“You have to start with slavery, because those abuses have never been eradicated.
You know, people are not living in the slums because they voted to” (Baraka, 2004)
“If I wasn’t strong enough to act, I would become strong enough to SPEAK what had to be said, for all of us, for black people, because they were the root and origin of my conviction, but for anyone anywhere who wanted Justice!” (Autobiography of Amiri Baraka, 1984, looking back on the impact the death of Malcolm X had on him)
Introduction: America’s Conscience?
Shortly after Amiri Baraka died in January of 2014, while many of us were deep in collective mourning, I received word that Pete Seeger had died. The contrast between the ways the white establishment media handled these two deaths is evident by a quick look at the headlines:
Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94 (The New York Times)
Pete Seeger dies at 94; balladeer was America's Conscience In Song (Los Angeles Times)
Pete Seeger, Legendary Folk Singer, Dies at 94 (The Washington Post)
Pete Seeger Dead: Famed Folk Singer, Songwriter and Political Activist Dies At 94 (The Huffington Post)
Pete Seeger: This Man Surrounded Hate and Forced It to Surrender (The Nation)
Now, compare these accolades with some headlines for Amiri Baraka who died two weeks earlier:
Amiri Baraka, Polarizing Poet and Playwright, Dies at 79 (The New York Times)
Amiri Baraka Dies at 79; Provocative Poet Lauded, Chided for Social Passion (Los Angeles Times)
Amiri Baraka Dead: Controversial Author and Activist Dies at 79 (The Huffington Post)
The contrast the LA Times makes is particularly revealing: Seeger is represented as a singular national unifying conscience of America, while Baraka is presented as a merely passionate poet---lauded by some, but chided, not even taken seriously, by others. But wasn’t Seeger also somewhat controversial, polarizing and “chided for social passion” or even the way he made music? And wasn’t Amiri Baraka also a relentless champion of the music (and culture) of American ‘folk’ and social change, as well as a legendary, famed man who surrounded hate and forced it to surrender?
These headlines are themselves polarizing. In this so-called “post-racial” era in which the race of these two men is not blatantly mentioned, it is nonetheless implied. Both the false distinction between a moral “conscience” (that lacks social passion) and a “social passion” (that lacks conscience), and the reductive distinction between “balladeer” and “poet,” suggest racial, cultural and philosophical ignorance at work. It is such “subtle” forms of racism in the national cultural industry that Baraka spent his adult life combatting. In the process, he did much more to foster racial understanding to anyone who listened to more than a few sound bites (framed, of course, by the voice-over spin of the corporate white supremacist media). I’d argue that, for many as well as myself, Baraka has a much more legitimate claim to being called “America’s conscience” in music and the expressive, creative arts (to say nothing of him being a better ‘musician’).
II. Blues People, White Masks
“Black music’s all you got/ and you find it much too hot” (In The Tradition, 1980)
Baraka’s art/thought often does what a conscience does: teaches, tenaciously provokes, lovingly challenges, and inspires to truthful action with spiritualizing foresight and clarity…and, yes, social passion and music. Take, for instance, his early book, Blues People, which offers a more comprehensive sense of the history of American “folk” music than I had ever gotten from the white media who elevated Seeger’s rendering of it. Rooted in the blues (as most American popular music, including so-called ‘folk’ and ‘protest’ music is), this well-researched analysis has been deeply inspiring to both black and white appreciators of American culture, and contains sentence after sentence that reveals the depth and beauty that African-American culture has brought, and still brings, to its people and as a global cultural export (at least as profound as any cotton):
“As regards its intent, [blues] was a purely functional music, not an “art” music….It was, and is, inconceivable in the African culture to make a separation between music, dancing, song, the artifact, and man’s life, or his worship of his gods. Expression issued from life.”
By contrast, European-American culture is based on making a separation between these various “specialized” activities. Today, we see this in in the corporate infotainment industry, as well as in what Thomas Sayers Ellis calls the “segregation” of literary genres in academia. This crucial contrast between the philosophical underpinnings of these two cultures is important for understanding the depth and scope of the black liberation struggle in this country as cultural, spiritual as well as economic and political.
It helps explain why, for instance, college Black Studies programs demand an “interdisciplinary” approach to challenge the reductive gerrymandering of “disciplines” and emphasizes the importance of functional community involvement in any true education. Hunting is not those heads on the wall! Pete Seeger may have known this to an extent, but it’s still much easier for the media to ensconce him in their safe, barren, little boxes---- even if he helped popularize—to white America-- some ‘folk blues,’ musicians and freedom songs.
Baraka’s broad theoretical point is crucial in understanding the culture clash that is America under segregation, but Baraka also gets more specific in his historicizing:
“The material of blues were not available to the white American, even though some strange circumstance might prompt him to look for them….The white (jazz) musician understood the blues first as music, but seldom as attitude (or world view; thought).”
He shows this by contrasting Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong; B’s emotional life “was based on his conscious or unconscious disapproval of most of the sacraments of his culture. On the other hand, Armstrong was, in terms of emotional stereotypes, an honored priest of his culture, one of the most impressive products of his society. Armstrong was not rebelling against anything with his music. In fact, his music was one of the most beautiful refinements of Afro-American musical tradition, and it was immediately recognized as such…”
For Baraka, the irony—but also the hard lesson-- is that both men occupied a similar place in American society. This realization of a racial double standard is not merely about what was happening 35 years before, but also what was happening in America when this book was published. For instance, when Muhammad Ali became a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War in 1966, boxing writer Jimmy Cannon wrote:
“He fits in with the famous singers no one can hear and the punks riding Motorcycles and Batman and the boys with their long dirty hair and the girls with the unwashed look and the college kids dancing naked at secret proms and the revolt of students who get a check from Dad,…” (Zirin, 64)
Muhammad Ali did not “fit in” with any of these white rebels, but was acting on the high moral principles of Malcolm X, yet this is how the white media presented him. Or you may look at Baraka’s own relationship to the ‘underground’ (‘outsider’) writers he was often associated with. Allen Ginsberg and others, for instance, were often called “The White Negro” (Norman Mailer’s term)—but clearly Baraka (even as Le Roi Jones) felt much more affinity with Malcolm X, John Coltrane and others than the rebellious white youth culture or the hedonist bohemian scene (and this racial and cultural misunderstanding—or purposeful obfuscation—persists into the 21st century).
As an educator on the depth and profound influence of African-American culture, Baraka does indeed propose “controversial” theses that challenge the standards of the white education system---but his claims make sense and, at the very least, are difficult to disprove (and can lead a reader to a deeper education into oft-erased black history---which in this country is also white history). For instance, have you ever wondered why white people from the North speak differently, than white people in the south? I have, and never found any satisfactory answer to this question from linguists or historians until I read Baraka:
“What is now called a “Southern Accent” or “Negro Speech” was once the accent of a foreigner trying to speak a new unfamiliar language, although it was characteristic of white masters to attribute to slaves “inability” to speak perfect English to the same kind of “childishness” that was used to explain the Africans belief in the supernatural.”(25)
In the 21st century, the speech of many African-Americans in the north still has much more in common with the speech of southern whites than it does to northern whites. Clearly, the education was occurring both ways, as the “white masters” and their children learned this speech from the slaves’ speech—despite themselves! This is often not spoken of in school, but it is crucial in the creation of a distinctly American language or idiom, as opposed to an English language (and not simply in its verbal manifestations). Baraka puts this expressive “miscegenation” more succinctly when he states: “If White people can play the blues, Black people can speak American.”
Baraka’s historical research and conscientious insights have been met by resistance by those who have a stake, or think they have a stake, in perpetuating this blander, individualistic and materialistic European/American “art” music/culture system. While most of these people are white, Baraka’s conscience reminds black folks that not all are: “our enemies have created our spokesman” in order to advance and perpetuate a lopsided Euro-American view of culture (art, history, and truth):
“Skip Gates and the negro deconstructionists actually reraise the reaction of the backward White southern so-called “New Critics” of the 40s and 50s. The attempted disconnection of literature from real life. To render beauty and intelligence neuter and abstract. To make truth mysterious and an individual perception; and society metaphor, and metaphysical.” (“Malcolm As Ideology; “Amiri Baraka Reader, 511). True to form, Gates' most recent edition of The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature mostly includes work from Baraka's early Le Roi Jones period, and ignores most of the luminaries of the Black Arts Movement.
Conscience means “with science,” with-knowing, and the knowledge that comes through in Baraka’s writing and performances is anything but “neuter and abstract,” or a mere individual “inner-light” or Freudian “superego.” The truth is collective, musical and improvisatory--whether this conscience is manifested as spontaneous or reflective; feeling, thinking, or acting.
III. A Poetry of Hard Facts
A conscience is not afraid to be didactic, or at least to use the didactic mode that challenges a ‘standard’ of 20th century American poetry: “Show, don’t tell.” Baraka shows and tells, and the improvisatory telling is rooted in occasions, even if he may disagree or change his position, or strategy, later. The rage of “Black Art” is expressed in order to “Clean out the world for virtue and love.” At times he may “rant,” yet this is never without reason. Some have even criticized his poetry for being too reasoned. Baraka’s book Hard Facts, according to a 1987 book-length study, is “intellectually determined, whereas the cultural-nationalist pieces [of Black Magic and It’s Nation Time] are emotionally felt” (Harris, xxix).
Robert Elliot Fox and others aside, a poem like “When We’ll Worship Jesus” from that collection is actually very emotionally presented. In fact, its criticism of the Black Church can still offend some potential allies in the united front he tried to build, but it’s important to recognize that Baraka is not saying he won’t be part of a united front with church people. He celebrates the energy of “those Negroes in the churches jumping up and down with their eyes rolling around in their heads” in the liner notes to his Black and Beautiful album, and that is when the intellectual determination comes in; Baraka pragmatically works on both the intellectual and emotional front here:
“sing about creation, our creation, the life of the world and fantastic
nature how we struggle to transform it, but don’t victimize our selves by
distorting the world
stop moanin bout jesus, stop sweatin and crying and stompin and dyin for jesus
unless that’s the name of the army we building to force the land finally to
change hands. And lets not call that jesus, get a quick consensus, on that”
What he says most directly about Jesus and Allah (which is analogous to the criticism he makes about movies, in a “New Reality Is Better Than A New Movie,” or in later poems like “Dope”). The poem is funny, and he knows it (humor can be educational and revolutionary tool)—but these poems are not merely the amusing quips of a gadfly. Wit is a weapon. It is true that his treatment of hard realities during the early 1970s when the Black Liberation Movement was being fragmented by hostile external forces is more didactic, but this mode of poetry is much more acceptable internationally than it is in white America (contrast, say, the ‘high modernism’ of Ezra Pound with Bertolt Brecht).
Yet, as Baraka points out, “Hate Whitey” is more likely to be taken up by the white establishment than “Hate Imperialism”—thus, they can criticize the “anti-semitism” or “reverse racism” of the “emotional” poems publically, but when he goes beyond “hate whitey” into a more intellectual analysis, they criticize him for being too intellectual.
In “Dictatorship of The Proletariat,” he plays a pedagogical role, as if talking to students afraid of these Big Words, and the connotations of Dictatorship. It’s true, he claims, it is a scary word, as it is usually used. And Marx’s language is scary if you think he’s saying he’s going to take your music away, your fun, your joy and spirituality and your ecstasy, your Black Nationalism, or whatever freedom you might think you have, as if “the dictatorship of the proletariat” somehow could make you, “downer than you been.”
Baraka knows there is a war being waged in the cultural superstructure; “Power is putting words in schools.” So, in this poem, he starts with an enemy all too tangible to many African-Americans: The police, the word “Cop,” the image of the benevolent cop, and the contrasting brutal reality. But the cop is just the tip of the iceberg, the vehicle of the tenor in the metaphor: the cop is the agent of the “Dictatorship of Money.”
In this performance poem (or what Thomas Sayers Ellis would call a “perform-a-form”), Baraka uses the concrete example of the cop to elicit an emotional response, and then returns to the intellectual argument. Yes, he will grant the point that “dictatorship” is indeed a scary word, specifically “The dictatorship of the minority/ which is currently bein run” and reminds us (in case we needed reminding) that America is not a democracy:
“the dictatorship of money is good, the
of the bourgeois, this is good, the dictatorship of poverty
and terror, this is good.”
In fighting the corporate propaganda that goes by the more benign name, “public relations,” this poem is more about The Word Cops than the word “cop.” Eventually the poem does turn into a “mere” prose argument—at least if read on the page without hearing a live performance of it-- but it takes a page and a half to get to this point (and even this is not without music and genuine love that may yet have the power to surround hate and force it to surrender):
“But, Listen, we are the producers of wealth, the factories land and money are created by the creators, the workers, the laborers in the mills, on the land, it is the people who must own what shd be owned. What creates food and clothing and shelter for the Great Majority must be owned by the great majority. The Workers must own what is necessary for the whole society to live. There is enough wealth for everybody, the world is literally unimaginably rich, yet the majority of people are landless paupers with nothing to sell but the muscle in their arms. We call for the dictatorship of the producers. The total control of society by the creators of value itself. The total control of society by the majority, the multinational working class. The proletariat in modern dress. Who must lead the masses of us, with a revolutionary vanguard party at the helm guided by science….”
In learning this phrase, this mantra, “Dictatorship of The Proletariat”, Baraka enjoins us to “speak it….even before you understand it.” It’s okay—and even necessary-- to speak it even before you understand it in order to understand it, in order to see how these words relate to your lived experience. As he puts it 20 years later, “the essence of our call and our work was to try to unite Afro-American people, by raising their consciousness by attempting to raise our own consciousness…”(Reader, 497). This is another crucial dimension to a living conscience, and I’ve seen it first hand in his improvisatory “thinking aloud” public performances (he was a master of the “question and answer session” during his so-called ‘poetry readings’).
In Baraka’s “career trajectory,” he flips the script on the “radical” academics, by moving from a more ‘post-structural’ (ostensibly more sophisticated) approach in his earlier writing to what is called a more ‘vulgar’ Marxism—vulgar, as in vulgate, the people’s language. If people do not read, we can hear him speak, and as many of us can attest, he was anything but a Dead lecturer (and many video and audio recordings are available today even in his death). His use of modern technology is also worth discussing when considering the move to emphasize the orality. Euro-Logocentric written standards of “literary excellence” may have had more value when writing was the primary technology of recording, but the 20th century technology opened up new possibilities for liberation of the hieroglyphic living word, if a people could take advantage of it. Baraka did. This is true conscience.
IV. Art-as-Politics; Politics-As-Art: Must we talk about legacy?
William J. Harris, in his introduction to the Amiri Baraka/Le Roi Jones Reader, writes: “No post-Black Arts artist thinks of himself or herself as simply being a human being who happens to be black.” If that’s true, then, as a white writer, I believe it’s irresponsible to pretend that we are human beings who happen to be white. But, of course, many whites still live in a pre-Black Arts era (or bubble of mis-education) because many remain unaware of this movement and aesthetic, or lack pride in African-American culture (what DuBois calls “The Gifts of Black Folk”). Yet, there are still many who carry the fire of this struggle, as Thomas Sayers Ellis wrote, on Facebook, shortly, after Baraka’s death: We got more tradition than them now. We got ours and theirs. Wow. We really do. And that's dangerous.
The Black Arts Movement didn’t “die” and isn’t merely historical, and Baraka’s legacy is barely written; it’s a legacy that is not simply his own. Looking back during the 1990s, Baraka reminds us that the spirit that informed Malcolm X is the same spirit that inspires the Black Arts; both are fighting for living institutions
“…to make Cultural Revolution. To fight in the superstructure, in the realm of ideas, philosophies, the arts, academia, the class struggle between oppressed and oppressor. To recreate and maintain our voice as a truly self-conscious, self-determining entity, to interpret and focus our whole lives and history. And create those organizations and institutions that will finally educate, employ, entertain and liberate us.” (505)
The Art Struggle is one with the Political Struggle for Human Rights:
“In essence, the ideological struggle and development of Black Self-Determination must begin with Malcolm’s O.A.A.U and proceed past the general United Front to a political party. A party created to struggle for total U.S. social transformation, based on the call and mobilization for Black Self Determination. An independent U.S. party, probably formed and, in the main, lead by Afro Americans but open to the whole of the U.S. people” (517)
Baraka’s reasoned cry of conscience in these passages about BAM and Malcolm’s O.A.A.U shows the intertwined roots of economic and cultural segregation in “post-Racial” America, and provokes listeners to look at their own struggles in a collective light. His call for a party formed and lead by Afro-Americans, but open to the whole of the U.S. people, proposes a solution that could heal this land called America. This call goes beyond the reductive “integration” vs. “separation” debate that was used (by Cointelpro, etc) to divide the black community effectively, especially after 1968. Today, such a political party and self-determining network of art-organizations (like Cave Canem in Pittsburgh, or the Eastside Arts Alliance in Oakland, to name but two) is clearly needed.
I’ve seen this need up close by listening to the testimony of black students I worked with at Laney College during the mostly white-led “leaderless” Occupy Wall Street Movement. As students carried signs reminding white folks, “Blacks have always been the 99%,” it became clear that any movement (whether reformist or revolutionary) that only includes the black community as a marginal, or token presence, can only go so far. In this light, consider Baraka’s defense of the mobilization of over 90% of the black population at the center of the coalition that elected Obama. The election of Obama, Baraka wrote in November 2008:
is a fantastic new precedent that must be acted upon immediately, before the corporate right media and all our “independent” smarty pants commentators cloud over the main issues….for the would be Leftists to tell us that Obama’s only or that his “primary function is to save capitalism by building a united front to rescue capitalism NOT to bring about a more egalitarian, anti-racist anti-sexist pro-environment society”. Why would anyone who was actually struggling for Democracy say that? It sounds like the sour grapes of the people who wanted us to waste our votes , but even though they tailed 98% of the Afro American and half of the rest of the American people, still want to give us advice and instructions. (“We Are Already In The Future”—emphasis added).
Baraka goes beyond the mere “Obamamania” (or what he calls the “Obamacoaster”) of that time, and his defense is not uncritical of Obama himself. It is the alliance, the possible movement; the forward thurst of his thinking beyond mere “legacy.” This is the informed prescience that is an aspect of his conscience.
As a veteran of the struggles of the 1960s, Baraka saw how the reformist movement provided the laboratory for people to develop a revolutionary consciousness: this “working within the system,” or, if they already grasped that consciousness, to make practical use of it, is hardly incompatible with the call for nothing less than revolution….by any means necessary: “Self-determination…to build on that Malcolm sense…self-determination as self-reliance and self-respect and self-defense…then we can talk about being American.”
This conscience is the courage to use the word “Them” when necessary, to use both “black vernacular” and “standard English” when necessary, and to suss and speak out against the insidious forms corporate propaganda takes:
“Du Bois not only said the problem with the 20th century is the color line, but he also said that the twentieth century was the epoch of propaganda. Since we (human beings) had already formally and legally obtained human rights and now the rulers had to convince us not to make use of them.” (519)-
Such insights (and outsights) are only part of why Baraka, like DuBois and others before him, has served as a conscience for many Americans, and why his funeral—both the actual funeral on the streets of Newark as well as the “virtual” tributes that have poured in from younger luminaries like Greg Tate and others in the non-mainstream (black) media, and people working in a wide range of grassroots fields who Baraka has touched-- was much warmer, more loving (and, yes, soulful) than any funeral Pete Seeger had. Baraka never retired. Here’s a moving facebook post from the great poet Jessica Care Moore written the day she heard the news of his death:
I'm shaking...and hearing the voices of so many poets i love today....i won't be eloquent now. i just need to say that some of us understand that the work cannot die and should not be left to disappear inside america's literary lie. i come from something. i am a blk/girl poet. a daughter of movements. not Hip Hop. not academia. revolutionary black arts movements writers. we all just wanted to have something relevant to say in the presence of them. he was one of our greatest. our Ali of poetry. i still needed him. we all do. i wasn't ready. we ain't ready. we have torn down a dance floor. we have laughed. this summer..we talked for over an hour while in the lobby of our hotel..for national black arts festival..how many lobbies...this time i was carrying his book RAZOR he gave me as a gift in Detroit...it was in my carry on..and he asked if it was signed. this work makes me cry when i read it. he validates our existence. he made me understand this work was so much deeper than being "famous" or whatever. when he called my name, in writing, as one of the writers left out of anthology...i cried. to be considered...by him. was such an honor. amiri baraka did that for us. for this next generation of poets and writers who may not even know he was fighting for them.some of us know he was. and he will. he wrote in the book, " "The world belongs to us as well." Unity and Struggle. Love to my comrades across the country who knew and loved him as i did. We must stay connected and continue to do this work with integrity, with grit, with love. we are still simply your children....praying, writing, hoping that one day we have something relevant to say in the presence of you. He was keeping us alive. Let's do the same. We have more work to do. Rest in Peace Baba Amiri Baraka Amiri Middy Baraka love to your beautiful wife, Amina and the entire Baraka Family.”
Baraka’s funeral and the ongoing tributes are also a call to mobilize—to remobilize---to try, despite all odds, to roll that boulder back up the hill that has been rolled down since, say, 1968, by the latest manifestations of The Sisyphus Syndrome. It helped galvanize the movement to get his, and Amina’s, son, Ras, elected mayor of Newark.
So much more I want to say. So many links to youtube videos of him performing with musicians I’d like to share, to make the point clear, but perhaps I should just end by quoting a dramatic ‘aside’ from his later lyrical epic Whys/Wise, addressed primarily to a black audience. I got to witness a performance, with a full jazz combo, of excerpts from this epic in the basement of his Newark house, and felt the conscience tug at me, reminding as he speaks of “the great white way” (or you may call it “Rockefeller…/Bloodless “Jaws” whale shark monster”)---
You see (whispered
Even its “humanity”
(a people of slave holders)
was a kind
(And there are many other African Americans who feel the same way when confronted with the white ‘folk’ and ‘protest’ movements of the 60s that often held Pete Seeger as a kind of carved saint in the annals of music History). Rest In Power, Amiri Baraka---a spirit not a ghost!