Monday, April 1, 2019

“Dig The Scattered Eyes of Stars”—Syncretism in Baraka’s Allah Mean Everything

1.    Introduction

Misconceptions about the later, or we could say mature, Baraka, abound. He’s been accused of anti-Semitism, anti-white “reverse racism,” homophobia, misogyny, preaching to the converted, ‘vulgar dualistic’ thinking. One white male poet-critic even referred to him as an “Uncle Tom.” Subtler , and less-judgmental, misconceptions include this sense of Baraka as a secular cultural materialist, who not only scorns institutional religions, but also the refuses to make room for spiritual yearnings in his relentless quest for liberation of oppressed people….[1]

Let’s take a famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) poem from Hard Facts(1974), the collection of poetry that inaugurated his transition away from Black Nationalism and the Cult. Nats to “The Third World Marxist Period,” “When We’ll Worship Jesus:”

Jesus need to be busted
Jesus need to be thrown down & whipped
Till something better happen
Jesus ain’t did nothing for us
But kept us turned toward the
Sky (him and his boy allah
Too, need to be checkd
Need to worship yo self fo
You worship Jesus….

Don’t victimize ourselves by distorting the world
Stop moanin about Jesus…and dyin for jesus
Unless that’s the name of the army
We building to force the land
Finally to change hands.
And let’s not call that Jesus…  

The vision here, as in the satirical “Dope” (1977)----must be/ the devil, it ain’t capitalism”-- is strictly secular, and was taken as divisive by some of the black Church men and women (even though Baraka on many occasions has made it clear that the black church has been a positive force in self-determination).

25 years later, in “Allah Mean Everything,” he reveals himself much further along at being able to “integrate the inhead movie show, with the material reality that exists with & without them” (as he called for in “Poem For Deep Thinkers”). Baraka has clearly not renounced what could be called “third world Marxism,” but he is further along at integrating it both with what was positive of his earlier phases, and a more elaborated spiritual grounding…that can thoroughly challenge the dominant American institutional religion and its syncretic mesh of Judeo-Christian Monotheism, mind body dualism and capitalism.

It may not be a particularly original idea to say that in 20thCentury Secular America, Money largely replaced God (quite a few stand-up comics have made a killing on the “Religion, Inc” bit), but what makes “Allah Mean Everything” more profound, and yield more insights and wisdom on repeated readings is that rather than just being a critique of institutional religion and its deep connection with sexist, racist, and classist capitalism is that it’s spoken from a place of deep spiritual longing and vision that is yet not incompatible with a cultural materialist analysis, and breath-taking linguistic play and music.

According to the dictionary, syncretism is both, “1) the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought, and 2), the merging of different inflectional varieties of a word during the development of a language.” In both senses of the word Baraka’s poem could be considered syncretic. Here, as elsewhere, he labors in the cultural superstructure to challenge the official mappings of Euro-centric thought (drawing connections between two or more specialized, and ostensibly unrelated, spheres of activity—for instance “the devil” and “Santa Claus”-- to expose the duplicity of the “normative discourse” of the official realities, to help create a new language (if not a new religion) at the frontlines where cultural materialism and spiritual idealism meet & divide & meet again…to fight against the racism, classism, and sexism that have thrived under a regime of mind-body dualism. 

I believe the spiritual “grounding” that informs the poem clearly shows his wife, Amina’s, influence on him. For his vision of the soul is a largely matriarchal, or at least anti-patriarchal, one. And, as such, it’s at once too philosophical and deep, and also too pun-laden and silly to fit nicely within the Perloff-Vendler-Bloom critical spectrum range, and thus not reach many whites who “love the Le Roi Jones stuff,” oh, and it’s “too much like a sermon” that at times slums it in “recognizably black vernacular” that’s not afraid to listen by telling as much as by showing.[2]

2.     Baraka’s Anti-Logocentric Metaphysics.

The poem begins with what seems to be a paradox, “Allah mean everything, before the word.”
This is clearly a reference to the Christian Bible’s account of the creation. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (Genesis 1:1). In Christianity (or at least the Catholic church in which I was forced to go as a kid), this passage is often linked with a sequel, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” which suggests that, before the arrival of Jesus, the Word, in the above passage, was notflesh, and in fact preceded flesh, that humans, mere flesh, are separated from it. 

For decades, by the time of “Allah Mean Everything,” the concept of The Word with God, had been pejoratively termed logocentricismby many fashionable post-existential theorists, but Baraka makes it clear that he rejects secular 20th century quasi-metaphysical replacements for the concept of God or the Spirit such as Derrida’s difference. (“Death is a choice of ignorance. The Z row the hole for whole, the nothing when there nothing is nothing and nothing cannot be. Because even in your mind nothing exists as something. A thought”). The title suggests, on the contrary, that Baraka, is choosing Allah over the Christian God, or converting to Islam: indeed, in the beginning of this piece, there it is, the word, Allah-- but the word Allah never reappears in the poem. He’s clearly not saying everything mean Allah (God), because by doing such he would be reducing everything to the word. Rather, “Allah mean everything,” opens up beyond words and the divisiveness of mere meaning. He leaves the word “Allah” hanging in connotational suspension (though what he says about “God” later could easily apply to “Allah”).[3]

More important in this poem is the word “everything” as the poem’s positive spiritual grounding, “Everything is the one, the whole, to understand this is what holiness means.” Some claim that the word “Everything” could be too vague to have any particular religious, spiritual, or moral significance (for some it suggests a heretical pantheism, while others say everything can easily slide back into nothing, but Baraka understands the relational aspects of language enough to ground and define (and thus limit) this word “everything” by realizing that you can only say what holiness is (in words) if you devote a lot of time to saying what it isn’t.

Baraka’s alternative evocation of an everything before the so-called logocentric beginning intuitively makes sense if we consider what we know of creation and beginnings on a personal level involves speechless infants, or pre-verbal wombs. Everything is not just “before the word,” but also able to put it on trial (even if it has to use words to do that). Besides, if we believe the word came before us, then we have little hope of co-creating and/or contesting it, but if we realize thatwe(or at least everything) came before the word, then there’s hope, and room for thought to be free to allow us to rise above determinism and the tyranny of mere appetite.

As he continues, in a carefully chosen progression of words, he now links “the word” with the “slavemasters” and “the kings.” In Baraka’s sense, the “word” that is officially “the creation” was really the fall, the great divide. In the process, he not only offers an alternative creation myth, but one that is conversant with the fierce urgency of now, on both a personal and political level. The linkage of the word “Word” to the “slavemasters” makes sense if we consider that the fetishization of spirit in the monotheistic personal (or quasi-personal) “jealous” and “vengeful” God who demands loyalty and gets translated into the word “Lord” (or Baraka’s “absentee landlord”) to render the rest of us serfs of the lord, that separates us as humans (or not yet humans) from the eternal process of creation, creating.

3.    Baraka’s Anti-Patriarchal Creation Myth

And speaking as a male, from experience as well as intuition, he envisions a prelapsarian beginning in which “the women taught the rest of us, how to stand up straight, and dig the scattered eyes of stars of the other part of our wholeness, where surely we would go to be” (1), until “the hoarders of the earth” (male)….”created God because they could not be what they wanted with Good” (which could be translated to “created Allah because they could not be what they wanted with everything”).

“Evil created God so they could lie why Good was missing.” The introduction of the word “Good” here is essentially synonymous with “Everything” as it’s used in this poem (“who does the good is everything the all”). It, too, is a maligned, word, and it may seem to be a less philosophically sophisticated concept than “God,” but in Baraka’s poem “good” gains in meaning, and spiritual resonance, precisely by being contrasted to “God,” which he connects to the German word “Got” (as he connects the idea of “heaven” to “having not haven” to show how their very language betrays them). In this, the word “God” is used to prevent Good from happening; the word God is good missing a wheel and, as it turns out, also missing women.

Baraka plumbs the roots of the parthenogenetic fantasies of toxic masculinity that “character assassinated women as they threw them from the high place of art, the birthplace of what carries a visible soul, the womb.” (5) This account could be said to share similarities with writers as diverse as Huey Newton, and Laura (Ridng) Jackson, for instance, in her “creation myth” short-story, “Eve’s Side Of it,” at least in their characterization of men. In Riding’s creation myth storying, men “wanted to make more than there actually was, many and many and more things. For they thought what actually was was no better than nothing. “where is it?” they asked. “What is it? Who is it?” Naturally Lilith was not the sort of person to answer: It is here, it is this, it is I.” Lilith was everything, but she was also nothing in particular.”[4]

For both Riding and Baraka, men created the concept of God to overthrow women. Both Baraka and Riding refer to the current epic as “not yet human,” and for many of the same reasons, that the word “human” has usually just meant “male.” This does not necessarily imply an ultimate matriarchal attitude, but it’s clear in this later work that his wife, Amina, whose name can mean soul, had a profound influence on helping rescue Baraka from early attitudes that some would accuse of being male-ist, or homosocial. One may ask if Baraka’s piece falls into the trap of gender essentialism, or heterosexism in valuing women so much for the womb that men have envied, yet still deny them equality.[5]  But I think he sees, and praises, in women, a tendency to save the earth (and even men) from toxic masculinity through a spirituality that may also be practical (in a non-pejorative use of that term), as in this passage:

“And the animals the women taught/ To be with us, give us milk, and honey, and clothes and food, no longer/ Must we roam the forests every day, for a mouth full of food the only/pay.
The wise man said, the more time you must spend on seeking food and sustenance the less time you have to practice being human. The less time you have to practice your mind.”

In this pre-lapsarian (if not necessarily pre-historic), or even post-apocalyptic world, women were able to transform a hunting society into a gathering society, a nomadic society into a settler society, their domestication allows both genders to become more spiritual through exercising their mind, and thus save them from the greedy accumulative impulses….

The political argument would call for a re-distribution of leisure, to be fully human the slaves and working classes must be allowed to use their mind, to think. And Baraka knows his working class audience may not have as much time for his poetry as the leisure classes, “you got to go to work so you can remain poor and never understand much. Go through the world and never understand a thing. Except you got to go to work. Go to church all your life and never understand….(pg 9)” and perhaps that’s why he speaks in witty parables and koan-like questioning riddles (or low coups) so much in this poem, the kind that could reach a kid who reads Mad Magazine or likes Monty Python, and who’s known as a class clown. Yet, he doesn’t specifically get into the future materialistic possible utopia in this particular piece. Instead he embraces women, as creatures of mind and spirit as much as of body. He means “animals” in the non-pejorative sense here.

4.    Baraka’s moral transvaluation

Many other times in “Allah Mean Everything,” however, the word “animals” is used in the more pejorative sense, as in:
“What exists insists and resists, it’s
so tragic not to be human. So
ugly to be ruled by animals.” 

The hoarders are evil precisely because they deny a spiritual essence, “worships death, the earth, and calls the sky barren and empty, thinks space is a nothing filled with them and what they know….to be animal and prevent humanity from appearing.”

Rather than accuse Baraka of being a species-ist, who would not enjoy Dave Bartholomew’s “The Monkey Speaks His Mind,” which inverts the myth of species superiority, I see Baraka a syncretic pragmatist of a new American language. For when people (or “a people”) present themselves wearing a “Sky Lord” mask, as an absentee Landlord God that tends to call the rest of us (especially black, and women) animals in a pejorative sense, calling these people “animals” is of strategic use, even if on the deepest level Baraka really means “worse than animals” or, as he puts it elsewhere “not yet human.” At one point, Baraka lets out a cry, “We have changed the actual sensuous knowledge of the earth into a slimy animal, spineless with dialectical tongue.” 

Baraka has also been accused of being too relentlessly, “us and them” (even if by many who would be included in his ‘us’), or even of “preaching to the converted,” but, as Kwame Davis puts it, in an insightful comment, ”Baraka’s sharply drawn camps of Good & Evil force him to admit he had not been immune to that evil,”(xiii) and I’d argue that the warm maximalism of this conscience-scouring work is so effective precisely because Baraka presents himself as also struggling against the temptation to fall in with the soulless who “did not dig the sun, those who created histories of words which dealt with nothing but the transportation of their appetites.”(3)

As appetites, it’s clear that Baraka locates the oppressor as inside, or potentially, inside ourselves (and he includes himself of not necessarily women), as in the few who are able to rule the many, as in this version of a creation/fall myth:

“So the place, the tree, the umbrella of our being, when we first rose,
began to suppose we were no longer what we had been, the unknown
feelings the biting the search for only food, and the instant death of
what we could not change. They became slavemasters and kings and
priests, and began to rule the world.” (Part One, paragraph 5, page 3)

To say “your appetites are slavemasters” and call the ruling class “terrorists of the stomach” (or equate the dictator with a dick whose god is nothing but orgasm) is no mere “simile,” but an extended body-politic metaphor, an elaborate psycho-social—cosmic-conceit that can also serve as an excellent rebuke to Menenius’s famous “allegory of the belly” in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, and better Nietzsche’s “Genealogy of Morals.” This raises many questions- Is it our appetites that rule us, or theappetites? When we let the appetites that we think of as our own rule us we’re really letting the ruling class rule us? Have those who are slaves to their appetites made those of us who are not slaves of appetites into slaves of theirappetites? Are these appetites even natural, or but a misreading of nature, by the same beasts, or money gods, who see in “war the reflection of natural flesh?” (Para 26, pg. 15) Have I become a spokesman for anti-life forces (or call it evil) without being aware of it? Has it infected the very language we use?

5.Baraka’s defense of the soul as creating creation

While Baraka would somewhat agree with Toni Cade Bambara once wrote “the English
Language is for mercantile business and not the interior life,” he also reminds us how difficult it is to speak of the life of the mind, and the spirit, without the insidious intrusion of economic terms, and that even the term “interior life” may evoke a kind of “self-storage” place or “memory bank,” or as he puts it:

“They say brain so you will think even thought, Good, is limited and inside, a muscle, not the will of what am you rising, a Black Bird, with burning short stories, history driving you….as space becomes time.” (Part Two, paragraph 11, page 9).[6]The reason they want you to limit, and narrow, or slave your mind (or brain),--not content with taking your body---is because they want to keep people divided in the shell of individualism:

On their money is their I
Disconnected and hovering
Above the abducted pyramid stashed
In the Metropolitan Museum…

My Eye, they say, stopping the rise the reach
For the soul, in the middle of the 
Air, where we have been & will go again
Even how we are the soul but that makes no sense
To our tiny brain

In a similar light, he recalls his brilliant early essay, and defense of thought and process-oriented art, “Hunting Is Not Those Heads On The Wall,” when he writes of how the invention or discovery of steel and electricity are “the grounding of thieves who make art a thing, not creation itself.” (Part One, page 5)---For Baraka, it’s irresponsible for an artist to tell a creation myth, and speak of thecreation without also seeing it in connection with his creating as an artist, so while this poem clearly is aware of its own commodified status, that it too inevitably will become another “head in the wall,” it’s soul, its life-force, is precisely in the transpersonal process it’s a part of, only that in this poem it’s more figured as gatheringthan merely hunting.

And part of this gathering is to free space to take back the word “soul” and “spirit” and “the good,” “wholeness” from the corrupted western tradition and, in the process, suggest a potential for social harmony in which women have a leading role. He also has positive things to say about Jesus here (“the sword was the word of what is real”). He accepts the passion, and even the gospel here, only denies the resurrection to conclude his sermon with “wemust rise again.” And when Baraka speaks of the soul, sometimes it takes the form of accepting his own moments of spiritual poverty to conjure (muse like) the creative spirit,  “But the soul was from the sun and who did not aspire to be again what it is and we are, unconscious and therefore small, and without the power and burning and desire and endless self of being and coming and becoming re-being re-seeing, all toward what we were when we knew we were.” (2)

5.    Conclusion
And, by the end he can remind us as well as himself “it is the place where we lie and steal which must be understood and so reveal ourselves to the world to everything.” For me, “Allah Mean Everything” becomes one of the strongest contemporary defenses of the spiritual, and/or idealistic tradition precisely because it’s not cut off from political argument (and vice versa). He concludes by telling us “Science is the only religion.” They only problem with this is that today’s billionaire spokesmen for science as a positive good would no doubt cry heretic at Baraka’s claim that “Science mean everything.”

Of course, music is a science too, and given the important of music (especially non-verbal music) in Baraka’s life and art and culture criticism, it may seem odd that there’s nary a mention of music in this poem. Yet the various musical registers this poem strikes---in the sense of phanopiea­—suggests that you may be able to evoke non-verbal music better if you do not “refer” to it.[7]You could even say that Baraka’s poem uses the worded mind against itself to clear a space for a new language, or wordless performance. And it may be important at this juncture to mention that when he read the poem in the basement salons held in his Newark house that it would be followed by a musical performance. But even before that, by the end of the poem I feel a catharsis, and a moral challenge to do something---and never cease to ask myself, “in what ways am I speaking for oppression, without even being aware I am?”

[1]According to Kwame Davis in his introduction to Somebody Blew Up America(2007), Baraka’s “faith is in political systems…He rarely, if ever, speaks of evil. His is a secularist conception.” (xxii). Though this may be the case in “Somebody Blew Up America” (2001) it hardly is in “Allah Mean Everything”(1999) and other later work. Although William Harris dates all of Baraka’s work between 1974 and 2000 in his third phase, “The Third World Marxist Period,” a brief comparison of poems that deal with institutionalized religions and spirituality from 1974 to 2000 suggest that his writing since the 90s could be considered a distinct phase, which I will not try to name here (perhaps others already have?)

[2]Nonetheless, discussions of race and racism are barely evident in the more widely circulated Part 1 of this poem (though they’re more evident in part 2).
[3]By contrast,  in “Beginnings: Malcolm,” in Somebody Blew Up America, Baraka celebrates Malcolm’s conversion from the devil of the dominant American god to the ‘lamb’ of Allah.
[4]Laura (Riding) Jackson, “Progress of Stories,” 287
[5]See especially Part 2, paragraph 12 and 13, page 10, for an account of parthenogenetic womb envy
[6]What am you, is more plural than “what is you.” by the way….

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