The Lives of Amiri Baraka

Against the Current, No. 169, March/April 2014

Kim D. Hunter

WHO DOESN’T LOVE the narrative of a life that proves what we believe? The recent passing of Nelson Mandela gave us all a chance to celebrate one such life. The life of the recently passed Amiri Baraka is a little more complicated.

Baraka created monumental work in a variety of genres — essays, theater and fiction. But he could also pack a room full of people who wanted to hear poetry, arguably the least popular and most neglected form of literature. He both assailed and proclaimed “high art” over the years, castigating it and those he identified as its Black practitioners, such as the great Robert Hayden, as being disconnected from the trials and tribulations of the masses, this despite such Hayden works as “Middle Passage” and “Those Winter Sundays.”

Baraka would later be heard lamenting the relative short tradition of “high poetic speech” in Afro American (he had strong arguments for the use of that term) letters.

His first wife, Hettie Cohen, and one of his best and lifelong friends Allen Ginsberg, were both Jewish and Ginsberg was openly gay. It was Ginsberg who worked to free Baraka from the clutches of the Newark police during the 1967 uprising after the cops had cracked Baraka’s head open and “jailed” him in the office of the chief of police.

Yet Baraka’s work contains rabidly anti-Jewish and rabidly homophobic assertions even though he was bi-sexual. (For an excellent and insightful analysis of that aspect of Baraka’s life, see Some Thoughts on the Challenges Facing Black Gay Intellectuals by Ron Simmons.) He went so far as to assail white men for being “faggots” by virtue of some of them having Black men do their physical labor.

 But clearly, in the second half of his life, nothing provoked him like the effect of capital on people in general and on African Americans in particular. I used to half-jokingly think of him as “Amiri the Merciless” because of the scalding agit-prop he created.

to survive with no money in a money world, of making the boss
100,000 for every 200
you get, and then having his brother get you for the rent, and if
you want to buy the car
helped build, your downpayment paid for it, the rest goes to buy
his old lady a foam
rhinestone set of boobies for special occasions when kissinger
drunkenly fumbles with her blouse, forgetting himself.
If you don’t like it, what you gonna do about it.


Rockefeller is your vice president and yo’
  mama don’t wear no drawers.

Few could speak so plainly and poetically about oppression, and none could so easily connect the dots between the machinations of capital and misery in people’s lives. The above lines from “A New Reality is better than a New Movie” could have been posted on a bus, in a Laundromat, or a pool hall back during the times they were written and grabbed an audience. People would have been clear on the political points being made. Baraka fulfilled poet Carl Sandburg’s advice that poetry should be accessible to the working class.

Music, Sound and Poetry

Music and sound were integral to Baraka’s work. He loved and wrote about R&B and jazz throughout his long, multi-phased career which evokes that of Miles Davis. Both were also icons who were more popular than their art forms. Anyone who claims to be a scholar of American music in general or Black music in particular has to have read his Blues People: Negro Music in White America (first published 1963 under the author’s then name Leroi Jones — ed.).

This short, elegant, scholarly but accessible work lays low the myth of boundaries between “high” and mass culture. It is also a cultural and political manifesto on the roles and realities of African Americans in America and on the ways Black music reflects and influences both.

Like many of those who arose from the Black Arts movement which he virtually founded, Baraka would use song and sound to enrich his readings. He took reading aloud to be the poetic equivalent of playing music from the page. As far he was concerned, poetry became real for most people the same way music did, when performed out loud in front of an audience. In that regard he never disappointed, falling somewhere between the populist theatrics of James Brown and the intensity of John Coltrane when it came to live reading.

There were at least three phases to Baraka’s career/life, and arguably four if one counts his mellower turn as elder statesman in the latter years. Phase one more or less begins in Greenwich Village. He landed there after a variegated tour of Howard, Columbia and the New School, exiting all with no degree. That was after a dishonorable discharge from the military where he was accused of being a communist.

The Village was where he became instrumental to the movement of the Beat poets. The poets and influences of the Black Mountain school of poetry, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley and the like were also there and, to my reading, exerted more influence on Baraka’s work than the beats. Baraka, at the time still LeRoi Jones, married writer Hettie Cohen and they founded Yugen, a small but very influential literary magazine that published such Beat icons such as Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

It was during this period that he published, to great critical acclaim, his first volume of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. The title poem is one of his best known works and contains the sardonic wit for which he would be known.

And then last night I tiptoed up
To my daughter’s room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there…
Only she on her knees, peeking into
Her own clasped hands

That was 1959, his bohemian, aesthete period. A trip to Cuba before the revolution had a chance to cool changed him, brought the latent political side of him forward.

It was during that trip that Mexican poet Jaime Shelley excoriated Bakara for his dedication to art above all else: “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.”

A few years later in 1964 Baraka (still LeRoi Jones) would publish “An Agony, As Now” and his play “Dutchman” would make waves in the theater world. Both contained the serious self criticism/examination as Preface but both were grimmer and more racially aware.

I am inside someone
who hates me. I look
out from his eyes. Smell
what fouled tunes come in
to his breath. Love his
wretched women.

“Dutchman” was awarded an Obie by the Village Voice. Norman Mailer called it the best play in America. It’s a sparsely set encounter between Clay, a Black man and Lula, a white woman, on the New York subway. She enters eating an apple, insists on giving him a bite, then proceeds to berate him for not being “authentically” Black, but from the middle class and from New Jersey (where Jones/Baraka came from).

It’s a very short play of great dynamic range and complexity that ends up with Lula stabbing Clay to death, directing other subway passengers to dump his body and then moving to sit next to another young Black man. It is not so much a take on interracial relationships as a satire on the relationship(s) between Black men and America.

“We want poems that kill”

…we want “poems that kill.”
Assassin poems, Poems that shoot
guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys
and take their weapons leaving them dead
with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland. Knockoff
poems for dope selling wops or slick halfwhite
politicians Airplane poems, rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
;rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr . . .tuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuh-tuhtuh-tuhtuh
                  — from Black Arts

LeRoi Jones in 1964 was in transition to Black Nationalism. In 1965, he had an extensive meeting with Malcolm X that, not surprisingly, solidified Baraka’s view of Nationalism. Malcolm’s assassination was for Baraka a “declaration of war.” He left his wife and two children, moved to Harlem and helped found The Black Arts Movement.

How do you sound, your words, are they
yours? The ghost you see in the mirror, is it really
you, can you swear you are not an imitation greyboy,
can you look right next to you in that chair, and swear,
that the sister you have your hand on is not really
so full of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton is
coming out of her ears.

One can only wonder what Baraka’s own half-white children may have made of the work, though it also refers to the Black middle class that are less literally half-white and but have nonetheless taken on ”white values.” A problem with the stance of work like this, and even to some extent “Dutchman,” was the failure to recognize that self-loathing and the drive toward Black liberation were not strictly determined by class — that some working-class Blacks in the south had referred to the civil rights movement as “that mess,” while some militants like Angela Davis were solidly middle class.

Nonetheless, the Black Arts Movement was the cultural wing of the Black Power movement with most of the promise and problems thereof. Not since the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s had there been a more consciously concerted effort to reach out to African Americans, to positively acknowledge African culture and affirm Black identity as African.

It was during this period that I first encountered Baraka’s work. I was in the 8th grade and toying with the idea of writing poetry. I thought I liked Poe and Hughes. I knew I liked Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” But Baraka’s work was a bolt of lightning. It was the most real and relevant literature I had ever read. I was repelled and attracted by his anger.

Aesthetically, Baraka’s work changed relatively little in the last few decades, unlike his politics — though both had what I would consider ups and downs, even outright failures. His transition to what is generally labeled “third-world Marxist” included romanticizing and supporting African leaders such as Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere who began as revolutionaries and liberators, and continuing to support them as they became autocrats.

Attempting to leave no African out of the Pan African tent, he even expressed support for Angola’s UNITA movement led by Jonas Savimbi, which was funded by the apartheid era South African government. Years later, speaking to a packed house in Detroit, he excoriated then mayor Coleman A. Young as a front for corporate interests. Baraka openly supported Joseph Stalin as well.

Banality and Brilliance

Baraka’s adamant desire to be wholly transparent and accessible in verse resulted in some banal work such as “Wailers” that appears on John Giorno’s “Life is a Killer” audio poetry compilation. He wrote a great piece, the infamous “Somebody Blew Up America” about the September 11 attacks, and ruined it with bigoted conspiracy theory nonsense about Israelis and the U.S. government being in cahoots on the attacks.

That debacle resulted in his losing his appointment as New Jersey’s official poet laureate. (The real surprise is that he was ever awarded the honor in the first place.) Nonetheless, the poem plainly and rhetorically asks all the right questions outlining a history of colonialism, slavery and capital in a relatively short space.

Who stole Puerto Rico
Who stole the Indies, the Philipines, Manhattan
Australia & the Hebrides
Who forced opium on the Chinese
Who own them buildings
Who got the money
Who think you funny
Who locked you up
Who own the papers
Who owned the slave ship
Who run the army
Who the fake president
Who the ruler
Who the banker
Who? Who? Who?

While this isn’t as sophisticated as “A New Reality,” the repetition, the variety and the pointedness of the questions along with accessibility make it work.

I had the privilege to see Baraka at the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2012. He spoke about the uprisings of 1967, Newark’s and Detroit’s. He had the air of the elder statesman. Having survived much personal tragedy, two of his children were murdered — his daughter a victim of domestic violence, and one of his sons shot in the head — he was happy to celebrate his son Ras Baraka’s election to Newark City Council.

Of course, in the end we are left with a giant hole where he stood. He is one of those writers without whom the 20th century would have been a different place. Few had as strong a grasp on the aesthetics and uses of language, and fewer were able to translate that understanding to so many genres with such clarity and focus.

Can we know where, how or if he was able to fit together all the political/social and even aesthetic realities that were Amiri Baraka? Despite his paradoxes and his outright contradictions, we need Amiri Baraka to probe and agitate on behalf of the oppressed peoples of the world, and do it with the aplomb of a born poet.

March/April 2014, ATC 169