Histories, Aesthetics and Cultures of Dissent
Edited By Ben Dorfman
Bent Sørensen - Dissent as Race War: The Strange Case of Amiri Baraka
Abstract This paper analyzes the rhetorical, textual, and performance strategies of black U.S. poet Amiri Baraka (1934–2014), categorizing him as an Africanist, (Inter)Nationalist, Marxist, and masculinist dissident, critiquing both majority/hegemonic discourses and most liberal-humanist leftwing positions producing counter-discourses in the USA over the last fifty years.
On January 9, 2014, the African-American dissident poet Amiri Baraka died in New York City, aged 79, from complications following an operation. He was, to the last, an unincorporated, angry voice on the poetical and political scene in the U.S. From his earliest days as a poet under the name of Leroi Jones, treading a road of independent magazine editing and publishing (Yugen and Floating Bear, among others [which he shared as a fellow traveler with the Beats]), through his time as a Black Arts Movement activist and his black nationalist incarnation as Amiri Baraka, Baraka always courted controversy by occupying dissident positions vis-à-vis the establishment as well as other liberal-humanist activists of the day. Baraka was something of the archetype of the ever-dissenting dissenter.
To frame Baraka’s expressions of dissent, one might turn to definitions of dissent found in legal studies, where the concept has special resonance.1 Nan D. Hunter, while writing about the legal implications of practicing dissent as expressive identity, operates with a wider concept of dissent in relation to identity formation. Hunter (2000, 1–2) writes:
Social movements founded on identity politics generate claims based on shared identity characteristics in order to gain access to public and private domains. In our political life, identity politics is interwoven with dissent—is understood as dissent. Virtually all of ← 77 | 78 → the American civil rights movements since World War II have embodied the harmony between identity and dissent that exists in social practice, if not in law. By expressive identity, I mean those situations of particularly strong intersection, where an identity characteristic itself is understood to convey a message.
The movements of the mid-twentieth century seeking equal voting rights and nationwide and local political representation for African-Americans were this kind of social movement. For African-Americans in this period, and for several decades beyond, the “identity characteristic” in question “convey[ing] a message” would of course be black skin itself. One could additionally argue, along with Henri Tajfel (1970), that any civil rights movement or other group or movement “founded on identity politics” (using Hunter’s core definition) thrives on an ingroup/outgroup dynamic, allowing its members to form strong internal bonds through emphasizing their essential differences from all outgroups, including, of course, hegemonic groups they might resist (obviously, for the African-American Civil Rights Movement, this was white, ruling class America with its virtual monopoly on political representation).2 When an ingroup identity is created and completely circumscribed by such an understanding of itself as dissent from the majority view and the hegemony supporting it, however, it follows that dissent, from an ingroup perspective, can become an orthodoxy excluding dissent from within such movements. Dissent from within automatically violates the group’s core identity formulation. Strong formulations of dissent can thus paradoxically become new doctrines from which the group can barely deviate. Heterodoxy thus becomes difficult within groups that endure strong outgroup pressures to conform to hegemonic positions. As we shall see, Baraka is that rare voice constantly seeking space for heterodoxy: even within the ingroups with which he elected to travel intellectually.
Hunter identifies moments in the development of identity politics in the latter half of the twentieth century in America where the dynamics of the interplay between group identity and dissent against hegemony changed. She sees early cases of identity formation following World War I, such as might be found in activist groups pleading for the right to advocate pacifism, as Modernist, anti-authoritarian responses to the restrictions of free speech; such groups often thought it sufficient to plead for First Amendment rights to be upheld. A later second stage of identity politics, however, appears to offer a much wider opportunity for dissent, such that it might assume a more heterodox nature even within an ingroup identity enclosure. Hunter (2000, 2) writes the following about the late 1960s/early 1970s: ← 78 | 79 →
Equality movements that comprise the body of identity politics formed the second stage of this interaction between dissent and equality doctrine. What has come to be called a politics of presence, or recognition, sought space for previously excluded minorities, finding that invocations of universal rights like free speech too often translated into exclusionary blind spots and a failure to see that not everyone benefits equally from humanistic principles. Nonrecognition of subordinated identities within a discourse of freedom and democracy became understood as simply another form of oppression.
When free speech no longer suffices as a group’s means to achieve the equal recognition, radicalization or overt politicization can occur. An example of this would be Martin Luther King, Jr.’s attempt to take the African-American Civil Rights Movement into internationalist politics via protest against the Vietnam War (initiated with his 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”), as well as into anti-capitalist directions advocating the redistribution of wealth in America.3 King’s assassination put a stop to both these efforts. As we shall see, similar moves of radicalization can be traced in Baraka’s discursive practices in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. In such cases, one could argue—inspired by Hunter (though she does not take the issue quite this far)—dissent can become dislodged from identity expression as ingroup marker. Baraka was always willing to push the envelope of dissent within a particular ingroup. As a consequence, he often had to leave a particular peer group behind when his expressions became too dissonant with the ingroup identity.
I find Baraka interesting as a figure of continuing relevance to the study of oppositional discourses about race and identity in American history at-large, and within the discourse of left-wing dissent in the African-American community in particular. Baraka’s work creates a specific but mobile, or heteroglossic, site of dissent that can be used to reimagine mainstream conceptions of the last five decades of the history of African-American opposition to white hegemony in the U.S. Baraka’s identity positions were often so radical (and polemical) that they have been utterly excluded from mainstream debates about civil rights, masculinist gender positions, and African-American nationalism. One has to seek more narrow discourse communities engaged with internationalism in a Marxist setting, or conspiracy theories regarding American foreign policy, to find his work discussed. Even among literary scholars with interests in black poetry and drama, it is difficult to find detailed discussions of Baraka’s most inflammatory works. The tendency is rather to group Baraka’s works with the American avant-garde. ← 79 | 80 → This ghettoizes those works, as avant-garde works by definition cannot have the intention of reaching broad audiences or aiming for popular consciousness raising, whereas his did.4
I would like to engage several moments in the development of Baraka as a dissident voice. First, I will look at his position on interpersonal violence in the face of racism in his early play Dutchman (1964). I will examine his apparent advocacy of rape as a means of subjugating women, homosexuals, and Jews in an essay from 1965 (“american sexual reference: black male” [the original title eschews capitalization]). I will also look at his proclaimed desire to create “poems that kill,” exemplified with the poem, “Black Art,” also from 1965. This section of the paper, in other words, deals with the early, radical practice of Baraka as a black masculinist advocate.
The second part of the article will discuss Baraka’s journey from electing to be called Imamu Amear (or Ameer) Baraka (from 1967 to 1974) during his days of association with Kawaida philosophy and positions similar to the Nation of Islam (which again occasioned him to write texts directed against Jews) to a less Messianic stance as a Marxist sympathizer with Third World liberation movements under his final name, Amiri Baraka (taken in the mid-1970s) (Lee 2003). This section discusses his musical recordings in a style prefiguring rap, paying particular attention in the 1973 song “Who Will Survive America?”. (The answer to that question being decidedly unrhetorical: “Very few negroes, no crackers at all!”) This is taken from the album It’s Nation Time, released by the Motown subsidiary label, Black Forum.
The last part of the paper will discuss the controversy following Baraka’s poem questioning the official narrative behind the events known as 9/11. In the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers, Baraka wrote a poem entitled “Somebody Blew Up America?” (2002). Here, he blamed then President George Bush and Israeli intelligence services for not only having foreknowledge of the attacks, but also for instigating them as an excuse to attack “rogue states” in the Arab world. This controversy led to Baraka losing his position as Poet Laureate of New Jersey (the position was simply abolished), and also brought renewed accusations of anti-Semitism.
In conclusion, this article attempts to categorize Baraka as a heterodox dissident, learning from and influencing several positions of dissent against both majority/hegemonic discourses and most liberal-humanist left-wing positions producing ← 80 | 81 → counter-discourses in the U.S. over the last fifty years. It frames Baraka as an Africanist, (Inter)Nationalist, Marxist, and Masculinist advocate who often resorted to the trope of hyperbole to voice his viewpoints against a constitutionalist-racist and deaf establishment as well as a complacent neo-orthodox left-wing form of dissidence in American life.
The first part of Baraka’s life that interests us here is the time immediately following his dishonorable discharge from military service for harboring Communist sympathies and concealing Soviet propaganda among his possessions in 1954.5 Baraka moved to Greenwich Village—a neighborhood favored by Bohemians attracted to the low rents and large affordable living spaces available in the area. The Village also housed innumerable coffee houses and music venues, again attracting a mixed crowd of jazz, poetry, and drug fans. Several of the key members of movements such as the Beat Generation, the New York School of Poets and Painters, and various fellow traveler artists (some associated with the experimental, interdisciplinary liberal arts institution, Black Mountain College) frequented the area in the mid- to late 1950s. Baraka’s association with the Village is the first of a number of significant relocations in his formative years as a writer and activist (Watts 2001; Matlin 2013). These can be summed up as a slow dance around his birthplace of Newark, New Jersey, to which he eventually relocated for good in the ‘70s.
Leroi Jones, as he was known then, married a white, Jewish woman (the writer Hettie Jones, née Cohen) in 1958 and collaborated with her on several artistic projects typical of his younger hipster years.6 They co-founded a publishing house, Totem Press, and co-edited and published Yugen, a literary magazine that appeared from 1958–62. Jones also contributed to other little magazines of the period, including Kulchur and Floating Bear—the latter of which he co-edited with his lover Diane Di Prima, another white woman and a well-known Beat poet.7 ← 81 | 82 → As a result of these associations and collaborators, Jones began to be seen as a Bohemian, experimental writer in the same vein as Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara, Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Ed Dorn, and Diane Di Prima—all of whom were published or edited by Jones. It is clear from his own assessments of this epoch in his life that Jones was not overly concerned with issues of race, but rather issues of class and international solidarity—a claim further supported by the fact that in this period of his life Jones traveled abroad much more frequently than at any other time in his life. During this period, he visited Cuba (1960) and participated in various initiatives calling for equality and recognition between the First, Second, and Third worlds. His neo-Marxist political outlook made him particularly interested in collaborations with likeminded artists from developing countries and from behind the Iron Curtain, often drawing on networks that had already brought writers from these two locations (conventionally thought of as the enemies of the U.S.) together.
Around 1960, Jones’ politics and aesthetics begin to shift. In 1961, again with di Prima, he founded the New York Poets’ Theater group in the East Village. This indicated a shift towards a different genre and public, something he fully realized with the success of his own play Dutchman in 1964. The fact that theater is a more interactive medium than poetry may have appealed to Jones for strategic reasons connected with his desire for consciousness-raising. He wrote in his Autobiography that his entry into theater was prompted by his desire to make his poetry feel more active; he wanted his plays to move (Baraka 1997, 278; paraphrased in Als, 2014). In 1962 Jones’ reading of Black American literature and literary history influenced him to join forces with other Black Nationalist writers such as Ishmael Reed in the Umbra Poets Workshop on the lower East side, prefiguring a more whole-hearted push in the same direction five years later with the Black Arts Movement. Jones published his first book of poems in 1961 (Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note) and began a stream of social and aesthetic essays that later were collected in a number of volumes (for example, Home: Social Essays ). Jones also composed several collections of writings on jazz and black music in general.8 In these writings, Jones began to separate himself from what he perceived as the mediocrity of black writers who let themselves be swallowed up by middle-class concerns and the integration or up-lift of the black race through white patronage. His successful play Dutchman is paradoxically both an example of such an ← 82 | 83 → unwelcome embrace by white intellectuals and moneyed patrons of the arts as well as an attempt, thematically, to challenge this practice and terrorize white audiences away from art such as this. This became Baraka’s master strategy; one which he frequently resorted to in the later stages of his career.
In Dutchman, the simple action revolves around an encounter in the New York subway between a white woman, Lula, and a black Bohemian, yet intellectual figure (a version of Jones himself) whom the woman first flirts with, then starts mocking for his predictability and malleability (he is conveniently named Clay in the piece).9 Clay resists Lula’s advances to a certain degree, but is fascinated with her power to predict his actions and guess aspects of his past that he would rather have remain unknown to people in general (specifically pertaining to his incestuous desire and scheming with regards to his own sister). When he can no longer stand Lula’s provocative manner, he uses violence against her, de facto living up to the stereotype of the angry young male black predator Lula is trying to cast him as. He regrets his physicality instantly, suggesting that violence as the response to provocation is simply another form of entrapment of the black man—a deliberate part of the strategy for white subjugation of blacks, just as the apparent opportunities whites let blacks have in the field of the arts lure blacks into remaining primitive and unfocused in their goals of economic equality (tempting them with sex and artistic accolades to keep them uneducated and poor). While he is passionately espousing these views in an extended monologue, Lula, in a shocking turn-around, assassinates Clay just as he is beginning to clearly diagnose the plight of blacks like himself. In other words, when he comes close to grasping the truth, the white woman reveals her true predatory self as an agent of the white ruling class and literally kills him off. This play is thus a writing-through of Jones’ own dilemma as an incorporated black middle-class artist. In hindsight, it is quite ironic that the play won an Obie Award for best American play of the year. This irony was not lost on Jones, who wasted little time in finding even more radical ways of expressing the twin issues of the play and his own artistic practice: black/white sexual relations and the function of art in a divided society. As he comments in The Autobiography of Leroi Jones (Baraka 1997, 278):
What “fame” Dutchman brought me and raised up in me was this absolutely authentic and heartfelt desire to speak what should be spoken for all of us. I knew the bullshit of my own life, its twists and flip-outs, yet I felt, now, some heavy responsibility. If these bastards were going to raise me up for any reason, then they would pay for it! I would pay ← 83 | 84 → these motherfuckers back in kind, because even 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, yes, particularly for black people, because they were the root and origin of my conviction, but for anyone anywhere who wanted Justice!
In this passage, we can note Baraka’s tendency to use organic, growth-related metaphors (“root,” “raising up”). This indicates a lingering Black essentialism in Barak’s thinking, even at the late date of 1979 when he had supposedly reverted to a Marxist, non-essentialist historical materialist way of thinking.10 Such essentialisms are worth noting when it comes to a comprehensive evaluation of Baraka’s seemingly constant shifts in political position. He steadfastly clings to ideas of inherent black superiority throughout.
Turning to the collection of essays mentioned above, Home: Social Essays, we find some of Jones’ most controversial formulations of the interracial sexual dynamics in the U.S. In the essay “American Sexual Reference: Black Male,” Jones expresses his own sexual anxieties of hetero-normativity and racial stereotypes of black masculinity in extremely provocative terms. He accuses the majority of white males of being closeted homosexuals, jealous of black masculine prowess, and simultaneously white women of desiring to be raped by black men, as this is the only “legitimate” avenue white women of the time would have had to having sexual relations with blacks. Rape thus becomes a contested site where white women seek satisfaction through an encounter with black sexuality, and blacks are tempted to commit “the most heinous crime against white society…the rape, the taking forcibly of one of whitie’s treasures” (Baraka 1966, 251). Of the available strategies a black person has to choose from, it seems that Jones is advocating the rape option as not the worst solution: “The average ofay thinks of the black man as potentially raping every white lady in sight. Which is true, in the sense that the black man should want to rob the white man of everything he has” (Baraka 1966, 255).
However, the rape here is clearly intended at least partly as a metaphor for property appropriation in general, i.e., as part of a black revolution against white economic domination.11 This is further clarified by the essay’s contextualization of the black man’s plight, which falls in two instantiations: the history of slavery for all African-Americans, and the practice of lynching, often accompanied by castration ← 84 | 85 → of “uppity” black males, long after the abolition of slavery. It is the anger and shame of this past of exploitation, manumission, and sexual humiliation and control that fuels Jones’ vitriol against both white males (troped as “fags”: “Most American white men are trained to be fags” [Baraka 1966, 255]) and white women (troped as property without independent agency, who sell their sexual favors in exchange for room and board in white nuclear families). This extreme form of dissent from mainstream views can be read as a distancing move away from black middle-class culture and from art—appropriate for a time when jazz was becoming incorporated in mainstream American literature and American poetry was beginning to openly embrace the figure of the homosexual male poet (figures like Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara). Jones moves away in extreme disgust (whether he did so partly to hide his own bisexuality, as some critics [Watts 2001, for instance] have suggested, falls outside the boundaries of my current inquiry) and advocates a deliberately exaggerated radical and violent, dissenting position.
The radicalization of Jones’ sexual politics runs parallel to his radicalization concerning the role of poetry and arts in general during this period of the early to mid-1960s. The assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 further contributed to Jones’ radicalization, and precipitated another physical move, this time to Harlem—a clear symbolic gesture of both separation from white Bohemia downtown, and unification with the African-American community uptown. This coincides with Jones’ abandoning Hettie, his first wife, and their two children, followed in 1966 by his second marriage, this time to a black woman, Sylvia Robinson. In his poetry, the founding of the Black Arts Literary Movement (see Roney 2003 for a good account of Baraka’s involvement with the movement) is accompanied by a poem/manifesto, also titled “Black Art” (first collected in 1969 in the Black Magic volume, later selected for Transbluesency (Baraka, 1995)). One can hear this poem read aloud over free jazz accompaniment by Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, and others on a recording made in 1967 (Sonny Murray: Sonny’s Time Now) and released on Jones’ own label, Jihad Records. This recording may be the best way to approach the text since the enhancement of the words by the accompanying instruments and Jones’ own use of his voice as an instrument helps us comprehend the political thrust of the manifesto (see Baraka 1967). In “Black Art,” a multiplicity of voices are represented, performing, as it were, an internal debate in Jones’ head, which becomes externalized and shared with the audience through the performance of the poem. The poem raises the question of the value of poetry. Must it be aesthetically pleasing? Must it be accepted critically, read by critics and other gatekeepers in a framework of literary and cultural history? Or must it ultimately only serve one function—that of empowering the black man? Jones leans towards the latter answer. ← 85 | 86 →
The poem contains contentious lines such as “We want ‘poems that kill.’/Assassin poems, Poems that shoot/guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys/and take their weapons leaving them dead.” This apparent advocacy of violence in the struggle of black against white is complicated by descriptions of Uncle Tom blacks (“negroleaders,” as Jones terms them twice in the text) performing fellatio on white sheriffs (“kneeling between the sheriff’s thighs/negotiating coolly for his people” (Baraka 1995, 141–2), the poem sarcastically remarks) and otherwise compromising the purity of their black cultural legacy. Already in Dutchman, Jones represented such a black Uncle Tom collaborator with the white hegemony in the form of the black conductor tipping his hat to Lula after her murder of Clay. Jones’ political agenda was now cast in terms of heritage and traditions: “Let Black People understand/that they are the lovers and the sons/of lovers and warriors and sons/of warriors Are poems & poets &/all the loveliness here in the world” he writes (142). This lyricism (as witnessed by the startling use of the word “loveliness”) clashes strongly with the wish for violent revenge against cops, a “jewlady,” and “beasts in green berets” expressed earlier. The poem opens with a long stanza, continues with a short five-line stanza and a punch line, quoted here in full: “We want a black poem. And a/Black World./Let the world be a Black Poem/And Let All Black People Speak This Poem/Silently/or LOUD” (142). The poem conflates black government with global revolution and suggests that poetry will serve as the trigger of said revolution. Jones (on the verge of becoming Baraka) occupies the doubly dissident position of being an internationalist (calling for global solidarity and revolution) and a Black essentialist in that there is no nuanced rationale for the predicted victory of the “Black people” other than their bond through race. As remarked earlier, this hidden essentialism can be traced throughout Jones/Baraka’s ‘70s writing up to and including the Autobiography of Leroi Jones. His masculinist agenda is still present, but here toned down in comparison with the previously examined texts (although white authority figures are also here lampooned for all being homosexuals, and women [“mulatto bitches” or “jewladies”] are presented throughout as victim figures).
It was around this time that Jones’ effected his transition into an Africanized Muslim nationalist (1966–67). Baraka was involved in the race riots in Newark in 1967, where he advocated the unpopular view that not only was rioting in one’s own neighborhood stupid from an economic perspective, but also that these particular riots were instigated and led by white “radicals” desiring to see blacks ruin their own property and lives. Baraka nearly spent time in jail for carrying a ← 86 | 87 → concealed weapon during the riots, and this brush with “white” law enforcement further radicalized him. Baraka sought out Maulana Karenga, who in the wake of the Watts riots in Los Angeles in the summer of 1965 had formulated similar concepts. Baraka was further pushed by Karenga’s ideas of constructing not only an Africanist framework of holidays and observances for African-Americans (Karenga was instrumental in establishing Kwanzaa as a holiday), but also an Africanist political philosophy. In the mid-‘70s, under the name of Kawaida, this philosophical system became established among Karenga’s followers as an alternative to monotheistic guilt- and sin-based religions such as Christianity and Judaism. In place of such concepts, Kawaida sought to establish a rootedness in African Animist traditions without descending into what Karenga (1977, 14) termed “spookism”—superstition and repressive practices. An important part of this revival of African tradition was to abandon Christian naming traditions and revert to names and titles of, for instance, Swahili or Yaruba origin. Maulana Karenga’s own name translates as “Master Teacher, Keeper of the Tradition,” a far cry better than his first name, Ron Everett. Under Karenga’s mentorship, Jones now became Imamu Ameer Baraka (the individual Yaruba parts of which correspond to “Spiritual Leader,” “Prince,” and “Blessing”). Baraka soon dropped the Imam part of his new name, but kept the latter two parts (with minor spelling changes) for the rest of his life, and his wife similarly transformed herself into Amina Baraka.
Textual traces of Karenga’s influence on Baraka include a slew of anti-Jewish writings about which Baraka later repented. At the time, however, perhaps these merely seemed extensions of Jones’ frequent, casually-dropped anti-Semitic slurs (for which there in fact was a long tradition in black writing, especially among Harlem Renaissance authors such as Langston Hughes [Hughes was as fond of the trope of the Jewish money lender and extortionist landlord as any—see for instance his 1927 poetry volume Fine Clothes to the Jew]). But while Baraka’s actual Islamic faith remains curiously unexplored and tends not to push itself forward in his writings, his conversion to Islam may also have contributed to anti-Jewish sentiments coming to the fore. As Baraka again shifted back to a more Marxist and internationalist stance, he actively sought to rephrase his anti-Jewish sentiments as politically motivated anti-Zionist positions and indeed as part of a general anti-imperialist ideology (see Melnick 2001, 1028). This move away from a narrow Nationalism, particular to African-Americans, also meant that Baraka left behind the idea of Black (American) Arts as particularly aesthetically valuable. The rift between Baraka and The Black Arts Movement was quite acrimonious, as Baraka termed some of his movement fellows “capitulationists” (in Martin 1995), indicating that they once again had let ← 87 | 88 → their art become co-opted by white consumers and liberal activists. By 1974 Baraka openly declared himself as an internationalist Marxist, thus in a sense returning to his stance of twenty years earlier, which had earned him a dishonorable discharge from military service.
In the early 1970s, Baraka also returned to the idea of music and performance as a way to retell history and to raise consciousness. Motown had, under pressure from Black Power groups, decided to reinvest some of their profits from cross-over hits over the decade of the 1960s in a venture intended specifically for a black audience, and a spoken-word label titled Black Forum was launched to market and sell motivational speeches and testimonials of, for instance, black Vietnam veterans.12 The label also issued a few musical albums, including a groundbreaking recording with Baraka (who had sung with doo-wop groups back in the 50s). The most interesting track on It’s Nation Time is the early rap-funk-style number, “Who Will Survive America?”. The album advocates Black Nationalism, and several tracks have titles in Swahili. The concept behind the record is to narrate, “How Africans got to be Negroes,” as another title goes. The lyrics are in a sense an updated version of “Black Art.” Baraka is less concerned with the “Crackers,” whom he is convinced will not survive at all, and more with the backsliding or capitulationist blacks, who also face decimation in the coming race war. He uses stereotypes of blacks to categorize these endangered groups: drug addicts (“4-bag Jones”), prostitutes and other women who don’t work real jobs, fat people who live to eat, as well as Baptists and members of other Christian denominations. Who will survive? Baraka’s answer is depressingly simplistic: “But the black man will survive America/His survival will mean the death of America.” We are to imagine a rebirth of a Black nation on the ruins of what was formerly America, one cleansed of religion, vices, corruption and women.
The misogyny of the lyrics is quite remarkable (for a general discussion of misogyny in Black Nationalist literature, see Leonard 2013). Two types of black women are singled out for negative treatment. First, the type of women that we also encountered in the “Black Art” poem, but here even more overtly described as prostitutes: “Will you survive, woman?/Or will your nylon wig/Catch afire at midnight and light up Stirling Street/And your assprints on the pavement.” This is positively biblical in its evocation of death by fire next time the apocalypse comes rolling around; and simultaneously reifying in the extreme, reducing the women ← 88 | 89 → in question to accessories (“nylon wig”) and traces of shame (“assprints”). Second, Baraka turns directly to women of faith: “The stiffbacked chalklady baptist, in blue lace/If she shrinks from blackness in front of the church/Following the wedding of the yellow robots/Will not survive./She is old anyway, and they’re moving/Her church in the wind.” Here it is worth noting the generational aspect of Baraka’s indictment of the church lady as being “old” and therefore irrelevant to the post-apocalyptic world of surviving America. The institution of the church is seen as a shallow refuge for race traitors who “shrink from blackness.” In sum, this song’s lyrics are both the apex and swan song of Baraka’s Black Nationalism. They are also clearly one of his most misogynist texts.
In the chronology of Baraka’s career, this article elects to now fast-forward nearly thirty years. Baraka’s middle years were less riddled with controversy and political position shifting than the first two decades of his intellectual and political development, a fact that coincides with his slow acceptance in the academic world. Baraka spent the 1980s and early 90s holding various university positions, eventually becoming a professor emeritus of African Studies at State University of New York, Stony Brook. He also garnered literary accolades, including winning two American Book Awards for volumes he edited or co-edited (he won a final one in 2010 for a book of musical history). This tranquil middle period of his public career can therefore be seen as the closest Baraka came to being incorporated into the mainstream of American intellectual and artistic life.
In 2002, however, Baraka again became the focus of national controversy when he used the newly instituted office of Poet Laureate of New Jersey to present a poem he had written in the immediate aftermath of the events on September 11, 2001. In the poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” Baraka lets a number of voices (all vernacular) ask literally dozens of rhetorical questions, all pertaining to heinous acts of violence, genocide, war, and crime; each line giving voice to a group who has suffered at the hands of the group behind the “who” of their question. The base of the poem is the repeated questioning phrase: Who did something (bad) to somebody? Often the most obvious answer is: “The USA.” On other occasions a better answer might be, “Imperialism,” and on yet others, “The capitalists.” A sample of the poem runs like this:
Who killed the most niggers
Who killed the most Jews
Who killed the most Italians
Who killed the most Africans
Who killed the most Japanese
Who killed the most Latinos
Here one would be able to use all three of the answers suggested directly above. In another sequence, the answer points more unambiguously to the U.S., and specifically to its ruling class and the politicians and straw men “owned” (see the lines indicating hidden owners behind apparent owners: “Who own what ain’t even known to be owned/Who own the owners that ain’t the real owners”) by its members:
Who make the credit cards
Who get the biggest tax cut
Who walked out of the Conference
Who killed Malcolm, Kennedy & his Brother
Who killed Dr King, Who would want such a thing?
Are they linked to the murder of Lincoln?
These lines indicate Baraka’s tendency to conflate events across considerable historical distances; a point he deliberately emphasizes to indicate that depressingly little has changed in the corrupt power structure of America and its racially-biased practices from the emancipation of the slaves under Lincoln, via the civil rights struggle in the 1960s, to the new millennium. In a manner familiar from any number of conspiracy theories, Baraka also connects events that in traditional history writing are seen as separate; for instance, the banking system offering credit to relatively poor blacks to entice them to become addicted to consumer goods, thereby entrapping them in debts they can never hope to repay (a modern day form of slavery).
The main controversy attached to the poem had to do with the following lines:
Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
Other lines suggest that Israelis photographed the event from the Jersey shore and celebrated loudly as the planes hit. These questions hit a bit too close to home for most Americans in the traumatic aftermath of 9/11, and the outcry against Baraka for making this suggestion was considerable, even as all of his other suggestions of American involvement in genocide and far more wide-reaching global atrocities caused not a single eyebrow to be raised. The poem is in fact completely of a piece with Baraka’s latter-day international Marxist credo that capitalism, ← 90 | 91 → rather than national interests, fuels international politics. In the case of 9/11, it is suggested that the alliance with the Saudis to maintain high prices for Saudi oil mandated a war against alternative producers of fossil fuels (such as Iraq) and that the American government was actively involved in the carrying out and subsequent cover-up of the attacks. (In a curious case of strange bedfellows, Jewish-American graphic novelist Art Spiegelman  made similar suggestions and sparked a similarly hysterical reaction with his In the Shadow of No Towers.) In the heat of the hysteria of the reception of the poem, it seems nobody had the time or inclination to read the poem’s ending where Baraka begins to distance himself from some of the claims implicit in the asking of the many questions: “We hear the questions rise/In terrible flame like the whistle of a crazy dog/Like the acid vomit of the fire of Hell.” This is the first and only instance of a first person speaker in the poem. We can safely assume that Baraka up to this point has been ventriloquizing on behalf of other groups, posing the burning questions of the criminals the poem indicts. Nowhere does he use the first person singular “I,” and only in this one line does he use the first person plural, assuming spokesmanship for a whole group, the collective witnesses of the horror of this the latest crime against America (remember the entity that is named in the poem’s title is the nation of America as a whole).
The ending of the poem features intertextual similarities with songs such as the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” (more overtly narrated by the horned one himself); and the whole basic structure of the poem echoes Allen Ginsberg’s by now consecrated all-American queer poem “Howl,” in which the first part features numerous lines starting with the word “who” (albeit used as a relative rather than an interrogative pronoun). One might ask, rhetorically, why none of the political commentators who thought themselves capable of literary criticism in the case of Baraka consulted anyone with the most basic ability to perform textual analysis.
Who is the ruler of Hell?
Who is the most powerful?
Who you know ever
But everybody seen
The Devil (Baraka 2003, no pagination)
In these questions, posed near the very end of “Somebody Blew Up America,” Baraka comes closer than ever to a religiously founded dualism that actually suggests that he had mellowed from his earlier rather monistic simplicities in his ← 91 | 92 → poetry of the 1960s. The poem is an astute diagnosis, as well as a heteroglossic raw slice of the discourse of post-traumatic stress that dominated the months following 9/11 in both the public and private spheres of the United States.
I think it appropriate to advance the following hypothesis concerning Baraka’s textual and political practices: Baraka had, from the earliest instances of his published work, favored tropes of reversal and hyperbole. Had he only desired to reverse hierarchies such as black and white, or man and woman, he would have been a relatively harmless, easily incorporated writer who might have won instant favor with liberal intellectuals of both genders and races. Having instead chosen not to invert hierarchies like many left-wing populists of his generation (for instance advocates of affirmative action programs), but rather to blast them with exaggerated force, Baraka alienated many of his readers. I do not wish to exonerate him from accusations of reverse racism and misogyny. Rather, I wish to suggest that we include in our reading of his works a cultural context as well as a psychological one, and that when doing so the necessity of the anger expressed against those who were not with his program for the new world order becomes easier to understand. One must not underestimate the importance, either, of black history globally or in the U.S. particularly. A people brought entirely against their will to another continent, held in slavery and near-universal contempt, exposed to genocide and mass rape, exploited as cheap labor, victimized in the prison-industrial complex—such a people in all likelihood needs voices that express pride in its origins, and unfortunately also needs voices that point to its victims. Our identity projects proceed according to how we discourse about who we are and who we are not. We have few other options.
In Baraka’s case, his spokesmanship for shifting groups and identity positions are usually destabilized from within by his preference for dissent over positive identity building. As a result, Baraka naturally estranged several of the groups one would immediately have assumed would claim a poet such as him as a role model. Baraka remained, as his old friend and foe Ishmael Reed pointed out in his memorial words for Baraka, what the media like to call a “polarizing” figure. To Reed, he was much more and much less. He sums it up in these two quotes: “What he said offended the members of what he would call “the ruling class.” He used his talent to write scathing indictments of racism and the capitalist system”—and: “Baraka’s artistic peers thought enough of his talent to admit him to the exclusive American Academy of Arts and Letters. Maybe they recognized that Amiri Baraka was the kind of writer who comes along once in a generation ← 92 | 93 → or so. I once said that he did for the English syntax what Monk did with the chord. He was an original” (Reed 2014). In supplement to this political-aesthetic assessment, one could suggest that Baraka took great care to remain a dissident’s dissident. By this, I mean Baraka followed no one for very long, he trusted his intellect to moderate his hyperbolic tendencies over time, and he was an indispensable voice even in the so-called post-racial latter days of American history where he tirelessly pointed out that the fact that the current President is black is not synonymous with institutional racism having ended. The race war that Baraka feared and desired is still a potential outcome for America (and recent events in Ferguson, Missouri might be indicative of violent confrontations being easily triggered by factors such as excessive force used in policing). One might then fear a renewed relevance to Baraka’s question of “who will then survive?” His answer was and remains: “Very few Americans…”
Als, Hilton. 2014. “Amiri Baraka’s First Family.” The New Yorker (January 11). http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/amiri-barakas-first-family
Baraka, Amiri. 2003. Somebody Blew Up America & Other Poems. New York: House of Nehesi Publishers.
Baraka, Amiri. 1997. The Autobiography of Leroi Jones. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books. [Revised ed. of 1984 publication].
Baraka, Amiri. 1995. Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones (1961–1995). New York: Marsilio Publishers.
Baraka, Amiri. 1973. It’s Nation Time. Detroit: Black Forum/Motown. [LP record].
Baraka, Amiri. 1968. Black Music. New York: Akashic Books.
Baraka, Amiri. 1967. “Black Art.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dh2P-tlEH_w [YouTube video; Accessed January 22, 2014].
Baraka, Amiri. 1966. Home: Social Essays. New York: Akashic Books.
Baraka, Amiri. 1964. Dutchman and The Slave: Two Plays. New York: Morrow.
Baraka, Amiri. 1961. Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. New York: Totem Press/Corinth Books.
Carson, Clayborne. 2005. “King’s Path to Antiwar Dissent.” Magazine of History 19 (1): 27–28.
Cleaver, Eldridge. 1967. Soul on Ice. New York: McGraw Hill.
Ginsberg, Allen. 1957. Howl and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Books.
Karenga, Maulana. 1977. Kwanzaa: Origin, Concepts, Practice. San Diego: Kawaida Publishing.
Lee, Ben. 2003. “LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and the Limits of Open Form.” African American Review 37 (2/3): 371–387.
Leonard, Keith D. 2013. “LOVE IN THE BLACK ARTS MOVEMENT: The Other American Exceptionalism.” Callaloo 36 (3): 618–624, 836–837.
Martin, Reginald. 1995. The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.
Matlin, Daniel. 2013. On the Corner: African American Intellectuals and the Urban Crisis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Melnick, Jeff. 2001. “Imagining Each Other: Blacks and Jews in Contemporary American Literature.” Modern Fiction Studies 47 (4): 1027–1029.
Piggford, George. 1997. “Looking into Black Skulls: Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman and the Psychology of Race.” Modern Drama 40 (1): 74–85.
Reed, Ishmael. 2014. “Ishmael Reed on the Life and Death of Amiri Baraka” The Wall Street Journal, January 12, 2014. Online version http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2014/01/12/ishmael-reed-on-the-life-and-death-of-amiri-baraka/ [Accessed September 16, 2014].
Roney, Patrick. 2003. “The Paradox of Experience: Black Art and Black Idiom in the Work of Amiri Baraka.” African American Review 37 (2/3): 407–427.
Smethurst, James. 2003. “’Pat your foot and turn the corner’: Amiri Baraka, the Black Arts Movement, and the Poetics of a Popular Avant-Garde.” African American Review 37 (2/3): 261–270.
Spiegelman, Art. 2004. In The Shadow of No Towers. New York: Viking Adult.
Tajfel, Henri. 1970. “Experiments in Intergroup Discrimination.” Scientific American 223: 96–102.
Thomas, Pat. 2012. Listen Whitey!—The Sounds of Black Power 1965–1975. Seattle: Fantagraphics.
Thompson, Deborah. 2002. “Keeping Up with the Joneses: The Naming of Racial Identities in the Autobiographical Writings of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Hettie Jones, and Lisa Jones.” College Literature29 (1): 83–101.
Various Artists. 2012. Listen, Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power 1967–1974. Seattle: Light in the Attic Records [Compact Disc].
Watts, Jerry Gafio. 2001. Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. New York: New York University Press.
Won-gu Kim, Daniel. 2003. “In the Tradition: Amiri Baraka, Black Liberation, and Avant-Garde Praxis in the U.S.” African American Review 37 (2/3): 345–363.
1 Broadly defined as an opinion crafted by a judge or several judges who are in a minority with regards to a legal decision leading to judgment in a case (usually one of principle and precedent formation). Dissent does not directly lead to precedent in such cases, but can inspire a change of law in subsequent cases if the original minority opinion later prevails to sway a majority of judges. Dissent in this definition thus carries a form of suspended or potential authority, which is a relevant connotation to carry over from the narrow legal definition of dissent into its broader meanings within cultural and social theory.
2 I will be using Taifel’s unhyphenated spelling of the words “ingroup” and “outgroup.”
3 Scholars such as Carson (2005) concur with this assessment.
4 Articles such as Smethurst (2003) and Won-gu Kim (2003) participate in this marginalization of Baraka as literary figure.
5 Baraka discusses this period of his life in the chapter tellingly titled “Error Farce” in his The Autobiography of Leroi Jones (first published 1984).
6 Baraka’s practice of changing his own name to reflect his political and aesthetic agendas is discussed exhaustively in Thompson (2002, 83–101).
7 Di Prima is a crucial innovator in her practice of joining confessional and political poetry together, often in hybrid forms combining journals, memoirs, and lyrical poetry. She was among the few female authors to emerge from the male dominated movements of the 1950s and early 1960s, such as the Beat Generation. Her collected papers are kept at the University of Delaware Library.
8 The original outlets for Baraka’s jazz writings were varied, ranging from traditional mainstream jazz and general music magazines such as Jazz Review, Metronome, and Down Beat to Baraka’s own little magazine Kulchur and race specific magazines such as Negro Review.
9 See Piggford (1997) for a nuanced analysis of the plot and character dynamics of Dutchman.
10 According to Ben Lee (2003 372), Baraka “wrote his autobiography during forty-eight weekends in 1979, a good five years after he began his turn to Third World Marxism.”
11 These essays thus prefigure by a couple years the better-known writings of Eldridge Cleaver (collected in his 1968 book, Soul on Ice) advocating much the same strategy of black on white rape and property acquisition by force.
12 For the best account of the relationship between Black Power movements and popular music, including a chapter on Baraka’s Black Forum release, see Thomas (2012) and its companion CD.