Amiri Baraka died on January 9 at the age of 79. I began this writing with the urge to speak of the man, and then thought that I am not worthy to speak of him. Then I read the New York Times obituary and felt that I must. Amiri was very much about DIY — that everyone should speak, so I will.
I do not wish to step in after his passing to claim that he was my friend. Acquaintance is the correct term in this context, though he sometimes called me brother, a point of philosophy, not intimacy. As our elders depart, we become elders. The college freshmen to whom I assign Blues People and various poems are, in terms of age, my grandchildren. For them, I am elder whether I like it or not. Better do a good job. Better step up.
The Times obituary calls Amiri Baraka “a poet and playwright of pulsating rage, whose long illumination of the black experience in America was called incandescent in some quarters and incendiary in others.” A thousand poets, musicians, scholars, artists and students who knew Amiri would have written his obituary without mentioning “rage.” That this kind of language appeared in the newspaper of record is a sad thing with four hundred years of sad history chained to it. Amiri Baraka spent his career illuminating that history, its implications and affects.
I heard him speak and spoke with him many times over a four-decade acquaintance and had the privilege of his occasional company on stage and in classrooms and lecture halls and restaurants and churches and living rooms and trains but I never witnessed rage. Rage implies hysteria, madness, a loss of control, a lack of art. Amiri Baraka never lacked art. He lived it.
What is implied by the rage label is a lack of humanity, a loss of sanity, a failure of morality. Parties in power often present opposition to their mad, corrupt condition as lunatic immorality. This is the paradox of power.
Why is it that a black citizen with something to say is saddled with the verb to rage? Why is it that when Michelle Obama was being interviewed during her husband’s campaign for the presidency, she was characterized as angry? A lot of pissed off old white guys earn their bread by barking on the airwaves every day, but nobody describes their behavior as rage.
Anger can be a reaction to a wound. A historically disempowered people might be expected to produce a discourse of anger. Anger can be productive. Handled artistically, consciously, it can move people in a positive direction. Anger can also be an expression of fear. Anger that is unconscious, that is not aware of itself as a mode of agency, has a negative effect. Now that the old white guys who have run the show for centuries see their hegemony slipping, they are afraid and they are increasingly generating a discourse of anger. Barak Obama’s political opponents on the right are a case in point. They are the party of “no.” They produce zero positive action. Outrage is their default position. It is the panic of threatened privilege.
It may seem odd to speak of Barak Obama in the context of a discussion of revolutionary poetics. When Obama was running for president for the first time, I heard Amiri respond to complaints about Obama’s insufficiently liberal politics. “First you get your man in the White House, then you get on his ass.”
The Times referred to Baraka as “incendiary,” a word that invokes fire as a weapon. He was not a pyromaniac. He did not firebomb America; he shed light on America. “Illumination,” the Times said; they got that part right. Incendiary behavior is, like rage, prevalently the action of a challenged dominant power. This is the theme of one of Amiri’s late poems, “Somebody Blew Up America,” that addressed the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center that he saw from his house across the river and that caused him the most trouble of anything he ever wrote. It is primarily a poem of inquiry. The repeated museme is “who?” It asks the question that is always asked in criminal investigations: Who benefitted from the crime? The poem also plays on the Internet weirdness that read the face of an owl on the raging fire on the towers. Owl. Who. The owl says “hoo.” Even in the most dire moments, especially in the most dire moments, the poet plays with the phonemes, the puns, the rhymes. Deliverance lives in this poetic practice.
Everett Leroy Jones was born in Newark on Oct. 7, 1934. His father was a postal supervisor and his mother was a social worker. He attended Rutgers University for a time then went to Howard University. He became disillusioned with what he later called the “employment agency” where “they teach you to pretend to be white.” He stopped applying himself and was expelled.
He joined the Air Force and was posted to Puerto Rico. He combated his sense of being cut off from family and friends and isolated in a racist institution by accumulating books. His choice of reading materials led authorities to suspect he was a communist and after three years of service he was dishonorably discharged. He then moved to New York’s Greenwich Village and took a job on a jazz magazine, The Record Changer. There he met, and in 1958 married, Hettie Cohen. Her account of their years together, How I Became Hettie Jones, is a beautiful, intimate portrait of the New York avant-garde of the 1950s. The Joneses started a magazine, Yugen, and began to publish poets of their acquaintance, the Beats, the New York School, and affiliated new writers. With Diane di Prima Jones started the zine The Floating Bear. His first book of poems appeared in 1961 on his own Totem Press, Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note. The title poem shows the anecdotal, conversational tone and sensory acuity typical of the Beat and New York school milieu in which he was active.
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.
Politics began to influence his work with the rise of the Civil Rights movement, but the turn to an overtly political poetics came with a trip to Cuba in 1959. There he met writers who saw contemporary North American poetry as self-indulgent. Mexican poet Jaime Shelley challenged him to address real issues. “In that ugliness you live in, you want to cultivate your soul? Well, we’ve got millions of starving people to feed, and that moves me enough to make poems out of.” He began to write poems, plays, and stories with strong socially-conscious content.
His book Blues People of 1963 established him as an important writer on jazz and black history. The importance of the work is evident in that it is now in its 50th-year edition. It was as much a process of self-exploration as a work of historiography. I believe that Mr. Jones wrote Blues People to try to locate himself. In it, he claims to be speaking of African Americans as a demographic, but he’s talking about himself. The research and writing of it was a way for an educated son of an African America whose history was practically invisible to connect the dots and arrive at some sense of self in a society that says, “no, not you, you aint got one.”
The frame for the book is the gap between the pre-modern African slave and the modern African American. The work turns on the question “how did we get to where we are now?” How does he connect the dots? Music. He’s got his blackness, jazz and the blues, and what William Blake called the poetic imagination. (Amiri was a great-great grandchild of William Blake in many ways. I believe he would not object to being so designated. That the visionary Blake opposed slavery a century before emancipation is to the point.) Blues People is a milestone work in African American studies and musical anthropology.
His award-winning Off-Broadway play of 1964, Dutchman, in which a white woman goads a black man into expressing his hatred before murdering him, established him as an important new playwright. The poems, plays, and stories that followed increasingly critique white America and explore black identity.
The assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 led Jones to break with the predominantly white downtown avant-garde, leave his wife, and move to Harlem where he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater and School (BARTS). This situated Jones as a central, founding figure of the Black Arts Movement, the artistic wing of the Black Nationalist impulse.
In the late ‘60s, BARTS folded and Jones moved back to Newark, converted to Islam, and adopted the name Imamu Amiri Baraka. By this point, he was expressing a Marxist politics. He finally became the communist that he had been accused of being more than a decade before during his largely apolitical period.
Some critics felt that Baraka’s radical turn represented a loss to literature. The line was that he was a talented young writer capable of great beauty in letters, and he’d given that up to become a kind of reckless loudmouth. In 1970 the poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth wrote that Baraka “has succumbed to the temptation to become a professional Race Man of the most irresponsible sort. . . . His loss to literature is more serious than any literary casualty of the Second War.” This is as much testament to Baraka’s talent as it is to Rexroth’s old school aestheticism.
Art transcends history fleetingly. Art’s beautiful illusion must be understood and enjoyed as such. Art for art’s sake was a dream of the nineteenth century, a dream born in reaction to the horrors of industrial revolution and the slavery upon which that was built.
Slavery is not dead. It didn’t end in 1865. It is still with us, in old and new forms. This is one reason why historiography was an imperative for Baraka. Charles Olson was an influence here. Olson taught that the poet is the keeper of the language and thereby of the culture. The poet is, or should be, a historian. The quality of culture, of reality, is tied to the quality of language. Olson says somewhere that without the guardianship of the poet, language degenerates into “a piss poor actuary sufficient only to keep banks in business.” The idea of language as the engine of reality shows up in the social sciences at about the same time that the poets are expressing it. It’s not a new idea, it is ancient, but it comes to the fore in western thought around World War Two.
The poet Ed Sanders, a disciple of Olson, says in his book Investigative Poetry that when lawyers are working on a case that sets important legal precedent, they say they are “making law” and in this sense it may be said that poets make reality. This is background for Baraka’s notion of the poet as culture worker. We make the culture. We must do so consciously.
This is why DIY was big for Amiri. At his readings he would ask for a show of hands, how many people like to go to the movies? Then he’d say, where are the home-made movies? Where are the five dollar or one dollar pass-the-hat movies? Why aren’t you making movies? He was one of the most well known poets of his time, with a steady stream of books coming from various publishers, but he always carried with him mimeograph books, later photocopied books of poems that he would sell at his readings. He did this as much to encourage DIY as to pick up extra cash for the road.
A visitor to Baraka’s house in Newark, hearing a lot of noise, asked Amiri what was going on. He said there was a junior high school jazz history class in the basement and that he’d given his upstairs study to a group of young people producing a newspaper. The Black Arts Movement didn’t die when Amiri left Harlem for Newark. It went with him. It aint dead yet. Come on.
We are increasingly a society of consumers rather than producers. What do we produce? Excess body fat, heart attacks, diabetes, mudslides, floating islands of plastic waste. Let’s go people, question that. Figure that out.
I teach for a living. My classroom looks out over the Hudson River to the cliffs of nowhere zen New Jersey. My students are mostly black and Latino. I teach them about Amiri Baraka. I say, he lives over there. He’s doing this. But now he’s gone. Now we have to do it.
I read his poem “Somebody Blew Up America” to my students. They went quiet and still, then one said, “that’s the best fucking poem I heard in my whole life.”
Amiri was intense, but when I think of him I don’t think of anger and rage, I think of care, humor and optimism. Amiri was an optimist, “I’d say I’m a revolutionary optimist,” he told Newsday in 1990. “I believe that the good guys — the people — are going to win.”
The last time I saw him, I told him I was teaching his poetry in my classes. He said I should be careful not to get in trouble about that. Meanwhile my kids were getting lit up. Some of them are becoming conscious culture workers. Peace on your long suffering. Peace on your family. Thank you. Peace.
Image by David Sasaki, courtesy of Creative Commons license.