Baraka, Amiri (1934–2014)
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This essay explores the life and work of US actor, teacher, theater director and producer, author, black liberation activist, and poet Amiri Baraka (1934–2014).
Amiri Baraka, formerly Everett LeRoi Jones, was born in Cuba, July 1960. It was in the heat of a 14-h train journey, as it rolled through the fervour of the people’s revolution, that Baraka came into being. Prior to a phone call he had received early that year, Baraka had been Leroi Jones, the poet. When Richard Gibson, an organiser with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, rang to offer him a place on a trip to post-revolutionary Cuba, with 12 other black writers from the US, he had been fully ensconced in the role of the poet. Answering the phone drunk, in a Greenwich Village apartment, he was most likely surrounded by the likes of Diane di Prima, Allen Ginsberg, and Joel Oppenheimer, the set he had assembled around his publishing ventures Floating Bear and Yugen. Even when he arrived at Idlewild Airport to join the delegation to Cuba, Baraka was still very much Leroi Jones, the beat poet, outwardly disinterested, but inwardly sizing up career opportunities, disappointed that the ‘name’ writers who were supposed to be in the travelling party (James Baldwin and Langston Hughes) had cancelled. Dismissing many of the others on the trip (aside from Robert Williams) as 1920s and 1930s ‘kinds of Negroes’ (Jones and Baraka 2009: 25), Jones was embodying the milieu he had set his sights on since dishonourable discharge from the Air Force: a certain mode of New York intellectuality.
I tried to defend myself. ‘Look, why jump on me? I understand what you’re saying. I’m in complete agreement with you. I’m a poet. … what can I do? I write, that’s all. I’m not even interested in politics.’
She jumped on me with both feet, as did a group of Mexican poets in Habana. She called me a ‘cowardly bourgeois individualist’. The poets, or at least one young wild eyed Mexican poet, Jaime Shelly, almost left me in tears, stomping his foot on the floor, screaming: ‘You want to cultivate your soul? In that ugliness you live in, you want to cultivate your soul? Well we’ve got millions of starving people to feed, and that moves me enough to make poems out of.’ (Jones/Baraka, ‘Cuba Libre’, in Home: Social Essays, 2009: 57)
In the essay ‘Cuba Libre’, Baraka gives an account of a series of increasingly intense conjunctural moments, which arose from the material contradictions between the ideal persona he had been trying to realise in the Village, and the material reality of the Castroled revolution erupting all around him. These moments led him to fundamentally question the nature of the promising literary career he had begun to carve out for himself. Although the Bantuisation of his name did not take place until 1967, it was in Cuba that the shift from Jones to Baraka began.
Most assessments of Baraka’s career tend to focus on the regularity of his ideological, social, artistic, one could even say racial, transformations. Researchers ascribe the arrivals at bohemia, Black Cultural nationalism, and Third-World Marxism, to the sheer force of his individual will (Harris in Baraka 1990). In fact, these transitions were indicative of Baraka’s position at the intersection of various race and class lines. This unstable position allowed him to respond to the key social, political, and cultural questions of the moments in which he operated. The close scrutiny given to his shifting perspectives often leads to a fetishisation of the nature of those changes, and the way Baraka committed himself zealously to a modernist pursuit of the new. What is not given as much attention is that which remained constant for Baraka over the range and type of his actions. Those consistent features of Baraka’s career were put in place during that brief but almost over-stimulating trip to Cuba.
It was in Cuba that he came to the realisation it was possible for a poem, and a poet, to function as part of a revolutionary consciousness, to be utilised in the service of a mass intellectuality. The relative sanctuary afforded to the North American and European artist was the model Baraka had been seeking ever since he left the Air Force in 1957. Although he had, to some extent, found it, this model began to fall to pieces in free Cuba.
the wild impression one gets from the country, is that it is being run by a group of young radical intellectuals, and the young men of Latin America are radical. Whether Marxist or not, it is a social radicalism that they want. No one speaks of compromise. The idea never occurred to them. (Jones and Baraka 2009: 52)
In Cuba, the US became an entity which stretched far beyond Washington State, Maine and Texas, and he shared his blackness with insurgents in Southern and Latin America, Africa and Asia:
The young intellectual living in the United States inhabits an ugly void. He cannot use what is around him, neither can he revolt against it. Revolt against whom? Revolution in this country of ‘due process of law’ would be literally impossible …… That thin crust of a lie we cannot detect in our own thinking. That rotting of the mind which had enabled us to think about Hiroshima as if someone else had done it, or to believe vaguely that the ‘counterrevolution’ in Guatemala was an ‘internal affair.’ (Jones and Baraka 2009: 54)
When conducting an overview of Baraka’s career, it is vital a researcher acknowledges the antagonisms that occupied his actions and work. It is accurate to say that at various moments of his career, it was possible to label Baraka a chauvinist, misogynist, homophobe, anti-Semite, and egotist (Watts 2001). In many ways Baraka is toxic, but that does not mean he should be set aside. To do so would represent an act of grave irresponsibility, because all the inexcusable violence he sent out into the world, via his pen and voice, was inseparable from the deep commitment to transform himself into a revolutionary propaganda machine, one that saw no distinction between art and politics, and pointed its ammunition at the heart of US capital. This drive was first implanted in June 1960. For Baraka, after Cuba, the work became as serious as his life.
We are old people. Even the vitality of our art is like bright flowers growing up through a rotting carcass.
But the Cubans and the other new peoples (in Asia, Africa, South America) don’t need us, and we had better stay out of their way. (Jones and Baraka 2009: 78)
The commitment to producing art in the service of liberation, and framing the task of making revolution as one that had to imagine itself beyond the borders of the US, can be traced throughout his career after 1960. These were the two consistent lines running throughout his range of ideological shifts, and he adapted them to suit each ‘problem space’ out of which he was operating (Scott 2004: 4).
The second assassination which served as a foundation for both the emerging Black Nationalist movement and Baraka’s own political horizon was that of Malcolm X, on 21 February 1965. The murder of another towering Black leader (this time home-grown), who was forging a black politics which was decidedly militant and internationalist in outlook, was monumental for Baraka. It prompted him to leave Greenwich Village, shed the bohemian poet persona, and relocate uptown. In Harlem, Baraka went about the task of rethinking the role of black art as a determining factor in a mass black revolutionary movement.
Patrice Lumumba was assassinated by the C.I.A to stop the newly freed Congolese people from nationalising Union Miniere and other Rockefeller properties. I found myself marching outside the U.N. in demonstrations, while others, mostly blacks, took off their shoes and threw them down in the gallery as the gallery guards were called in to toss the demonstrating blacks out. Sisters were bashing the guards in the head with their shoes and throwing shoes down in the gallery. Ralph Bunche said he was ashamed and scandalised by such niggerism, while we were scandalised and ashamed of his negro-ass tom antics. (Jones and Baraka 1984: 181)
His immediate response was to establish the Black Arts Repertory Theater School (BARTS) in 1965. The working experiment gathered musicians from the nascent black avant-garde, playwrights, poets, and cultural commentators. Their role was to both practise and teach, in order to develop black art which directly communicated to, and participated in, the struggles of the black community around the school. Although the project fell apart violently within the space of a year, BARTS became the touchstone for a flourishing nationwide Black Arts movement. Similar organisations quickly began to establish themselves in black locales across several US cities (Smethurst 2005). Baraka soon learnt the lessons from the failures of BARTS, returning to Newark to set up the ‘Spirit House’, this time along more focused organisational lines.
Ideologically, during this period, Baraka put together a response to the question of black nationhood which adapted the forms of Third-World liberation represented by Castro and Lumumba. It was Malcolm X, though, who was the mimetic and strategic model for much of Baraka’s early nationalist thought, due to the way X had been able to reposition black people in the US as a colonised population. The problem for the radicals who took up X’s legacy was the question of land. The anticolonial national liberation movements were built upon claims over stolen territory. Such an organisational lever was never truly on the table for black Americans (Dawson 2002).
Baraka was recasting a territorial issue into a metaphysical one. The concentrated pockets of blackness may have been locked within major US cities, but psychically they existed beyond the US. Harlem and Watts were separated geographically, but they were unified by blackness. Consciousness was deployed to bridge the strategic gaps in the nation. The concept of territory was reorganised by Baraka so that the black nation was not a coherently singular site, yet it remained unified by its blackness: a one that was not a one. The thrust of Third-World liberation and the historical specificity of slavery in the US came together through Baraka’s politics of national consciousness, which sought to refigure black as a country (Jones and Baraka 2009).
Black Power is the Power first to be Black. It is better, in America, to be white. So we leave America, or we never go there. It could be twelve miles from New York City (or two miles) and it could be the black nation you found yourself in. That’s where your self was, all the time. (Jones and Baraka 1968: 122)
At the turn of the decade there were a series of subtle changes in Baraka’s politics. He took up a more formalised Pan-Africanism, and along with it shifted towards organised electoral politics. As a result, his framing of the nation question changed. All of these factors came together at the Congress of African Peoples, held in September 1970 at Atlanta, Georgia. The congress was designed to bring together a variety of black interest groups, ranging from radical community organisers to those within the Democratic Party structure, in order a assemble a coherent national black political agenda.
Whilst there were still significant strains of his earlier politics at work during this moment (such as an internationalist focus on developing a ‘World African Party’, and calls for a psychic, rather than physical, separation from America), it is the issue of land that fundamentally altered. Baraka made calls for the annexation of much of the former Confederate South, the eventual aim being a black plebiscite over secession from the US. Such a call was justified because of the degree to which black labour had been exploited in order to build the southern economy, and the region contained the largest concentration of black people over a wide geographical area. Baraka spent much of the 1970 congress pushing the line: ‘If there is enough of you standing on it, you ought to claim it’ (Baraka 1990: 101).
To open this essay with the statement that Baraka was born in Cuba in 1960 was, of course, intended to provoke. But such a claim is built on the idea that familial and political genealogies are never quite one and the same thing. This sentiment applies to no one more appropriately than Amiri Baraka. Despite, or perhaps even because of, the zeal and brutality of his myriad ideological transformations, which have always left him exposed to scrutiny by more rigid ideologues, two questions appear to have consistently driven his public life, ever since that 14-h train journey to the Sierra Maestra: What does a revolutionary poem do, and how does a poet go about making that kind of revolution?
From the endless sessions
money lord hovers oer us
capitalism beats our ass
dope & juice wont change it
Trane, blow, oh scream,
And yet last night I played Meditations
& it told me what to do
Live you crazy mother
(Baraka 1990: 270, 272)
- Baraka, A. (1990). In W. J. Harris (Ed.), The Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka reader. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.Google Scholar
- Dawson, M. C. (2002). Black visions: The roots of contemporary African-American political ideology. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Jones, L., & Baraka, A. (1968). The need for a cultural base to civil rights and black power movements. In F. B. Barbour (Ed.), The black power revolt: A collection of essays (pp. 120–125). Boston: Collier Books.Google Scholar
- Jones, L., & Baraka, A. (1984). The autobiography of Leroi Jones/Imamu Amiri Baraka. New York: Freundlich Books.Google Scholar
- Jones, L., & Baraka, A. (2009). Home: social essays. New York: Akashic Books.Google Scholar
- Smethurst, J. E. (2005). The black arts movement: Literary nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.Google Scholar
- Watts, J. G. (2001). Amiri Baraka: The politics and art of a black intellectual. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar