Contemporaries

University of Cambridge Contemporary Research Group

Amiri Bakara, 1934-2014

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  1. The poet, playwright, essayist, and political activist and organiser Amiri Baraka – previously known as Imamu Amiri Baraka, previously known as Ameer Barakat, previously known as LeRoi Jones, previously known as Everett Leroy Jones – died at the start of this year.

    The news of his death came through on January 9th, the same day as the news, in the UK, of the acquittal of Mark Duggan’s police murderers, a verdict which gave symbolic and legal ‘justification’ for the pre-emptive execution of those the state and its enforcers consider ‘undesirables’. In August 2011, Duggan’s murder sparked weeks of rioting, in London and beyond, that shook the government and the media establishment – both in its liberal and conservative wings – to its very core; the reaction of an underclass, not only to the particular incident which triggered it, but to the continuing felt effects of the politics of ‘austerity’, welfare cuts, criminalization, job loss, the daily tension between that to which one is told to aspire and the real impossibility of such aspiration ever being realized.

    Over forty years earlier, in July 1967, the beating of a black taxi-driver by two white police officers had sparked six days of rioting in Newark, New Jersey, Baraka’s hometown. The reasons and conditions were different, but they were also the same: “what is responsible for this violence, for this rebellion, is the inability of the city government to feel, as human beings, the plight of the majority of people in this city. And that is the cause of this violence,” as he put it in a press conference shortly after this ‘civic disturbance.’ These riots – or, as he called them, this ‘rebellion’ – were in any many ways crucial for Baraka’s developing political and poetic orientations, and it was in their wake that his poetry received one of its most notable entries into that public life in which he always sought to actively and vociferously participate. Baraka had just returned from a career-making sojourn in the bohemian enclaves of New York, a literary establishment from which he had broken in the wake of the assassination of Malcolm X and a growing sense of the need to participate in the increasingly militant political struggles of the civil rights movement. The writing that emerged from this period was incendiary and polarizing, participating in the collective energies of the moment: in particular, a short poem entitled ‘Black People!’, which had been published in the Evergreen Review, and which urged or encouraged the collective addressed in its exclamatory titular appeal to rebel against the oppressive ghetto conditions of Mafia collusion, city government corruption, police brutality, ‘slumlord’ rent exploitation and the nefarious dealings of shopkeepers charging well over the odds for basic goods that Newark’s black citizens daily faced, doing this in long lines that almost broke the margins of the page, teetering on the bridge between verse and prose, poem and manifesto:

    “[…] All the stores will open if you will say the magic
    words. The magic words are: Up against the wall mother fucker
    this is a stick up!’ Or: Smash the window at night (these are
    magic actions) smash the windows daytime, anytime, together,
    let’s smash the window drag the shit from in there. No money
    down. No time to pay. Just take what you want. The magic
    dance in the street.”

    During the riots themselves, Baraka and cohorts drove around in a van picking up those who had been injured on the streets, those caught outside in the police sniper fire that more often hit innocent civilians than the supposed black gunmen endangering the lives of the ‘law-abiding’ and ‘respectable’. As Baraka puts it in an account from his 1981 autobiography:

    “A mob of police surrounded the van, two of them pulling open the front and back doors. They had their shotguns and handguns trained on us as they dragged us out the doors […] I heard one guy say, “These are the bastards who’ve been shooting at us!” Another shouted, “Where are the guns?” Then another cop stepped forward, I think he was saying the same thing. What was really out is that this cop I recognized, we had gone to high school together! […] “Hey, I know you,” I said, just as the barrel of his .38 smashed into my forehead, dropping me into half consciousness and covering every part of me with blood. Now blows rained down on my head. […] They were beating me to death. I could feel the blows and the crazy pain but I was already removed from conscious life. I was being murdered and I knew it.”

    Only the intervention of bystanders and citizens shouting and raining down objects on the police from the safety of their windows saved his life, Baraka claims. Taken, first to the police station and then to the hospital, a photograph of him with his head bandaged after the vicious police beating became something of a totemic indication of the reaction that the riots had triggered, of fear and brutality, in those in control of the city. Again, from the autobiography:

    “I had a bandage down my forehead and the rage that came out was boiling deep and utterly genuine. If I had been able to agitate and propagandize before, now it was raised up another notch in intensity. I felt the clubs, the guns; they had even bashed one of my teeth out and loosened some more with fists and clubs. I would be scarred for life. The hottest rage had become a constant of my waking personality.”

    Baraka was brought to trial for alleged possession of weapons, and, in an unusual move following on from but exceeding in seriousness the obscenity trials afforded Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and Baraka’s own play / prose-text ‘The Eight Ditch Is Drama’, the Judge in the trial, Leon W. Kapp, introduced the poem ‘Black People!’ as evidence against the accused. Here the poems’ desire for a transformative ‘magic’ that is not mystical but material in the most basic sense – the collective re-appropriation of property, however preliminary and limited a tactic this may be – a coming-to-consciousness, to awareness of oppressive conditions, and a realisation that the sudden sparking of collective will and spontaneous action might begin to change it, comes up against what Walter Benjamin would call the ‘law-making’ violence of the Judge and all that he represents, as enforced in courtrooms, prisons, stores, senates, posters, and television screens across the land. Indeed, Baraka’s poetry always attempted to break out of what, in earlier works, he had called “the enclosure (flesh, / where innocence is a weapon. An / abstraction” (‘An Agony. As Now’) “the mind so bloated at its own judgment. The railing consequence of energy given in silence” (‘Rhythm and Blues (1’), and “the singular forest of disillusion” (‘Paradiso: Purgatorio’): a solipsistic prison of ineffective disguise, in which literature became entangled with a class aspiration that distanced itself from the struggles of the working class – in particular, the black working class – and that inoculated itself against both domestic oppression and the certain knowledge of U.S. imperialism in “lands / our antennae do not reach” (‘The Politics of Rich Painters’).

    Baraka was convicted, but this conviction was overturned on appeal, and he sunk his political energies, not into violent revolution, but to the mayoral campaign of Kenneth Gibson, the city’s first black mayor, and into various other forms of political organisation, including the first National Black Political Convention, held in Gary, Indiana in 1972. At this stage his politics were those of Black Nationalism, heavily influenced by the Kawaida doctrines of Ron Karenga and his US organisation, and he clashes with the Marxist-oriented Black Panthers with whose leaders he had earlier been briefly associated. Yet as the ’70s wore on, he came to endorse the politics, first of Pan-Africanism, and then of Marxism-Leninism, influenced in particular by his reading of Amilcar Cabral, Kwame Nkkrumah, Frantz Fanon, and Mao Tse-Tung. Continuing to be a political activist, albeit in the factional ‘anti-Revisionist’ Stalinist left rather than the more wide-reaching but now virtually defeated Black Power movement, he was now also an academic, and his artistic output continued to be prodigious: plays, poems, an ‘anti-nuclear jazz musical’, essays, collaborations with musicians and the like. His essay on his involvement in the Presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson is a sharp piece of political journalism, and he continued to campaign around political issues in Newark, including the election of his son, Ras, to the city council.

    Whether, then, in his political activism; in his poetry, increasingly focused on an electrifying performance-focused reading style (as demonstrated on the 1972 album It’s Nation Time, released on Motown Records’ spoken word label Black Forum, the 1981 album ‘New Music New Poetry’, with saxophonist David Murray and drummer Steve McCall, or in excerpts from the 1979 film Fried Shoes Cooked Diamonds, in which his incendiary Marxist rhetoric throws much of the Beat and post-Beat work which surrounds it into the shade); or in the essays on music, politics and literature that he continued to write until his death, he remained a vital force in an increasingly conservative American political climate, never giving up on the spirit of political possibility in which his 1960s and ’70s work participated. His long sequence ‘Wise Why’s Y’s:The Griot’s Song Djeli Ya’, a time- and space-jumping account of African-American experience, from the Middle Passage to the present, is a major work of the ’90s, while his post-911 poem ‘Somebody Blew Up America’, for all its unfortunate lapses in political judgement, ensured that he remained in the public eye, a controversy he thrived on even as he neared the end of his life.

    Despite or, indeed, because of this, in later years he was perhaps something of an elder statesman, his writings on music, particularly jazz, reaching audiences who might otherwise have been put off by his continuing absolute commitment to Marxism-Leninism. He was the author of the classic study Blues People, a charting and a history of the ways in which African-Americans used music as a tool of satirical, melancholy, bitter and fierce resistance against economic and racial exploitation; of Black Music, which introduced and popularized for a whole generation the free jazz of such musicians as John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp; and of the recently-published collection Digging, which covered developments in jazz through nearly four decades. Finally, it may even be as a playwright that he is still best remembered; for his ferocious two-hander Dutchman, of 1964; for his productions with the Black Arts Repertory Theatre Group, which brought street theatre, poetry, music and radical politics to Harlem in 1965; and for his Black Nationalist plays which inspired a whole generation of black playwrights.

    His work always pushed at the boundaries of its own form and of the context of its reception and production, and though this meant that it could, at times, become simplistically didactic, it also yielded material capable of a political engagement that few other poets have reached. As a Marxist, he insisted on the importance of transformation and of moving away from and rejecting previous positions that had been found to be inadequate or incorrect, so that his work is a charting, not only of personal but of wider political changes, a barometer for the political climate of American radicalism and its intersections with Pan-African and Third-World movements, a challenge to the “legitimate history” of a “decadent economy”, where, “glamorous and static”, “ ‘love’ becomes the pass, / the word taken intimately to combat / all the use of language” (‘The Politics of Rich Painters’). “Luxury, then, is a way of being ignorant, comfortably / An approach to the open market / of least information”: Baraka’s language rejects any such luxurious vagueness with coruscating force; there is no luxuriating here in the easy substitution of ‘developed’ personal feeling and ‘cultural sensitivity’ for class, even as, in his earlier poems, he delves inside the intersections of personal conflict and the ambiguities and conflicts of his own class positioning, what he calls “the slur of my speech. The core of my lyric” (‘Predicates and Categories’), a lyric poetry constantly questioning and threatening to move beyond itself. “Today is the history we must learn / to desire” (‘Numbers, Letters’).

    The title for NPR’s obituary described his work, in cringe-makingly clichéd terms, as both “controversial” and “achingly beautiful”: the first a pat truism avoiding value judgement, the second a cod-profound aestheticism of exactly the kind that Baraka’s early work in particular vehemently challenges. His 1962 poem ‘The End of Man is his Beauty’ even figures such aestheticism as a kind of death, wallowing in real or imagined hurt while never moving to challenge the causes of that hurt: “cities die / beneath your shape.” To be merely ‘beautiful’, then, would ever be enough. NPR’s hipster-fied ‘ache’ would be a watered down version of that very real despair he charted in essay after play after poem after poem: what, for example, he described in a 1962 essay as the cruelty of hope and promise, the “waste products” – whether songs, poems, modes of speech, emotions or even persons themselves – of a “delicate suffering” within the condition of absolute despair, the “special gray death that loiters in the streets of an urban Negro slum,” under which those unemployed or employed for a pittance “stagger[…], humiliated because [to those media and governmental policy-makers and spokes-persons who explain away the existence and root causes of that despair] it is not even ‘real.’ ” (‘Cold, Hurt, and Sorrow (Streets of Despair)’) This is that which, in a mid-60s novel, he compared to ‘The System of Dante’s Hell’: the actual existence of hell, not as some imagined afterlife of punishment used to inculcate certain modes of codified present behaviour, but as the real lives lived in Newark, Harlem, Detroit, LA – and Tottenham – where “we / vote [or do not vote] among roaches”.

    “What is hell? Your definitions. I am and was and will be a social animal. Hell is definable only in those terms. I can get no place else; it wdn’t exist. […] The torture of being the unseen object, and the constantly observed subject. The flame of social dichotomy […] The dichotomy of what is seen and taught and desired opposed to what is felt […] Hell is actual, and people with hell in their heads.”

    And yet this is never wallowed on, is observed with compassion but also with a furious desire for change. As he puts it in the afore-mentioned passage: “Once, as a child, I would weep for compassion and understanding. And Hell was the inferno of my frustration. But the world is clearer to me now, and many of its features, more easily definable.” Or, in a speech to the National Black Political Convention held in Gary, Indiana, in 1972 – at which his recitation of the poem ‘It’s Nation Time’ united the political speech and the poem, that which is notated on the page and that which is activated in speech, in rhetoric, in song: “Nothing will be solved by emotionalism without substance.” Yet neither can that substance exist without emotion: “we are not talking merely about beliefs, which are later, after the fact of feeling”, and “each piece of shit that goes on in the world does hurt me.”

    At its best, then, his work has a wrenching, self-critical and satirical force that lets no one off easy: a shock to the system, a bucket of cold water in the face, a source, complex and infuriating, clear and vital, of continuing inspiration and challenge, “up through fog and history,” that seeks to “swing the general, that it come flash open // and spill the innards of that sweet thing we heard, and gave theory to” (‘Three Modes of History and Culture’).

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