righty journalist disguised as a purveyor of hard facts trashed Obama. In fact he came out Wednesday with another mighty tome proving that Obama is unworthy as he ends it he “smells a thug”. But as my grandmother would say he probably smells his own upper lip.
At the debate he said that Obama and Clinton’s records are identical. But she voted for the war, he did not. And at that time, she had not sunk into the gutter of race baiting including poisonous speculation about a campaign saving assassination.
All three of these speakers at the Harlem debate were Black, at least one who back in the day was a member of the CP and who explained that imperialism would not permit Obama to change anything. Was he signifying that imperialism would allow the other candidates to bring more effective change?
Didn’t he also understand that even imperialism has its contradictions and splits that might enable significant political gain with the correct political line and massive popular support. Were the gains made against formal apartheid in this country in the 60’s by the Civil Right and Black Liberation Movements made only because imperialism permitted them?
A Harlem housing activist leaped to her feet, hands on hips, defiantly shouting, “You are not calling Obama a progressive are you?”
But in the context of Clinton & McCain, of course he is a progressive. A would be progressive anti war activist said we shd forget Obama and get back to being against the war. What does that mean if the only candidate to be against the war is Obama? What would prevent a presumably intelligent person from understanding this?
But there is a culture that only regards protest as real politics and marginalization as the only correct political stance. Why do these people first infer that there is a whole spectrum of candidates to choose from? There are only three, McCain, Clinton & Obama, take yr pick. But for some of us the idea of actually soiling our idealism by plunging into Bourgeois politics is sickening. But how can it be more sickening than standing around full of good slogans which nobody hears but ourselves, some of the time.
No one can resent or be more disgusted by US bourgeois politics than I, but there must be some deeper understanding of politics, as Karenga sd, “The gaining, maintaining and use of power". But also what Lenin said is that the goal of any true revolutionary is the seizure of power. But we exist throughout this land animated by protest, to whatever extent, but do not yet comprehend at large that we must wrestle power from bourgeois forces at whatever level as anchor for our protest mode. As a Left “force” the protest is almost our sole modes operandi.
We must begin to understand that we have to oppose the maintenance of the bourgeoisie at the lowest possible level to the highest. The highest is revolution. But in The Civil War in France, Marx said the Bourgeoisie knew what to do about street fighting in the 19th century, but what they have remained vulnerable to is the possibility of the masses of the people organizing and using the hypocritical bourgeois cry of democracy to actually access varieties of actual power!
To use voting for McKinney, whom I have always admired, as a suitable stance in this present conflict is to play games—don’t even mention the Nadir of political liberal unreality (Bah, Humbug!)
As much as I respect Cynthia McKinney, we need to take real action not make symbolic gestures merely to reassure ourselves we’re on the side of the Angels (not Engels) while permitting the outright devil to remain in power.
We can see now the surrounding media has taken off its gloves and is pounding Obama, using Clinton’s victory in Pennsylvania to suggest she has made a stunning comeback. But with their usual trickery, where last month they were saying that Hilary was 34 pts ahead, now they trumpet the 10 point victory as a triumph of triumph.
New Jersey’s Star Liar had headlines after the West Virginia debacle of poor whites voting against their own interests, Clinton Wins Big in West Virginia, but only a miniature heading mentioning Obama’s Oregon victory. The fact is that neither West Virginia nor Pennsylvania changed the distance and relationship of Obama’s lead. And the 10 points in Penna , if that indeed was what it was, given the reports of voting machine break down in the inner cities, has merely kept the separation between Clinton & Obama exactly where it was.
What I understood in that Harlem debate is that the three I discussed have never been in the Black Liberation Movement, so the struggle is more abstract. They don’t see Obama’s candidacy as an aspect of the BLM. That is, a struggle to raise the level of contradictions in the society and to push race theory to the wall.
We have not had a white anything running local politics in Newark for 38 years. Our children have been raised understanding the duplicity & lugubrious cowardice, & ignorance of the negro petty bourgeois, defining home rule as flawed by that class’ shallowness & fear. Now with Corey Booker bringing in a “occupied Newark” we see the real meaning of Cabral’s observation of how imperialism can rule through “Native Agents”. But we have had the opportunity to be taught about classes and class struggle without having to be objectively oppressed directly by the acid addition of straight out racial fascism.
(In contrast, the top 10 police officials in Newark now, under Booker- Stanford, Yale, Rhodes scholar where he was president of the Oxford University Jewish Student Organization- are white , not even Latino, in a city 60% Black. Booker defines comprador)
But we see now, in the last weeks since Pennsylvania , the forces of straight out racism begin to represent themselves almost openly as that, no longer citing Obama’s lack of experience and being cheerful about his “post racial” message. Now they openly say Obama cannot win because he cannot convince white people (at first the white working class, now just white people..which includes Charlie Rangel and Andy Young) to vote for him. Add to that the feminists who want to describe Hilary Clinton as a “woman” but Obama as a “Black Man. This just in, Hilary is a white woman.
It is time that the BLM (Black Liberation Movement), and the would be “Black Left”as the most advanced sector of the BLM, made its presence felt in the campaign, celebrating the post racial potential of the Obama campaign, but also clarifying the exact things we want to achieve with an Obama nomination. Because it is the possibility of such nomination that shd bring us to explain precisely what we expect from that nomination, which is an explanation , at the same time, why we support him even, as the Phila leftist sd, as a member of an imperialist party. Which of these candidates is not? This reminds me of the negro preacher in Harlem who was on You Tube screaming “Obama had a white mother”. This just in….so did Hilary and McCain! What foolishness!
The Left must stop pretending that this campaign is other than bourgeois politics in a country ruled by Monopoly Capitalism and Imperialism, by two parties who are surely representatives of that. We must use our resources of communication & organization to broaden, solidify and draw to the Left the pro-Obama coalition, trying to electrify it with a Left Bloc, as Lenin counseled, to maximize the influence of real left politics even within the bourgeois election.
Does anyone believe that Malcolm X and Dr. King operated within another system? The question remains what we can do within this system to force some change within it, not to be so “shot out” by discovering we live under monopoly capitalism that all we do is call our enemies names & refuse to struggle directly to transform it.
If we do not directly participate in the only slender corridor where the bourgeosie, as Marx pointed out in The Civil War in France pretends to endanger itself by touting democracy, we are foolish not to try to take whatever advantage of it we can. Must we be content merely to celebrate our Leftism by participating in acknowledged rituals of impotence , no matter how high sounding & Left they may seem. We shd be fighting McCain & Bonnie &Clyde with all our might, maximizing our Unity & preparing to struggle. We shd understand by now how tough the primary campaign has been, we had better prepare for the general election campaign which will be much much worse.
We must hold meetings to set tactics and strategy in place, in a number of cities and consolidate our decision & resolve. We must even go to Denver & be ourselves to make certain they do not just steal the nomination before our eyes.
There are already forces in Denver and preparing to bring more in. It would be important to hold a number of rallies by late July to mobilize Denver rallies Aug 25 to 29 at the site of the National Democratic Convention. We must make the entire world understand the dangerousness of trying to steal the nomination from Barack Obama.
We shd also begin to make concrete suggestions about Obama’s campaign, where it is faltering we shd be open & give advice. We shd take issue, obviously with issues like the backwardness of part of the Cuba speech. We shd have come together forcefully to fight those forces black and white who thought Rev Wright’s sermon or his press conference were racist. Or to defend Michelle Obama’s expression of realistic pride in her husband’s candidacy.
It is time for Obama to get tougher, more incisive in his commentary. He can no longer be satisfied with merely taking “the high road”. Hilary Clinton is a very flawed candidate. If Obama is Black she must be White . Her reliance on feminist racism must be exposed. We must begin to see her as the plantations owners “better half” & only that.
McCain’s Viet Nam lobotomy must be cited. Not only is he a right wing Bush man in almost everything he says - no help for those unhoused in the subprime scandal- not even the banks - OOPS! Change that . That was so screwy under monopoly he had to withdraw that immediately.
The Bill scandals, Hilary’s loyal Goldwater membership while that dinosaur righty even opposed Dr. King’s birthday. We must see this also as an opportunity to hammer at the old guard sell out civil rights negroes whose years of betrayal now have become the scarlet letter of the Hilary support. Rangel, Fenty, Maxine, Bob Johnson, Philly’s Mayor Nutter, Andy with Tavis Smiley as Amos, and the rest, all must be drummed out of any respectful status they now obtain among the Afro American people. Let their obsession with Clinton be their paean of retirement , their public walking papers. So we can kill several birds with one stone. (John Lewis and Donald Payne came to their senses they say.)
Plus, we must create some widely distributed document of specific demands for Obama. He cannot be permitted to take us, as the Democratic party usually does, for granted. This document shd be , at once, a defense of his candidacy, but dialectically, give the more exact parameters of what we expect his candidacy (and his presidency) to do-- which at the same time we know the others will not.
The New Orleans reconstruction effort, Reparations, the rise of White Supremacy, the subprime mortgage scandal. Specifically calling for reversals of Bill Clinton’s legislative legacy, the crime bill, the destruction of welfare (having welfare recipients sell racist newspapers like the Star Ledger and describing it as workfare). There should be WPA type reconstruction efforts, but also raise these questions to put Hilary Clinton in the vise of having to repudiate Bill’s work & by inference her co-responsibility for it.
The entire explanation of what can be done now, even under monopoly capitalism , to change US political culture. The elimination of the electoral college, the elimination of the winner take all system, the elimination of private monies in elections which ensure the candidates will be controlled by private interests, the support for one person- one vote, the elimination of the US Senate (an American House of Lords) in exchange for a single, unicameral House of Representatives, the restoration of Voting rights for ex-felons, the making of voting mandatory…if taxation is mandatory, so too shd be voting. These are things that can be done even under monopoly capitalism as concrete steps toward a Peoples Democracy.
We shd project the replacement of the present two party dictatorship with a parliamentary system which will allow as many parties as there are ideologically significant blocs, so that governance must be done as it is in Europe, by coalition, rather than by two wings of the same vampire bat- not just a third party, but a multiparty system.
The restoration of Affirmative action as a class oriented reform, not racially, to break down the resistance to it the bourgeoisie can inspire in poor whites, who also need it Plus a strong plank for support of reparations, the impartial review of cases and freeing of Political prisoners like Mumia Abu Jamal & H Rap Brown. Such a Black Left developed platform could gain wide support by some of the same forces within Obama’s present “post –racial coalition”
One of those Harlem debaters has come out with a long paper on Black Self Determination, essentially using that discussion as yet another forum to put Obama down. But the question of Self Determination is not understood. Starting with DuBois’ description of a Double Consciousness, that the Afro American people, since slavery, have grown with this “Twoness” being both Black and American. Without any advanced understanding this could just function as just some form of schizophrenia. But the truth is we are both Black and American, though this has been historically a painful contradiction. The reality of this consciousness, as a reflection of real life, is that we have a double edged sword to face the twinned obstructions to our national liberation. So that we must fight for both Equal Citizenship Rights on one hand and Self Determination on the other.
If we think our struggle is simply for Equal Citizenship rights, then we are too dependent on the paths seemingly offered by the status quo to move forward as swiftly as we must. Even voting rights were brought by the self determined struggle of the Civil Rights Movement and Black Liberation movements. Just waiting for the governing bodies to reach the humanistic conclusion that we needed the right to vote would see us still waiting for it.
But if we think our struggle is only for Self Determination then we have marginalized ourselves into thinking that we need not struggle within and with the mainstream of US political life and that somehow we are not even defined by our lives and history in this society. We are US citizens.
It is the balance of these two struggles which are actually part of the same struggle that we must understand and make use of to make our advance, turning this way then that way but always moving forward with the twin goals of Democratic rights and Self Determination.
So we think the struggle to support Obama and thereby commit ourselves to challenging him is well within the responsibilities we take on when we claim advanced political consciousness. What I predicted in the first debates last year about Obama has certainly come to pass, that his candidacy would cause wide excitement in the national Afro American community and it is this excitement which is everywhere prevalent which the Black Left, in conjunction with the whole of the Left and whatever other progressive and middle forces cohere, to reignite not only the BLM but the entire spectrum of progressive US politics.
So we are proposing a general People for Obama network which will go up on the net very soon. We are also proposing rallies for fundraising and communication by late July, focusing on the 27 cities where Black people are a majority or a large plurality, these are the largest cities in the US. We are also proposing a mass gathering of forces in Denver
Aug 25-29, to put exclamation point on our determination that Obama receive the nomination and that no Deus ex Machina , the ancient Greek term for the metaphysical symbol they used to project out on the stage where there was a problem humans cd not solve in the old dramas. We cannot let that Deus or his Machina get in the way of democracy this time.
We hear Clyde calling idiotically from the wings “Hilary won the popular vote”, as he tries to savor the results of the racist mongering he and Bonnie have been doing after Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Perhaps he thinks he is that Deus and all he needs is his machine. But we have a larger machine, all those democratic and would be “post racist” forces , plus the will and strength of the Afro American people. Black folks who have been the irresistible force behind Obama’s campaign, some 90%. And let us not forget we are a people of close to 50 million with 600 billion dollars a year, the 16th largest GNP in the world. 15th is General Motors. It is time we, along with our most trusted allies, made some impact on the mainstream of US politics, again.
June 21, 2008
We certainly know the animals of the right, the US Reich, the Foxes and Klan in Civilian clothes, e.g., O’Reilly, Hannity, Limbaugh &c and certainly a coon or two Tavis & Andy, some people even came up with the slogan Strangle Rangel. Happily w/the departure of Bonnie & Clyde more of these Negro retainers will replace their “ HillJig” buttons with the shit eating grin of exposed Toms as they try to ease painlessly into at least the margin of the masses who support Obama .
But I’m talking about another substantial pimple of soi disant, dare I say, intellectuals & self advertised radicals who are quite audible & wordy in opposition to Obama. You might say, ‘but how is that, since now there is only the prisoner of war, McCain , whose proves every time he opens his mouth that he is still a prisoner of the Viet Nam war’ that Obama faces. McCain’s major campaign plank is that Americans need to keep dying in Iraq and our tax monies need to keep being fed to Halliburton and the other oilies and cronies. McCain also holds that we continue the Bush type savaging of the US constitution by denying habeas corpus and the legal rights of prisoners in Guantanamo. Keep it open as a Bush-Cheney concentration camp. McCain also wants to maintain the widespread hatred of the US by the world, as well as making Bush’ giveaway Tax cuts for the super rich permanent.
Here’s a charming character who on returning from Viet nam soon dumped his lst wife who had been severely crippled in an automobile accident, to run off with, among others, a beer brewery heiress who cd support his political barn storming. Here’s a man, who for all the media clap about him being “an independent” is the spiritual follower of the man whose seat he sits in as Senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater.
I mention all this because it is criminal for these people claiming to be radical or intellectual to oppose or refuse to support Obama. I hope we don’t have to hear about “the lesser of two evils” from people whose foolish mirror worship wd have us elect the worst of two evils.
For those who claim radical by supporting McKinney or, brain forbid, the Nadir of fake liberalism, we shd have little sympathy. As much as I have admired Cynthia McKinney, to pose her candidacy as an alternative to Obama is at best empty idealism, at worst nearly as dangerous as when the Nader used the same windy egotism to help elect Bush.
The people who are supporting McKinney must know that that is an empty gesture. But too often such people are so pocked with self congratulatory idealism, that they care little or understand little about politics (i.e. the gaining maintaining and use of power) but want only to pronounce , to themselves mostly, how progressive or radical or even revolutionary they are.
Faced with the obvious that McKinney cannot actually do anything by running but put out lines a solid left bloc shd put out anyway, their pre-joinder is that Obama will be running as a candidate of an imperialist party, or Imperialism will not let Obama do anything different or progressive…that he will do the same things any democrat would do and that the Democrats are using Obama to draw young people to the Democratic party. Also that there is a sector of the bourgeoisie supports Obama to put a new face on the US as alternative to the Devil face Bush has projected as the American image.
Some of these things I agree with, but before qualifying that let me say that no amount of solipsistic fist pounding about “radical principles” will change this society as much as the election of Barack Obama will as president of the US. Not to understand this is to have few clues about the history of this country, its people, or the history of the Black struggle in the US. It is also to be completely at odds with the masses of the Afro-American people, let us say with the masses of black and colored people internationally. How people who claim to lead the people but who time after time tail them so badly must be understood. It is because they confuse elitism with class consciousness.
And at this point, the US body politic has been taken too far in this present election campaign to easily dissolve this heavy challenge to its historic race & class exclusivity. The positive aspect of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and commitment to work in the Obama campaign has certainly shredded some of the gender exclusivity as well, so that there is in reality a prospect that some substantive change can be made. Obama is the democratic nominee. Only repeats of the outright election theft of Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 can put McCain in the white house. In 2 weeks, since the Democratic Party primaries ended, McCain’s poll numbers have dropped from a dead heat w/ Obama to trailing by 18 points.
It is up to revolutionaries and progressives and radicals of all stripes to make it difficult for another larceny in November. We should agitate for serious disruption across this country and internationally if such a criminal attempt to steal the US presidency is mounted.
For the so called left and would be radicals (and some grinning idiots who say they don’t even care about politics) the McKinney gambit is to label oneself “Quixote of the loyal opposition” to pipsqueak a hiss of disproval at the rulers while being an enabler of the same. Neither McCain nor McKinney will help us. Only Obama offers some actual help.
Even the dumbest things Obama has said re: Cuba and the soft shoe for Israel must be seen as the cost of realpolitik, that is he is not running for president of the NAACP and not to understand that those are the stances that must be taken in the present political context, even though we hold out to support what he said about initiating talks with the Cubans, the Palestinians. After years of Washington stupidity and slavish support for the Miami Gusanos and Israeli imperialism, there is in Obama’s raising of talks with the US Bourgeois enemies something that must be understood as the potential path for new initiative. It is the duty of a left progressive radical bloc to be loud and regular in our demands for the changes Obama has alluded to in his campaign. We must take up these issues and push collectively, as a Bloc, or he will be pushed inexorably to the right.
Some people were grousing about the father’s day address and the stance he took lecturing Black men to actually become fathers not just disappearing sexual partners. But can anyone who actually lives in the hood, and has raised children there really claim that what Obama said is somehow an “insult to half a race”. We need to take up that idea of making Black men stand up and embrace fatherhood (a lifetime gig) as men and quit winking at the vanished baby makers that litter our community with fatherless children. This is where a great deal of the raw material comes from for the gangs that imperil our communities.
As I answered one irate e-mailer who was pissed off at Obama for leveling that challenge, a Negro man killed my only sister, a Negro man killed my youngest daughter. I can’t give no mealy mouth slack about that, we need to Stand Up!
Obama has addressed the Israeli lobby and the Gusano (anti Cuba) lobby. But where is the Black left and general progressive, radical and revolutionary lobby? That is the real job we need to address. We must bring something to the table. It is time for the left to really make some kind of Left Bloc to support Obama. I was at the Black Left meeting in North Carolina and had to argue with a group of folks who want to be revolutionary as heck with a Reconstruction Party supporting Cynthia McKinney. Though there was some good discussion, nothing concrete has been offered especially around the Obama campaign.
There were even a few badly disguised nationalists, posing as part of the left who think such posturing somehow more revolutionary than getting Obama into the oval office and dealing with getting him there and the rocking and rolling that will go on in this country whether he makes it or not. We ought to be putting together a left bloc document that can be circulated as soon and as widely as possible and in Denver and depending on the circumstances, beyond. Using this as a means of drawing the excited masses to the left.
We always knew that the Obama campaign had the potential to do this. And the closer we get to the convention and then the election even more excitement will be generated. We shd not let our role be to stand on the sidelines and mumble how hip we are, we can’t be so hip we let this cross roads of US history pass us by and possibly even let the lobotomized Robocop of right wing Republicanism serve us up more Bush’it.
I am sending this document right after I finish writing it to the Black Radical Congress who is meeting in St. Louis this weekend. I would hope it could be circulated.
Amiri Baraka 6/21/08
Amiri Baraka in Conversation
October 4, 2012
Amiri Baraka, black history month, Britain, British, British Library, career, history, Politics, UK, writer
Amiri Baraka in Conversation (UK Tour, October 2012)
Experience an unmissable visit by the world-renowned poet, a leading figure of the evolution of the spoken word genre, who has influenced politics, artistic practice and cultural change on an international scale. During his whistle-stop tour of the UK Baraka will be offering readings and performance from the rich collection of his work. The reading will be preceded by a Q & A with Baraka on his career and influences.
Amiri Baraka is an award winning poet and author with a life-long involvement in the arts and a prominent international role in cultural and political activism. Formerly known as LeRoi Jones and with a career spanning over five decades, he has produced over 40 books of plays, essays, poems, and music history. He is an esteemed lecturer and has won numerous awards including a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and a Rockerfeller Foundation Award. Baraka has also co-authored the autobiography of Quincy Jones and collaborated with hip-hop group The Roots.
Black History Month at The British Library
Amiri Baraka will be in Conversation with Dr Corrine Fowler at The British Library, the only solo London appearance of the influential American spoken word artist. In fact, The British Library brings together an exciting and varied events programme to mark Black History Month 2012. This international line-up includes an evening of poetry and music to celebrate Jamaica’s 50th anniversary of independence; the only solo London appearance of Amiri Baraka, and an investigation of the black presence in 16th century Britain.
Jublication! Celebrating 50 years of Jamaican Independence is an evening of poetry, music and readings that also marks publication of a major new anthology, Jubilation!
Linked to the Library’s exhibition On the Road: Jack Kerouac’s manuscript scroll is the only solo London appearance of you know who. This is a rare opportunity to hear one of the world’s most prominent spoken word artist, whose work has influenced politics, artistic practice and cultural change.
Black Beats: Amiri Baraka in Conversation
When: Sun 7 Oct 2012, 14.30 – 16.30
Where: Conference Centre, British Library
Price: £7.50 / £5 concessions
Book now for 07 Oct 2012, 14.30 – 16.30
There has been a documented African presence in the British Isles as far back as the Roman occupation. Two researchers, who have used resources found at the British Library, present some of their findings around the black presence in 16th Century Britain.
Readers’ Research: Black in Renaissance Britain
Friday 19th October
18.30 – 20.00
Amiri Baraka in Conversation at The British Library is part of an England tour produced by Tilt.
by Sala Udin
September 16, 2011
During the Civil Rights Movement these two men were fighting to put an end to the practices of discrimination. While Amiri Baraka did it from New York, Sala Udin did it from Holmes County, Mississippi and Pittsburgh.
Baraka founded the Black Arts Movement, which advocated independent black writing, publishing, and artistic institutions. In 1966 he set up the Spirit House Players, which produced, among other works, two of his plays against police brutality. Then Sala Udin—a man who, among other things, fought for starting Black Studies at the University of Pittsburgh—used to take young people to those performances. Many of these people went back to change their cities, inspired by the work of “the father of the Black Arts Movement,” as Baraka is known.
Almost fives decades later, in June 2011, it was Baraka who came to Pittsburgh to read at the poetry event that Cave Canem and City of Asylum/Pittsburgh hosted on the North Side. Sala Udin, a former Pittsburgh City Councilman, sat down with him to discuss politics, the future of black art, and the consequences of making political art in America. Their lively conversation is sprinkled with personal memories, sharp political commentary, and humor.
Because it is a unique opportunity to have two figures of the Civil Rights Movement in the same room to talk about that period and their lives afterward, Sampsonia Way presents this interview unedited and uncut. It is our longest interview to date.
A WAY BACK
Sala Udin: We were just talking about little Ras who’s not so little. I know you must be proud of your son, who is a public school principal, was deputy mayor in Newark, and now has recently been re-elected to City Council. Tell us a little bit about Ras’ entry into the politics of Newark, and how it was an extension of the politics that we started way back.
Amiri Baraka: We used to take my sons to all kind of political things — that included my son Ahi who was very little at the time — and Ras was apparently just drawn to that and picked it up. He and our other son Amiri Jr. were into some political organization when they were in high school.
They organized all the students to walk out of the schools because there was no Black Studies. It was a long journey to where Ras finally got to be the deputy mayor under Sharpe James for four years, for a dollar a year. Now they’re paying deputy mayors $176,000 a year.
Sala Udin: He was a little early.
Amiri Baraka: Well it’s another kind of regime that we have now. But it’s been a long time coming. When Ras went to Howard University some students shut down the school over this Bush appointee who would be on the Board of Trustees at Howard. So the students shut the school down, and I went there and the mayor picked me up. They took me to the school, and the president there was so backwards that he had called a SWAT team.
Sala Udin: He called a SWAT team?
Amiri Baraka: Yes, called SWATs on the students. The students had locked up the administration there. What they did was pull the fire alarm and run out and lock the doors. So he called the SWAT on them. I called people I knew who had children there. I said, “They’re getting ready to do something to your kids.” He backed off after a couple of days.
Sala Udin: That’s similar to the struggle we had at the University of Pittsburgh, where we took over the computer center and locked ourselves into the Cathedral of Learning. At that time computers were as big as refrigerators. We had axes and hammers and were threatening to dismantle the computers, and it changed their tune. They became much more agreeable to having a conversation about Black Studies.
Amiri Baraka: Yeah, I don’t think these students now realize how important it was to do that and that’s why I think that there’s not as tight surveillance by the students and by the faculty over Black Studies. It gets diminished.
What the schools did after all that militancy of enforcing the initiation of Black Studies was to bring in instructors who were not revolutionaries and who were simply faculty members who didn’t care what happened. That’s what’s happening all over the country.
Sala Udin: And the whole initiation is forgotten. They don’t know how they got there. They think that they’re there because of their degrees and their brilliance.
Amiri Baraka: A lot of these Africans they bring in are just intended to be some kind of administrative pawn, but that comes from an era when they thought everything African was militant.
Sala Udin: We go back to a time when we brought a lot of young groups to Newark to see Spirit House [a black community theatre that Baraka set up in Newark in 1966]. Since then you’ve been widely known as the father and founder of the Black Arts Movement…
Amiri Baraka: Remember that we had started organizing people in the Village. We were trying to create some kind of black consciousness because the Civil Rights Movement was unfolding. But when Malcolm X got murdered, a lot of us young writers and painters moved out of the Village and up into Harlem.
I had a play downtown and I was getting some kind of money so we rented a brownstone in Harlem and tore out the bottom floor and set up a theater and then we began to send trucks out into the street: Four trucks every night with music and dance and poetry.
It had a very strong effect on the people because we thought that if we were supposed to be doing such profound artistic things, we needed to bring that right into the neighborhood. What was interesting was the play Dutchman, my play, which won the Obie Award, became a racist play.
Sala Udin: How so?
Amiri Baraka: Well because art in an abstract setting is one thing, but art where you’re actually telling people to do things becomes dangerous. Jean Paul Sartre said that as long as you say that something’s wrong but you don’t know what, that’s art. If you say something’s wrong and you know exactly who’s doing it, that’s political protest.
So we had to work with that and begin to understand that. But we wrote art that was, number one, identifiably Afro-American according to our roots and our history and so forth. Secondly, we made art that was not contained in small venues. We wanted to come out and get into the streets. That’s why I was happy to see rap because here you can hear people running stuff down out in the street. The third thing we wanted was art that would help with the liberation of black people, and we didn’t think just writing a poem was sufficient. That poem had to have some kind of utilitarian use; it should help in liberating us. So that’s what we did. We consciously did that.
We brought artists from all over the area uptown, some of the great musicians of the time. We brought Sun Ra into the community. People were saying Sun Ra’s too out there for the people. But people thought it was dance music, they started dancing to it.
There’s a picture in a book of mine called Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music where we’re getting ready to go out into the street, and I’m bringing wine, and at the top of the steps is Sun Ra. It was very effective, and that particular trend spread across the country in Milwaukee, Chicago, Atlanta.
Sala Udin: How do you see Black Art today?
Amiri Baraka: Well we need to restore its purpose. The thing is you’ve got an Afro-American presidential figure and that disarms a lot of people, even though they still suffer from the same ills. I mean, you see that the Tea Party will pop up.
After the Civil War the slaves thought they were free, but then came the Klan. It’s the same thing. You didn’t need the Klan when slavery was going, but the minute you say you’re no longer a slave then you get the Klan and you get Black Codes.
So you cannot stop struggling just because you’ve got a black guy walking around saying some stuff. Just because his skin is your color don’t mean his brain is the same as yours; if you’re going to bomb Libya you’re nuts. So it’s a continual struggle to raise the level of social consciousness in the country. Not only for black people but for everybody who needs that change.
Sala Udin: Do you still see black artists under the continued influence of Black Art who politicize their art?
Amiri Baraka: Some, but you got a whole wave of people who are influenced by this post-struggle art. People who believe that simply to write a poem about themselves or their family is sufficient. That’s not what it is. It’s the whole question of art.
Everything that Shakespeare wrote was against the rulers in that particular age. In Julius Caesar he wrote about the relationship between government and the people. The Taming of the Shrew was about the oppression of women and Hamlet is about the development of liberalism.
So when you can understand that Shakespeare is dealing with the elimination of the whole aristocratic class in that period you see that all the things he talks about are things that we will have to deal with under capitalism for the rest of our lives. But that’s not the way it’s presented. It’s presented as some kind of extra-realistic mumbo-jumbo in verse that puts people to sleep so they don’t see the essence of what that is. But that’s what artists are supposed to do— help the struggle for the advancement of human knowledge.
Sala Udin: When we came to Newark on many occasions there were several Pittsburgh artists who were influenced by what they learned and experienced at Spirit House. Now they are revered here. I wanted to name them and get you to reflect briefly on their work: Rob Penny, August Wilson, Ed Roberson, and John Edgar Wideman.
Amiri Baraka: Well Rob was actually the most active of our unit. He actually wanted to do the things that we were talking about, use art to advance black life and human consciousness.
August was a poet when we first talked. He didn’t write plays yet; he was a young poet talking to me about poetry and I thought that [his movement into the theater] was a miraculous kind of development. When I first met him, he wanted to know why I wasn’t a Beatnik anymore.
Next thing I know he had become a Muslim and joined the Nation of Islam which he stayed with for about that long [snaps fingers]. I think he and Sonia Sanchez got in the Nation of Islam about the same time and stayed about the same time. Thirty minutes. Then they were doing something else.
I was very proud of Rob and August and how much they did. They came to Newark a couple of times.
Ed Roberson I still know. We worked at the same school. I was teaching, and he had an administrator kind of job, but he was writing poetry, and he still is.
Sala Udin: Wideman spoke of you and Ed Roberson as early influences. He talks about Ed and includes him in some of his anthology work.
Amiri Baraka: Yeah well Ed’s poetry is a very fine, profound kind of poetry and it’s interesting to me. John Edgar Wideman and I have had some discussions—that I really don’t really want to credit as his whole being— on whether or not one should teach icons of Afro-American literature. And my line was “You mean you wouldn’t teach Frederick Douglass? You wouldn’t teach DuBois? I don’t understand.” And then he changed his stance because that’s clearly impossible. If you’re going to teach Black Studies you have to teach the great people.
OBAMA AND THE UPCOMING ELECTIONS
Sala Udin: As we look at the evolution of the political scene up to 2008, you had put forward a compelling argument for progressives that the Barack Obama candidacy represented an opportunity to push forward the agenda for democratic rights and equality. Now more recently you’ve described Obama as a yapping Negro who would take us back to slavery. I wonder what you would say about Barack’s presidency?
Amiri Baraka: The problem is that I have to support Obama because I remember the Republicans. I remember Bush, and I see the ones they have lined up over there now. At the same time he has to be criticized about what he’s done. I have to ask Obama, what are you going to get by bombing Africa? Take the oil away from Gaddafi? Gaddafi as a leader is no worse than others that he’s close friends with. So where is the logic of that?
And Obama has not learned to struggle like I hoped he would. There’s no way to get anything done unless you’re able to struggle with those long-time lobbies. Even when he was first elected we sent 10,000 newspapers out saying “President Obama, no bailout, nationalize the banks, nationalize the auto company.” I had forums to talk about that.
The only way I could justify his actions is that he thought that above all, capitalism–not just petty capitalism, but big time capitalism, monopoly— has to survive for this country to survive.
I still thought it was a respite, but there’s been so many times where he’s been able to do things and then backed off, like that thing with [Henry Louis] “Skip” Gates getting busted. Obama said it was stupid, then he backed off it. They arrested a guy, a Harvard professor, on his own doorstep. That’s stupid. And obviously racist. But to back away from that with some kind of “let’s go drink beer together,” that’s what began to turn me away from him.
I’ve got to support him to the extent I can, but at the same time I’ve got to criticize him.
Sala Udin: What should be the posture of progressives relative to the upcoming election?
Amiri Baraka: Well you know the right is moving towards fascism. This whole business in Arizona, this whole trading unemployment for refusing to tax the rich. In New Jersey it’s the same thing; Governor Christie will not tax the rich, but we have all kinds of budget cuts. That has to be fought, and Obama has to be held as a bulwark against that; otherwise what are we doing?
I think it’s important to fight the fringe, the Tea Party, and understand that a lot of Republicans, and some Democrats, are the Klan in civilian clothes. They just took off the white robes.
Like I said, after the Civil War, then you get the Klan. So after Barack’s election, then you get the Tea Party and it’s the same thing. It’s the Sisyphus Syndrome. You roll the rock, they’re going to roll it back down on your head. Like I said last night, there was a guy named George Romero who predicted the coming of the Tea Party in a film in the sixties called Night of the Living Dead. But the irony about that is a lot of the people are struggling against their own interests, you know, “Keep your hands off my social security.” That’s a federal program. But that’s where we are now, between a rock and a hard place.
During the campaign of the Weimar Republic, the left split up into pieces and permitted the right to grow. While the left was fighting about whether they were Communists or Socialists, Workers, Syndicalists, Hitler was building. So you looked up and suddenly they had blown up the Reichstag—which reminded me of 9/11—and the next thing you know, they had banned the left from the whole parliamentary thing and began to take hostages.
I don’t see the difference between the media, big media, Murdoch Media, Fox, and what the Nazi media was. Everything is to the right, to the right, to the right, and when you see people like [the radio and television host] Glenn Beck for instance, it’s very scary because they don’t represent anything but fascism.
Sala Udin: You called for the formation of a representative assembly, a united front, to organize black politics. How do you see that happening today? There is nothing close to the kind of assembly that we put together with the National Black Political Assembly. How do you see that evolving?
Amiri Baraka: Well it’s going to have to happen again. First of all, the only way we can go forward in this country is that coalition, that united front that elected Obama. Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and progressive whites have to maintain that motion because if that fragments, we’d go backwards. That’s the danger of Obama acting so backwards, because what he’s doing is cutting off his own backers.
I was actually giving money to the campaign in 2008, but I can’t give money to someone who’s going to bomb Africa. You could never back Great Britain and France against Africa or any other powerless people because they’re bloodsuckers. That’s why when you see these movies about vampires and stuff it’s so popular because they’re talking about themselves, they’re talking about the nature of this economy, the nature of this society. They suck blood from defenseless people.
Sala Udin: So rather than building a united front, many of the critics of Obama—especially left critics—don’t do anything as an alternative to their criticism. They exempt themselves from organizing people, and they think it’s sufficient to stand on the sidelines and criticize.
Amiri Baraka: Well it’s like [American author, actor, and civil rights activist] Cornel West. He called Obama a white man in black skin. This guy taught at Harvard and Princeton. I don’t know many black people who teach at Harvard and Princeton. If you got into one of them you’d be lucky.
I was at a Socialist conference and these people were making all these ridiculous statements. I said “I’m a Communist, I want to know where are the Socialists, where are the Communists in this group?” And Cornel says “I’m a Christian.” So I said: “That’s cool,” but I reminded him, “You know why they killed Christ, don’t you? Kicking the money lenders out of the temple.”
Anyway that’s the problem, people feeling that the Black Liberation Movement was a means of getting them into an Ivy League college. The idea that it was to try to change the very nature of the United States is lost on them because they’re perfectly comfortable. That’s why if you look at that book that [Manning] Marable wrote about Malcolm X, the three people pushing the book were Cornel West, Skip Gates, and Michael Eric Dyson.
Unfortunately Marable fell into this kind of thinking or analysis that the “left,” the Democratic Socialists, even the CP today, and the Trotskyites, are more progressive. I said no, the Black Liberation Movement had the most powerful effect on America. Not the CP, not the Democratic Socialists, not the Trotskyites. And Malcolm and all these Black Liberation groups, the Black Panthers, they didn’t want an Obama. But if you don’t understand that, if you’re going to belittle them because they’re not formally Socialist then you don’t even need Lenin.
Lenin said we don’t measure people’s struggle against imperialism by their formal commitment to democracy, but by the effect they have in beating imperialism. If you’re talking about Lenin, don’t talk to me about no left. That’s the problem: You have people who masquerade under some form of social democracy, pretending they’re on the left, but really just dribbling the ball inside regular capitalist America.
A WAY FORWARD
Sala Udin: When you look back at all of the contributions that you have made as a writer, playwright, music critic, and cultural critic, how do you see the peaks and valleys of your own contributions?
Amiri Baraka: Well, I just wrote a play about [W.E.B.] DuBois called The Most Dangerous Man in America. That’s what the FBI called DuBois. But that man was 82 years old and had a cane.
In the play he explains what they have done to him when they indicted him as an agent of a foreign power for talking about peace and condemning the hydrogen and atom bombs. They indicted him as an agent of a foreign power at 82 years old. He explained that once that happened, publishers that sought his writing no longer did that. They began to stop his speaking engagements. He said “I was a man that every Negro in the United States wanted at one time.”
He became a pariah. So I could understand that. I said yeah that’s what they will do. If you do something that the powers don’t like, they make you invisible. That was the first case against McCarthyism, and at the end, even though DuBois had Vito Marcantonio as his attorney, the last Communist in the Congress. But when he had won, he said: “Now the little children will no longer see my name.”
You can write what you want to, and say what you think needs to be said, but in the end they’ll hit you back.
Sala Udin: Have they done that to you?
Amiri Baraka: Oh yeah, even just money-wise. Last year I lost $16,000 in terms of speaking and stuff. I went to Princeton, and they said: “It’s going to be hard for us to have you at Princeton because we have to spend an extra $10,000 on security,” like people are going to come and shoot me. But it’s a normal thing if you understand what you are doing and who you are opposing.
People are always coming up to me, “Didn’t you have a play on Broadway?” Why should I have a play on Broadway? I mean you think that people want somebody to come up to them and say “You need to die,” and then they say, “Let’s put this on Broadway.” It’s a choice you have to make, it’s a choice you make and you have to live with it.
Sala Udin: What projects are you working on now?
Amiri Baraka: Well the play on Dubois I just finished two weeks ago. That took up my time for the last few months. I’ve got a book called Revolutionary Art that I’ve been waiting on for two years from Third World Press; I don’t know what the publisher’s doing. He sent me two sets of proofs, I marked both of them and still no book.
We are also doing things in Newark: we have a project called Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District. That’s an old district in Newark where the abolitionists lived and used to preach against slavery. Right next to that was the black music center, so we’ve sort of annexed that area and we’re building houses down there. For the last five years we’ve had big music festivals. Matter of fact it’s coming up again next month, and we’re organizing a tribute to James Moody who’s a Newark musician.
Tomorrow [June 26] we’re having a celebration for Juneteenth, the day when word that slavery was over reached Texas three years after the fact. It should be interesting.
We’re just trying to do things now to support Ras and his struggle because he’s the most progressive person on that city council. He’s always involved and struggling against these backwards forces. Politics for some people is nothing but a gig. It’s not about advancing anything in the consciousness.
Amiri Baraka, born in 1934, in Newark, New Jersey, is the author of over 40 books of essays, poems, drama, and music history and criticism. He is a poet icon and revolutionary political activist who has recited poetry and lectured on cultural and political issues extensively in the USA, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe.
With influences on his work ranging from musicians such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, and Sun Ra, to the Cuban Revolution, Malcolm X and world revolutionary movements, Baraka is renowned as the founder of the Black Arts Movement in Harlem in the 1960s. Though short-lived, it was a movement that became the virtual blueprint for a new set of American theater aesthetics. The movement and his published and performance work, such as the signature study on African-American music, Blues People (1963) and the play Dutchman (1963), practically seeded “the cultural corollary to black nationalism” of that revolutionary American milieu.
Sala Udin, whose legal name is Samuel Wesley Howze, is a former Pittsburgh City Councilman, where he represented the 6th district.
Udin traveled south with the Freedom Riders, and during the 1960s, worked primarily in Holmes County, Mississippi, for the benefit of the Civil Rights Movement. It was there that Udin rallied for school desegregation, farmer cooperatives, and voter registration. Upon returning to Pittsburgh, Udin helped to establish a branch of the Congress of African People.
Udin is also known for his acting in the play Jitney and the friendship he had with the famous author of the play August Wilson.
A blog about music by Richard
Something for Baraka
by Richard Williams
January 9, 2014
I bought his books of poems (Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, The Dead Lecturer), his essays (Home, Tales), his plays (Dutchman), his novel (The System of Dante’s Hell), which contained paragraphs like this: “Blonde summer in our south. Always it floats down & hooks in the broad leaves of those unnamed sinister southern trees. Blonde. Yellow, a narrow sluggish water full of lives. Desires. The crimson heavy blood of a race, concealed in those absolute black nights. As if, each tiny tragedy had its own universe / or God to strike it down.”
Later in the ’60s he got less lyrical, more angry, and became an activist. A few years ago, at St Mark’s Church on East 10th Street in New York City, I heard him read a poem about Rudy Giuliani that was truly shocking in its directed fury. After 9/11 he’d ruffled a lot of feathers — and lost his post as the poet laureate of Newark, New Jersey, his hometown — with a poem called “Somebody Blew Up America”, which was easily and sometimes wilfully misunderstood: here he is reading it in 2009 at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, NY, with Rob Brown playing Monk on the alto saxophone.
“One of the most baffling things about America,” he wrote in 1964 in his sleeve note to Coltrane Live at Birdland, “is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here. Perhaps it’s as so many thinkers have said, that it is because of the vileness, or call it adversity, that such beauty does exist. (As balance?)” Vileness and beauty: both present and correct in the work of an irreplaceable figure, a man of his time.
Conversations with Amiri Baraka
Edited by Charlie Reilly
University Press of Mississippi, 1994
As they offer an understanding of the political turbulence of his times, these interviews provide special insights into Baraka's works, his anger, and his career. Not only does Baraka criticize and explain his most celebrated works, but also his comments supply a rich context for understanding the African American experience.
Throughout these candid conversations Baraka maintains his belief in the firm alliance of art and social criticism. "To me, social commentary and art cannot be divorced. Art and life are the same: art comes out of life, art is a reflection of life, art is life."
Here is a collection that contains nearly all of the major interviews this poet, playwright, fiction writer, essayist, and social activist has given in his long and controversial career. Four of them have not been previously published. Included here are interviews conducted by Maya Angelou, Austen Clarke, and David Frost, as well as a new interview Baraka granted the editor of this volume.
PLEASE NOTE: It was at the annual Dodge Poetry Festival--one of the most important, well attended, and prestigious events of its kind in the nation that Amiri first read his powerful (and to some "controversial") poem entitled "Somebody Blew Up America' in 2002...
Amiri Baraka (1934 – 2014)
Director, Dodge Poetry Program
I still hear those songs, and cries
of the sons and sons and daughters and daughters
I still bear that weeping in my heart
that bleeding in my memory
from “Wise 2″
It is with great sadness that we at the Dodge Foundation recognize the passing of Amiri Baraka, one of our most influential poets. He’d been to the Festival many times, starting with the first in 1986. He will be missed.
We knew him as far more than the controversial New Jersey Poet Laureate whose reading of “Somebody Blew Up America” at the 2002 Festival led to the dissolution of that position. We knew him as a riveting, powerful reader who, in his late seventies could still bring the audience at NJPAC’s Prudential Hall to its feet for the kind of ovations usually equated with rock stars. We knew him as someone who loved talking to young people. In his conversations with students at the Festival he was open, warm and generous with advice and encouragement. We knew him as someone intensely devoted to the idea that as an artist he had a responsibility to his community, and as someone who possessed a questing, relentless curiosity, a staggering erudition (his essays on the history of jazz and blues are essential reading for anyone who wants to understand American music), and a wicked sense of humor and wit.
Baraka at the 1998 Festival
Whether or not you agreed with his politics or opinions, you had to respect the integrity with which he lived in accordance with them. Baraka was already an acclaimed poet and Obie-award-winning playwright in 1965 when Malcolm X was assassinated. His move in the aftermath from Greenwich Village to Harlem was far more than a symbolic gesture. It marked his departure from the aesthetics and politics of the Beat generation, of which he’d become an integral member, to the forming of the Black Arts Movement—the major force in shaping the multiculturalism that transformed the arts and arts education during the latter half of the twentieth century.
In the decades that followed, Baraka dedicated much of his art and life to speaking out against inequality and oppression. Although he identified himself first as poet, “activist” was a close second. His place in his hometown was unique among artists of his international stature. For decades he remained engaged in his community, supporting Newark’s artistic, cultural, social and political life, and earned the respect and gratitude of the many artists he mentored there.
Like many poets in the Black Arts Movement, Baraka’s poetry was influenced by the “oralizing” tradition of the ancient griots of Africa. Jazz and blues were also a major influence, and he and his peers were the precursors of the rap, hip hop and spoken word artists who have since emerged.
He had already accepted our invitation to appear at the 2014 Festival, and his absence will be deeply felt by the Festival staff, the many young poets he has influenced, and the Newark community he loved and served for so many years. He would have turned eighty just before the 2014 Festival, and we will program a special tribute to honor him. Our sincere condolences go out to his family and his many friends and admirers.
Martin Farawell, Director
Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival
A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste
Saturday, January 11, 2014
Failed Eulogy For Amiri Baraka (1934-2014)--Draft...
What to say?
Too much to say…too much that needs to be done…
I am humbled, inarticulate...
How to deal with this loss, this pain….
I stumble…and can not do justice….
But I must write something now….even if it is all wrong….
And please feel free to criticize….
His performance of “Wailers” in Naropa’s Poetry In Motion movie showed me another dimension to his art---the combination of music and poetry much more effective and deeper than, say, Ginsberg. While some of my teachers refused to acknowledge Baraka’s direct political didacticism and songs could qualify as “poetic art,” Baraka managed to open up these genres as viable possibilities in poetry and letters. Baraka came at me from all angles. Before I had even seem him perform live, I saw the film of The Dutchman….But one facet….
In December of 2011, in Rochester, New York, Baraka spoke of his intentions in his 1964 play, The Dutchman: “The play becomes clear if you focus on the time it was written….Because he’s actually killed for what? Leaving [the white woman, Lula]…’I’m gonna leave. I ain’t gonna be with you. I’m gonna be with who I want to be with….’ What I was trying to say is that there was change coming, and what you thought you were dealing with when you were dealing with the black and white thing was not reality because black people’s thing had never come out yet….When Clay comes up after he’s been fooled around with all that time…it’s the opening of a revelation.” Here is the climax to Clay’s speech from the play:
But listen, though, one more thing. And you tell this to your father, who’s probably the kind of man who needs to know at once. So he can plan ahead. Tell him not to preach so much rationalism, and cold logic to these niggers. Let them alone.
Let them sing curses at you in code and see your filth as simple lack of style.
Don't make the mistake, through some irresponsible surge of Christian charity,
Of talking too much about the advantages of Western rationalism, or the
Great intellectual legacy of the white man, or maybe they'll begin to listen.
And then, maybe one day, you'll find they actually do understand exactly
What you are talking about, all these fantasy people. All these blues people.
And on that day, as sure as shit, When you really believe you can accept them into your fold, as half‐white trusties late of the subject peoples, with no more blues, except the very old ones, and not a watermelon in sight, the great missionary heart
will have triumphed, and all of those ex‐coons will be stand‐up Western men,
With eyes for clean hard useful lives, sober, pious and sane, and they'll murder you.
They'll murder you, and have very rational explanations. very much like your own.
Almost immediately after Clay says this, Lula stabs him, as Baraka puts it in 2011:
Why is he killed? Because he wants to do that by himself. “I’m the great Black poet. I’m here. I’m going to express myself.” You can’t make change by yourself. You either get killed, put in jail, or get robbed. So that was the lesson that I was trying to teach….”
Clay’s “revelation” is similar to Jones’ (Baraka’s), but Clay speaks of “these blues people” in the third person (“My people. They don't need me to claim them. They got legs and arms of their own”). The revelation that Jones/Baraka had about “the black and white thing” during this time made it clear to him that he couldn’t speak of “his people” in the third person, and of himself as an isolated individual, especially after the death of Malcolm X in 1965. As he puts it in 2011, “Black people’s thing had never come out yet….” Moving to Harlem, and forming the Black Arts Repertory Theatre, and aligning with the Black Nationalist movement, could effect this change, by helping to create economic self-determination; to bargain with the dominant white society from a position of collective strength….or as he puts it in a later poem:
“Self-determination…to build on that Malcolm sense…self-determination as self-relaince and self-respect and self-defense…then we can talk about being American”
Why Is We Americans?
As in Clay’s speech, Baraka also engaged in one of the most adept and astute critiques of the philosophy of “logocentric” (and Euro-centric) rationalism, putting in words much of what was expressed non-verbally in the jazz, blues, and r&b he loved and theorized—but not from the perspective of the “irrational revolt” so touted as the spirit of 50s/60s counter-cultural intelligentsia in middle-brow venues, nor from the perspective of post-structuralism. Rather, like, Fanon, for instance, such critique (whether in a ‘rational’ mode, an ecstatic mode, or an angry mode, to name but three) was rooted in the class relation and always in the service of re-constructing a new reality.
What primarily distinguishes him from most Marxists is his analysis of music, not as mere transcendence, but also as political/cultural expression. In his writing about music, from Blues People onward, he out-theorizes his detractors on both the “left” and the “right” in part because his theory grew out of his practice as much as the practice embodied the theory. Not “officially” a musician himself, Baraka learned from, felt solidarity with, and even taught many of the best musicians (from jazz to soul to hip-hop). His lectures and “poetry readings” at their best approximated the “structured improvisation” of jazz. He’d take his solo and then trade licks with a musician or verbal interlocutor on stage, pushing the boundaries of an “interview” or “panel” format. More than anyone I’ve seen, he opened his performances up to the audience, inviting hecklers. He listened, responded, contemplated and wrote, furthering the American (and international) political/cultural discussion on both a macro and micro level: seeing forest and trees (if not necessarily at the same time).
Baraka used his status as a poet sanctioned by white society, to bring a more decisively black vernacular lexicon into poetry than had previously been permitted. At the same time, he restored poetry to its pre-modern specialized role, as a practical art (encompassing theatre, history, religion, philosophy and, of course, music), even while being firmly rooted in the 20th century and the ever changing same of the present (the continued legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, the economic racism of the north, and the prison-industrial complex).
He worked on so many fronts, spoke/wrote (from so called ‘high’ to ‘low’) to help build the necessary coalition, the united front.
As he pointed out repeatedly, The English Department is one of the last vestiges of imperialism, and even while black music made strides in mid-century America as American music became less segregated, Academic English (and Creative Writing) Departments still makes less room for the “Black Art” aesthetic(s) than even this commercial corporate mass culture does. Many whites acknowledge the greatness and influence of black musician (even if it is distorted as Baraka points out) more than white poets and literary types acknowledge an analogous influence in literature, for instance. Alas, rather than seeing progress in English Departments on this front, we now see even the mass-culture has become increasingly re-segregated in the past 35 years. This is clearly part of the work Baraka did that needs to be continued, and he provides us with many of the intellectual, rhetorical, and artistic tools for that struggle.
It’s one thing for English Departments to remove the Shakespeare requirement, but why not replace it with a Baraka requirement in an interdisciplinary team-taught class with sociology, political science, and music departments. The syllabus could include DuBois, John Coltrane, James Brown, Sun Ra, Marx, and Stevie Wonder for starts. And if Academia won’t do it, start one’s own school and cut out the white academic middleman and their increasingly less valuable degrees---in the spirit of self-determination a la Malcolm X. This is not simply “Black Studies,” for Baraka understood that in America, Black Studies IS white studies…..
Understanding the time in which it is written....true of so much of Baraka's work. His criticisms of Italians when they ran the power structure of Newark never offended me as an Italian-American. And the laughable charges of anti-semitism because of a few lines asking questions about Sharon's knowledge of the 9/11 attacks....
He has influenced my work, especially my work in the classroom, but also in prose essays more than in my published poetry (for instance my piece, "Sly Stone And The Not-So-Great Fillmore Whitewash," is deeply infuenced by his theoretical framework established in Blues People)....
I had the great privilege of attending the events he and Amini hosted in the basement of their home (The Spirit House) in Newark, and vowed that someday I'd be in a position to help continue something like that....It may never happen now, with me....but I am heartened to see his spirit live in so many amazing, beautiful, and intense younger writers in these bleak times...
 In subsequent editions of the Poulin Anthology, Baraka had been removed, and many of the “Black Arts” writers who had appeared in the 1972 Norton Anthology had been taken out of the next edition in 1988.
Trinidad Express Newspaper National News of Trinidad and Tobago
Remembering Amiri Baraka
by Joy Mahabir
January 13, 2014
I was walking on High Street in San Fernando when I got the news that Amiri Baraka had passed away. I recalled walking on another street, in downtown New York, with Amiri and my late husband, Bill McAdoo, who was one of Amiri’s closest friends. As we walked, Amiri talked about the way African-American and Native American histories were deliberately concealed in New York City and in modern configurations of urban US spaces.
Countering the historical amnesia and mis-education required for global capitalism to flourish, Amiri’s poetry, fiction, essays and plays would uncover the suppressed histories of masses of people who fought against imperialism and its devastating social and cultural effects. His writing celebrated freedom struggles in the Americas, Africa and Asia, and elevated the aesthetics born of these struggles, especially blues and jazz.
In the early 60s Amiri, who was born Everett Leroi Jones, was part of the Beat poets and then embraced black nationalist ideas. He founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem in 1965. His name-change to Amiri Baraka in 1968 signalled a change in his political outlook, influenced by his trip to Cuba and his involvement in the Civil Rights movement.
In the 70s Amiri became a Communist in the tradition of WEB DuBois and Langston Hughes, and from this radical position he never departed. Unlike many Marxists in the United States only familiar with European revolutionary thought, Amiri was one of the few intellectuals I have ever met who possessed a vast knowledge of radical philosophies. He could, in one fiery conversation, brilliantly connect the writings of Marx, Lenin, Mao, Cabral, Fanon and Césaire. Creating similar philosophical connections in his poetry, he would assume the poet’s responsibility, in WB Yeats’ words, to “murmur name upon name” of the slain revolutionaries of the 20th century, so that future generations would not forget who Patrice Lumumba, Che Guevera and Mahatma Gandhi were and, more importantly, what they fought for.
Amiri’s poem, “Somebody Blew Up America,” written shortly after the 9/11 attacks, generated controversy in the mainstream US media. Implicating US imperialism for creating a cycle of violence, the poem really questioned the global acceptance of “Who created everything/ Who the smartest/ Who the greatest/ Who the richest/ Who say you ugly and they the good lookingest.” The poem speculates about the real terrorists who terrorise our sanity by dictating to us certain standards of art, literature, beauty, morals and self-respect. When Amiri was interviewed on television about this poem, he drew upon the classics and John Keats, pointing out the poet’s obligation to define truth and beauty. His poetry was for the millions of people who must redefine truth and beauty in order to leave behind their oppressed past and create, in Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire’s words, “a higher, sweeter, broader tomorrow’’.
I am currently visiting my family in Trinidad and don’t have with me Amiri’s books and pamphlets from which I could have quoted more of his work, so I share below an excerpt from my novel Jouvert (2006). Here, the main protagonist of the novel, a visual artist, describes a visit to Amiri and Amina Baraka’s home. It was a piece that Amiri appreciated:
“We drove to Newark to the poet Amiri Baraka’s house for an evening of jazz and blues and spoken-word poetry, sessions called Kimako’s Blues People, named for Baraka’s slain sister. Amiri’s wife, Amina, was arranging a bunch of tropical flowers in a vase, and the fragrance of jasmine immediately transported me back to my mother’s lunar garden. Amina hugged me warmly and invited us down to their basement, a simple uncluttered room. When the session began Amiri went up to the front of the room to perform with his band, Blue Ark: the Wordship. My pores rose when I heard Amiri’s lyrics; they were powerful and fearless and sang of freedom struggles in Africa, Asia and the Americas. We shouted and whistled when Amiri finished. Then Kevin and his band started playing their blues. Their rhythms were at times tightly structured, at times wild and free. As the uplifting melodies filled the room, I realised that this basement was a fragile space of art, and that radical African-Americans had forged these spaces for hundreds of years: spaces of marronage and alternative culture, grounded in the earth, hidden from Babylon. When the performances were over, no one wanted to leave. During conversations with the people gathered I noted that they were mainly artists and activists. I appreciated the deep acceptance they had for all who shared their radical values, regardless of race. I was at home in this space, more comfortable here than in the Queens roti shop where there were still boundaries that Indian women could not cross; more at home in Amiri and Amina Baraka’s home than in the Trinidadian Brooklyn mas camp where I was always reminded in blatant and subtle ways that I was an Indian and therefore, at certain moments, an outsider. I thought about the many lessons that progressive African-Americans could teach those Caribbean people who still enacted so many varieties of division and hatred.” (pages 155-156)
• Dr Joy Mahabir is Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York
Amiri Baraka: Evolution of a Revolutionary Poet:
Black Music: LeRoi Jones-Amiri Baraka's Writings on Jazz Culture
by Ian Holubiak (email@example.com)
January 15, 2014
Two matriculated years later, I would study Amiri in a class at Pace University, led by local performance guru Erica Miriam Fabri. The name stuck, as did his words and wide-spanning erudition; Amiri had stolen a piece of me that I was fine to part with it.
"Luxury, then, is a way of / being ignorant, comfortably / An approach to the open market," writes Baraka in "Political Poem."
"Of least information. Where theories / can thrive, under heavy tarpaulins / without being cracked by ideas," he continues.
These words bled from the page onto my hands, and they still move my digi-pen years after discovering the laureate from Newark, N.J.
Now, just days after his death, I sift through the pages of my web browser to discover a New Yorker essay on perhaps his greatest addition to the canon: Black Music, a collection of jazz writings recorded between 1959 and 1967.
"Failure to concentrate on the blues and jazz attitude rather than his conditioned appreciation of the music. The major flaw in this approach to Negro music is that it strips the music too ingenuously of its social and cultural intent. It seeks to define jazz as an art (or a folk art) that has come out of no intelligent body of socio-cultural philosophy."
Yes, Baraka discusses jazz and other pressing socio-cultural issues throughout Black Music. And while one may not be completely attuned to the pervasive neglect outlined by Amiri in that text, one may find it useful to take the author's hand as he guides us down the pathway of matters completely foreign and outside our world.
Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music
by Amiri Baraka
University of California Press, 2010
Music of the African Diaspora.
Amiri Baraka reads at San Francisco International Poetry Festival July 29, 2012: