Tournament of Books 2015

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Thursday, April 25th, 2002


Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual

by Jerry Gafio Watts

Pillar of Ire

A review by Justin Driver

I. In 1990, Amiri Baraka was denied tenure by the English department of Rutgers University. An aging polemicist unable to find a publisher for his recent work, Baraka was hardly a promising academic with a bright future ahead of him. But instead of taking the rejection in stride, he characteristically decided to fight the decision, and spewed vitriol at the tenure committee. "The power of these Ivy League Goebbels can flaunt, dismiss, intimidate and defraud the popular will," Baraka charged. "We must unmask these powerful Klansmen. These enemies of academic freedom, people's democracy and Pan American culture must not be allowed to prevail. Their intellectual presence makes a stink across the campus like the corpses of rotting Nazis." This occasion was not Baraka's first — or most intense — foray into the world of inflammatory rhetoric. Indeed, this hyperbolic attack was a sign of progress for Baraka, as he cast Nazis, rather than Jews, as the villains.

Today he is best known for his play Dutchman, which appeared in 1964, as well as his subsequent contributions to the Black Arts movement (which transposed the ideology of Black Power into the realm of culture). Yet Baraka, once known as LeRoi Jones, has had an extremely varied career as a poet, a playwright, an essayist, a jazz critic, and a political activist. Beginning with the publication of his Beat-influenced collection of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, in 1961, he has occupied a central place in the world of African American letters. Arnold Rampersad includes him in a pantheon of eight writers, along with such luminaries as Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, and Ralph Ellison, "who have significantly affected the course of African American literary culture."

More than for any single work or movement, though, Baraka is remembered for his inexhaustible and unmatched passion for berating Whitey. When Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were killed along with James Chaney in Mississippi, Jones remarked that "those white boys were only seeking to assuage their own leaking consciences." By contrast, Malcolm X — not exactly a racial moderate — observed about the murders that "I've come to the conclusion that anyone who will fight not for us but with us is my brother." When a white college student tracked Malcolm down in Harlem and asked what she could do to help blacks, he answered, "Nothing"; but this harsh (and wildly untrue) comment pales in contrast to Baraka's suggestion: "A woman asked me in all earnestness, couldn't any whites help? I said, 'You can help by dying. You are a cancer. You can help the world's people with your death.'"

Never one to allow logic to get in the way of demagoguery, Baraka declared in 1967 that blacks who listen to European classical music are traitors to the cause. Some self-styled black nationalists, Baraka said, were "schizophrenic" and too "connected up with white culture. They will be digging Mozart more than James Brown. If all of that shit — Mozart, Beethoven, all of it — if it has to be burned now for the liberation of our people, it should be burned up the next minute." And he did not limit his outbursts to public appearances. Hysteria tricked out as analysis has long been a central element of his written work. Baraka delivered his defiantly unpoetic poetry most famously in "Black Art" in 1969:

Poems are bullshit unless they are
teeth or trees or lemons piled
on a step. Or black ladies dying
of men leaving nickel hearts
beating them down. Fuck poems
and they are useful, wd they shoot
come at you, love what you are,
breathe like wrestlers, or shudder
strangely after pissing. We want live
words of the hip world live flesh %amp%
coursing blood. Heart Brains
Souls splintering fire. We want poems
like fists beating niggers out of Jocks
or dagger poems in the slimy bellies
of the owner-jews. Black poems to
smear on girdlemamma mulatto bitches
whose brains are red jelly stuck
between 'lizabeth taylor's toes. Stinking
Whores! We want "poems that kill."
Assassin poems, Poems that shoot
guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys
and take their weapons leaving them
with tongues pulled out and sent to

Uttering charged words merely for the sake of uttering charged words does not make poetry; it makes public-restroom graffiti. But it was a measure of those turbulent times that many people derived significance from Baraka's sputtering rage.

Although Baraka's skill with language is exceedingly limited, he has a prodigious talent for shock. His essay "American Sexual Reference: Black Male," written in 1965, makes Norman Mailer's "The White Negro" look like a calm and enlightened discourse on African American sexuality. "The reason the white woman was supposed to be intrigued by the black man," Baraka explained, "was because he was basic and elemental emotionally (which is true for the nonbrainwashed black, simply because there is no reason he should not be; the black man is more 'natural' than the white simply because he has fewer things between him and reality, fewer wrappers, fewer artificial rules), therefore 'wilder,' harder, and almost insatiable in his lovemaking." In what appears to be a concerted effort to confirm racist stereotypes, Baraka also thoughtfully provided a justification for why black men would want to rape white women: "Here the black man is called rapist, where even the rolling of his eyes can get him in trouble. That is, the average ofay thinks of the black man as potentially raping every white lady in sight. Which is true, in the sense that the black man should want to rob the white man of everything he has." But not even this sort of madness gained Baraka a reputation for being the charlatan that he was. Instead he was hailed as a genius.

Jerry Gafio Watts's intellectual biography is the most thorough and reliable assessment of Baraka's work so far. Watts approaches his subject with a healthy degree of skepticism, criticizing Baraka roundly for the unbridled hatred that runs throughout much of his work. The problem is that Watts is too close to his subject: he devotes three interminable pages to Junkies Are Full of SHHH, a minor play that was written for a Newark audience, while Baraka's important essay "Tokenism: 300 Years for Five Cents" receives a paragraph. Watts also occasionally allows jargon ("social marginality facilitator") to intrude into the narrative. Nobody will ever accuse this book of being a joy to read.

Still, Watts's criticisms of Baraka are usually on target. He rightly skewers his subject for the condescending ways in which Baraka simplified his theatrical writing in an effort to make his work more accessible to the black masses. Baraka seems to have conflated being poor with being stupid. In a novel assessment, Watts contends that the homophobia and the sexism in Baraka's work stem from an effort to cover up his own gay encounters from his Beat days. "He knew that popular knowledge of his homosexuality would have undermined the credibility of his militant voice," Watts contends. "By be coming publicly known as a hater of homosexuals, Jones tried to defuse any claims that might surface linking him with a homosexual past." Watts offers, and condemns, Baraka's "Civil Rights Poem" as a prime example of this compensatory homophobia:

Roywilkins is an eternal faggot
His spirit is a faggot
his projection and image, this is
to say, that if i ever see roywilkins
on the sidewalks
stick half my sandal
up his

Among its other sins, it is this sort of drivel that we have to thank for the popularity of "spoken word" and "slam" poetry.

Regrettably, Watts follows the standard narrative regarding his subject's art: it was great when he was LeRoi Jones and it suffered when he became Amiri Baraka. "It is sad to witness the decline of an artist of Baraka's talents," Watts observes. "Once a creative dramatist, he is now content to place polemical essays into the mouths of his characters. A former artistic innovator, he is now trying to revitalize the dreaded aesthetic uniformities of socialist realism." Later Watts writes: "The main reason for reading Baraka's political pronouncements at this stage in his life is to examine how a former serious and creative artist has intellectually deteriorated since attempting to become a political thinker and activist."

Watts dates the beginning of Baraka's decline around 1970, with It's Nation Time and In Our Terribleness. Those books, to be sure, are dreadful. Yet Baraka's story is not one of artistic decline. He began low. His literary career is one of constantly accelerating race-baiting. While he demonstrated a penchant for attracting media attention, Baraka was never the virtuoso that Watts portrays. In the roiling racial dynamics of the late 1960s and the early 1970s, critics mistook Baraka's anger for eloquence; but the main reason to read Baraka is not to see how much the artist has changed, but to see how much the times have changed.

II. Everett Leroy Jones was born on October 7, 1934 in Newark. His father worked as a supervisor at the post office and his mother was a social worker. Although these jobs hardly made the Joneses wealthy, the family lived far more comfortably than the overwhelming majority of black Americans. Jones performed with distinction in the predominantly white schools that he attended, and graduated when he was just fifteen years old. Following a brief stint at Rutgers's Newark campus, he enrolled at Howard University. It was at the historically black college in Washington, D.C. that, in the first of many name changes, LeRoy altered the spelling of his name to LeRoi. Toni Morrison, Jones's contemporary at Howard, recalled that he "really turned that campus around," but he remembers his experience there as unhappy — particularly in the academic arena. Alienated by what he deemed the pretentiousness of the black bourgeoisie, he disparaged Howard as "an employment agency" where "they teach you to pretend to be white."

His apprehensions about Howard in the 1950s had a basis in reality. A dean once accosted Jones and a friend as they sat down on a bench outside Douglass Hall to enjoy a freshly purchased watermelon. "Do you realize that you're sitting right in front of the highway where white people can see you?" the dean asked them. "Do you realize that this school is the capstone of Negro higher education? Do you realize that you are compromising the Negro?" And Jones once overheard a professor remark that the Howard Players' performance of James Baldwin's dialect-filled play The Amen Corner had "set the speech department back ten years." Official Howard even frowned upon jazz. It hosted no jazz concerts during the two years that Jones attended the school. "When they finally did let jazz in," Jones would lament, "it was Stan Kenton." The assimilationist attitudes that drove jazz underground at Howard may help to explain the essentialist claims that Jones later made in Blues People and Black Music.

Jones flunked out of Howard in 1954 and enrolled in the Air Force, or "Error Farce," as he dubbed it. College had been stifling, but life in the military aroused his intellect. With precious little in the way of diversion on the military base, Jones read voraciously and even dangerously: in violation of military rules, he kept books in his footlocker and read even while on armed patrol. Eventually Jones received a rare "undesirable discharge" because of the communist sympathies he was alleged to have developed at Howard. In truth, though, Jones would not develop leftist sympathies for another twenty years.

Jones headed to Greenwich Village brimming with literary ambition. After working a series of odd jobs, he landed a position at a magazine called The Record Changer, where he deepened his knowledge of jazz and met Hettie Cohen, a colleague from a middle-class family in Queens. In 1958, some nine years before the Supreme Court invalidated state laws barring interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia, Jones married Hettie. It was, to put it mildly, not an everyday occurrence for a black man to wed a Jewish woman at a Buddhist temple with a jade ring. Interracial marriages in the late 1950s required courage, even in the Village. Jones wrote of "the stares from people on the street, the tension that rose in my own self in certain situations, though for the most part I didn't give much of a shit what anybody, not no white people anyway, thought about our hookup." Jones and Hettie were married for seven years — a tumultuous period in American race relations during which the disapproving stares at miscegenation shifted largely from the eyes of whites to the eyes of blacks. Suddenly it was not Hettie who had betrayed her race, it was Jones who had betrayed his. For all his bluster, he never claimed to be impervious to the judgments of blacks.

Jones began to model his writing on the Beat poets, especially Allen Ginsberg. "I thought 'Howl' was something special," Jones recalled. "It was a breakthrough for me. I now knew poetry could be about some things that I was familiar with, that it did not have to be about suburban birdbaths and Greek mythology." Jones wrote to Ginsberg in France on toilet paper (because he thought it would be "weird") asking Ginsberg if he was "for real." Ginsberg responded favorably (also on toilet paper) and helped to introduce Jones to Frank O'Hara, Jack Kerouac, and the burgeoning circle of Beats. Along with Hettie, Jones launched a literary journal called Yugen. Watts depicts Jones as being more of a race-neutral Beat than he was during this period — his first poem in Yugen was about segregated bathrooms in South Carolina; but Jones did internalize Ginsberg's "first thought, best thought" approach to writing.

In 1963, Jones wrote Blues People: Negro Music in White America, a bold project that sought to weave economics, sociology, history, and anthropology into a coherent explanation of why blacks have made so many contributions to American music and why those contributions have taken their various forms.

The Negro as slave is one thing. The Negro as American is quite another. But the path the slave took to "citizenship" is what I want to look at. And I make my analogy through the slave citizen's music — through the music that is most closely associated with him: blues and a later, but parallel, development, jazz. And it seems to me that if the Negro represents, or is symbolic of, something in and about the nature of American culture, this certainly should be revealed by his characteristic music.

Jones thought that a period's song lyrics could be parsed to provide insight into the material and psychological conditions that blacks confronted:

It seems possible to me that some kind of graph could be set up using samplings of Negro music proper to whatever moment of the Negro's social history was selected, and that in each grouping of songs a certain frequency of reference could pretty well determine his social, economic, and psychological states at that particular period.... No slave song need speak about the slave's lack of money; no early Afro-American slave song would make reference to the Christian Church; almost no classical blues song would, or could, make direct or positive mention of Africa. Each phase of the Negro's music issued directly from the dictates of his social and psychological environment.

In sharp contrast to Jones's later work, Blues People can seem measured, even nuanced in its valiant effort to explain the development of jazz in America. And Jones correctly emphasized the central role that religion has played in the development of black musicians: "The Negro church, as it was begun, was the only place where the Negro could release emotions that slavery would naturally tend to curtail. The Negro went to church, literally, to be free, and to prepare himself for his freedom in the Promised Land."

Jones wrote well about the music, particularly about the mechanics of bebop; but the strengths of Blues People were marred by Jones's desperate attempts to graft his political ideologies onto the musicians whom he admired. He claimed that Dizzy Gillespie was a political radical! And Jones's tortured efforts to view bebop musicians as foot soldiers in the revolution veered beyond the absurd when he praised their drug of choice. "Heroin is the most popular addictive drug used by Negroes," Jones argued, "because, it seems to me, the drug itself transforms the Negro's normal separation from the mainstream of the society into an advantage (which, I have been saying, I think it is anyway). It is one-upmanship of the highest order."

Although the essentialism that would plague Jones's later works was largely absent from Blues People, it peeked through on occasion. "Jazz as played by white musicians was not the same as that played by black musicians," Jones instructed, "nor was there any reason for it to be. The music of the white jazz musician did not issue from the same cultural circumstance; it was, at its most profound instance, a learned art." Whites must learn how to play jazz, but blacks are born with the talent. Yet if blacks could intuitively excel at jazz, why did Coltrane work so tirelessly to master the saxophone?

By discounting the hard work required of blacks to become professional musicians, Jones's racialist conception of jazz unwittingly insults the very people whom he wished to honor. As early as 1965, he declared that whites could not fully appreciate jazz music. The gulf that separated the white listener from the black listener, Jones wrote, is "the difference between a man watching someone have an orgasm and someone having an orgasm." In his review of Blues People, Ralph Ellison memorably castigated this approach to jazz: "The tremendous burden of sociology which Jones would place upon this body of music is enough to give even the blues the blues."

In 1964, Jones had three plays open within blocks of one another, leading the New York Herald Tribune to label him the "King of the East Village." The most successful of the plays, Dutchman, won an Obie that year, and Norman Mailer pronounced it "the best play in America." Set in a subway car, the play focuses primarily on the flirtatious interactions between Clay, a middle-class black man, and Lula, a sexually aggressive white woman. While it is shamelessly confessional and often reads as if it was written in a single night (which it was), Dutchman successfully creates some dramatic tension because Jones did not yet feel compelled to give all the good lines to his black characters. And yet the play rapidly descends into the very worst of protest art. At one point Clay dismisses "old bald-headed four-eyed ofays" who praise blues singers. "They say, 'I love Bessie Smith.' And don't even understand that Bessie Smith is saying, 'Kiss my ass, kiss my black unruly ass.' Before love, suffering, desire, anything you can explain, she's saying, and very plainly, 'Kiss my black ass.' And if you don't know that, it's you that's doing the kissing." Clay makes a similar claim about Charlie Parker: "Bird would've played not a note of music if he just walked up to East Sixty-seventh Street and killed the first ten white people he saw. Not a note!" Such thinking completely belies the complexity of human emotions, and cruelly reduces black people to the sum of their oppression.

III. On February 21, 1965, Jones was drinking champagne at a book party on Eighth Street when he learned that Malcolm X had been shot in the Audubon Ballroom. "When Malcolm was murdered," Jones wrote, "...I began to hold all white people responsible, even though in some part of my mind I knew better. But it was this heinous act, which was the culmination of a quantitative and qualitative ideological focus, that made me pack up and move to Harlem and sever all ties with most of the white people I knew, many of whom were my close friends." In addition to the close friends, Jones left behind his wife and their two young daughters. He sought to fill the leadership gap vacated by Malcolm, something that simply could not be done in the company of a white wife. "I was caught downtown with white people," Jones callously observed. "And left. As simple as that. Like one day you got pubic hairs."

Jones's move to Harlem signaled the official beginning of his black nationalist period. After having won acclaim as a poet and a playwright from the mainstream media, Jones was anxious to have larger numbers of blacks exposed to his work. To this end, Jones helped to start the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School (BARTS) on 130th Street. The organization provided classes for neighborhood residents and, drawing on Jones's connections, offered free performances by major artists, including Sun Ra and Archie Shepp. BARTS also took Jones's plays to the streets. Outdoor performances of Jones's works — including a new one that featured a black valet from a popular television show murdering his white employers — garnered considerable attention during the summer of 1965.

Jones's outlandish antics, if not the actual substance of his plays, badly damaged the community-action component of the War on Poverty. BARTS received funding from Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, which in turn was funded by the Office of Economic Opportunity. BARTS's connection to the outspoken Jones distressed Sargent Shriver, the architect of the War on Poverty, who worried that the OEO would be perceived as funding black nationalism. When Shriver attempted to visit BARTS, Jones barred him from entering any of the buildings. In an article in U.S. News %amp% World Report headlined "Tax Funds a 'Hate the Whites' Project," Jones was quoted as saying that "I don't see anything wrong with hating white people. Harlem must be taken from the beast and gain its sovereignty as a black nation." There was a good deal of expediency here: Jones expressed no discomfort about a radical black nationalist organization receiving money from the federal government.

Jones lasted in Harlem less than a year before it became apparent that he was not destined to succeed Malcolm X. Toward the end of 1965, he moved back to Newark and proceeded to change his name, beginning with the Bantuized Muslim Ameer Barakat, or "Blessed Prince." Shortly thereafter, under the influence of his fellow black nationalist Maulana Karenga, he Swahilized his name to Imamu ("Spiritual Leader") Amiri Baraka. He would later drop the "Imamu" when people requested blessings from him on a trip to Africa. He had fallen under the spell of Karenga and his seven principles of Kawaida, an amalgamation of Karenga's ideas passed off as African tradition. (Karenga is also responsible for inventing the holiday Kwanzaa, which he initially claimed was an actual African harvest festival.)

Karenga led a California-based Afrocentric cult with which Baraka had some affiliation. Henry Louis Gates Jr. remembers visiting Newark as an undergraduate student at Yale and seeing people bow when Karenga entered the room. Karenga — whom Baraka termed "a political theorist and cultural theorist of great stature" — and his followers hawked The Quotable Karenga, which contained gems such as this: "The Seven-fold path of Blackness is to Think Black, Talk Black, Act Black, Create Black, Buy Black, Vote Black, and Live Black." And this: "The only real things that Negroes produce are problems and babies." Members of the organization were required to follow any statement during a meeting with this formula: "If I have said anything of value or beauty, all praise is due to Maulana Karenga, and all mistakes have been mine."

Baraka claims that Karenga exerted so much influence over him that he began subscribing also to Karenga's anti-Semitism. Not surprisingly, much of Baraka's anti-Semitic work was written on the heels of his divorce from Hettie. Feeling compelled to prove that he was finished with white women in general and with Jews in particular, Baraka took black anti-Semitism to new depths. In addition to the "slimy bellies" of the "owner jews" in "Black Art," Baraka referred to his ex wife as "a fat jew girl" in "For Tom Postell, Dead Black Poet," and instructed:

Smile, jew. Dance, jew. Tell me you
love me, jew. I got
something for you now though. I got
something for you, like you dig,
I got. I got this thing, goes pulsating
through black everything
universal meaning. I got the
extermination blues, jewboys. I got
the hitler syndrome figured.

There is no way — politically, culturally, or spiritually — to mitigate this odious rubbish. It should have robbed Baraka of whatever authority he had for his readers.

The late 1960s saw Baraka's descent into the sheerest agitprop. The plays of this period, including classics such as Arm Yourself or Harm Yourself, bear a striking resemblance to Saturday Night Live sketches: a single poorly conceived idea stretched long beyond its natural life. By 1969 Baraka was arguing that black nationalism was the only appropriate ideology for black writers: "The Negro artist who is not a nationalist at this late date is a white artist, even without knowing it." But it was not long before he yet again veered in a new extreme direction. In 1974, he abandoned black nationalism and moved toward a worldview that he termed Third World Socialism. Suddenly the black nationalism of yesterday was "a narrow nationalism that says the white man is the enemy.... Nationalism, so-called, when it says 'all non-blacks are our enemies,' is sickness or criminality, in fact, a form of fascism." Baraka's view of the world could never accommodate subtlety or complexity. He is always certain. He is always right.

In an interview in 1980, Baraka finally made public what had long been apparent to anyone who had read his work: "The page doesn't interest me that much — not as much as the actual spoken word." Stirring up controversy has al ways been more important to him than subjecting his thoughts to the demands of logic and reason and decency. Since the early 1980s, his published work has slowed considerably. Baraka continues to give the odd public reading, where he finds it amusing to rhyme "Condoleezza" with "skeezer" (hip-hop speak for a promiscuous woman). But he now seems largely content to live in Newark and be a professor emeritus in the Africana Studies department at SUNY Stony Brook. Last year he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The firebrand has become a dignitary.

Most of the appeal of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka can be explained by the transformation of race relations in America during the 1960s. Blacks made more strides during that decade than in any ten-year period since the 1860s. If one were to plug Jones in as a coordinate on the graph that he proposed in Blues People, it would become apparent that it was only as conditions improved for blacks that his apocalyptic ranting became permissible. As Ralph Ellison remarked in a letter to Stanley Edgar Hyman, the very existence of Jones's career undermines his claims: "For if Negro hatred of whites were so universal such black militant writers as Jones wouldn't have to go to such frenzied lengths in their efforts to arouse that hatred."

Baraka enjoyed such immense popularity for a time because he served as a psychic corrective to the unyielding wall of racial repression that confronted blacks in the United States for centuries. When the first fissures appeared in that wall, Baraka's tough talk brought a measure of comfort to many people. It was as if allowing Baraka to vomit up his brand of nastiness would somehow hurry the country along the road toward racial reconciliation. What seemed liberating thirty-five years ago, however, now comes across as nasty and pathetic and contrived. But even in its day many people knew that Jones's fiery rhetoric was nothing more than ugly showmanship. He has been little more than a provocateur whose fame stemmed from an uncommon ability at (to borrow a term from his beloved streets) talkin' shit.

It was not only blacks, of course, who were drawn to Jones's racialist bombast. Many whites also found the new moment liberating. Strangely, the poem "Black People!" enjoyed a particular resonance with radical whites. The poem reads in part:

... you cant steal nothin from a white
man, he's already stole it he owes you
anything you want, even his life. All
the stores will open if you say the magic
words. The magic words are: Up against
the wall mother fucker this is a stick
up!...Let's get together and killhim my
man, let's get to gather the fruit of the
sun, let's make a world we want black
children to grow and learn in do not
let your children when they grow look
in your face and curse you by pitying your
tomish ways.

After Baraka delivered an exceptionally impassioned reading of "Black People!" in 1967 at a conference, Gwendolyn Brooks recounted the bizarre scene: "I was sitting beside a youngish white fellow. He had been very quiet. But when Baraka said at one point 'Up against the wall!' this man jumped to his feet and said 'Yeah, yeah, kill 'em.' And here he was ordering his own execution. That's how electrified the atmosphere was. 'Kill 'em all!' he said."

People did not stop championing Baraka at the end of the 1960s. Warren Beatty, whose politics may still be stranded in that era, cast Baraka as a homeless seer in Bulworth a few years back. Baraka, who insisted upon writing his own material for the film, delivered a stirring performance with only a few simple lines. "You got to be a spirit!" he cries. "You can't be no ghost!" Later he exhorts the white senator who seeks to become the savior of African Americans: "Don't be no ghost, Bulworth! Be a spirit!" The distinction is not without a difference. Ghosts haunt and frighten, spirits enhance and inspire. Baraka might well have been admonishing himself.

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