Amiri Baraka

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Amiri Baraka (as LeRoi Jones) with David Ossman (interview date 1963)

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SOURCE: An interview in The Sullen Art: Interviews by David Ossman with Modern American Poets, Corinth Books, 1963, pp. 77-81.

[In the following interview, Baraka discusses his magazine, Yugen, his poetry, and his various literary influences.]

Jones published only two more issues of Yugen after his interview was recorded early in 1960. Since then, he has co-edited The Floating Bear and has seen Corinth's publication of his first book of poems, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, in association with his own Totem Press. Morrow has scheduled his study, Blues, Black & White America and Grove will do his System of Dante's Inferno. He continues working on prose, plays and on poems for a second collection.

[Ossman:] Yours seems to be one of the three or four "clique" magazines around today, in that if publishes a fairly restricted group of so-called "beat," "San Francisco" and New York writers. Why do you publish this group—this "stable" of writers?

[Baraka:] Well, it does seem to fall that way. But for a long time Dr. Williams couldn't get into the Hudson Review, and several other mature, older poets like Kenneth Patchen were never admitted there or in magazines like the Partisan Review or Sewanee. If those editors had a literary point of view in excluding their work, then I feel I have as much right, certainly, to base my choice on my literary taste. If it seems like a coterie—well, it turns out to be that way. There are other reasons—but that's the simplest explanation, actually.

The writers that I publish are really not all "beat" or "San Francisco" or "New York." There are various people who could also fit into other groups—for instance, the people who went to Black Mountain College—and others not affiliated with any real group. But they have some kind of affinity with the other so-called groups—their writing fits into a certain kind of broad category:

Many of the same names appear regularly in Yugen, Big Table, Evergreen …

It's a little different though. Most of the people that, say, Paul Carroll prints, he wouldn't have printed if it hadn't been for a magazine like Yugen. And Evergreen Review, to a great extent, has picked up on things that I've done already and that have appeared in magazines like the Black Mountain Review and Neon. They pick them up. As a matter of fact, in Paul Carroll's case, I know of at least two poets who appear in his magazine only because of various things he saw in Yugen and in an essay I wrote. He said he picked up some things in that essay that enabled him to understand or become more sympathetic with certain people's work.

I'd like to have your thoughts on a kind of contemporary writing that could be illustrated by Frank O'Hara's "Personal Poem" in Yugen 6. In it he describes his thoughts before and after having lunch with one "LeRoi." With its highly and specifically personal references it seems to be more an anecdote of interest to future scholars than something partaking of the heightened qualities of a more traditional poetic nature. What is the validity in this kind of writing?

I didn't especially think that there was any charted-out area in which the poetic sensibility had to function to make a poem. I thought that anything—anything you could grab—was fit material to write a poem on. That's the way I think about it. Anything in your life, anything you know about or see or understand, you could write a poem...

(This entire section contains 1722 words.)

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about if you're moved to do it. I'm certain that if they have to footnote what the House of Seagrams was in his poem, or who the LeRoi, was, that will only be of interest to academicians and people doing Master's theses. Anybody who is concerned with thepoem will get it on an emotional level—or they won't get it at all. Certainly, if I didn't like it, I wouldn't go through any book to look up those names with the hope that I would feel moved once I knew where the building was or who LeRoi was. I don't think that means anything at all. I don't think that has anything to do with the poem, actually. What the poem means, its function, doesn't have to do with those names—that's just part of it. It doesn't seem to me to be the same kind of stupidity that's found when you have to go to Jessie Weston's book to find out what a whole section of The Wasteland means. The House of Seagrams is certainly less obscure than certain Celtic rites. And I don't see what makes it any less valid because it's a casual kind of reference or that it comes out of a person's life, rather than, say, from his academic life.

I'd say that if a poem, as a whole poem, works, then it's a good poem

Right …

You once wrote that, "MY POETRY is whatever I think I am. I make a poetry with what I feel is useful and can be saved out of all the garbage of our lives." Would you like to develop that a little more fully?

Well, it's part of what you mentioned about "traditional" poetic areas. I believe that the poet—someone with a tempered sensibility—is able, or should be able to take almost any piece of matter, idea, or whatever, and convert it if he can, into something really beautiful. I don't mean "beautiful" the way Bernard Berenson means it—but into something moving, at least.

And I don't think that there are any kind of standard ideas or sentiments or emotions or anything that have to be in a poem. A poem can be made up of anything so long as it is well made. It can be made up out of any feeling. And if I tried to cut anything out of my life—if there was something in my life that I couldn't talk about … it seems monstrous that you can tell almost anything about your life except those things that are most intimate or mean the most to you. That seems a severe paradox.

You've mentioned your influences as including Lorca, Creeley and Olson. What from Lorca—a surrealist approach?

Yes, that, but at the time I got hold of Lorca, I was very much influenced by Eliot, and reading Lorca helped to bring me out of my "Eliot Period" and break that shell—not so much Poet in New York, which is the more surreal verse, but the early Gypsy Ballads—that kind of feeling and exoticism.

What about the Black Mountain people, and Williams?

From Williams, mostly how to write in my own language—how to write the way I speak rather than the way I think a poem ought to be written—to write just the way it comes to me, in my own speech, utilizing the rhythms of speech rather than any kind of metrical concept. To talk verse. Spoken verse. From Pound, the same concepts that went into the Imagist's poetry—the idea of the image and what an image ought to be. I learned, probably, about verse from Pound—how a poem should be made, what a poem ought to look like—some little inkling. And from Williams, I guess, how to get it out in my own language.

Is there a middle ground between natural speech and formal metrics?

Oh, yes. I don't mean that I write poems completely the way I'm talking now, although I'm certain that a great deal of my natural voice rhythm dominates the line. For instance, my breathing—when I have to stop to inhale or exhale—dictates where I have to break the line in most cases. Sometimes I can bring the line out longer to effect—you learn certain tricks, departures from a set method. But mostly it's the rhythms of speech that I utilize, trying to get closer to the way I sound peculiarly, as opposed to somebody else.

Does your being a Negro influence the speech patterns—or anything else, for that matter, in your writing?

It could hardly help it. There are certain influences on me, as a Negro person, that certainly wouldn't apply to a poet like Allen Ginsberg. I couldn't have written that poem "Kaddish," for instance. And I'm sure he couldn't write certain things that have to deal with, say, Southern Baptist church rhythms. Everything applies—everything in your life. Sociologically, there are different influences, different things that I've seen, that I know, that Allen or no one knows.

I asked that because I don't find in your work the sense of "being a Negro" that occurs, say, in the poetry of Langston Hughes

That may be part of, like they say, his "stance." You have to set up a certain area in which you're going to stand and write your poems, whether you do it consciously or not. There has to be that stance. He is a Negro. It doesn't lessen my feeling of being a Negro—it's just that that's not the way I write poetry. I'm fully conscious all the time that I am an American Negro, because it's part of my life. But I know also that if I want to say, "I see a bus full of people," I don't have to say, "I am a Negro seeing a bus full of people." I would deal with it when it has to do directly with the poem, and not as a kind of broad generalization that doesn't have much to do with a lot of young writers today who are Negroes. (Although I don't know that many.) It's always been a separate section of writing that wasn't quite up to the level of the other writing. There were certain definite sociological reasons for it before the Civil War or in the early part of the 20th century, or even in the 30's, but it's a new generation now, and people are beset by other kinds of ideas that don't have much to do with sociology, per se.

I'm always aware, in anything I say, of the "sociological configuration"—what it means sociologically. But it doesn't have anything to do with what I'm writing at the time.


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Amiri Baraka 1934–

(Born Everett LeRoy Jones; has also written as LeRoi Jones and Imamu Amiri Baraka) American poet, dramatist, short story writer, novelist, essayist, critic, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Baraka's career through 1997. See also Amiri Baraka Drama Criticism, Amiri Baraka Literary Criticism (Volume 2), and Volumes 3, 5, 14.

A seminal figure in the development of contemporary black literature, Baraka is a controversial writer. His career has encompassed the Beat movement, black nationalism, and the tenets of Marxist-Leninist philosophy, and his verse is imbued with such concerns as cultural alienation, racial tension and conflict, and the necessity for social change through revolutionary means. According to some scholars, he succeeded James Baldwin and Richard Wright as one of the most prolific and persistent critics of post-World War II America. Having rejected Western values, Baraka endeavors to create art with a firm didactic purpose: to forge a viable art form that reflects the true values of the African-American community and of oppressed peoples throughout the world.

Biographical Information

Born in 1934 as Everett LeRoy Jones in Newark, New Jersey, Baraka spent his early childhood creating comic strips and writing science fiction. At school Baraka excelled in his studies, graduating from high school at the age of fifteen. He enrolled in Howard University in 1952 and just before beginning his first year, started spelling his name LeRoi. At Howard, Baraka studied with such noted black scholars as E. Franklin Frazier, Nathan A. Scott, Jr., and Sterling A. Brown who is regarded as the patriarch of African-American literary critics. Despite these exceptional teachers, Baraka found Howard University stifling and flunked out in 1954. He then joined the United States Air Force. In 1957, after being dishonorably discharged, he moved to New York's Greenwich Village and became part of the Beat movement. That same year he married Hettie Roberta Cohen and together they founded Yugen, a magazine forum for Beat poetry. During the next few years, he also established himself as a music critic, writing about jazz for downbeat, Metronome, and the Jazz Review. Baraka first received critical acclaim as a poet, for his collection Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note …, which was published in 1961. In 1960, Baraka was invited to Cuba by the New York chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Baraka began to make it his life's work to incorporate his political, social, and spiritual beliefs into his writing. No longer content with art for art's sake, Baraka would use poetry and drama to teach people, opening their eyes to reality as he saw it. Following the murder of Black Muslim leader Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka divorced his white, Jewish wife and moved to Harlem. He dissociated from white people and dedicated himself to creating works that were inspired by and spoke to the African-American community. This same year, he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem. He married Sylvia Robinson (she later changed her name to Amina Baraka), a black woman, in 1966. Around this time, Baraka's hatred of whites peaked. When a white woman asked him what whites could do to help blacks, he retorted, "You can help by dying. You are a cancer." In 1968 he converted to Islam and changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka, meaning "blessed spiritual leader." In 1974, in another radical shift, Baraka dropped the spiritual title of Imamu and declared himself an adherent of Marxist-Leninist thought. Rejecting Black Nationalism as racist in its implications, he now advocated socialism as a viable solution to the problems in America. He also repudiated his past anti-Semitic and anti-white statements. He concluded: "Nationalism, so-called, when it says 'all non-blacks are our enemies,' is sickness or criminality, in fact a form of fascism." In the fall of 1979, he joined the Africana Studies Department at State University of New York at Stony Brook as a teacher of creative writing. In 1979, as reported by William J. Harris in his 1985 retrospective study of Baraka and his work, "[Baraka] was arrested after two policemen allegedly attempted to intercede in a dispute between him and his wife over the price of children's shoes." While serving his sentence at a Harlem halfway house, Baraka wrote The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (1984). Since then he has written "Why's/Wise" (1985), an epic poem; The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues (1987) with his wife Amina Baraka; and "Reflections" (1988), a poem published in the periodical Black Scholar.

Major Works

A sense of rebellion is the one consistent theme throughout Baraka's canon. Following the Beats' abandonment of traditional poetic structure and adopting their free use of slang, Baraka earned praise and respect as a poet with his first volume of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note…. This volume reflects the influence of "Howl" author Allen Ginsberg's poetry and Charles Olson's projective verse theory, which rejects closed, traditional forms in favor of what Olson termed "composition by field." In this collection, Baraka satirizes various aspects of post-World War II popular culture, particularly the heroic cowboys and comic book superheroes. The majority of the poems, however, discuss concerns typical of the bohemian milieu Baraka identified with, including themes of dislocation and detachment from mainstream society. Also in 1961, Baraka published Cuba Libre, an essay describing his trip to Cuba to join in the anniversary celebration of Fidel Castro's first revolutionary attempt. During this period of Baraka's metamorphosis from literary bohemian to black nationalist, he published some of his best-known works, including an analysis of contemporary black music, Blues People…. Negro Music in White America (1963), and a second volume of poetry, The Dead Lecturer (1964). Although Baraka wrote a number of plays during this period, Dutchman (1964) is widely considered his masterpiece. The play received the Obie Award for best Off-Broadway play and brought Baraka to the attention of the American public. Involving a conflict between a black middle-class college student and a flirtatious white woman, Dutchman is said to mark the emergence of Baraka's heightened racial awareness. The Slave (1964) also demonstrates the philosophical change Baraka was undergoing. This play revolves around a black revolutionary leader who confronts his ex-wife and her husband, both of whom are white. Another 1964 drama, The Toilet, concerned a white homosexual boy who is beaten up by a gang of black boys. After Baraka severed all of his ties with white people and culture, his writings, with increasingly violent overtones, called for blacks to unite and establish their own nation. Experimenting with ritual forms in his drama, he penned Slave Ship (1967), a recreation of the wretched circumstances experienced by enslaved Africans during their passage to America. Other works written during Baraka's black nationalist period are The System of Dante's Hell (1965), his only novel, and Tales (1967), a collection of short stories. After Baraka aligned himself with the socialist philosophy, his works began to call for a working-class revolt against the bourgeoisie. Baraka's works in this vein include Hard Facts: Excerpts (1975), a volume of poetry that includes several poems which accuse well-known black artists and activists of self-promotion—disguisedas nationalism—at the expense of working class African Americans. Baraka's dramas since 1974, including S-1 (1978), The Motion of History (1978), and The Sidney Poet Heroical (1979), reflect his commitments to Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought and Communism. S-1 and The Motion of History are reminiscent of the agitprop dramas of the 1930s, particularly in their appeals to working-class solidarity and in their suggestion that working class revolution is society's only hope.

Critical Reception

Baraka's first volume of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note …, met with general approval for its unconventional style and language. Critics would later observe that this is the only work of Baraka's that is "free from ethnic torment." Dutchman, Baraka's most widely studied and well received work, was acknowledged by Norman Mailer as "the best play in America." While some critics praised Dutchman for its "power," "freshness," and "deadly wit," others expressed outrage at its language, what they perceived as its perpetuation of interracial hostility, and its portrayal of whites. Baraka's next plays, The Slave and The Toilet, also met with mixed reviews. The latter play was described by one reviewer as an "obscene, scatological, bloody confrontation of the races in a school lavatory." Critic C. W. E. Bigsby called it "a barely stageable homosexual fantasy in which the setting is a urinal and the theme of the sexual nature of violence and the degradation of the white world." After becoming a vocal proponent of socialism, Baraka has been faulted for polemicism. In his study, Harris observed that assessment of Baraka has fallen into two general camps: "The white response … has been either silence or anger—and, in a few cases, sadness…. One general complaint is that Baraka has forsaken art for politics…. Another common accusation holds that Baraka used to be a good poet before he became a virulent racist. The reaction to Baraka in most of the black world has been very different from that in the white. In the black world Baraka is a famous artist. He is regarded as a father by the younger generation of poets; he is quoted in the streets—a fame almost never claimed by an American poet…." Many critics maintain that audiences bristle at Baraka's depictions of "white America," because he mirrors the ugly and hideous facets of American society.

Ralph Ellison (review date 6 February 1964)

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SOURCE: "Blues People," in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, edited and with an introduction by John F. Callahan, The Modern Library, 1995, pp. 278-87.

[In the following review, which originally appeared in The New York Review on February 6, 1964, Ellison points to both positive and negative aspects of Blues People.]

In his introduction to Blues People LeRoi Jones advises us to approach the work as

… a strictly theoretical endeavor. Theoretical, in that none of the questions it poses can be said to have been answered definitely or for all time (sic!), etc. In fact, the whole book proposes more questions than it will answer. The only questions it will properly move to answer have, I think, been answered already within the patterns of American life. We need only give these patterns serious scrutiny and draw certain permissible conclusions.

It is a useful warning and one hopes that it will be regarded by those jazz publicists who have the quite irresponsible habit of sweeping up any novel pronouncement written about jazz and slapping it upon the first available record liner as the latest insight into the mysteries of American Negro expression.

Jones would take his subject seriously—as the best of jazz critics have always done—and he himself should be so taken. He has attempted to place the blues within the context of a total culture and to see this native art form through the disciplines of sociology, anthropology and (though he seriously underrates its importance in the creating of a viable theory) history, and he spells out explicitly his assumptions concerning the relation between the blues, the people who created them and the larger American culture. Although I find several of his assumptions questionable, this is valuable in itself. It would be well if all jazz critics did likewise; not only would it expose those who have no business in the field, but it would sharpen the thinking of the few who have something enlightening to contribute. Blues People, like much that is written by Negro Americans at the present moment, takes on an inevitable resonance from the Freedom Movement, but it is in itself characterized by a straining for a note of militancy which is, to say the least, distracting. Its introductory mood of scholarly analysis frequently shatters into a dissonance of accusation, and one gets the impression that while Jones wants to perform a crucial task which he feels someone should take on—as indeed someone should—he is frustrated by the restraint demanded of the critical pen and would like to pick up a club.

Perhaps this explains why Jones, who is also a poet and editor of a poetry magazine, gives little attention to the blues as lyric, as a form of poetry. He appears to be attracted to the blues for what he believes they tell us of the sociology of Negro American identity and attitude. Thus, after beginning with the circumstances in which he sees their origin, he considers the ultimate values of American society:

The Negro as slave is one thing. The Negro as American is quite another. But the path the slave took to "citizenship" is what I want to look at. And I make my analogy through the slave citizen's music—through the music that is most closely associated with him: blues and a later, but parallel, development, jazz. And it seems to me that if the Negro represents, or is symbolic of, something in and about the nature of American culture, this certainly should be revealed by his characteristic music…. I am saying that if the music of the Negro in America, in all its permutations, is subjected to a socio-anthropological as well as musical scrutiny, something about the essential nature of the Negro's existence in this country ought to be revealed, as well as something about the essential nature of this country, i.e., society as a whole….

The tremendous burden of sociology which Jones would place upon this body of music is enough to give even the blues the blues. At one point he tells us that "the one peculiar reference to the drastic change in the Negro from slavery to 'citizenship' is in his music." And later with more precision, he states:

… The point I want to make most evident here is that I cite the beginning of the blues as one beginning of American Negroes. Or, let me say, the reaction and subsequent relation of the Negro's experience in this country in his English is one beginning of the Negro's conscious appearance on the American scene.

No one could quarrel with Mr. Jones's stress upon beginnings. In 1833, two hundred and fourteen years after the first Africans were brought to these shores as slaves, a certain Mrs. Lydia Maria Child, a leading member of the American Anti-Slavery Society, published a paper entitled: An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans. I am uncertain to what extent it actually reveals Mrs. Child's ideas concerning the complex relationship between time, place, cultural and/or national identity and race, but her title sounds like a fine bit of contemporary ironic signifying—"signifying" here meaning, in the unwritten dictionary of American Negro usage, "rhetorical understatements." It tells us much of the thinking of her opposition, and it reminds us that as late as the 1890s, a time when Negro composers, singers, dancers and comedians dominated the American musical stage, popular Negro songs (including James Weldon Johnson's "Under the Bamboo Tree," now immortalized by T. S. Eliot) were commonly referred to as "Ethiopian Airs."

Perhaps more than any other people. Americans have been locked in a deadly struggle with time, with history. We've fled the past and trained ourselves to suppress, if not forget, troublesome details of the national memory, and a great part of our optimism, like our progress, has been bought at the cost of ignoring the processes through which we've arrived at any given moment in our national existence. We've fought continuously with one another over who and what we are, and, with the exception of the Negro, over who and what is American. Jones is aware of this and, although he embarrasses his own argument, his emphasis is to the point.

For it would seem that while Negroes have been undergoing a process of "Americanization" from a time preceding the birth of this nation—including the fusing of their bloodlines with other non-African strains—there has persisted a stubborn confusion as to their American identity. Somehow it was assumed that the Negroes, of all the diverse American peoples, would remain unaffected by the climate, the weather, the political circumstances—from which not even slaves were exempt—the social structures, the national manners, the modes of production and the tides of the market, the national ideals, the conflicts of values, the rising and falling of national morale, or the complex give and take of acculturalization which was undergone by all others who found their existence within American democracy. This confusion still persists, and it is Mr. Jones's concern with it which gives Blues People a claim upon our attention.

Mr. Jones sees the American Negro as the product of a series of transformations, starting with the enslaved African, who became Afro-American slave, who became the American slave, who became, in turn, the highly qualified "citizen" whom we know today. The slave began by regarding himself as enslaved African during the time when he still spoke his native language or remembered it, practiced such aspects of his native religion as were possible and expressed himself musically in modes which were essentially African. These cultural traits became transmuted as the African lost consciousness of his African background, and his music, religion, language and speech gradually became that of the American Negro. His sacred music became the spirituals, his work songs and dance music became the blues and primitive jazz, and his religion became a form of Afro-American Christianity. With the end of slavery Jones sees the development of jazz and the blues as results of the more varied forms of experience made available to the freedman. By the twentieth century the blues divided and became, on the one hand, a professionalized form of entertainment, while remaining, on the other, a form of folklore.

By which I suppose he means that some Negroes remained in the country and sang a crude form of the blues, while others went to the city, became more sophisticated, and paid to her Ma Rainey, Bessie or some of the other Smith girls sing them in night clubs or theaters. Jones gets this mixed up with ideas of social class—middle-class Negroes, whatever that term actually means, and light-skinned Negroes, or those Negroes corrupted by what Jones calls "White" culture—preferring the "classic" blues, and black, uncorrupted, country Negroes preferring "country blues."

For as with his music, so with the Negro. As Negroes became "middle class" they rejected their tradition and themselves; "… they wanted any self which the mainstream dictated, and the mainstream always dictated. And this black middle class, in turn, tried always to dictate that self, or this image of a whiter Negro, to the poorer, blacker Negroes."

One would get the impression that there was a rigid correlation between color, education, income and the Negro's preference in music. But what are we to say of a white-skinned Negro with brown freckles who owns sixteen oil wells sunk in a piece of Texas land once farmed by his ex-slave parents who were a blue-eyed, white-skinned, redheaded (kinky) Negro woman from Virginia and a blue-gummed, black-skinned, curly-haired Negro male from Mississippi, and who not only sang bass in a Holy Roller church, played the market and voted Republican, but collected blues recordings and was a walking depository of blues tradition? Jones's theory no more allows for the existence of such a Negro than it allows for himself, but that "concord of sensibilities" which has been defined as the meaning of culture allows for much more variety than Jones would admit.

Much the same could be said of Jones's treatment of the jazz during the thirties, when he claims its broader acceptance (i.e., its economic success as entertainment) led to a dilution, to the loss of much of its "black" character which caused a certain group of rebellious Negro musicians to create the "anti-mainstream" jazz style called bebop.

Jones sees bop as a conscious gesture of separatism, ignoring the fact that the creators of the style were seeking, whatever their musical intentions—and they were the least political of men—a fresh form of entertainment which would allow them their fair share of the entertainment market, which had been dominated by whites during the swing era. And although the boppers were reacting, at least in part, to the high artistic achievement of Armstrong, Hawkins, Basie and Ellington (all Negroes, all masters of the blues-jazz tradition), Jones sees their music as a recognition of his contention "that when you are black in a society where black is an extreme liability [it] is one thing, but to understand that it is the society which is lacking and is impossibly deformed because of this lack, and not yourself, isolates you even more from that society."

Perhaps. But today nothing succeeds like rebellion (which Jones as a "beat" poet should know), and while a few boppers went to Europe to escape, or became Muslims, others took the usual tours for the State Department. Whether this makes them "middle class" in Jones's eyes I can't say, but his assertions—which are fine as personal statement—are not in keeping with the facts; his theory flounders before that complex of human motives which makes human history, and which is so characteristic of the American Negro.

Read as a record of an earnest young man's attempt to come to grips with his predicament as Negro American during a most turbulent period of our history, Blues People may be worth the reader's time. Taken as a theory of American Negro culture, it can only contribute more confusion than clarity. For Jones has stumbled over that ironic obstacle which lies in the path of any who would fashion a theory of American Negro culture while ignoring the intricate network of connections which binds Negroes to the larger society. To do so is to attempt delicate brain surgery with a switchblade. And it is possible that any viable theory of Negro American culture obligates us to fashion a more adequate theory of American culture as a whole. The heel bone is, after all, connected through its various linkages to the head bone. Attempt a serious evaluation of our national morality, and up jumps the so-called Negro problem. Attempt to discuss jazz as a hermetic expression of Negro sensibility, and immediately we must consider what the "mainstream" of American music really is.

Here political categories are apt to confuse, for while Negro slaves were socially, politically and economically separate (but only in a special sense even here), they were, in a cultural sense, much closer than Jones's theory allows him to admit.

"A slave," writes Jones, "cannot be a man." But what, one might ask, of those moments when he feels his metabolism aroused by the rising of the sap in spring? What of his identity among other slaves? With his wife? And isn't it closer to the truth that far from considering themselves only in terms of that abstraction, "a slave," the enslaved really though of themselves as men who had been unjustly enslaved? And isn't the true answer to Mr. Jones's question, "What are you going to be when you grow up?" not, as he gives it, "a slave" but most probably a coachman, a teamster, a cook, the best damned steward on the Mississippi, the best jockey in Kentucky, a butler, a farmer, a stud, or, hopefully, a free man! Slavery was a most vicious system, and those who endured and survived it a tough people, but it was not (and this is important for Negroes to remember for the sake of their own sense of who and what their grandparents were) a state of absolute repression.

A slave was, to the extent that he was a musician, one who expressed himself in music, a man who realized himself in the world of sound. Thus, while he might stand in awe before the superior technical ability of a white musician, and while he was forced to recognize a superior social status, he would never feel awed before the music which the technique of the white musician made available. His attitude as "musician" would lead him to seek to possess the music expressed through the technique, but until he could do so he would hum, whistle, sing or play the tunes to the best of his ability on any available instrument. And it was, indeed, out of the tension between desire and ability that the techniques of jazz emerged. This was likewise true of American Negro choral singing. For this, no literary explanation, no cultural analyses, no political slogans—indeed, not even a high degree of social or political freedom—was required. For the art—the blues, the spirituals, the jazz, the dance—was what we had in place of freedom.

Technique was then, as today, the key to creative freedom, but before this came a will toward expression. Thus, Jones's theory to the contrary, Negro musicians have never, as a group, felt alienated from any music sounded within their hearing, and it is my theory that it would be impossible to pinpoint the time when they were not shaping what Jones calls the mainstream of American music. Indeed, what group of musicians has made more of the sound of the American experience? Nor am I confining my statement to the sound of the slave experience, but am saying that the most authoritative rendering of America in music is that of American Negroes.

For as I see it, from the days of their introduction into the colonies, Negroes have taken, with the ruthlessness of those without articulate investments in cultural styles, whatever they could of European music, making of it that which would, when blended with the cultural tendencies inherited from Africa, express their own sense of life, while rejecting the rest. Perhaps this is only another way of saying that whatever the degree of injustice and inequality sustained by the slaves, American culture was, even before the official founding of the nation, pluralistic, and it was the African's origin in cultures in which art was highly functional which gave him an edge in shaping the music and dance of this nation.

The question of social and cultural snobbery is important here. The effectiveness of Negro music and dance is first recorded in the journals and letters of travelers but it is important to remember that they saw and understood only that which they were prepared to accept. Thus a Negro dancing a courtly dance appeared comic from the outside simply because the dancer was a slave. But to the Negro dancing it—and there is ample evidence that he danced it well—burlesque or satire might have been the point, which might have been difficult for a white observer to even imagine. During the 1870s Lafcadio Hearn reports that the best singers of Irish songs, in Irish dialect, were Negro dockworkers in Cincinnati, and advertisements from slavery days described escaped slaves who spoke in Scottish dialect. The master artisans of the South were slaves, and white Americans have been walking Negro walks, talking Negro-flavored talk (and prizing it when spoken by Southern belles), dancing Negro dances and singing Negro melodies far too long to talk of a "mainstream" of American culture to which they're alien.

Jones attempts to impose an ideology upon this cultural complexity, and this might be useful if he knew enough of the related subjects to make it interesting. But his version of the blues lacks a sense of the excitement and surprise of men living in the world—of enslaved and politically weak men successfully imposing their values upon a powerful society through sons and dance.

The blues speak to us simultaneously of the tragic and comic aspects of the human condition, and they express a profound sense of life shared by many Negro Americans precisely because their lives have combined these modes. This has been the heritage of a people who for hundreds of years could not celebrate birth or dignify death, and whose need to live despite the dehumanizing pressures of slavery developed an endless capacity for laughing at their painful experiences. This is a group experience shared by many Negroes, and any effective study of the blues would treat them first as poetry and as ritual. Jones makes a distinction between classic and country blues, the one being entertainment and the other folklore. But the distinction is false. Classic blues were both entertainment and a form of folklore. When they were sung professionally in theaters, they were entertainment; when danced to in the form of recordings or used as a means of transmitting the traditional verses and their wisdom, they were folklore. There are levels of time and function involved here, and the blues which might be used in one place as entertainment (as gospel music is now being used in night clubs and on theater stages) might be put to a ritual use in another. Bessie Smith might have been a "blues queen" to society at large, but within the tighter Negro community where the blues were part of a total way of life, and a major expression of an attitude toward life, she was a priestess, a celebrant who affirmed the values of the group and man's ability to deal with chaos.

It is unfortunate that Jones thought it necessary to ignore the aesthetic nature of the blues in order to make his ideological point, for he might have come much closer had he considered the blues not as politics but as art. This would have still required the disciplines of anthropology and sociology, but as practiced by Constance Rourke, who was well aware of how much of American cultural expression is Negro. And he could learn much from the Cambridge School's discoveries of the connection between poetry, drama and ritual as a means of analyzing how the blues function in their proper environment. Simple taste should have led Jones to Stanley Edgar Hyman's work on the blues instead of Paul Oliver's sadly misdirected effort.

For the blues are not primarily concerned with civil rights or obvious political protest; they are an art form and thus a transcendence of those conditions created within the Negro community by the denial of social justice. As such they are one of the techniques through which Negroes have survived and kept their courage during that long period when many whites assumed, as some still assume, that they were afraid.

Much has been made of the fact that Blues People is one of the few books by a Negro to treat the subject. Unfortunately for those who expect that Negroes would have a special insight into this mysterious art, this is not enough. Here, too, the critical intelligence must perform the difficult task which only it can perform.

Principal Works

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A Good Girl Is Hard to Find (drama) 1958
Cuba Libre (essay) 1961
Dante (drama) 1961; also produced as The Eighth Ditch, 1964
Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note…. (poetry) 1961
Blues People: Negro Music in White America (essay) 1963
The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America [editor] (anthology) 1963
The Baptism (drama) 1964
The Dead Lecturer: Poems (poetry) 1964
Dutchman (drama) 1964
The Slave (drama) 1964
The Toilet (drama) 1964
Experimental Death Unit #1 (drama) 1965
J-E-L-L-O (drama) 1965
The System of Dante's Hell (novel) 1965
A Black Mass (drama) 1966
Home: Social Essays (essays) 1966
Baptism (drama) 1966
Black Art (poetry) 1967
Black Music (essay) 1967
Madheart: A Morality Play (drama) 1967
Slave Ship: A Historical Pageant (drama) 1967
Tales (short stories) 1967
Black Spring (screenplay) 1968
Home on the Range (drama) 1968
Police (drama) 1968
Black Magic: Sabotage, Target Study, Black Art; Collected Poetry, 1961–1967 (poetry) 1969
Bloodrites (drama) 1970
It's Nation Time (poetry) 1970
Junkies Are Full of SHHH … (drama) 1970
A Fable (screenplay) 1971
Raise, Race, Rays, Raze: Essays since 1965 (essays) 1971
Strategy and Tactics of a Pan-African Nationalist Party (essay) 1971
Supercoon (screenplay) 1971
Spirit Reach (poetry) 1972
Afrikan Revolution (poetry) 1973
A Recent Killing (drama) 1973
Hard Facts: Excerpts (poetry) 1975
Sidnee Poet Heroical or If In Danger of Suit, The Kid Poet Heroical (drama) 1975
Three Books by Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones): The System of Dante's Hell, Tales, The Dead Lecturer (novel, short stories, and poetry) 1975
S-1 (drama) 1976
America More or Less (musical) 1976
The Motion of History (drama) 1977
AM/TRAK (poetry) 1979
Selected Plays and Prose of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (dramas and prose) 1979
Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (poetry) 1979
The Sidnee Poet Heroical: In 29 Scenes (drama) 1979
Spring Song (poetry) 1979
What Was the Relationship of the Lone Ranger to the Means of Production?: A Play in One Act (drama) 1979
"Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite" (essay) 1980; published in periodical Village VoiceIn the Tradition: For Black Arthur Blythe (poetry) 1980
Boy and Tarzan Appear in a Clearing! (drama) 1981
"Sounding" (poetry) 1982; published in periodical Black American Literature ForumThe Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (autobiography) 1984
Daggers and Javelins: Essays, 1974–79 (essays) 1984
"Wailers" (poem) 1985; published in periodical Callaloo
"Why's/Wise" (poem) 1985; published in periodical Southern ReviewThe Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues [with Amina Baraka] (essay) 1987
"Reflections" (poem) 1988; published in periodical Black ScholarWise, Why's, Y'z (poetry) 1995
Transbluency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961–1995) (poetry) 1996

∗Published under the name LeRoi Jones.

Amiri Baraka with D. H. Melhem (interview date Fall 1982)

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SOURCE: "Amiri Baraka: Revolutionary Traditions," in Heroism in the New Black Poetry: Introductions and Interviews, University Press of Kentucky, 1990, pp. 215-63.

[In the following interview, conducted in 1982 by D. H. Melhem and Michael Bezdek, Baraka discusses a variety of topics including his upbringing, his work, and his views on art and politics.]

Since the early 1960s, the figure to be reckoned with in Black political life and art has been Amiri Baraka. Controversial, responsive to changing social ambience, he has articulated the riotous "language of the unheard" (to invoke Martin Luther King's definition once again) within a vernacular and a new idiom of radical solutions. A founder of the Black Arts Movement of the sixties, he propounded a view that was, as the late Larry Neal put it, "radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community … the Black Arts Movement believes that your ethics and your aesthetics are one." Baraka's impact has been such that as early as 1973, Donald B. Gibson placed him among "major influences on black poetry: (1) the Harlem Renaissance of the twenties; (2) the protest writing of the thirties as reflected in the work of Richard Wright; (3) the beat movement of the fifties; (4) the life and work of a single poet, Amiri Baraka."

Amiri Baraka was born Everett Leroy Jones in Newark, New Jersey, on October 7, 1934, to Anna Lois and Coyotte (Coyt) Leroy Jones. His mother, a social worker, had been a student at Fisk University; her father, Tom Russ, had owned businesses, helped found a Baptist church, and endured persecution in Alabama by envious white businessmen who three times burned down his establishments before he moved his family to Newark. Although he died when his grandson was eleven, Russ remained a significant figure for the poet. Baraka's father, a man of independent thought, taught his son the importance of self-defense.

Coyt Jones's grandmother had been noted for her story-telling, especially about the era of slavery, and Baraka—recognized as a prodigy by his parents—was encouraged in his ability to make speeches before he was old enough for school. His dynamic competence as a public speaker and reader began in those early days.

After a year's unhappy encounter with Rutgers, Baraka attended Howard University, where as LeRoi Jones, he studied with Sterling A. Brown and Nathan Scott. Shortly before his twentieth birthday, he left Howard to enter the air force, which he refers to as the "error farce," serving two years, mainly in Puerto Rico and Germany. In 1958 he and Hettie Cohen, a Jewish writer, were married in a Buddhist temple on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Two daughters, Kellie Elisabeth and Lisa Victoria Chapman, were born to the couple. Baraka and his wife collaborated on publishing Yugen, an important literary magazine (later, with Diane di Prima, he edited Floating Bear). Since their divorce, Hettie Jones has remained active on the New York literary scene.

In the sixties Baraka wrote poetry and jazz reviews, and began writing plays with The Eighth Ditch (which is part of his 1965 novel, The System of Dante's Hell) and Dutchman. Turning to Black Nationalism, deeply affected by the murder of Malcolm X in February 1965, he left Greenwich Village for Harlem where, in the previous year, he had already founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BART/S). In 1966 he was united with Amina Baraka (née Sylvia Robinson) in a Yoruba wedding ceremony. Formerly a painter, dancer, and actress, Amina is a strong poet in her own right and coedited with him Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women (1983), in which several of her poems appear (Brooks, Sanchez, and Cortez are also among the forty-nine Black women writers represented). A woman of deep political convictions, Amina shares her husband's world view and directs the New Ark Afrikan Free School, which originated in Spirit House, the community cultural center that he had organized in the 1960s. Her children with Baraka are Obalaji Malik Ali, Ras Jua Al Aziz, Shani Isis Makeda, Amiri Seku Musa, and Ahi Mwenge.

Throughout the sixties Baraka steadily gained respect for his work in jazz history, particularly Blues People; in poetry, with books including Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note and Black Magic; in drama, with Dutchman, which won an "Obie" for the best off-Broadway play of 1964, and The Slave, which won the drama prize at the first World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal (1966); and in fiction with The System of Dante's Hell and Tales. Recognized as a political and cultural leader, he was welcomed tumultuously at the Second Fisk University Writers' Conference in 1967. In the Newark riots later that year, he encountered a different sort of tumult when he was nearly beaten to death by police [an event which is recollected in Baraka's Autobiography.]

Home, a collection of his essays from 1960 through 1965, shows the development of Baraka's early thought. "After 1966," he says, "my work became self-consciously spiritual." In this period, he wrote Spirit Reach (1972). Richly experimental, mimetic of instruments, its "Preachments" contribute to a moving poetic document of spiritual striving.

In 1974, as chairman of the Congress of Afrikan Peoples (CAP), which split off into the Revolutionary Communist League, the poet attended the Sixth Pan-African Congress at Dar es Salaam. The assembly marked a deepening schism among Black intellectuals: some clinging to Nationalism; others, like Baraka, embracing the new wave of socialism. Ten years later, on the occasion of the writer's fiftieth birthday, Woodie King, Jr., asked, "What is it about Baraka that calls us to attention? I believe it is his daring." In his candid Autobiography, Baraka, using a Mao-invoking metaphor, writes of his "long march to better understanding" (p. 325). For him, change is the constant present and presence, the quintessential fact of existence and growth. He dares to grow and chafes at being held back by his own former positions, whether they were error or insight. The anti-Semitism that marred some of his early poetry, for example, plagued him for years after he disavowed the sentiments. Even his "Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite" failed to remove the stigma. It persisted mainly because of his view of Zionism as nationalism and therefore incompatible with his late Marxist/Leninist/Maoist international stance. "People are always catching you where you were," he says. One recalls the hero of Brooks's "Boy Breaking Glass," who cries, "Nobody knew where I was and now I am no longer there." While many have known where Baraka was at a particular moment, they could not seize his protean reality, because he was always both of his time and ahead of it, struggling, in a Hegelian labor, to achieve a further level of synthesis.

As artist, Baraka wants "more than anything, to chart this change within myself. This constant mutability in the face of the changing world." And yet it is the reality of his changeless core that generates his vision. William J. Harris views him as a Manichaean and a vatic poet in the line of Whitman, Pound, Patchen, and Ginsberg. In quest of philosophical truth, Baraka has turned to a variety of religious and political faiths. A serious artist, he has absorbed classical and modern literature and contributes uniquely to art that is experimentally alive to its social and political content. He uses music and multimedia to further the accessibility and impact of his works, in order to convey to the people his messages of strength, resistance, and political instruction. Like a great dancer (or skater), he risks all with bold leaps and turns, as evidenced by his play The Motion of History and Money: A Jazz Opera, neither of whom quite comes off theatrically, and The Sidney Poet Heroical, which does. His work has moved from concern with self and schools of white poetry to replacement of that Black self in a national and world community, at the same time developing an experimental Black art rooted in traditions of language, music, and religious and secular rhetoric.

Harris gives a solid interpretation of Baraka's methodology, which converts white aesthetics to Black aesthetic purposes: "Amiri Baraka's entire career is characterized by transformations of avant-garde poetics into ethnic poetics, of white liberal politics into black nationalist and Marxist politics, of jazz forms into literary forms … I call Baraka's method of transformation the Jazz Aesthetic Process, a procedure that uses jazz variations as paradigms for the conversion of white poetic and social ideas into black ones." Harris gives appropriate credit to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (who, in turn, acknowledges Roger D. Abrahams) in perceiving that the process is one of suggesting structure by dissemblance, a form of "signifying," and that "repeating a form and then inverting it through a process of variation" is the essence of the jazz aesthetic. Baraka's own explanation of how he turned the Black Sambo minstrel image into the fear-inspiring Uncle Sambo revolutionary patches worn by Walker Vessel's Black army, in The Slave, exemplifies the process.

Because over the years Baraka has become a recognizable part of American popular multiculture, familiarity makes him appear less threatening than was once the case. As professor (since (1979) and director (since 1986) of Africana Studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and recently as visiting professor at Rutgers University, he may even tempt us to think of him as nearly an "establishment" figure (one can hear him chortle), though of a unique variety, to be sure. But he is ever Baraka: his mind, ranging freely, remains unfettered. His integrity as an artist and his ready polemics are partly witnessed by the history of some of his essays in Daggers and Javelins, pieces commissioned and paid for by such publications as the New York Times, Black Enterprise magazine, the Village Voice, and Playboy (Japan) and then not published—or, in journalistic parlance, "killed." Their survival and subsequent publication recall the mighty words of labor organizer Joe Hill in Alfred Hayes's ballad: "I never died, said he."

Dedicated to promulgating his views, Baraka has let nothing, not even enforced weekends on Rikers Island or teaching commitments, ever prevent him from writing, publishing, and participating in functions and causes he deems worthy. Among other activities, he continues to participate generously in Black writer's conferences. At the Medgar Evers Second National Black Writers' Conference in March 1988 he discussed destructive stereotypes about Black writing (such as maintaining that it doesn't exist, that American writing is white, and that Blacks fixate on the subject of slavery) and called for the mass infusion of Black literature into school curricula. At the Langston Hughes Festival in New York the following November he presented a paper titled "Langston, McKay, and Du Bois: The Contradictions of Art and Politics During the Harlem Renaissance."

Baraka's stature in American letters was further evident on two occasions honoring Black writers. At James Baldwin's funeral "celebration" on December 8, 1987, at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York, where tributes were given by Baldwin's friends Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison and by the ambassador of France, Baraka—also a close friend—served as honorary pallbearer and delivered a memorable eulogy: "Jimmy was God's black Revolutionary mouth," he said, "if there is a God, and revolution his righteous natural expression and elegant song the deepest and most fundamental commonplace of being alive." The eulogy was printed by Baldwin's family as part of the memorial program.

On February 11, 1988, Baraka participated in the public television literary series Voices and Visions, in its tribute to Langston Hughes. Baraka regards Richard Wright, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Hughes as the three most eminent authors of the Harlem Renaissance. His appreciation of both Hughes and Baldwin has as much to do with music as with message. His kinship with their knowledge, esteem, and application of Black music has been demonstrated by his own major writings on blues and jazz; he is vitally concerned with the relation of music to Black culture as a whole, the revolutionary impulse it expresses and the cultural tradition it embodies. Currently, his weekly music and poetry series, "Kimako's Blues People," named after his late sister and codirected with his wife Amina, continues to project his vision of art merged with politics and to support the creative struggle of Black artists.

Baraka's deep concern with tradition is part of a pervasive concern among Black intellectuals with identifying and codifying an existing tradition. In addition to Black music, literature, and religious and secular oratory, slave narratives are also being perceived as "central to American culture." The development of literary theory and the establishment of canons—begun with the prodigious work of W. E. B. Du Bois and the Harlem renaissance writers; carried forward by Baraka, the late Larry Neal, and the legacies of Hoyt W. Fuller and George E. Kent—continue apace, along with emphases that range from poststructuralism to feminism.

Underlying or overt, the concern with tradition and traditions (also evident in the other poets discussed here) counterpoints both political and aesthetic radicalism, and it locates unequivocally in Baraka's major poem In the Tradition (1982), which he has both published and recorded (with music). Dedicating it to "Black Arthur Blythe," the alto saxophonist (whose 1979 record album lent the poem its title), Baraka calls it "a poem about African American history … a cultural history and political history." If a single work could sum him up "at a certain point," he says, it would probably be that poem. It incorporates his spirit, his energy, his musicality, all that he ever learned about and contributed to the visual and aural elements of modern poetry. As Joe Weislmann points out (like Darwin Turner speaking of Madhubuti; see Chapter 3 above), "Baraka's recent work lives fully only in performance, yet rarely do Baraka's critics take that into account." A stirring reader, he frequently shares the stage with Amina, herself a dynamic performer.

The recent poetry seems to be gaining power through its depth and expansion. While it supports the range of his concerns—"Soundings," a passionate outcry against war; "Waiters," a poem for Larry Neal and Bob Marley that is essentially a tribute to Black music (it has been reprinted in "The Music"); and "Why's/Wise," which, Baraka notes in introducing a published fragment, is a long poem about "African American (American) History," recalling his earlier description of "In the Tradition"—two new aspects bear mention. First, the poet seems to be adapting his earlier connection to Olson and the Projectivists within the framework of Black culture. In his preface to "Why's/Wise," the poet mentions "the tradition of the Griots," but also includes Melvin B. Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, William Carlos Williams's Paterson, Charles Olson's Maximus Poems (one could also cite Ezra Pound's Cantos here) as antecedents, "in that it tries to tell the history/life like an ongoing-offcoming Tale" (Southern Review, 801). In the poem, which is still in progress, Baraka celebrates heroes (and excoriates real and putative villains) from all aspects of Black life. Utilizing the full vocabulary of his artistic development, he is seen by one critic as "moving forward in the world armed with both curiosity and wisdom.

Baraka's new book, The Music, clearly locates in its very title his focus for present and future. It is Black music that has provided the lens, the cohesion, and the communication he has been pursuing as he "investigates the sun." This anthology of recent work, of Amina's poetry and his own poetry, essays, and "anti-nuclear jazz musical," reveals a second and relatively new emphasis: Baraka as a poet/musician of praise—a lover of "The Music" (by which Black music is understood) and the family of Black musicians who create and interpret it, and a lover of his own family, itself consanguine within it. Witness his poet and prose tributes to great artists of jazz and blues, his instrumental articulations (he defines poetry as "speech musicked"), his remark that "Amina's poetry is itself child of the music, as Jazz is Blues'," and the poem to his sons, "Obalaji as drummer, Ras as Poet," in which he affirms: "and when the music goes through me I swear I imagine all kinds / of things. A world without pain, a world of beauty, for / instance." A Black Family man who remains lyrical with hope, he is a formidable champion of the cultural contribution of African American music and fierce defender against "The Great Music Robbery," the plundering of its resources by whites (328-32; cf. Gwendolyn Brooks, "Gottschalk and the Grande Tarantelle," Interview, Chapter 1).

Baraka's appraisal of Malcolm X may well serve as his own epitome: "A whole swirl of turnarounds hurricaned from him. The world was going through changes, and that world was in us too. We had to reevaluate all we knew. There were lives in us anyway filled with dynamite. We had a blackness to us, to be sure. It was always in us, we had but to claim it. And it claimed us."

To travel through the sprawling Black area of Newark is to be drawn into the nexus of Baraka's urgent rage: acres of slums, sullen in July—one imagines their bleakness in December. It is the Tuesday morning of our interview [conducted on July 21, 1981; the last question was posed to Baraka on November 24, 1988 at the Langston Hughes Festival at the City College of New York and is included in the text as an appropriate conclusion to the interview]. My cab drives on and on, through a city still partly burned out since the 1967 riots, until we come to a section of attractive private houses. And then: the red, rambling, Victorian-style brick house of Amiri Baraka. A tree, its trunk curving like a snarl, explodes into an umbrella of green to the left of the entrance walk.

Inside: Baraka, wearing a red T-shirt imprinted in black with a picture of the late Bob Marley. Inside: clean lines, beige walls; a fireplace with African art objects; an ample, beige sectional sofa. On the coffee table: Langston Hughes, The Ways of White Folks. Baraka speaks briefly with a telephone repairman after showing me to the living room.

Mike Bezdek, a pleasant southerner on assignment from the Associated Press to report on illustrious Newark citizens, is seated on the sofa when I enter. I had not expected a second interviewer. Baraka joins us. He is budgeting his time, trying to do two things in the space of one, aware of the days slipping past until October 16 when he will be sentenced, wondering aloud whether he might be "taken off" in prison. He explains that he has been speaking to the telephone repairman, who has just left. "Every time I have to go to court, the phone is fouling up. You get a recording saying the phone is disconnected." He sits before us, flecks of gray in his hair and beard, poised yet intense as he mentions a "hit list" he will discuss in the interview, a list on which his name appears.

How does one live with fear and maintain sanity? Baraka's secret may be his productivity. During the interview he refers to a play, a jazz opera, a book of essays, a book of autobiographical essays, and an anthology to be co-edited with his wife—all works at various stages of completion and all subsequently produced or published.

The interview lasts approximately two hours. The poet speaks rapidly, but without haste, with seriousness and occasional humor, his manner forthright. The house is filled at times with sounds of activity from invisible children; no one invades the scene or interrupts the conversation. Baraka is to travel in the afternoon. Even though we are only one in a continuous series of commitments, he is relaxed. I am reminded of him at the New School, where I was first struck by his patience and quick intelligence as a teacher, his use of a socratic method, his description of "art for art's sake" as art created for the bourgeoisie. Once again I have the sense of constant reassessment or revaluation, of the very process of thought to which we are being admitted.


[D. H. Melhem:] As a child, it seems you were regarded by your family as a prodigy. Did anyone at home or at school directly encourage you to write?

[Baraka:] In school I took a writing course as a senior in high school, before that in grammar school. When I was in elementary school I did a comic strip in seventh grade for a little seventh grade newspaper that we had, and I contributed cartoons for that. I didn't start really to get a sense of writing until high school.

[Melhem:] That comic strip you did, would you say that showed the influence of the radio and so forth—the comedians, mysteries, and dramas that dominated radio at the time? Would you say that the radio influenced your turn to drama?

Well, I think the radio was probably the biggest influence on me—radio and movies. I was always really an avid radio listener. Every day, after the playground, I'd listen to all the adventure stories. I think they'd start coming on about five-fifteen, Hop Harrigan and Captain Midnight—

[Mike Bezdek:] The Shadow.

Yes, that was on Sundays.

[Bezdek:] That was one of your most widely publicized early poems


[Bezdek:] —about the Shadow.

Yes. All of those were. I guess what television is probably to little kids now, radio was to us then.

[Melhem:] Is the Green Lantern the Green Hornet?

No. The Green Lantern was actually a comic strip character, and he had a ring, and he used to take this ring and he'd sort of, I guess, recharge it at the end of each one of his bouts with crime. Then he had this little poem that he would recite, "In darkest day, in darkest night / No evil shall escape my sight." [Laughter] Something like that. And I always identified with that.

[Melhem:] Your paternal great-grandmother was an accomplished storyteller. You have an exuberant relationship with words per se, as well as a remarkably fertile imagination. Would you say that your great-grandmother's talent influenced you in both respects, the lexical and the imaginative?

I can't really be sure. I know that those stories were always fascinating. She would tell those stories out of the Arabian Nights—they were stories that I came to know later as the stories from the Arabian Nights—only in her own, unique, kind of way. But I think the whole language thing is the thing from the streets, really, from the playground, finding out that using words was as useful as being able to use your hands in some situations.

[Bezdek:] Was this in Newark?


[Melhem:] Would you say that joy in words is part of a Black cultural


[Melhem:] —predilection?

Yes, certainly the whole oral aspect of the culture, the fact of being kept out of formal replication just reinforces the oral quality. The fact that you couldn't just come off the farm and be a writer, you know, on the plantation and have access to the formal arts. It reinforces the kind of normally oral tradition of most people in the world. I think in saying that the African American people, because of being blocked in one area—it just reinforces that oral kind of tradition.

[Melhem:] Your identification with leadership seems to have begun early, with the independence and ego strength shown by both your parents, and your admiration for and closeness to your heroic maternal grandfather, Tom Russ, whom you refer to as "an American pioneer" in your dedication to Dutchman and The Slave. Would you couple his loss, when you were eleven, with the death of Malcolm X in 1965, as deeply significant events for you, influencing and even changing your life?

Well, I don't know. See, the Malcolm thing was much more conscious, much more of a conscious commitment and seeing somebody you consciously had seen as important, killed. My grandfather was such a personal loss. I think the loss begins early when he got hurt. He got hit in the head with a street light they said fell off the pole and crippled him, which is still a wild kind of coincidence. But I think the loss begins there, because the kind of prestige he had in the community and the awe that I hold him in was at that point, you know, sharply kind of—just weakened, because he then became a paralyzed person who couldn't move, who had to sit in a wheelchair. That sort of eliminated a lot of the kind of heroic projection that I had around him. And then his death was kind of—anticlimax.

[Melhem:] Was he in a wheelchair long?

Well, I guess the last few years of his life, about three years he lived after that, three or four years.

[Bezdek:] What did he do?

He was a storekeeper; he was a politician; he was in Black Republican politics. He lost his store in the Depression, and they gave him a political patronage job, which is very ironic. He was the night watchman I the election machine factory [chuckling], in the election machine warehouse where they kept the election machines. He was the night watchman in there, so we used to go over there in the evenings and sit around the election machines, protecting democracy, or something. [Laughter]

[Melhem:] More recently, do you consider Lu Hsun an important example for you of the writer as revolutionary?

Oh, yes. Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. I think that it's a pity that his works are not known more widely in this country. But he's a very, very skilled short story writer and an acid essayist—

[Melhem:] Like "A Madman's Diary"


[Melhem:] —a great story.

Yes. I have a book coming out in the fall, a book of essays, and I took the title from him. The title is Daggers and Javelins, and that's what he used to call his essays. He had some "dagger" essays, which were short and swift, and then he had some javelin essays, for long-distance [laughs] elimination.

[Melhem:] Who's publishing that?

Greenwood. Academic Press. Essays, 1975–1979. [Later published by Morrow.]

[Bezdek:] Speaking of academic life, you were well-known way back in the fifties. Do you have some trouble getting university positions? I seem to remember hearing that. Did that not further your anger, especially your home state where, for God knows what reason

Yes, yes. Well, in New Jersey, I applied to Rutgers, Newark, about three or four years in a row. Then I applied to Rutgers, New Brunswick; Rutgers in Livingston, a couple of times; then Princeton; Essex county College—I've applied to all of these schools around here with the exception, I guess, of Seton Hall Upsala. But all the rest of the major schools I applied to. I know people inside these schools, and they tell me what's going on. They tell me, you know, in Newark Rutgers the English department says they will not have you. The head of the English department, a guy named Henry Christian, maintains that he will die first—

[Bezdek:] Where is that?

Newark Rutgers.

[Bezdek:] And why?

I think it's basically because my work in New Jersey has been—most people know it principally as political. And so it's different if you have a political professor who is essentially a professor and is political in that sense. But when you have somebody who people identify primarily as a political activist and only secondarily as a writer—a lot of these people around New Jersey and especially in Newark, they think of me primarily as a political activist. In terms of writing and stuff like that, they don't know a thing about that. [Laughs]

[Bezdek:] Uh-huh.

So it's like you want to hire a militant to be on the faculty. They don't want to do that. The fact that I can get jobs and go teach at Yale and George Washington, Columbia, you know, is lost on them. So that's essentially where it still is.

[Bezdek:] Has that ever entered your writing? Have you ever written about that?

What—the Rutgers thing?

[Bezdek:] About New Jersey, specifically?

I mentioned that I a couple of essays that I've done recently, in the last three years. I've mentioned that specifically in about three essays. One that Rutgers is supposed to be publishing in a collection called—you remember they had a conference on urban literature, something like that, a couple of years ago? They have a collection of those essays coming out in the fall, and one of those essays talks about Rutgers being a racist institution, and so forth and so on. And then I wrote about it in a couple of other essays, specifically about having applied and being turned down; having been sent a ditto sheet back, not even an answer—one of those purple ditto sheets from Rutgers. [Laughs] And all kinds of stuff like that. But I think it's par for the course. I don't see it as being weird, given the situation in New Jersey, specifically in Newark, the kind of intense political confrontation we went through, that I was involved with and identified with.

You can see what their point is. I mean, it's so backward. Obviously, most people in the country look at it as extremely backward, you know, what goes on. I have yet to get even a grant from the State Council on the Arts in New Jersey, you understand? That kind of—refusal to identify me as anything but a political figure, a political militant that they don't want to deal with. Which is very interesting.

[Bezdek:] Do we have any native sons who are more well known than you? I don't

I don't know—not in that particular field, I would think.

[Bezdek:] I read about you for the first time in Alabama [Laughs] and if they know about your poetry down there, my God

I don't think so. There are a great many well-known writers from New Jersey. Strangely enough, some of the best-known American poets are from New Jersey. Walt Whitman—

[Bezdek:] Carlos

Yes, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg—

[Bezdek:] He's from New Jersey?

Yes. They're all from New Jersey. New Jersey has a particular, weird soil that turns out poets. Yes. But Ginsberg was born in Newark. He was raised, of course, in Paterson. William Carlos Williams lived most of his life in Paterson. Walt Whitman lived most of his life in Camden. So there's something in New Jersey that promotes poetry.

[Melhem:] I just want to go back to the childhood for a moment.


[Melhem:] There's a great deal of pain—inflicted and endured—in your work. As an adult, you observed discrimination in the army and suffered beatings by police during the Newark riots of 1967. Did you experience any comparable cruelty or discrimination from whites, Blacks, or anyone else when you were a child or an adolescent?

Well, see, interestingly enough, I'm writing this book now for Wyndham Press, which is a spinoff of Simon & Schuster, and it's memoirs. That's what they wanted, I don't know why. I'm writing all about the youth part now, and I will put there one of the first incidences that I recognized—God knows what happened that I don't recognize—was when we went to the Bronx Zoo. Students—they took us to the Bronx Zoo, and I was sort of lagging along at the end, the group had sort of passed through and I was still in the elephant house. There was this white guy clearing the place up, so I go over to him; I said, "Gee, mister, how can you stand it?—you know, the elephant house stinks!" and he says, "Well, I don't worry about that. I live in Harlem," he says. And you know I was about nine, and I knew what he meant. I couldn't really get down and argue with him or anything like that, but it went right through me, and I knew what he meant. And I began then to be much more aware of—you know. And I think we lived close to the Italian community when I was in my middle—what is it, nine, ten, eleven, twelve?—and, you know, there were always incidents.

[Melhem:] Well, The System of Dante's Hell and Tales are poeticized autobiographical


[Melhem:] —works. Would you say that they're complementary? Would you consider Tales as, perhaps, an epilogue to System?

I'd say that there are certainly parallels, things focusing on the same things in a slightly different way. The things that I try to do in the Dante book I really wasn't even aware of, in a sense. I was just trying to stop writing like other people. And it's interesting that years later I read where Aime Cesaire did the same thing to get away from French Symbolist poetry. He says, "I'm going to stop writing poetry. I'm just going to write prose." And so then he turns up Return to my Native Land. But that's what I did when I started—I was tired of writing poetry like Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, you know, in principle. And so I said, "I'm going to do something that's going to very consciously break away." And so I just tried to just write spontaneously and without any kind of literary usage. Some critics say that's pretty obvious. [Laughs]

[Melhem:] They are unique. It really was a break.

Yes. But I tried to get away from just literary—from "literature." Then I think what happened was that I was permitted to find my own voice, and once I thought I had it near the end of that book; then I sort of calmed down and began to write more recognizable narrative.

[Melhem:] In "Heroes Arc Gang Leaders," the protagonist, sitting in a hospital bed, notes that "the concerns are still heroism." Does that show early interest in that whole theme?

Yes. Oh, yes. You see, what has always intrigued me, and I've talked to my wife a lot about this, that they taught us to love heroes, and specifically in my youth, when the United States was not quite as bloody as it is now, I mean, in its pursuits all over the world, they were able to project the straight-ahead type heroes. Our heroes were people like Robin Hood, Errol Flynn as Robin Hood—you know, "take from the rich and give to the poor"—that was a clear, you know—[Laughs]

[Melhem:] [Laughing] That was a good idea.

And so you really begin to be animated by those ideas in a real way; then later on you find out that it's all a lie. They don't really mean for you to believe that. But I internalized, certainly, a lot of—

[Melhem:] Is that ["Heroes"] an autobiographical story?

That story? Generally so. I think writers always lie about something—

[Melhem:] That took place in a hospital.

Yes—I think in taking autobiographical cores, writers always see parallel things that they blow up and other things that they leave out. [Chuckles] You know, it's never exactly, but it's generally so.

[Bezdek:] Do you have friends still around Newark from when you were a child?

Oh yes, yes. That's really the best part of being in this town. That's one of the reasons that I remain here. I do have friends that go all the way back to childhood, early childhood.

[Bezdek:] Do you have certain difficulties sometimes with your prominence with some of them? Do they have a hard time with that?

No. I think most of the people I know take it for what it is—you know, "It's a friend of mine." We get on pretty well. There's always some weird people. I know for instance I've gone to school with most people, probably with more people than [laughing] most people—then you find they went to school with you. You got a graduating class of three thousand! [Chuckling sound] But aside from that, most people. I think, a lot of people feel good by what you do, because they know that it's part of them, that it's actually been made public, you know. They feel, "Hey, I know him, and how he says some things that other people are interested in, and part of me is in that."

[Bezdek:] It's important for your work, I would imagine, to keep in touch with people in the city, all kinds of people. I know Baldwin had some trouble—he's sometimes considered by certain Blacks to be a little bit of an elitist. Some say he's lost a little bit of touch.

Well, I guess maybe what they mean is he doesn't—you know, Jimmy goes back and forth to Europe; he stays in Europe a lot of the time. But interestingly enough, when we had that conference on urban literature, they were doing a movie, some English filmmakers were doing a movie on him, and because we were together, they asked me to show him around to see Newark, since I lived here. I took him to the Scudder Homes, which is about the worst project in Newark, and I think what most impressed Jimmy—first of all, when we came here, there was almost nobody on the street. Inside of five minutes there must have been three hundred people on the street, because they had camera equipment, and stuff like that. And I think what impressed him most was some of the young people, teenage types and young adults, saying, "How you doing, Mr. Baldwin? I read your last book." And so on and so on and so on and so on, showing how people never really, once they know you and identify you—that they do try to keep track of you, you see, and you might not think so. You might think that you disappeared from sight. But I think that's important to remember, that you never do disappear from sight. There are some people who always measure certain things in the world by what you're doing. I think it's a very important idea.

[Bezdek:] Who is your preferred audience? Who would you like to meet on the street and have him say, "Hey I just read your latest essay"?

Well, I'd say the great majority of working people in this country. Certainly I'm closer to Black people, for the obvious reason of American segregation, you know, we've grown up in our own communities. And it's very very gratifying for some working person, some black working—some person that you know goes to work every day, you know what I mean, in some factory or on some assembly line, but any kind of working person, let's say, whatever their nationality, that's the most gratifying to me. When somebody you know who's a real person, who's in the real world, dealing with the real world, has taken some time, has put some space in their life for what you're saying, that's really gratifying—much more than college professors or students, or people you know whose job it is, in the intellectual world. I mean, some guy who makes cars all his life, and says, "Hey, I read that book you wrote and I really liked it."

[Melhem:] Now this is your current target audience, but would you say that in the past you had a different audience you were writing for?

Well, I'd say this: I think that my early days of writing—I think I wanted to reach everybody, but obviously, my concerns were not broad enough. I think when I was a Nationalist, obviously, I then wanted to focus strictly on Black people. But I think now, the difference between, say, myself as a young writer, when I really was just talking to anybody who would listen but my concerns were narrow—now I try to broaden my concerns to make that voice broad enough to touch different people's lives. Now obviously I'm speaking as a Black person, and any person has got to speak from their own experience and where they are, but I think it's a—you desire communication with most people at a level that they can deal with it, use it.

[Melhem:] Did you start writing poetry when you were in the army?

I started writing poetry I guess in college. I started writing Elizabethan poetry, like [laughs] Sir John Suckling, Philip Sidney, people like that.

[Bezdek:] Which college was that?

Howard University.

[Bezdek:] Did you go there first?

No. I went to Newark Rutgers, when it was an all-white school. [Laughs]

[Bezdek:] What about Columbia?

That was later. That was much later. No, when I first came out of high school, I went to Newark Rutgers. I had scholarships to a lot of places, strangely enough. But I chose Newark Rutgers for some reason, I guess because it was in Newark, it was close, but I hated it once I got there. So I got out of there.

[Melhem:] Do you still consider yourself basically a poet?

Yes. Sure. Fundamentally a poet and, you know, a political activist. But you see, I've always liked to write other things. I mean, I think—well, I always wrote essays, even when I first started writing poetry; a little while after that I started writing essay reviews, jazz reviews, first. I started writing plays about '63 and, you know, my work had gotten more and more dramatic. In the poetry there were people always talking. [Laughs] Suddenly in the poem I would have a conversation between two people, and it gradually worked itself into—The System of Dante's Hell had plays in it.

[Melhem:] "The Eighth Ditch"—

Yes. I think that I developed the dramatic thing, and I liked that, because I think it's a much more ambitious thing to try and put people on the stage and make believe it's the real world or some real world, anyway.

[Melhem:] Your writing seems as visual as it is aural. How early were you interested in painting? And do you still paint?

Well, I took drawing lessons when I was a kid. I guess my mother was one of those middle-class women who was trying to put you in these different places. But I think it helps, because it gives you some kind of attention to things as other than just random, boring kind of life. You then see, oh, there's such a thing as music. I took trumpet lessons. I took drum lessons. I took art lessons. She used to have me singing and dancing with my sister on the stage. And then when I got into the service, I painted, because I met a friend of mine down there, William White, who became a painter, who was a painter, a very good painter. He died of drugs, unfortunately. But then that stimulated me to want to paint. And then I got back to New York. I made a decision as to whether I want to paint or do I want to write. I decided it was easier to write. In painting you had to go through too many changes.

[Bezdek:] How many brothers and sisters do you have?


[Bezdek:] One?


[Bezdek:] One sister?


[Bezdek:] Does she live around here?

She lives in New York, New York City.

[Bezdek:] And then, your folks—are they still living?

Yes. My mother and father. They're still living in Newark. They're both retired now.

[Melhem:] There is often a fluid sense for me of exchange between your plays and your poetry and prose. Do you see them as distinct genres, or would you say your poetry is now being absorbed into your drama and prose?

Oh, I see them as distinct in terms of certain formal considerations, but I think my view has always been that poetry is the fundamental concern. If you're interested in words, then fundamentally you have to be a poet. I think that might be some poet chauvinism, but I think that fundamentally if you're really interested in words, then you will be a poet, because it seems to me that's the concern with words even before they become words, you know, sounds. And then I think that you have to utilize the poetic as much as you can in all the forms, because the poetic to me is just an intense sense of language, an intense concern with language; you know, rhythm, sound connote like "high speech," I call it. I think that you have to be concerned with that, whether you write a novel or a play or an essay. Lu Hsum said that he liked essays because in essays he could do anything. He could have a little poem; he could have a little novelistic bit of fiction, you know, but within the essay form. And so he could make that essay anything he wanted, but at the same time be talking in an expository kind of form about clearly identifiable reality.

[Bezdek:] If you had—it's impossible to do, but what would be a typical poem? What would be a poem that you would say, "That's what I'm all about"? More than some of the others mean? I know all


[Bezdek:] Yes.

I guess you always tend to want to uphold [laughs] your most recent works. I guess a poem I wrote recently called "In the Tradition," which is a long poem, a poem about African American history. It's a cultural history and political history. I think that would be, if I could say it was something that sums you up at a certain point, I would say probably that poem.

[Melhem:] Where does that appear?

It was published in the Greenfield Review, and then it was—I read it with music last year at Soundscape. It's coming out on a record called New Music, New Poetry, with David Murray and Stephen McCall. In fact, I got the test pressing today, so it should be out momentarily.

[Melhem:] Is your departure from lyricism, basically—although you still are writing poems, but you seem to be turning towards satire and the historical pageant—would you say that it is simply a function of the genre? It's not that you're consciously rejecting lyricism as a mode?

No. I've always had that, the lyrical thing, if you mean—to me, the highly personal song, which is what I've given up on, the lyric poems. On the one hand, I've always told my students you can't write lyric poems too long, only when you're a kid, because in those [laughs] you know, "I hurt, I feel, I love, I want"—after a while it gets to be—[laughter] kind of old, you know what I mean. [Laughs] So I try to—I think I do—maintain a connection with the lyrical urge, a sense of the self in the world, sensitive to it. But at the same time, that satirical thing that you perceive has always been present in my work, even from the first book that I put out, the poetry. There's edged in there, you know, the kind of satire and irony. And I think that's been a kind of characteristic of my view of things, even as a little boy, hearing these various dudes I know in this town talk about how I used to be when I was a kid. It was really the same thing. They were just subjected to the same kind of satire and irony, though, in speech, back and forth, back and forth, and that's why I always had to learn to run fast, because [laughing] you'd say certain things to people you didn't know would provoke them to such an extent. You had to get in the wind. But that has always been there, a kind of seeing, for instance, negative things in a very ironical and satirical way and really making them funny, with a bitter kind of humor. I think that's always been my way to a certain extent, and I mean I've suffered for that, God knows, in school and college, the service. If you make some comment to a sergeant or a lieutenant [chuckles], they wouldn't particularly like it. But I think that's always been there.

[Bezdek:] Do you think you're mellowing now? I don't mean

No, I understand what you mean. I think in some ways, probably. But I don't think so. People still seem to think not. I mean in terms of reactions to various things that people—you know, they don't want to publish this, they don't want to publish that, so it seems like mellowing but it's still objectionable in a lot of quarters.

[Bezdek:] I mean do you think you 're still perceived as a militant, angry, or

I think in some quarters, obviously, because those people will not give you an inch. Obviously, a writer who's been around as long as I have is supposed to be able to make a living from magazine articles, those kinds of things, you know what I mean. A regularly published book a year—you're supposed to be able to make it. But I can't. And the only explanation of that is that the content still disturbs people. They still want to wrestle with you about your conception of reality. So it makes it difficult. I think the mellowing, if anything, has been, perhaps, a greater kind of understanding of certain things. For instance, I thought that revolution would be immediate, at one point. And I don't think that's so much mellowing but deepening your understanding to find that that's not reality, that it's not an event, that it's a process, and you have to be aware of that process, help speed that process up, but not get so frustrated that it doesn't come about, that you actually drive yourself crazy.

[Melhem:] Do you think that any degree of revolutionary change can come through the polls or legislation?

Well, let's say this. To me, the use of electoral politics is only a tactic. I mean I think it does have to be utilized, because I think if you don't utilize it, you will find yourself in a position where you're backed up against the ovens, you know, and then the only thing you can do is fight for your life, I mean quite literally. Like people are talking about now they want to repeal the Voting rights Act. They came on with an editorial on Channel 11, WPIX, "Repeal the Voting rights Act." Now if you sit still and say, well, we can't fight against that, because finally, voting is not going to change monopoly capitalism—and it's not. I don't think, in the end, anything other than short of armed revolution will change this system of monopoly capitalism and end racism and women's oppression. But for you to sit quietly and let them wipe out the Voting Rights Act is just bizarre. For you not to fight for every kind of democratic right, inch by inch—you know what I mean, like they say, fight for every inch—is mad. It's like, I was very critical of a lot of people on the Left in the recent election, because their line was "Carter and Reagan are exactly the same." Well, look, they represent the same class, but there are different sectors of that class, and they are not identical, you see, as you now found out. Here's a man now talking about getting rid of Social Security—you can't say that's the same as Jimmy Carter. So I think that those kinds of sweeping, Leftist, ultrarevolutionary statements serve to do nothing but fog up the reality that you have to tight for every inch. Yes, you have to utilize voting. Absolutely you have to utilize it. People died in the South to get the right to vote, and then you're going to tell people, "Don't vote. It doesn't mean anything." That's bizarre. The question is, what does it mean? It has a limited and specific meaning, but it has to be utilized.

[Melhem:] Do you see any progress at all, in Newark or elsewhere, since the sixties?

Well, yes, sure. There's been general progress. I think we're in a period now when they're trying to eliminate that, and you'll find that in this particular kind of society, that's what happens all the time. For instance, in the 1860s, a period of revolution, the Civil War—the Civil War was a democratic revolution: It eliminated slavery; it changed the Constitution to guarantee democratic rights, equality, you know, not only for black people but poor whites, which is always a well-kept secret. But by the 1870s, 1880s, that had been almost eliminated. By that time, you had laws on the books now ensuring the inequality that had been fought in the 1860s. The same thing now: 1960s people struggled for affirmative action. Man comes along in the seventies and tch-tch—one signature, the Bakke decision [whistles]. Get rid of it. And the stuff that Reagan is doing now, to me, is the same that happened in the 1870s and 1880s, now in the 1970s, the 1980s, the same kind of attempt to eliminate what gain, what inch of gain was made.

[Bezdek:] Now there's talk—I don't know if it's some sociologist at Harvard or some place like that recently, in one of these vague generalizations about America, but he said that we are on the brink in some cities, I think Newark was one of them, with a permanent underclass of people, you know, who forever will be shackled to the situation. Do you think that that's

Well, I think that as far as the present economy, that would have to be true, but since, if we understand reality, we know nothing stays the same. Things are not static. There is going to be motion; it's either going to be upward or downward. Then you know that those people are not going to stand for that, and the only thing you're doing then is preparing for some kind of broad, urban unrest. I mean, this Heritage Foundation has already advised Reagan to abandon the cities—don't give any aid to the cities, talking about the Northeast, in particular—abandon those cities, leave them, and the Midwest, the New Yorks, and the Detroits, and the Chicagos, and the Clevelands, and the Phillies, and Pittsburgh, abandon those cities, head for the Sun Belt. And then now, you see, even in this pseudopopular culture that they manufacture—there's a movie called Escape from New York, which actually now would turn New York into Alcatraz—

[Melhem:] [Laughing] I find that insulting.

Well, if you see who's in there, locked up in there, you would really find that insulting: Blacks, Latinos, Asians, homosexuals, aggressive women, punk rockers. [Laughs] They're the ones who are locked up.

[Melhem:] I wanted to ask you something about that. In terms of your current position, your article in the Village Voice, "Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite"

—which is not my title.

[Melhem:] Oh, it wasn't? What was your title?

My title was "A Personal View of Anti-semitism." That's our friend [David] Schneiderman, who was the editor. That's his idea of something that would sell papers. What apparently it did.

[Melhem:] Okay. Well, in that article, you equate Zionism with white racism as "reactionary." Would you now add Black Nationalism to that list?

Well, I say this. To me, all nationalism, finally, taken to any extreme, has got to be oppressive to the people who are not in that nationality. You understand what I mean? If it's taken to the extreme, any nationalism has got to be exclusive and has got to say, "Us, yes; you, no." I mean, that's the nature of nationalism. But you have to make a distinction between, say, people who are oppressed as a nationality, who are fighting national liberation struggles. I think in terms of Zionism, the difference is this: that previous to the Second World War, Jews generally were not interested in Zionism, what Chaim Weizmann and, you know, the other dude put forward. Generally it was like some right-wing intellectuals, some right-wing nationalist intellectuals. Once the British got hold of that, the Balfour Declaration, in which then it's made a part of British foreign policy to settle Jews in a Palestinian homeland, you know, obviously to look over the oil interests—that changes into an instrument of imperialist policy. Now, a certain sector of the Jewish population becomes interested in Zionism as a result of the Holocaust, for obvious reasons, for obvious reasons. Once you knock off seven million people, then, if there's somebody saying, "Look, you got to get out of here, that's the reason, you got to get out of here," then that's going to become attractive.

But I do not believe that Zionism is the general ideology of Jews in the world. I think the great contributions that Jews have made in the world have been much more advanced than a narrow nationalism, and I think obviously what [Menachim] Begin and Company are doing now, it just isolates the State of Israel from the world. I think more and more people will come to see, and especially Jews, that the state of Israel and Jews are two separate entities. And I think that it's a great cover story for somebody who may jump on Israel, for you to say you're attacking Jews generally, and you have to shut up. But I don't think that's going to work. It's very interesting, for instance, to see a lot of Palestinian Jews, now, organizations. It's an incredible thing, but I think of course in New York, when you've got a stronghold of world Zionist organization, it's very hard for you to say things like that without people beating you to death as being anti-Jewish, which has been my fate. Even that article I wrote, which was an attempt to set the record straight, you know, was hacked up so unmercifully. It made you wonder just what they wanted to present. I mean, at the end it seemed like they wanted to present you as an anti-Semite, even though I volunteered to write the article.

[Melhem:] You're talking about the editing of that article?

Oh, yes, yes, oh yes. You see, what I did—

[Melhem:] The "Confession," with Jewish people I've spoken to, was not received as any kind of apology.

Oh, no. Well, the thing on Zionism, the minute you jump on Zionism, you're going to get it back, no matter what you say. You see, what was removed, to me, was critical, because I did a whole history of anti-Semitism. Essentially, it's an ideological justification for fundamentally economic and political oppression. Anti-Semitism rises, you know, in the struggle between the Greeks and Jews in the Middle East, and the Romans and the Jews, and basically then in the Middle Ages as an attempt to keep economic superiority. Economic attack is what it justifies: "These people are Christ-killers. Let's take their money." You know, it's like the Japanese you've put in a concentration camp: "These people are our enemies; let's get their truck farms. Let's get their truck farms; these people are our enemies." You know what I mean. There's always an ideological justification for some economic and political shenanigans. That's what it essentially is. No matter that you might have some people down the road who really believe it, like you might have some Klansmen walking around who really believe such and such a thing is true, when actually, what's happening is you've got some landowners who are not going to let Black people, for instance, have democracy down there because it means they're not going to control that land. They're not going to control the U.S. Senate or the colonies anymore. You always have people who walk around, who believe stuff on one level: but you also have the people who are putting that out, who are gaining from that. That's the real significance of that.

[Melhem:] I'd like to ask you about your thinking on homosexuality and also on the women's movement. Even as late as The Sidney Poet Heroical, which was published in '79, you refer to gay men as "faggots," referring in a derogatory way. Has your thinking changed with the movement for gay rights? Would you say

Well, I say this—

[Melhem:] —there's a certain parallel in, you know, the raising of your consciousness in thinking about those things?

Well, in a certain way. You see, first of all, I say this. The use of the term "faggot," although obviously it's derived from homosexuality, from homosexuals, was not meant in the Black community simply as "homosexual." It meant, essentially, a weak person, you know, somebody who could not do what they were supposed to do. That's what it really meant.

[Melhem:] You're saying you absorbed this.

Oh, sure. So that, a lot of times, calling people "faggots" did not mean specifically that it had to do with homosexuality. It had to do with the question of weakness, although obviously it is taken from that, and as such still is a kind of what would you call it—attack.

[Melhem:] Yes, attack.

Yes, attack. I don't think I believe in any gratuitous attacks on homosexuals as such. I've tried to stop saying that, calling people "faggots," even though, still I would say when the majority of Black people say "faggot," they're not talking about homosexuals. You might say, "Reagan is a faggot"; I mean, you're not talking about him being a homosexual [laughs]; you're talking about him being a weak, jive person. But I think it does come from the denigration of homosexuality, and I think that, as I said, gratuitous attacks on homosexuals have to be opposed. We do have to oppose any kind of attempt to limit homosexuals' democratic rights, because when they're doing that, they're coming for us. You know, attack homosexuals' democratic rights—it's really coming for everybody's democratic rights, but at the same time, I believe this: that homosexuality is a minority issue, except in the way that I just mentioned, where it can be connected up to everybody's democratic rights. I think that living in L.A. or New York or San Francisco, one might tend to think that it's much more of a mass issue than it is. But the majority of people are not interested in homosexuality; they don't care anything about it. I think this: if you were to raise up as a mass question. "Do you want this homosexual to teach your children?" I think that, in the main, is going to be negative. I think most people are going to say, like, negative.

[Melhem:] But how do you feel?

Well, I think this. The question is, if a homosexual is teaching my child in a way that I can see is beneficial to the child, it doesn't matter to me. You see what I'm saying? But obviously I don't want the child to be taught homosexuality, and I don't want the child to be a homosexual. I don't want that to be raised up as a positive thing, because I do believe that homosexuality is a social aberration. I do believe it's a social aberration, and I think it's a product of class society, essentially. I do not believe that homosexuality, by and large, is going to help human beings to make progress. But I do not believe that homosexuals need to be attacked.

[Melhem:] So your thinking is some what modified, but not

Oh, yes. It's modified in the sense that I think that just loose-mouthed calling people "faggots" is out of the question. I mean, even when some of my best friends—that sounds really corny, and it is—but see, even when some of my best friends—that sounds really corny, and it is—but see, even when some of my best friends were homosexuals, I still called people "faggots," and I didn't mean them. [Laughs] It meant something else. But I think that that question of dealing with homosexuals and understanding that you cannot attack these people's democratic rights—they cannot be subjected to any gratuitous attacks—does not, in any way, justify homosexuality, because I don't think I can justify it in that sense.

[Melhem:] What about women's rights? Women don't seem to come off very well in your work, except, at best, in a passive


[Melhem:] Has your consciousness been raised at all in connection with the Feminist Movement?

Probably, but I don't think the Feminist Movement per se; but I think the whole struggle for women's rights—the Feminist Movement is part of that; it's certainly in there. I would agree with you that until the last four or five years, works on women or about women have either been missing or, as you say, largely passive. In the last four or five years there has been some kind of significant change. I would attribute that to my wife, principally.

[Bezdek:] What is her name?

Amina, A-m-i-n-a. And to the whole question of—you see, when people like, for instance, Michele Wallace come off talking about it in that book that Ms. magazine wants to push to give a kind of a feminist interpretation of Black Liberation—that's completely off the wall, because what it does is it attacks Black women again. Because if you think that because you weren't there, that the Black women in the Movement just went for that, just passively said. "Oh, yes, we must go and deal with these male chauvinists," well, you saddle your thinking, because our whole history of women's participation in the Black Liberation Movement of the sixties, from my own knowledge of it, was constantly marked by women fighting against the male chauvinism of people like myself, you know, and a great many other people. So that for somebody to come and make it seem that "Yes, you know, the problem with the Black Liberation Movement is male chauvinism, and none of these black women knew it" is like the height of an attack, and the only person who could do that is somebody who didn't know, who wasn't there. But talk to the people who were in the Movement, who knew, and who know, and had to go through that, and had to be subjected to that, while people like Michele Wallace were off in some private school in Paris. It's ludicrous, because they actually had to be subjected to that and fight against that and have their lives crippled by that, and then somebody comes along and says, "Well, you know what the problem was."

[Bezdek:] What do you remember about Newark in 1967, the riots—just immediately, what comes to mind?

Well, the fires; seeing U.S. Army military weapons in a city that was supposed to be in America. I mean, you look up and see tanks, and soldiers fully armed: then you want to know where you are—this must not be America, because this is what they did in Vietnam or Korea. But then people, the police checking people's ID…. I was arrested the first night of the thing and I was locked up through the period of the worst kind of burning and fighting. But the police came up into my house, which is the Spirit House on Stirling Street. My wife and child—young child was in there, oldest son—were in there, and they were on the third floor, I think, and then the National Guard and the cops came in on the first floor, destroying stuff, turning stuff over, breaking up things. They never went up to the third floor; they didn't think anybody was there. And, you know, bullets through the windows, and stuff like that.

[Bezdek:] What were the circumstances of your being arrested?

Well, we were driving around looking at it, what was going on. A couple of friends and I were riding around the Central Ward—you know, I lived there at the time—looking at what was happening. Picked up a couple of people, took them to the hospital, things like that, and then we stayed out too late afterward. People had cleared off the streets and we were coming down the street, and we were stopped by about twenty cops, I don't know. They pulled us out of the car and they started beating us. They split my head open, knocked my teeth out, I mean I couldn't see, I mean my face was so covered with blood I thought I was going to die, you know; there just was blood everywhere, I couldn't even see. But the people in the window were screaming, there were black people up there who kept screaming, kept screaming—that's what cooled it out. Otherwise, I was finished. When you feel the blood in your face, you can feel it warm in your face, and you can't even see for the blood; it's in your mouth, your eyes—

[Melhem:] [Softly] And then you could have been killed.

Oh, yes. That was understood. That was understood, you know. Oh, that was it. I mean, that was really where they were going to take us off. But, after that, they charged us with possession of weapons, which was the first trial we lost, and then we got another trial because the judge was obviously out of his mind. He reads a poem and sentences. He reads one of my poems as a reason to sentence me. I knew that was out, even if he wouldn't do anything, I said this guy's a nut. As if the poem was the reason to—it was a poem about rebellion that had been written just before the [Black] rebellion. And so that was—I got a retrial and it was thrown out. It took about two years, three years.

[Bezdek:] Have you ever served time?

No. I've never served any; I've been in jail a lot but I never—except for a couple of days.

[Bezdek:] I mean, you've never been, like, sentenced, like this thing coming up.

Well, even when I was sentenced to three years, no parole, for this gun thing—

[Bezdek:] This thing?

No. The thing in '67. I was sentenced to three years, but I didn't—I served about three or four days and got out on appeal. And I had done a couple of days before that. This time I did about four days and was discharged. But that's about the most time I've ever done.

[Bezdek:] What do you think of this ninety days coming up, if that goes down?

Well, that stuff is so wild that it's very hard to consistently take it seriously, but now we've been at it two and a half years; they've been on us for two and a half years.

[Bezdek:] This case?

Yes. From '79, June of '79.

[Bezdek:] You mean this incident with the argument? Is that it?

Yes. June '79. So, apparently they're serious they're going to lock me up. Why they will get so much satisfaction in locking me up for ninety days is something that needs to be looked into. I mean, they've had two years of court costs, five days of grand jury hearings for a resisting-arrest charge. You're wondering, "Why, why would you spend so much money when you're talking about the need to cut the budget?" Our boy William Butz just got sentenced to thirty days for a $96,000 tax evasion. [Laughs] What is it in this "resisting arrest"? But really, it's a form of intimidation—not only for me, but I think they want to intimidate, generally, people. They want the people to know, "Look. This is what we do." And then there's also the possibility that they're going to do something to you in the prison. You could never be sure of that. Especially with this hit list that's circulating. We just published this hit list of cultural workers and artists. Two people who work for the government leaked this out to a publisher—not a publisher, to a producer, and somebody in his office leaked it to me. And I've been trying to leak it to various people. We published it in our newspaper [Unity]; I've read it on the radio; I've sent it to different newspapers. Interestingly, one of the people who was on the hit list died last week—Harry Chapin, the folksinger.

[Melhem:] He was on that?

Yes, he was on there. Me got this mysterious accident—somebody hit him from behind. That is so spooky that I think that I'm going to reopen that whole thing. I've got a copy of it upstairs; I'll show it to you. But there are about twenty people on it, who they say have to be, you know, done something to—people like Pete Seeger, Bread and Puppet Theatre—

[Bezdek:] Where did the list come from?

[Melhem:] Are you on that list?

It was supposed to be leaked from a government—two people working in a government agency, who were cultural workers working in a government agency, and said these people would have two things going: blacklist, which is to make it difficult for these people to get their works out; and a hit list, that is, certain people within this list need to be done away with. And it talks about arranging accidents for some of them, and a couple of them who have already disappeared, a guy named Dan Silver, a guy who made films in El Salvador. Then there were a lot of people who do political theater, who are cultural activists, things like that. When that Harry Chapin thing happened, really, my eyes shot right open. Jesus Christ!

[Melhem:] Are you on either list?

Yes. Oh, yes.

[Melhem:] You're on both lists?

Yes, I'm on that list. They put them together. The ones that are supposed to be killed have asterisks by them. [Laughs] Chapin was supposed to be—they said they were going to do something to remove him, something like that.

[Bezdek:] Do you know what agency it came from?

No. They didn't say. It was a letter, with a list attached to it. The letter said that "we are two people who work for a government agency, whose business it is to set up a blacklist on the following artists and also remove the ones that are listed on there." So we published it. Like I said, I broadcast it over the radio. I've sent it to a couple of big publications, but they haven't done anything with it. Recently, I just sent it back out, saying, "Well, look, since this Chapin thing, you can at least raise that up; you know, you might be able to sell a few papers." Because I believe that's the only thing that would really cool that out; to a certain extent, it's publicity.

[Bezdek:] Yes, sure.

Even if it turned out to be a hoax. Obviously, generally we know such things exist. I've got two thousand pages from the FBI that I had a lawyer get through the Freedom of Information Act, but now they're getting ready to close that loophole.

[Melhem:] This list was published before Chapin's

Yes. I'm sure. Published a couple of weeks before Chapin died.

[Melhem:] That's scary.

Oh, yes. It was published in June.

[Melhem:] That should really be investigated.

Yes. So we're going to try to get some more publicity on that.

[Melhem:] In moving from Kawida to Marxist-Leninist-Maoism, did you have any strong influences on your transition before the Sixth Pan-African Congress in 1974?

Influences to change to Marxism?

[Melhem:] Yes. And people, thinkers

Yes. A lot of changes. First of all, I think my own experience in terms of dealing in this town with electoral politics; seeing a Black middle class benefit from those electoral politics and no changes for the majority. So I began to understand what "classes" and "class struggle" was about, you know, from my own experience. Meeting Black Marxists in different united fronts I belonged to, like the African Liberation Support Committee; beginning to see and talk to people who are on the Left; finding out that a lot of people that I admired who were African revolutionaries were really anti-imperialists and Marxists. They were not talking "hate white," as I was at the time, people like Amilcar Cabral in Guinea-Bissau; Nkrumah in Ghana; Samora Machel in Mozambique; the Pan-African Congress in South Africa—people like that. Beginning to see that, hey, there was a whole different view by Black activists around the world. And I think those are the things. I had read Mao, but I would always come to excise the part about communism, where he would talk about he was a communist, and stuff. [Laughs] You know, censor that part and try to read the rest of it, which was, of course, bizarre. And so then I decided that I was fooling myself, and I should go ahead and investigate and find out what was happening, and I did. I mean it was in a lot of ways a painful experience, in a lot of ways. Organization nationally split in half. We had a large organization in some sixteen, seventeen cities, and then split in half.

[Melhem:] Which organization?

That was the Congress of Afrikan Peoples. But I thought that it was necessary, and I still do think it is necessary and important.

[Melhem:] The deep concern of your leadership is with "unity and struggle." Whom are you seeking to unite?

Well, the great majority of people in this country—in fact, the great majority of people in the world—who have the same general enemies. I think the great majority of people in this country are objective allies; they're fighting against the same class of people: I think the six-tenths of one percent of the people that actually own the land, that actually own CBS and NBC and ABC, that actually own Standard Oil and Exxon, I mean those of us who have been taught to think like them, I mean the six-tenths of one percent that actually own that, the rulers. I think a great many other people, let's say, 90 percent of the people—there's another 9 percent that will die with that six-tenths of one percent. But I think 90 percent of the people in this country can unite, and I think eventually they will. Everybody comes to it in different ways. You have some very deep problems in this country with that unity. Obviously, the whole history of slavery and chauvinism in this country makes that very difficult. But I don't think it's impossible.

[Melhem:] In looking toward unity, what about coalition on the Left? I mean the breach between Soviet-oriented communism, scorned as "Red Squad Functionaries" in your play S-1, and Mao-oriented communism, expressed by the "Revolutionary People's Union" in that? Do you see any possibility of a coalition?

Well, you see, no, because I think that if you look at the world with the view that I have, the view I guess best expressed by the "Theory of Three Worlds" of Mao Tse-tung, in my view, the United States and the Soviet Union are two imperialist super-powers, and while obviously a lot of people in the Communist Party U.S.A. are just—don't understand what's happening, are dupes, the people in the leadership there act as a kind of fifth column of the Soviet Union in the United States, and even make it difficult to struggle against U.S. imperialism; they make it more difficult to struggle against U.S. imperialism, even though it seems that they're struggling against it. And I say they make it more difficult because they are always putting out this line that reforms are the answer, that reforms are the end. They're even telling people that no, you can get socialism through the election machines—that's like somebody selling dope, you know. You're not going to get socialism; you're not going to elect the people's control of the wealth anywhere in the world; I mean, Chile should have taught us that for all times. It was a legally elected socialist government in a modern, industrial country. What is it now? A fascist state. So I think the question is, if you've got people representing a superpower, imperialist country, whether it's the U.S. or the Soviet Union, then you can't make a coalition with it.

[Bezdek:] When you were young, did you ever talk politics with your parents? Your father, say, a Republican—you must have had a hard time with that.

No, no. My grandfather was Republican. My father has always been a Democrat. My father says he voted for the man, not the party, whatever that meant. But he tended to be a Democrat. I think he was a Roosevelt man. Now, I don't know where he's at, but I would think that he's generally a Democrat-leaning person. But my grandfather was a Republican, obviously, even up until Wendell Willkie. We used to have Willkie buttons around the house. And, you know, my father was a Democrat, so there would be some tension in that. But I talked politics to them or raised up political issues, and we'd agree and disagree. I think for one thing, though, both my father and mother were radicalized somewhat by the '67 rebellion, and I think when my father, especially when he saw what they had done to me, it snapped him out, because he had been much more conservative before then. But I think that when he saw that they had tried to kill me, he knew that whatever I was doing, it wasn't that bad. I think it really snapped him out. And then he came to the court and saw the kind of obvious racism. It's one thing to see it abstractly, but when you see that it's your child they're doing these things to, that probably would light you up.

[Bezdek:] Were you a fighter as a child, or were you more, as you mentioned earlier, a wordsmith? I mean you would say things

Really, when I had to fight it was because there was no other way out. [Laughs] But no, words became weapons for me a long time ago, and my physical prowess was in speed. If you couldn't talk your way out of it, then you had to decamp, change landscapes rapidly. But then when I got into the service was when I really started actually having to fight all the time. I'd never wanted to or even found it necessary to get into fisticuffs, but then I got into the air force and I really had to, first because of that kind of overt racism which I could not stand. It's one thing to see the Klan in the newspaper, but to have somebody call you a name, it always just set me on fire, and that's when I came in contact with that. Then I actually started to roll around on the ground with people, and I really had not done much of that before—especially when I didn't feel I could win, anyway. [Laughter] But in the service, though, I found that, always coming up with that.

[Bezdek:] Did you grow up in the Central Ward?


[Bezdek:] You mentioned Italian, so you must have been near the North Ward.

West Ward, near the North Ward, yes, right by Central Avenue. I grew up, my early days, right in the Central Ward, Barclay Street, Boston Street, and then later on, Central Avenue, back over to the Central Ward, Belmont Avenue.

[Bezdek:] What high school did you go to?

Barringer; it's in the North Ward. At the time, there were very few Blacks in it.

[Bezdek:] And how many children do you have?

Five by the present marriage, two by a previous marriage.

[Bezdek:] Five by the present; two by a previous.


[Melhem:] You're including the two children that are in Manhattan, before

No. She has two by a previous marriage.

[Melhem:] Oh—so there are seven?

In the house?

[Melhem:] Yes.

Well, there are six in the house. One of them is not here; one of them is actually on vacation somewhere, and the other lives elsewhere. There usually are six kids here.

[Melhem:] Three were in a play, weren't they—S-1—I saw three names

Yes. That's right.

[Melhem:] —"Baraka." Are they interested in the theater?

I think so. Well, let me see, one of them, the oldest boy, plays the drums; he's a very good drummer. The next boy—I don't know if he's interested in drama; I think he wants to be a writer. The little girl is always reading poetry aloud, so I think she wants to be an actress.

[Melhem:] Um-hum.

She's always proclaiming these poems, so she might want to act.

[Melhem:] Do you act?

No, no [Laughs] My mother was always putting me in different little things, skits, but I never did any serious adult acting.

[Melhem:] I was wondering about the responses of Black writers. Intellectuals, to your views. How receptive have they been to your view on these political aspects?

Well, I think you'll find that there's a kind of class struggle raging among Black intellectuals like everywhere else, and I think that the people are divided around the lines they take. I think there are more and more people who are much less hostile, say, to Marxism than they were in '74, '75. In '74 and '75 people were calling us all kinds of bad words, you know, "traitors," I remember at the Sixth Pan-African Congress this woman actually went to the foreign minister, weeping, saying stuff that I had said and this other guy, Owusu Sadaukai, had said; that we were really betraying Black people. And I mean I thought that was kind of extraordinary. There is still, of course, a lot of sentiment in the Black community, but I think there's much less hostility to Marxist ideas.

[Melhem:] I just want to ask you a couple of more things on [Charles] Olson.


[Melhem:] Olson's theories of Projectivism and "composition by field" still seem alive and well in your work. Apart from your progress toward a Black aesthetic and the Marxist approach of your recent work, would you say that Olson remains your most useful poetic influence?

Well, no. I think my most useful poetic influence is Langston Hughes. Charles Olson was important to me at one time, and I think the most importance that he had was that within the kind of aesthetic that I was actually involved in, he provided a kind of opening for the ideas that I saw, and then I said. Well, wow! A lot of the things that I think and want to do, he's actually expressing these things. You see? Because I was drawn to certain white poets, like Allen Ginsberg, even before Olson. I was drawn to them because they legitimized things that I wanted to do and that I felt. When I came up against the New Yorker magazine poets and the Hudson Review and Partisan Review poets, they made me weep, because I really didn't want to write like that; I really didn't think I could write that; I mean, it was dull, it was dead. The things that I wanted to write, I didn't think could even be called "poetry" by their standards, you know—so that was very depressing and discouraging. But then when I got to New York and discovered, wow! Somebody like Allen, who was talking about, you know, the "nigger streets" and junkies and all kinds of things that I could see and I could identify with, then I said, yeah, that's closer to what I want to do. And then when I saw Olson's statement, he was saying, actually, that this old dead poetry that people have been writing is exactly that, exactly what you thought it was: old, dead poetry. Then it actually just encouraged me, because I had thought these things anyway. It's like somebody saying something that you've got bubbling around in your head, and then they come out with it, and it legitimizes what you're dong; it encourages you.

[Bezdek:] What about [Jack] Kerouac—him, too, as part of

Well, in a way. But Ginsberg always was more important to me, I guess being a poet. Because Allen is an intellectual; Kerouac was not much of an intellectual; he was more of a—

[Bezdek:] Street wise

—yes, kind of person. I think you could see that when his later views became so backward, because he was never really rooted in investigation of ideas. It was more like reacting to things, spontaneous, which, because it was so open and free in terms of its form, was positive. Because there was no deep investigation into the history of ideas, then the form could be undermined by the content.

[Melhem:] Ginsberg said, "First thought, best thought." Do you agree with that?

No. [Laughs] Obviously.

[Melhem:] Do you revise it all?

Yes. So does he.

[Melhem:] In all genres


[Melhem:] —in all genres, poetry and prose?

Yes, sure. So does he—so what? [Laughs]

[Melhem:] I don't know whether he'll admit it, though.

Oh, I don't see why not. I say this: what he means is that you get to a point where at one point in the fifties people were then showing you just—poems—"I worked on this poem twenty years!" Really. There's so much more in people's normal perception that's worth being exposed to. But to tell somebody you're working on something—getting a word changed for twenty years is not really impressive anymore. It becomes like some prescription for—a mummy farm.

[Melhem:] So then you're somewhere in between le mot juste—Flaubert's le mot juste—and "if I write it, it's a poem."

Oh yes, sure. I don't believe in "absolute spontaneity is always the best." No. Absolutely not. That's why you have certain levels of understanding. You know, there is perception where you do perceive a thing, and sometimes that perception can hold. But then you bring your rational mind to bear on it, and sometimes you have to modify that, or sometimes you see a way that you can make a thing stronger, and that helps. And then a lot of times you find out, whoa! You're way off base; you might come back to something a few years later and say, "Oh, Jesus—did I say that? Oh, get that out of there." And that's obvious.

I don't like to … pretend that I never thought those things—somebody says, "Well, look, you had these backward ideas on such and such a date"—and then sneak around and cross them out. No. I think the point is to say, "Yeah. Well, that's true. But, hopefully, the later work has changed and shows some kind of growth and development." But I don't think you can hide your tracks. And that's kind of—

[Bezdek:] When is your birthday?

October 7, 1934.

[Bezdek:] So you're earning up for

Forty-seven. Forty-eight? [Laughs]

[Melhem:] A young man.

[Bezdek:] Well, you'll be forty-seven


[Bezdek:] I don't want to say that too loudly in ease your son was around and it was a secret he wasn't supposed to

Oh, no! [Chuckling] He asked me that the other day.

[Melhem:] There's an abundance of punning in your work, and you'll recall Olson's saying, "Pun is rime" in his "Projective Verse" essay?

Yes. Right.

[Melhem:] Did he to any extent spark that interest in punning?

No. That's a street thing.

[Melhem:] That's just a street thing.

Oh, yes. The pun—the rhyme and the pun are really part of the Black oral tradition. I think they're part of everybody's oral tradition—the whole first, what you'd call "delicious accident," and then a much more rational juxtaposition of sounds and things. But that always, I think, goes back to the oral tradition, the pun.

[Melhem:] The use of the word Negro, the pun "Knee-grow," and "New Ark"—these are your inventions?

"Knee-grow" is: "New Ark" is the original name of the town. People resist that.

[Bezdek:] That's what it's called in Delaware.

Yes. If you look on the charter, it's two words, "New Ark," and obviously, it's a biblical reference, but when he started to use it, then people resisted it because it was identified with us, I mean, the backward people in this town. But that's the real name. And it's interesting that southern Blacks always say that to this day; you know, they keep saying, "New Ark."

[Bezdek:] The town in Delaware is spelled the same way, and they all call it "New Ark."

Yes, that's interesting. That's obviously the name. And I think the southern Blacks probably say that because they're probably going back to an older English, too, that's "New Ark."

[Bezdek:] Actually Newark lately has become a sort of—when the guy on the train announces it—"Nerk" [laughing], it becomes the one syllable

It's not even there—

[Bezdek:] "Nerk!"

I know. That's another kind of speech.

[Bezdek:] Speaking of speeches, can you—I'm sure your answer to this is "yes"—you can go out there and talk jive, right? You can go down to the corner and—you don't talk

Black English.

[Bezdek:] Not only Black English. I mean you just—I don't really mean Black English; I mean, just guys-on-the-corner sort of talk. I don't know what the name is, but


[Bezdek:] I mean, you don't talk the way you're doing now.

No, not altogether. But I think I've always had a reputation in this town—

[Bezdek:] If I could borrow one of them at

No, I've always had a reputation in this town for talking "funny." [General laughter] Obviously, I do speak more like these people around here speak. I've always had a reputation of sounding funny and so on. I know people—about the way I used to say "motherfucker," they'd say, "I don't want you to call me that because you say it too nasty. [Laughter] Because you pronounce—you say 'mother'—you know what mean? That is really ugly when you say it like that." [Laughter] But no, I tend to sound more like the people out there, I would imagine. But it be hard to get all your training out of it. [Laughs]

[Melhem:] Would you say the Dozens were an influence in the frequency of direct insult in your work? Like Hard Facts, would you say the Dozens

Oh, sure.

[Melhem:] Did you do the Dozens as a child?

Oh, sure.

[Melhem:] Did you play it as a rhyming game?

Both, both rhyming and unrhymed, oh, yes. And I think that was my real introduction to the strength and use of poetry. Because by it you cold actually keep people off you; with poetry you could make them leave you alone. I mean if you couldn't fight, if you could really use those words like that, they would get away from you, because they didn't want to be called twenty-five different kinds of motherfuckers in twenty-five seconds, you know? So they would leave you alone. And then it did become very conscious to me. Yes, speech can be as effective, almost, as your fist. But that was my real introduction to the uses of poetry.

[Melhem:] So that was very young.

Oh, yes. Oh, sure. But they used to have some people—still do, obviously—walking around, going for hours, rhyming, rhyming, rhyming, rhyming, rhyming, you know, top speed.

[Melhem:] Yes.

Just a whole flow of insults.

[Melhem:] In some of your recent work, do you use what Stephen Henderson refers to as "virtuoso free-rhyme"?


[Melhem:] Rhymes within a long sentence with lots of different rhymes strung

Yes. I have much more respect for rhyme, now. I've always used internal rhyme like that, because I felt that was, you know, slick, to do it like that; but I have much more respect for end rhyme, too. And it's like the old story about how, as you get older, you discover how wise your parents were [laughing]. I've grown to love Langston Hughes's poetry more now, because I want to use rhyme more. I begin to see then the strengths of that in ways I couldn't see when I was just dismissing rhyme completely. Obviously, rhyme can become a very dead weight in any kind of language. The kind of unrhymed verse that academic poets write is probably as deadly as rhyme. So—[Laughs]

[Melhem:] Yes. Well, in connection with that, apart from the critically important work you've done in writing Blues People and Black Music, you seem to he using music and musicians increasingly in your poetry and drama, the Advanced Workers, which is your musical group, specifically. Would you say there's a connection between the interest in music and the interest in rhyme? And what, specifically, is the function of the music?

Well, the music, to me, is two things, but it's one thing first. The music, first of all, is poetry. I mean, to me, fundamentally, poetry is a combination. Poetry is a musical form, just like blues. I think blues is a verse form, but it's a musical form, too. You see what I mean? And to me, poetry has to be that, and at the same time, verse, but it has to be a musical form. I mean it doesn't exist as poetry unless it's musical, you know, "musicked speech," high speech. And I think that my own interest in poetry comes from the kind of love that I've always had for music, basically. I played trumpet when I was a kid, and I wrote this poem called "I Would Have Been a Trumpet Player If I Hadn't Gone to College." And essentially, that had something to do with it, because once I left this town and went away to school, I stopped playing the trumpet. I never lost my love for music. I began to listen to it, of course, to study it—I studied it informally with Sterling Brown. At Howard he had classes for a lot of us in the dormitory in the evenings, and he'd teach us about the blues and early forms of jazz.

[Melhem:] You had some fine teachers there; you had Nathan Scott, too.

Yes, Nathan Scott, right. Me taught me Dante. That's where I got my interest in Dante. It wasn't even because I understood it, you know. He was so enthusiastic about it—

[Melhem:] Was it a course

—I said, "Jesus, this must be good!" [Laughs]

[Melhem:] It was a course in Dante?

No. It was a survey course in Western literature. We got all the biggies, everybody we were supposed to get, in that one-year survey course. And when he came to Dante, he was so in love with it. And now I understand why—because he was religious. I didn't know that. He was a Reverend—something like that. He was a Doctor of Divinity, as well as a Ph.D.

[Melhem:] In your adaptation of a Black aesthetic to Marxist, agit-prop aesthetics, you seem to be seeking new forms for the new content: for example, your historical pageants, Slave Ship and The Motion of History, and your satire, The Sidney Poet Heroical, in which you musically adapt a classical, Greek-style chorus. Apart from your self-criticism of The Sidney Poet as "petit bourgeois cultural nationalism," are you satisfied with these works? How do you feel about S-1?…

The Sidney Poet. No, I'm satisfied with that as a work of a certain period; it said certain things. I think it still has some kind of general uses. It got Sidney Poitier mad at me, though, so I don't know—there was a negative feedback to it. But as far as S-1 is concerned and The Motion of History, I would like to see them done again. I directed both of them, you know; I had this thing of directing my works, at least one a year, every other year, when I could. I took the moneys that I had, whatever money I could borrow, and I would do some performances of the play, because I couldn't get any producers. Since this police harassment two years ago. I haven't been able to do that, and as a matter of fact, that interrupted the production of The Lone Ranger that was being done, which I was producing at that time, because I had to use all the money for the court thing, you see, so I didn't have any extra money to use for the production. I would like to see S-1 done again; I would like to see The Motion of History done again. I think particularly S-1 is relevant during these Reagan times, because what that was about was the attempt to bring fascism to the United States, and I think that's a very, very relevant play, now. I would like to get somebody who would produce it and direct it.

[Melhem:] Was [Bertolt] Brecht an influence?

Brecht has been an influence, I'd say, in the last few years. In the last few years, certainly, this whole educational theater, in that sense, the "theater of instruction" is important to me, and a lot of the technical innovations. The jazz opera [Money] that I wrote a couple of years ago that we're going to do parts of the end of the year at La Mama, I think is closer to, say, Brecht than cold, traditional opera.

[Melhem:] And the use of scene—one scene after another?

Yes. Well, certainly in the way I tried to direct The Motion of History. That was influenced by Brecht's wanting to use signs, you know, those kinds of things. I've always been, I think, interested in using audiovisuals along with the theater. In the play that we're doing in the fall, called Boy and Tarzan Appear in a Clearing!—they're going to do that at the Henry Street in October. That uses a lot of video, television, and film at the same time. I'm interested in expanding the theater, using technological advances of society in general.

[Melhem:] Which of your works would you say has given you the most satisfaction, so far?

Always the most recent one [laughter], when you see it produced—although I've done some bad productions myself. I think it's always gratifying to be able to see the most recent thing, the last thing that I've done, so I'm looking forward to the two things we're doing this fall and winter.

[Melhem:] You have a cinematographic technique in your later works.


[Melhem:] Who would you say has influenced you there—[Sergei] Eisenstein?

Movies generally. Movies generally. I think Eisenstein intellectually, if I look at his theories on the dialectics of image. I think it would be impossible for anybody who makes film, whether they know it or not, to say they haven't been influenced by Eisenstein. The question of montage is impossible without Eisenstein, whether they know it or not. But then, I've been influenced by all the moviemakers that I've seen. I'm a moviegoer. I've always been a moviegoer. It always insults me when people try to say that movies somehow are some kind of inferior art form. I can never understand that. That always seems to me the most bizarre thing in the world to say.

[Melhem:] You said you would prefer a less sentimental ending for The Toilet.


[Melhem:] Although you don't turn your back on that time of your creative life.

No. That ending was tacked on, that's what I meant, first of all. When I wrote it, I wrote it straight through and I tacked this ending on. The way it ended was first with the guy just left there, in the toilet, and then I tacked it on I guess as some kind of attempt to show some kind of, you know, reconciliation, or something like that. And I think that's where I was at that time.

[Melhem:] Is there any other work you feel that way about, that you would like to redo or revise?

[Emphatically] oh, yes Shhhhh! [Laughter] Different things I see, the different reasons. Some, I might. But most, I won't, because, like I said, I don't want to cover up my tracks, you know what I mean? You should at least show where you've been, so people can understand how you got to where you are, and what have you.

[Melhem:] Okay…. What advice do you have for beginning writers, white, Black, or otherwise?

Um-hum. Well, I say this, what I tell my writing students: The only thing that helps you—I'm not going to say the only thing—I say the main thing that will help you learn to write is to write. That's the first step. That's the most important, is to write. The second thing is to read. Now those two things are very important, writing and reading. Of course the other thing, analysis, is observation, observation of everybody and everything: all classes of people and their relationship with each other; their ideas, how they contrast, how they be similar. And I say that the other thing is that for any serious writer in the United States, regardless of nationality, it's going to be difficult to get published. And so they better also learn how to run a mimeograph machine; photo-offset machine [laughter], learn how to bind and staple and how to put out their own works; and I would say, it's best you start putting out your own work. Don't wait to be discovered—

[Melhem:] Yes, right.

—because for most people that's going to be a myth.

[Melhem:] Of desire.

Yes, exactly. It's going to be a myth. You're going to have to do it yourself. Even if you're later discovered, it's best to start.

[Melhem:] Do you have any advice for contemporary American writers, Black or white or any other?

Those things, and I think it's important that they be very, very aware of what is happening in society. Because I don't think your work can either be viewed, nor is it obtained, in isolation from society; and especially in this period now that we're moving rapidly to the right, it's very important. The rise of censorship, for instance—these kinds of wild things. I'm especially gratified to see this American Writers' Congress that they're going to have in the fall, that the Nation magazine is sponsoring, Victor Navasky. It's going to be, I think, a three- or four-day writers' congress at the Roosevelt Hotel in October; I'm supposed to be on one of the panels. I think that's a very important thing.

[Melhem:] Okay. What are your current or future projects?

Well, like I said, this play Boy and Tarzan is going to be done in October. Then this jazz opera that we're going to do in workshop, that we're really going to try to raise money for; we're going to try to raise money to produce it. So those are two things in drama. I have a book of essays that's going to be published in the fall; I told you about Daggers and Javelins. And then I've got some other projects that are on the back burner, unfortunately. Oh, another important project is my wife and I are doing an anthology of Black women writers—

[Melhem:] Oh!

—that Morrow has just accepted. And so we'll be doing that. In the next couple of weeks we're going to start on that.

[Melhem:] Are there any misconceptions—about yourself or your work—that you want cleared up?

[Laughing] Oh, ho-ho!

[Melhem:] [Laughing] I mean, any outstanding misconceptions.

I can't, I can't. No. Except that people are always catching you where you were.

[Melhem:] This is the last question. What role do your foresee for Black poets in the 1990s, and whom do you think they should address?

That's a good question in this sense. I expect the same role from them that they have had—the same role that Margaret Walker had, the same role that Langston [Hughes] had, the same role that [Claude] McKay had. That is, intellectual leadership, you understand, commitment and struggle. But we must always learn from each other's lives. And in terms of the audience, the audience is all of the people, the majority of the people.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. (review date 11 March 1984)

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SOURCE: "Several Lives, Several Voices," in New York Times Book Review, March 11, 1984, pp. 11-12.

[In the following review, Gates outlines The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones.]

When I first met his father, Coyette Leroy Jones, I was shocked by his striking resemblance to his son. Amiri Baraka locates his first identity through this resemblance to his father: "That I was short and skinny with big eyes and looked just like my father. These were the most indelible. My earliest identity." If that's true then for much of a half-century, it is fair to say, he has been running away from that very identity.

LeRoi Jones predicted as much, even as early as 1964 when he wrote in "The Liar": "When they say, 'It is Roi / who is dead?' I wonder / who they will mean?" Anyone else who had hoped that his autobiography would at last answer this rhetorical question will be disappointed. What emerges here is not a unified, coherent pattern of a life, but reconstructions of a series of lives or selves, the lives of LeRoi Amiri Baraka Jones.

LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka is, without question, one of the most prolific Afro-American authors. In addition to his autobiography, he has published books of poetry, a novel and a collection of short stories, five books of essays, two books analyzing black music, 24 plays and four anthologies—all in the last 23 years. He has been a most mutable political figure as well, trading worn-out ideologies for new ones when circumstances decree, and, as he puts it, transforming his metaphorical colors from brown to yellow, white and black.

Perhaps not since [Gertrude] Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas have we had an autobiography so ironically titled. Mr. Baraka anticipated this "multiple self" in "The Liar" (1964):

     Publicly redefining
     each change in my soul, as if I had predicted them,
     and profited, biblically, even tho
     their chanting weight,
     erased familiarity
     from my face.

He might have added "publicly renaming myself and my ideologies," as well, as his extended metamorphosis took him from a "brown" Newark to a "yellow" Howard (where he flunked out) to a "white" Air Force to his "white" life as a Greenwich Village poet and editor, married to a white woman and father of two girls, to the crazy Wild West days of the raucous Black Arts Repertory Theater in Harlem, then over to Newark to marriage with Sylvia Wilson (Amina Baraka), the mother of five more children, and to his much vaunted black cultural nationalism, and, most recently, to polka-dotted Marxism, which he is still struggling to master.

At each crucial ideological transformation, he assigned himself another name. Christened Everett Leroy Jones, brown Leroy from Newark became the black Village bohemian LeRoi, who is turn became the blacker Ameer Barakat (the Blessed Prince), who in turn became Imamu (poet/priest) Amiri Baraka, the blackest Leroy of all. With each new name came a change in his style of writing. We can "frame" these changes of diction with two extreme examples, taken from the extremes of his career. In his first book of poems (written in Greenwich Village), we read:

      but this also
      is part of my charm.
      A maudlin nostalgia
      that comes on
      like terrible thoughts about death.
      How dumb to be sentimental about anything
      To call it love
      & cry pathetically
      into the long black handkerchief
      of the years.

Compare these typically "modernist" lines of alienation with his more recent play, What Was the Relationship of the Lone Ranger to the Means of Production? (1978):

MASKED MAN: You have a stake in this system.

REG: What system?

MASKED MAN: The free enterprise system! You're free. You can do anything, go anywhere, because you live in a free society … you can't have this much freedom in a totalitarian country like—

DONNA: Crown Heights, South Bronx, Newark, Lower East Side, for instance.

From alienated modernist to agitprop is a long way to tumble in 17 years. From imitating Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Williams and Charles Olson, when he was the Jackie Robinson of Greenwich Village, Mr. Baraka descended into the Heart of Blackness (keeping Pound's fascism and Eliot's Anglo-Catholicism turned inside out), only to graduate to agitprop. It is this radical shift in diction that forces me to question his latest mask as a Marxist, even if I believe the move to have been inevitable.

In which voice does he narrate his story? Each of Mr. Baraka's lives has its own flavor of language, its own distinct style. He draws upon style as a correlative of his changing spots; reading his book is like listening to albums by Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, James Brown, then late John Coltrane, a remarkable stylistic achievement. It is the serial lives depicted here, however, and the acts of betrayal that connect them, that make this autobiography problematical indeed.

"The world has changed so much since my youth," Mr. Baraka tells us early on, "And I want, more than anything, to chart this change within myself." He recreates his childhood with a lyricism largely absent from his writing since The Dead Lecturer (1964). We hear of his childhood friends, "long-headed colored Norman" and "Eddie, of the tilted old smelly house." Joe Louis and F.D.R., we learn, were young Leroy's "maximum heroes," just as we learn what it meant to experience the rituals of watching games played by teams of Negro National League in "those bright lost summers," engulfed in a "a garment of feeling," a "collective black aura that can only be duplicated with black conversation or music." Only occasionally does he interrupt this lyrical re-creation of youth to preach to us about "the open barn door of monopoly capitalism" or to tell us what "Mao points out," too soon after he has re-created a 1930's or 1940's colored world more movingly than has any novelist.

Life at Howard was "a blinding yellow," where class-as-color (or as grade of hair) reigned supreme—"the rumble of crazy Negro yellow crazy." Yet Howard was also where Sterling Brown and Nathan Scott taught him music and literature. Mr. Brown's classes were "the high point of my 'formal' education," while Mr. Scott's "preaching about Dante" was "like some minister pushing us toward Christ." Howard, finally, was failing grades, expulsion, and a tearful retreat home to Newark, then to the Air Force.

LeRoi Jones read and wrote his way through the Air Force, imbibing "the New Criticism and the word freaks and the Southern Agrarians," along with Accent, the Hudson, Partisan and Kenyon Reviews, and just about all of the canonical Western writers. It was here, he tells us in moving prose, that he learned to dream the life of the mind, "a life of ideas, and, above all, Art." It was his eclectic pursuit of words that led to his undesirable discharge for being a "Communist"—all because he had received rejection letters from a magazine published by the Congress for Cultural Freedom!

Life in the Village was a series of affairs with white women and intimate friendships with just about anybody in the Beat world of the Village, where LeRoi Jones and his first wife published poetry journals and turned their home into a veritable salon. LeRoi was the "noble savage in the buttermilk," the ink spot on a vast white table cloth, "the one colored guy." But not even Mr. Baraka's urge to purge the "white" forms of his early poetry and his life can mask the sheer energy and joy that these rich decadent years in the Village gave him. His account reads like a blissful trip through an intellectual Disney World, where at last he mastered the forms of literature and became a principal within the American avant-garde. These pages are full of brilliant analyses of poetic forms, from Whitman and Williams and Pound and Apollinaire and the Surrealists to "the Jewish Apocalyptic," Black Mountain, and the New York schools. This long chapter is marred only by the cold ambiguity with which he recalls his first marriage and its dissolution. "My parents took it in stride," he tells us of the marriage. "There was not even any eye rolling or excessive questioning. (Such is the disposition and tenor of the oppressed, they are so in love with democracy!)" When it was over it was over: "In a minute or so, I was gone. Seeking revolution!"

A trip to Cuba in 1960, writings about black music (reviews, liner notes, and Blues People in 1963), the success of Dutchman (1964), a growing identification with Malcolm X, and, finally, Malcolm's murder in February 1965, took him uptown, to Harlem as the head of The Black Arts Repertory Theater and School, in full retreat from his white life and wife. "Arriving full up in the place of blackness, to save myself and to save the black world," he writes ironically, now that he has repudiated this phase of his political life. His escapades in Harlem read like Tom Wolfe's "Mau-Mauing the Flack Catchers," and I am still not yet certain which version I prefer. Mr. Baraka describes his life at this point as that of "a fanatical patriot." "The middle-class native intellectual," he continues, "having out integrated the most integrated, now plunges headlong back into what he perceives as blackest, native-est."

Uptown, he was running from his white friends and white influences, but most of all from his guilt, not for leaving his family but for marrying a white woman in the first place: "I was guilty for having lived downtown for so long with a white wife." Life in the Black Arts, he tells us, was "very messy" and "confused."

"Home," the long penultimate chapter, means Newark and the blackness of blackness, where between late 1965 and the early 1970's, as Imamu Amiri Baraka, he tried to purge himself of "my individualism and randomness, my Western, white addictions, my Negro intellectualism," to find "that dark brown feeling that is always connected with black and blues." Judging as a Marxist, Mr. Baraka can write that "I, so long whited out, now frantically claiming a 'blackness' that in many ways was bogus, a kind of black bohemianism…. Hey, all that … was yellow, very very yellow." Perhaps all this was more "yellow" than he intends.

Mr. Baraka offers a remarkably detailed account of his cultural nationalist years in Newark, where he masterfully ran the first successful mayoral campaign of Kenneth A. Gibson (now called "our fat stupid mayor"). He began the Committee for Unified New Ark, was brutally, beaten by the police in the 1967 riots and directed the formation of the highly influential Congress of Afrikan Peoples. This section of the book will be scrutinized as avidly by his black compatriots as his Village years will be read by his white friends. So, too, will his critique of the black nationalist movement and its fantasy of "a never-never land of Africa," a movement, he tells us, that failed because it lacked "the scientific exegesis of the state," because it was "feudalistic," "male chauvinistic," and "metaphysical." He might have added anti-Semitic and racist as well.

Mr. Baraka pronounces nationalism's death as happening in May, 1974, at a conference at Howard, where the black Marxist left defeated Stokely Carmichael and company, providing Mr. Baraka with "a point of departure, a jumping-off place, and I was ready to jump." And jump he has: "When the people of the world united to bring this giant oppressor to its knees we would be part of that contingent … chosen by the accident of history to cut this thing's head off and send it rolling through the streets of North America." The text ends with his "final" transformation into a Marxist-Leninist.

"All these words," Mr. Baraka tells us, "are only to be learned from," just two paragraphs after he writes that "in 1970, my wife Amina and I … paid down on a big square fortress of a stucco house which I painted red and trimmed in black, and when the seasons allow the trees to come out, the tableau is like a not quite subtle black nationalist flag."

Mr. Baraka still has a lot of accounting to do, despite the length, density and lyricism of his narrative. He is cursed, if I may, in a peculiar, unenviable way: Whereas most of us can experience identity crises in splendid, if painful, isolation, he consistently builds a program or a movement around his. Few of us, thank goodness, are able to institutionalize our hang-ups, our "changes." One must wonder at the costs of those who, at any given phase, have been his true believers. He is largely silent about his responsibilities to the people who trusted him. Perhaps the almost defensive, if not apologetic, tone generated by his proliferation of facts and events is directed at those readers who shared these worlds with him, those who will still feel betrayed.

And what does this autobiography teach us about LeRoi Amiri Baraka Jones? He hopes that it teaches us "that struggle and defeat finally are useful if our heads are harder, our grasp of reality firmer. I think they are." I remain unconvinced. If the "black bohemianism" of his (white) life in the Village and his progressively "blacker" lives in Harlem and Newark have been replaced by a stable and loving family life and a tenured professorship, Mr. Baraka has yet to convince me that his "Marxism" is any more sophisticated than any of his other political theories. He will never convince "the close reader" until he discards the cant and rhetoric of undigested Marxist discourse. In the end, we cannot take Mr. Baraka at his word, because his language betrays him. He has failed, thus far, to make Marx his, to escape the confusion of jargon for "scientific analysis." Until he does so, he will remain as he was at the beginning of his journey, "A renegade / behind the mask. And even / the mask, a renegade / disguise Black skin …" ("A Poem for Willie Best," 1964).

Further Reading

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Andrews, W. D. E. "The Marxist Theater of Amiri Baraka." Comparative Drama 18 (Summer 1984): 137-60.

Examines how Baraka's Marxist ideology is reflected in his plays.

Bone, Robert. "Action and Reaction." New York Times Book Review (8 May 1966): 3.

A negative assessment of Home: Social Essays.

Casimer, Louis J., Jr. "Dutchman: The Price of Culture Is a Lie." In The Binding of Proteus, edited by Marjorie W. McCune, Tucker Orbison, and Philip M. Withim, pp. 298-310. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1980.

Studies the treatment of myth and ritual in Dutchman.

Coles, Robert. "More Exiles." In Times of Surrender: Selected Essays, pp. 151-53. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1988.

A mixed assessment of Blues People.

Dieke, Ikenna. "Sadeanism: Baraka, Sexuality, and The Perverse Imagination in The System of Dante's Hell." Black American Literature Forum 19, No. 4 (Winter 1985): 163-66.

Explores the influence of the works of the Marquis de Sade on Baraka's works.

Van Duyn, Mona. "The Poet as Novelist." Poetry 109, No. 5 (February 1967): 338-39.

Illustrates the lyrical aspects in The System of Dante's Hell.

Wilson, John. "The New Jazzmen." New York Times Book Review (17 March 1968): 46.

A positive review of Black Music.

Amiri Baraka with Sandra G. Shannon (interview date Winter 1987)

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SOURCE: "Amiri Baraka on Directing," in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 21, No. 4, Winter, 1987, pp. 425-33.

[In the following interview, Baraka discusses his work as a director and his views on directing.]

Amiri Baraks is an artist of the 1960s' political scene still hard at work in the 1980s. Playwright, poet, political activist, Marxist, anti-Semitic, anti-feminist have all been used to label him, yet a less controversial label is often ignored—director. Most noted for his plays Dutchman and The Stave, Baraka has done some of his own directing and collaborated with directors such as Gilbert Moses, Jerry Benjamin, Jim Malette, Kdward Parone, Ernie McClintock, Irving Vincent, and Leo Garen in staging his Revolutionary Theater of the 1960s' Black Arts and Civil Rights movements.

In a recent interview at his office at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he is Director of Africana Studies, Baraka discussed several of his 1960s' plays from a director's perspective. Undoubtedly, he has been both impressed and skeptical about how his works have fared in the hands of other directors. What follows is a revelation of Baraka's own vision as director.

[Shannon:] The questions that I'd like to ask you today are specifically oriented toward directing. My first question is this: I see that you have directed several of your own sixties' plays. What motivated you to want to direct your own works?

[Baraka:] Well, because directing was something that I hadn't done, but I always had a great appreciation for directing. Also, I thought that I could give the work an added kind of accuracy in terms of the interpretation. I like to direct actually. Directing is more work than people might think.

Does directing, for you, involve everything—such as teaching the actors how to convey a particular point in your works, incorporating music …?

Well, I think that first it has to do with helping the actors understand the play and to understand the characters because I think that if they don't understand what the play is about and what all of the characters are about … in particular, they've got to have some insight into their own characters. But they've got to know the whole play. They've got to know all the relationships, the history of the characters. Like a life situation, they have to know it like that and be in tune with it.

How is the fact that they know the play portrayed in the way they act? How can you tell they know the play?

Well, because their motivations ring true. What they do seems real or justifiable or legitimized in some kind of way. They have to understand the play, and I think too often you see people just sort of sleepwalking through a play or going through these kinds of formal blocking moves stage left and downstage right, and you don't see any acting going on. You see mostly people being placed on different parts of the stage.

So you're saying that a certain amount of what they portray comes from within?

Yeah. There has to be an understanding. To me, it's like a piece of music. You can't play it if you don't understand it. Or if you can't read the notes and it's a written piece of music, you're in trouble. I think you have to know the composer's intentions, what feelings the composer was trying to transmit. The same thing with the play—you have to know what the playwright was trying to say.

What directors have you worked with?

Well, I've liked quite a few people's directing, but the director that I've liked best has been Gil Moses, who did Slave Ship. To me, he's one of the most intelligent and innovative directors that I've known. But I've had some other good directors. At the Black Arts, we had a guy named Jim Campbell—very good director. He's now a principal of an elementary school.

What do you think makes a good director?

Understanding the play and being able to put that in dramatic terms—to transpose it from literary terms to dramatic terms, which sometimes calls for things that the playwright has not seen that are obvious from the interpretation.

Do directors consult you? Do you feel it necessary that they consult you, or do you just leave them alone?

I usually leave them alone, but I think good directors always want to know what the playwright thinks, even if they don't agree with him. There are a lot of good directors around now, for example, the guy who's directing this play of mine at NYU named George Ferrinks. He's a white director. He's a good director. He's Hungarian. He understands texts, and he can improvise. Glenda Dickerson, a black woman who is out here with us at Stony Brook, is an excellent director.

What makes your job as a director easier?

Well, what makes it easier is if you have all of the resources to translate a play from literature into drama and into theater without a hassle. And the principal of those resources is actors—people who are intelligent. You've got some who are intelligent; you've got some who are sort of mediocre; and you've got some whom you shouldn't get stuck with under any circumstances.

To what extent do you get involved in the music which becomes part of the play?

See, music has ideas in it. People think that it's only if they hear lyrics that ideas are being communicated. That's not true. There are ideas in the music—what the composer wants to say, what he feels, what kind of emotional parallel music conjures up. There are all kinds of ideas and thoughts and feelings, of course, in music. And so the music, to me, is an added dramatic dimension—as narrator, as actor. Music, to me, is as much alive as the actors. It has as much importance.

So the concept, then, that you tried to get from the use of Sun Ra or, say, Albert Ayler was a certain disorderliness, unpredictability, anti-establishment feeling?

With Sun Ra, I wanted the feeling of some kind of otherworldly wisdom or dimension, which changes sometimes to fear, terror, contemplation of the laboratory, contemplation of what wisdom and knowledge really are. With Ayler, it was the kind of power and force that he has which is so striking when you hear him live. I've used him when I've wanted improvisation added to the text; in other words, let the musician look at the play and improvise. I've done that a few times. But I think that's interesting because the play is as much a generator of emotions as any other kind of thing. And if you have a musician improvising off the emotions he gets from the play, then it creates a kind of improvised life of the play at the same time that you have a kind of stated life of the play.

How do you deal with such production limitations as space and budget?

Well, you just have to do other things. You have to do things that don't require space, and you have to do things that are cheap. That's been my story all of my life—all of my theatrical life. There were a couple of times I thought I was going to have some money. We were supposed to do a jazz opera in the Paris opera and the Berlin opera, and the Americans got to the French to cancel it. They were going to spend a million and a half francs on it.

Oh really! What did the Americans say?

They said it was an anti-American play.

Your 1960s' plays leave much room for the creative director—for example, Black Mass. I listened to the album. I read the play. But I cannot understand how the beast is portrayed on stage. Do you settle for a facsimile of the hideous creature, or do you expect some other rigid interpretation?

How is it interpreted on the stage? I guess you could say that it is up to the imagination of the director. But what we did was take grease paint and paint all over the guy, and we had a red mask, which was turned into a tail like a dinosaur's tail. That was Ben Caldwell's design. I thought that it was something with room for improvisation.

In The Slave, what stage props did you suggest to depict the surrounding race wars and the ultimate bombing of Easley's home?

The sound was going on throughout the play.

Was that an album or a sound track?

It was taped. Largely war sounds—shots, bombs—and, near the end of the play, it gets closer and closer and closer, and then there is the very final scene where they're up close with near hits, near misses, and direct hits. Then we actually had to use the kind of explosion techniques that you use in theater: smudge pots, a soft ceiling with plaster up in it that you could release, a blackout, turning chairs and stuff over, pulling down false walls—simple stage techniques. It was gradually a kind of closing in of war sounds.

Did you ever use colors to capture a particular effect? To what extent were colors involved? For example, if you would like to portray fire, did you just splatter orange and red?

You mean real fire and burning?


Well, again, we used different kinds of pots and things for fire—things that can actually burn. And sometimes to get a fire effect, we used lights. But we usually used pots that were turned on, usually electrically. The stage manager or the lighting person would handle that. It was a simple process, although those kinds of things can be dangerous.

In Experimental Death Unit #1, your stage notes call for "a white man's head still dripping blood." Can you explain how this was translated to the stage?

There was a friend of mine, a white painter, who made an exact facsimile of the actor's head out of papier-mâché, and it was so life-like that it actually created a kind of sensation. A guy named Dominique Capobianco molded papier-mâché face masks. He's an artist at Rutgers. He made papier-mâché heads that were exactly like the actors'. We had a special kind of dramatic effect that we used wherein the actors who were supposed to be beheaded would twist their heads down in their chests and pull up some kind of jackets we had. And they would fall so they were upstage and you couldn't see their heads, and then the guy who was cutting them off would look like he'd cut one off and he had the head already inside his coat. When he'd cut like that, you couldn't see the head struck and then he'd go down and his body would cover the dead man's body and he'd take the head out from under his coat and then come up with the head.


Well, theater people think of these things. When you get theater people and you've got a project, you discuss it. That's why set designers, prop people, lighting people—these people are key to directors. No theater production is a one-person operation. That's absurd. Some of the technical aspects of these things I wouldn't begin to be able to put together. I could just say, "I think it should be like this," and that would be the way it was done. You've got people who know the theater. That's why, in really doing heavyweight theater, you've got to have some skilled people with you to really bring it off.

I can imagine Slave Ship called for a lot of ingenuity.

Yeah. That's why I say Gil Moses, to me,… I directed Slave Ship first in Newark at the Spirit House, and that was like … I mean we had on-and-off lights: "Click, click." It was nothing but the first floor of a house that I had torn the walls of down. We had almost nothing at all to work with. But when Gil took it on and when he used his imagination and the kind of technical resources that were available to us at the Brooklyn Academy, which were quite a bit, we were really able to do something good.

In 1967 you directed Great Goodness of Life: A Coon Show at the Spirit House in Newark. Can you recall how you portrayed Attorney Brack? "A bald-headed smiling house slave in a wrinkled dirty tuxedo crawls across the stage; he has a wire attached to his back leading off-stage. A huge key in the side of his head. We hear the motors 'animating,' his body groaning like tremendous weights. He grins, and slobbers, turning his head slowly from side to side. He grins. He makes little quivering noises."

Well, we were pretty faithful to that. Actually, we had … who played that? L. Earl Jay played that, I think, when we did it in New York. Are you talking about the wires and the big key in his head and stuff like that? Well, we made a hat like a hairpiece or something like that. Anyway, it sat up on his head and had a big key in it that whirled around—the key actually whirled around. It sort of fit over his head like a strap on top of his head. In other words, the key was the cap, and he put the cap on and then the key was attached to it on one side. It was like a rod coming down, off the cap and then the key stuck out of the rod. In the rod was the kind of mechanism that turned the key. And it was a key that you actually did wind up, and it was spring-loaded so that when you wound it up—when the attorney pushed the starter that he had on—it actually would turn: "Ch-ch-ch." It would look like the little toy soldiers or little robots that you see for kids.

Returning to your means of adapting to various limitations, at any time did your street plays Arm Yourself, Or Harm Yourself and Police encounter obstacles because of uncertain conditions due to temporary settings?

Yeah. Real police came into this loft where we were rehearsing. They had told us something about we weren't supposed to read poetry down in the cellar in Newark. There was some controversy around that, but, in those days, the Newark police were the worst on the planet. That was one of the reasons that we were so quick to get a black mayor. That was the only kind of respite that we got from the Negroes that had been running the city. They did cool out the police, and they couldn't have stayed in there if they hadn't because the people had demonstrated in 1967 what they would do. Police ran up in my rehearsal and actually took a script out of my hand. We were rehearsing and police came in there. That's the kind of harassment outside in the street. We had to do plays, and we were never quite sure how we would be greeted by the powers that be—the police, etc. One time we did Junkies Are Full of Shhh … and a woman started beating the junky—started beating the dope pusher like she thought it was really happening. She started whipping Yusef Iman's butt. We had to pull her off him. She was going to beat him up. I guess her child had gotten involved in drugs. It's always uncertain outside.

Several prominent actors showed up in your early plays. Can you talk about the contributions of, say, Barbara Teer or Al Freeman?

Well, Barbara did Experimental Death Unit #1, and as it turned out, the guy who was directing it first was a nut. I mean, he was absolutely a maniac and he and Barbara got to talking and he slapped her.

You're talking about Tom Hackensack?

Right. He slapped her face, and then I had to take over the direction. I thought she did a very very good job myself. That was one of the plays that I directed both downtown and up at the Black Arts. I think it came off all right. We did it at this benefit down at the Saint Mark's Theater, and we had the resources and stuff. I thought it was a good experience. There were a lot of things I learned directing then. Now, interestingly enough, Barbara—when we first started working—said there was no such thing as Black Theater. She said theater was theater. We used to stand out there and argue—she and this guy named McBeth, who later got to be head of the Lafayette. They were both opposed to the concept of Black Theater. They said it didn't exist. They said it was just theater. Later on, it is interesting that they came to understand the fact that there is such a thing as Black Theater and that they have gotten a great deal of success in Black Theater. Barbara is a good actress and a very capable director.

I don't know what she is doing now with the National Black Theater. But that was something that we called for in the 1968 Black Power Conference—a National Black Theater. The Negro Ensemble is the Negro Ensemble. But we need a theater that can encompass, coast to coast, the best actors, the best directors, the best playwrights, the best set designers, the best musicians who would tour the country and play to our people all over the country. That's what we need definitely.

I noticed that your wife was a member of the cast of Black Mass. To what extent has she helped in shaping and developing your 1960s' plays?

Well, my wife certainly has a great deal of influence on me—I guess just like everybody else's wife or husband has on them. We had just met some months before that. I was making a movie which never got seen by anybody except the FBI. They have records of this movie that we made and the images in it, and nobody has ever seen it. It's fantastic.

Did they confiscate it?

No. They were just watching when we made it. We didn't know it, but when I got the Freedom of Information Act papers, they had listed it in there. They saw us shooting out in the yard, and I had nooses hanging off the trees and people in KKK costumes marching. We had met not long before the time of Black Mass, and I think that it was subsequent to Black Mass that we began to see each other. But she has been a very strong influence upon me in terms of … you know, a lot of times you bounce concepts off people whether you know it or not. People do shape your concepts. In a lot of my earlier plays, the black woman is not dealt with well at all. And I think that she has been very very forceful in terms of trying to make me understand that, which I hope I have understood, and just generally in terms of helping me to give some weighty attention to black people's real problems rather than the problems of one sector of the black middle class, which, I think, is another one of my tendencies—to make my problems everybody's problems or my own kinds of concepts sort of automatically all black people's. So, I think she's helped clarify—to the extent that it can be called clarified—that thing. It's a continuing influence obviously. We work together. She was in the Spirit House Movers when it first began. Then the organization that we put together got in the way of that, and she wasn't in the Movers later on. Now we are working together with this group called Blue Ark that we have. We do poetry and we work usually with three musicians, and she's a part of that and hopefully we are going to do some more dramatic work together.

How were the changes in your ideology—that is, from nationalist to Marxist—reflected on stage?

I had a big falling out with the woman who played Lula when I directed Dutchman in Newark when I first came back to Newark in 1966. This white woman—I can't think of her name—she said something that I didn't like, and I said, "Well, you know. I don't even like white people. I don't even know why I'm standing here arguing with you." That kind of stupid stuff. Certainly, during my post-nationalist phase, I would not be involved in some kind of crazy stuff like that. I mean, when you just crack people over the head because you get angry with them, and then you take them out the worst way you can. I don't think I would do that. It was the nationalism certainly that fueled that kind of approach. I guess people can tell you stories about that. I used to do a lot of that.

I think the most important change has been in terms of the content of the plays—the line, the political line, the ideological line that comes out of the plays. I think that is the real critical change—from plays that pretty much focus on kicking white folks' asses and getting them off ours to trying to find a way to bring in the more complex reality that we live, which obviously is full of white supremacy, racism, and exploitation, with black people being on the bottom of the heap. But I think that what that is really is what I try to talk about: how it got to be the way that it is, and, I guess, what we can do about it—and that we can survive it.

Douglas A. Ramsey (review date 29 March 1987)

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SOURCE: A review of The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 29, 1987, p. 6.

[In the following review, Ramsey offers a mixed assessment of The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues.]

When Amiri Baraka listens to music, he hears things that might escape us if we could not depend upon him to point them out with his eloquent insistence, indignation and anger. He hears political oppression, capitalist exploitation, racist duplicity and class struggle. The beauty in the works of the great jazz masters comes to him transformed through Marxist-Leninist dialectic into ideology and sociology. That may seem a grim and joyless route to music appreciation, but Baraka has been following it for more than a quarter of a century in poetry, plays, essays, reviews and album liner notes.

[The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues] is made up of work from each of those categories. It has the brilliance of Baraka at his analytical best, with musical and extra-musical considerations in balance, as in his essay on Miles Davis. It also has him at his polemical worst, as in this passage, from a piece about the drummer Max Roach on commercial exploitation of innovations by the great creative giants of black music: "And each time, the same corporations that had got over exploiting the African's tragic willingness to sell off pieces of weself [sic] to anybody who had the necessary trinketry, these same villains would reappear to scoop out the insides of our hearts and sell them for super profits and then convince us that the scooped-out portions of ourselves existed as such because we had never been whole, never, we had only and always at any time in anybody's history been simply Niggers."

When his spleen is less exercised, Baraka is capable of educating with great clarity and a sense of history: "Jazz incorporates blues, not just as a specific form, but as a cultural insistence, a feeling-matrix, a tonal memory. Blues is the national consciousness of jazz—its truthfulness in a lie world, its insistence that it is itself, its identification as the life expression of a specific people, the African-American nation. So that at its strongest and most intense and indeed most advanced, jazz expresses the highest consciousness of that people itself, combining its own history, as folk form and expression, with its more highly developed industrial environment, North America. Without blues, as interior animation, jazz has no history, no memory. The funkiness is the people's lives in North America as slaves, as an oppressed nation, as workers and artists of a particular nationality."

Baraka is largely correct when he writes that … "if non-African-American who played the music had not played it, it would not change the essential history of African-American music." Yet, that position would be strengthened, not weakened, were he willing to allow more than a crumb of recognition of major white jazzmen. His attempt to downplay the influence of Bill Evans is made ludicrous by the inconvenient fact that Evans, a white man, was the last great mainstream jazz piano innovator in a line of stylistic development that runs from Earl Hines through Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson and Bud Powell to Evans.

Baraka is helpful in explaining how the current jazz avant-garde was born and why he believes social, cultural and commercial conditions have always made necessary the creation of a next avant-garde movement.

He writes about poetry as a form of speech and music, an understanding that is helpful in dealing with his own poetry, which makes up about half of this book. (At the beginning of the volume, there is also a short selection of poems by Mrs. Baraka.) His poems are full of rhythms and subliminal meanings that cannot possibly be grasped by a silent reading. At its least self-conscious, Baraka's poetry has a surprising stateliness, as in the love poem, "For Sylvia or Amina (Ballad Air & Fire)." When it attempts to reproduce musical sounds … "uuuudeeeelyah uudeeeelyall/yaboom rabbababab …" it encounters difficulties that have plagued poetry at least as far back as Vachel Lindsay. Baraka evaluates music based on its quotient of authentic funkiness, that he convincingly traces to its source in the blues. It is apparently impossible for him to consider music without passing judgment on its makers' presumed political and racial convictions and intentions.

For the reader who is interested simply in learning about the music and who does not go all the way with Baraka on racism, imperialism and exploitation, his political message can be a barricade. His answer to this objection is that you can't have all of one without all of the other, "Your aesthetic is created by your deepest politics, whether you are consciously making political choices as such or not. In other words, what you think of as 'hip' is essentially a political choice."

Years ago, I heard the great bassist Eugene Wright talking backstage at a Dave Brubeck concert with a group of younger musicians. Art Blakey, Horace Silver and Sonny Rollins were on their minds, and funky music was under discussion. "Absorb it, feel it," Wright told his admirers. "Then get past that funk thing, man, and all of music will open up to you."

Baraka has never been able to get past that funk thing, and he may well believe that a musician like Eugene Wright, by expanding his musical aesthetic to encompass more than the social and political, has sold out to … "the corporations that … scoop out the insides of our hearts and sell them for super profits…." But that is not Eugene Wright's problem. Or mine. Or yours. It is Amiri Baraka's.

Barry Wallenstein (review date February-March 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of Transbluency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961–1995), in American Book Review, Vol. 17, No. 3, February-March, 1996, pp. 7, 30.

[In the following review, Wallenstein provides a positive assessment of Transbluency.]

Deeply political, Amiri Baraka writes poems that have bothered many, reflecting as they do his dream of revolution, where the social orders will be recast, the races realigned. Much of his work is topical, written for the moment, and, as with agitprop verse, it's run the danger of becoming an historical footnote. Perhaps to consciously counter this eventuality, Baraka has placed musicality at the center of his efforts as a poet. He has often stated his aesthetic or purpose: "The poetry I want to write is oral by tradition, mass aimed as its fundamental functional motive."

Paul Vangelisti, the editor of Transbluency, divides the selected poetry into three periods, the Beat, Black Nationalism, and, finally, Third World Socialism. Baraka's "lyrical realism" is a stylistic constant, and his "political avant-garde[ism]" is the impulse that holds the work together. Almost from the beginning, the poetry is infused with the poet's emotional conflict between his racial culture and his self-recognition as an educated black man having come of age within a white culture. He copes with this dichotomy in a variety of ways, from expressions of rage to poses of cool detachment. In his best, most moving work, the "positions" are felt as coming not from the hardened heart or the fixed idea, but from the mind in flux, jockeying for a take on the particular situation at hand.

Marsilio Press deserves praise for bringing out this Selected Poems, an ample presentation from ten books. After the success of his first two books, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961) and The Dead Lecturer (1964, the year of the Dutchman), came Black Magic (1969) itself a collection of three revolutionary books, Sabotage, Target Study, and Black Art, some of the most influential publications of the Black Arts Movement.

This book marked his nationalist phase, a period he'd look back on, not many years later, as "reactionary." However, passages abound that transcend the taint of narrow practicality. The first poem, "Three Modes of History and Culture," concludes:

     I think about a time when I will be relaxed
     When flames and non-specific passion wear themselves
     away. And my eyes and hands and mind can turn
     and soften, and my songs will be softer
     and lightly weight the air.

Similarly, when he says in "Gatsby's Theory of Aesthetics" that "Poetry aims at difficult meanings," he is speaking about his personal response and understanding of the objective world: "I write poetry in order to feel, and that, finally, sensually, all the terms of my life. I write poetry to investigate my self, and my meaning and meanings." These are words of the artist superseding the polemicist.

Although Black Magic makes pronouncements and develops ideas about black nationalism, one finds further examples where poetry reaches inward: "I am real, and I can't say who / I am. Ask me if I know, I'll say / yes. I might say no. Still ask. / I'm Everett LeRoi Jones, 30 yrs old. / A black nigger in the universe. / A long breath singer, / wouldbe dancer, strong from years of fantasy, / and study."

Ultimately, he would like to be viewed as one speaking less for himself than the larger group his poems are intended for. One could imagine the following lines being issued from a soap box, an incendiary pulpit, or a hate rally. This is from "Black Art":

        We want poems
     like fists beating niggers out of Jocks
     or dagger poems in the slimy bellies
     of the owner-jews. Black poems to
     smear on girdlemamma mulatto bitches
     whose brains are red jelly stuck
     between 'lizabeth taylor's toes. Stinking
     Whores! We want 'poems that kill.'

The poem ends: "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." One might imagine a deeply sensitive man, one steeped in modernist literature, Kafka and so forth, finding a tormented comfort away from the subjective quarrels of the struggling self, comfort behind the "we" of his people's painful history and daily oppressions. By the early '70s he'd moved from the nationalist sentiments and strategies of Black Magic to the Marxist-Leninist investigations of Hard Facts (1972), where he still sees art, as did Vallejo, Aragon, and Aimé Césaire, as "a weapon of revolution."

Concurrent with Baraka's political/racial passions has been his commitment to jazz as a liberating force, as a balm and inspiration. Not only do his poems refer to music, players and songs, but the language and urban landscape of the poetry clearly have a jazz feel. He came of age during the bop revolution of the late 1940s and was involved in performing his poetry in jazz clubs and coffee houses. An exemplar of the Beat counterculture, Baraka's aesthetic includes emphasis on spontaneity, improvised structure, and the use of argot, and "natural" speech. Along with everything else wild and untethered, such as line breaks, punctuation, diction, and so forth.

In the 1960s Baraka wrote for Downbeat magazine and published two important books on jazz, Blues People (1963) and Black Music (1968). In his Autobiography (1984) he remembers: "Art Williams … also had poetry readings (at the Cellar) and I even read there myself one evening with a poet … Yusef Rahman. Yusef's poetry was a revelation to me. He was like Bird in his approach to poetry, seeming to scat and spit rapid-fire lines of eight notes at top speed. It was definitely speech musicked." His phrase is an updating of Emily Dickinson's famous definition of poetry as "language musically employed." Baraka has strengthened this emphasis throughout his career. "[We] were drenched in black music and wanted our poetry to be black music. Not only that, we wanted that poetry to be armed with the spirit of black revolution."

From the 1979 book, Poetry for the Advanced, is a good example of Baraka's jazz inspired poetry, "Pres Spoke in a Language" (dedicated to Lester Young): "Pres / had a language / and a life, like, / all his own, / but in the teeming whole of us he lived / tooting on his sideways horn." The poem evokes other classic players, "Bird's feathers / Trane's sinewy tracks / the slickster walking through the crowd / surviving on a terrifying wit / it's the jungle the jungle the jungle / we living in." At the end of this lyrical, controlled meditation on jazz and survival, Baraka reaches out to include his readers: "Save all that comrades, we need it."

More recent books go all out with Baraka's involvement in jazz. In the Tradition (1982), dedicated to "Black Arthur Blythe," the great alto player and exemplar of free jazz, is a long poem celebrating the heritage of black music. Lists of tunes are arranged along with jazz artists and political figures mixed in. It's an amazing performance piece that Baraka has chanted or half-sung around the world. "Speech #38," from Wise, Why's, Y'z (1995), is an example of Baraka's sound poetry and the sound is pure jazz. It opens, "OoBlahDee / Ooolyacoo / Bloomdido / OoBopShabam / Perdido Klackto-/ Veestedene / Salt Peanuts oroonie / McVouty / rebop," and continues for two pages that way.

In The Selected Poems, there are many poems that do not touch racial issues and do not make use of jazz idiom, but still demonstrate Baraka's individual voice. For instance, there are the "Crow Jane" poems from The Dead Lecturer, rich in literary reference, and then there is the opening of the famous "Black Dada Nihilismus." It begins with a quiet prayer-like sound; "Against what light / is false what breath / sucked, for deadness." Soon oblique references to violent revolution sweep in. Sartre is referred to before "Plastique, we / do not have, only thin heroic blades. / The razor. Our flail against them, why / you carry knives." Finally in the infamous second section, after signaling "A cult of death," he calls forth "black dada / Nihilismus. Rape the white girls. Rape / their fathers. Cut the mothers' throats. / Black dada Nihilismus, choke my friends / in their bedrooms…." The poem moves to elegy as it offers a list of black heroes who have absorbed the violence of racism and for whom suffering and resistance have been identical: Willie Best, Du Bois—"The Black buckaroos / For Jack Johnson … billie holiday." But the end complicates even hatred; placed in an open parenthesis are the troubling words: "(May a lost god … save us / against the murders we intend / against his lost white children …)."

Viewing Baraka's work through a selected poem is a trip that inspires smiles (not always the comfortable kind) and admiration for qualities beyond the jazzy rhythms and the rage. There is restraint, sudden detachment, and technical control, often not noticed or mentioned in deference to the legend of poet as improvisor, poet as spontaneous bard. In "Balboa, The Entertainer," Baraka says: "Let my poems be a graph / of me." His is a complex graph, defying simple conclusions. His first book, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note has not yet been followed by the note, nor is the Preface finished.

Sandra G. Shannon (essay date March 1996)

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SOURCE: "Manipulating Myth, Magic, and Legend: Amiri Baraka's Black Mass," in CLA Journal, Vol. 39, March, 1996, pp. 357-68.

[In the following essay, Shannon illustrates how Baraka drew upon myths, traditional symbols, popular literature, and established institutions in Black Mass.]

The assassination of Malcolm X on February 21, 1965, profoundly affected Amiri Baraka and gave fuel to his developing nationalist position. What resulted was a more focused appeal to the cultural consciousness of exclusively African-American audiences and a need for an experimental theatre. Inspired by the martyred Malcolm X, Baraka abandoned the restraints of self-defeating naturalistic themes and featured instead the uncompromising African-American hero; he satirized the racist aspects of popular white culture and, in so doing, sought to reverse the brain-washing trend among members of his African-American audiences; he parodied repressive African-American status symbols and institutions; and, above all, he exposed African-American viewers to positive images of themselves using the very same tokens of their oppression. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in his 1965 play Black Mass, written while he was based at the Black Arts Theater School in Harlem.

The play, which uses the Nation of Islam's myth of the origin of the white species as a story line, represents an eclectic array of techniques served up to African-American viewers as propaganda for cultural nationalism. The plot is as follows: Jacoub, an African-American magician, works in his laboratory at creating a mutant human being in order to "bring something into space that was never there." Although cautioned by the other magicians, Jacoub creates a repulsive creature, which, for all intents and purposes, is a mutation of a member of the white race. Determined to make something useful of his creation, Jacoub tries to teach it "civilized" behavior. Unfortunately, the creature breaks free of its restraints, bites one of the three females involved and ultimately transforms her into a feminine version of the same mutation. Ultimately the two creatures join in killing the magicians and remaining women. Afterward they "howl and hop, and then, turning to the audience, their mouths drooling and making obscene gestures, they move out into the audience."

It is important to note that Black Mass is based upon the principal myth on which the Islamic religion was founded—the myth of Yacub, "the big-headed scientist." So popular was Islam within African-American urban communities of the mid-sixties that Baraka could justly assume that the majority of African Americans in the audience would readily comprehend his many imitated references to the Yacub story. Robert Allen, author of Black Awakening in Capitalist America, notes that the Black Muslim religion had "a membership estimated in the early 1960's between sixty-five thousand and one hundred thousand. Their temples are found in practically every major city." Islam offered African Americans of the 1960s, just as it does today, an alternate philosophy to the devastating emotions caused by oppression. It promotes individual worth while focusing upon separate identity and self-sufficience. Thus, it attracted a large following.

Baraka's use of myth is not coincidental. Myths, by virtue of their universal persuasiveness, often exist alongside scientifically proven truths and are sometimes indistinguishable.

Moreover, the validity of their premise defies disproof because they often are the products of an oral rather than written tradition; thus, the inability to discount the truth of numerous myths has contributed greatly to their longevity and validity. With the Yacub myth as its framework, Black Mass had a better-than-average chance of being regarded by its viewers as the fictional reenactment of the actual history of African Americans. As such, Baraka is able to gain acceptance of his updated version of the Muslim myth for the more current concern of African-American cultural consciousness. In Black Mass, therefore, Baraka redirects the truth of the original myth toward the specific needs of the Black Arts Movement.

Within the mythical context of an African setting are the African-American magicians. For the African-American viewer who is more than likely saturated with Western interpretations of Africa, magicians in a supposed African context inevitably conjure up expectations of a masked and painted voodoo witch doctor performing convulsive, ritual dances while summoning supernatural assistance via charms and unintelligible incantations. Quite unlike the unsophisticated practices of the witch doctor, however, Jacoub conducts his experiments with all the trappings of a modern scientist, complete with laboratory and its familiar equipment.

In the opening scene, Jacoub "is bent over a mortar, and is jamming a pestle into it, watching very closely." Ironically, as a magician—especially an African-American magician—Jacoub already possesses the power to create for the good of his people; instead, he confines himself to the laboratory environment and labors in an exacting cerebral science to create an alien being. In essence, he is no better than the witchdoctor, whose practices are at least part of his culture. Even though Jacoub is endowed with the means by which to avoid the trial and error of scientific methods, he prefers to follow them rather than resort to magic. In Black Mass Baraka uses the Muslim myth of Yacub (Jacoub), the wayward scientist, to show his African-American audience that their identity cannot be secure as long as it is subjected to the contagion of "the white thing."

The informing Muslim myth of Black Mass yields two interpretations, both of which are instructional: one explicitly addresses the African-American artist or creator; the other is implicitly relevant to the immediate sensibilities of lay African-American viewers. Nevertheless, for both artists and lay viewers, the play appears to have an easily recognizable moral much like that of the medieval morality play. Its lesson, simply translated, equals, "One who misdirects his talents toward creating for the sake of creation sins and will be duly punished." Upon closer examination, however, the play echoes many real concerns outside its fictional boundaries.

The same philosophy of the play's moral represents Baraka's staunch belief in the social utilitarianism of art and the sanctity of the artist's words. In his 1963 essay, "Brief Reflection on Two Hot Shots," in which he lambastes James Baldwin and South African writer Peter Abrahams, he argues,

We need not call to each other through the flames if we have nothing to say, or are merely diminishing the history of the world with descriptions of it that will show we are intelligent. Intelligence is only valuable when it is contained naturally in the matter we present as a result of the act [of writing … of feeling]. A writer is committed to what is real and not to the sanctity of his own FEELINGS.

Via Black Mass Baraka advocates an artistic alliance among all African-American artists to use their talents in both praising and raising the level of pride in African-American communities. In accordance with the collaboration of African-American artistic talents, which the Black Arts Movement urged, the play's message is an omen for African-American artists who overlook their social responsibility by creating art for amusement or purely capitalistic gain.

For the audience of lay African-American viewers who may have had little, if any, artistic inclination, Black Mass also offers a disturbing view of the psychology of self-hatred. In this sense, the play, far from being one-dimensional, invites one to wonder just what it is which compels Jacoub, a black man, to create a creature who is a foiled attempt to copy characteristics which—even though he does not understand them—he deems worthy of imitation. Not coincidentally, the words of Jacoub's creature identify it as being an imitation of a white creation gone awry: "I white. White. White." Jacoub's preference for "the white thing" shows not only the uselessness of his magical art but also an obsessive urge to mimic something alien to his own culture. [In his 1968 work, Soul On Ice] Eldridge Cleaver offers an interesting assessment of the kind of self-hatred which consumes Jacoub:

Self-hatred takes many forms; sometimes it can be detected by no one, not by the keenest observer, not by the self-hater himself, not by his most intimate friends. Ethnic self-hate is even more difficult to detect. But in American Negroes, this ethnic self-hatred often takes the bizarre form of a racial death wish, with many and elusive manifestations.

Thus, in bypassing the untapped resources of his own culture, Jacoub admits his inferiority and worthlessness and consequently proves his dislike for himself and other African Americans by creating a homicidal monster. Cleaver, therefore, concludes that the "myth of the creation of the white race, called 'Yacub's History,' is an inversion of the racial death wish of American Negroes."

In the context of the particularly prevalent social oppression which African Americans faced during the mid-sixties' staging of Black Mass, however, the racial self-hatred which the play suggests seems to be more of a symptom than a cause: "Art does not create sickness, it retlects or demonstrates sickness that already exists." In this sense, the remedy offered by proponents of the Black Arts Movement sought to blot out the source of the malignant ailment by turning from Western models as frames of reference and establishing new black concepts of cultural and moral beauty. As long as Western influence remained suppressed, racial self-hatred was less likely to thrive.

Because of its mythical references to Africa, Black Mass has been rightfully called Baraka's "most important play." This is particularly true as Africa's undeniable influence facilitates Baraka's efforts to transport his audience's cultural consciousness from America's hostile environment to the pastoral serenity of Africa. The mythical African context provides the viewer with only hints of the play's locale through subtle references, such as the magician's attire: "They are dressed in long, exquisite robes on with skull cap, one with fez, one with African hat"; their obvious un-American names: Nasafi, Tanzil, Jacoub, Rulalie, Olabumi, and Tiila; their regard for the unique ethnic identity of their art: "These are the beauties of creation. / Holding a large bowl aloft. It glows softly gold in the dim light. / The beauties and strength of our blackness, of our black arts"; and vestiges of their means of communication: "Signs in Arabic and Swahili on the wall, Strange drawings, diagrams of weird machines."

Unlike Marcus Garvey, who in the 1920s advocated that African Americans actually return to Africa, Baraka merely calls for a metaphorical return of his people to their pastoral serenity. This return to the source brings with it a self-confidence born of a freedom from mimicking other standards of art or mores. Africa, then, serves as the new frame of reference, especially suitable for the nationalist cause. Neal notes in his contribution to the Black American Reference Book, "Among black Americans today, the nationalist impulse gives rise to romantic longing for the pastoral innocence of the African past. Increasingly writers and artists are turning to the folk culture for inspiration and new formal ideas.

The term "black magic" is such a slippery one that it often lends itself to a variety of interpretations. Yet Baraka's particular use of it in Black Mass points to his earlier arguments against the industrious though isolated art of Abrahams and Baldwin. [In his 1980 book, Amiri Baraka] Lloyd Brown eloquently sums up the role of magic in African-American literature:

It [magic] is both an ethnic and aesthetic power, attacking rationalistic systems in the culture as tools of economic and racial exploitation, and rejecting overly formalistic approaches to art. The idea of magic in both ethnic and aesthetic terms is therefore intrinsically bound up with the experience of transformation: self-hatred is replaced by ethnic pride and art-for-art's sake gives way to art as responsive and committed design. Magic, the very essence of "irrationality" and disorder, in rationalistic terms, is now the symbol of a new, rebellious antirationalism.

Black magic, too, can be perceived as a weapon. It allows African Americans to conceptualize the power of transformation and, more importantly, to realize that they possess that power.

The Black Muslim myth further allows Baraka to propagate the idea of diseased Western influences by creating a sort of allegory drawn from various popular Western legends, such as Frankenstein, Dr. Faustus, Dractula, Tarzan, and Pandora's Box. What is evidenced by all of these influences is the playwright's attempt to draw from the audience's reservoir of Western icons to insure some kind of affinity with the new African-American consciousness which the play promotes. In addition to the broader Muslim myth in which the play is set, references to images promoted by fiction and the screen are more assured of striking chords of familiarity within viewers. Hence, this new consciousness does not represent a radical departure from Western images which extends toward a redefined African-American consciousness.

It should come as no surprise that the concept of the Beast in Black Mass initially evolves as a result of Baraka's close alignment with many of Elijah Muhammad's ideas about Western white male domination over the African-American male. In his Autobiography of Malcom X, Malcolm frequently claims that "the white man is the devil" and that "the black man had great fine, sensitive civilizations before the white man was out of the caves." Evident from the context of Baraka's Beast is the Islamic view that whites—like the way Satan and his army were depicted in heaven—were initially rabble-rousers among members of Islamic heaven. According to world history as Elijah Muhammad interprets it [in his 1965 Message to the Black Man], once these whites were discovered, however,

[they] were punished by being deprived of divine guidance, for 2,000 years which brought them almost into the family of wild beasts—going upon ail fours; eating raw and unseasoned, uncooked food; living in caves and tree tops, climbing and jumping from one tree to the other.

Apparently, Baraka's depiction of the Beast from the context of Islamic history is a strategy which draws learned responses from among members of his African-American audience, most of whom knew the Muslim credo. First, the Beast introduces ominous typological parallels to the beast of the Book of Revelations; thus, these parallels, as seen in the prophetic premise of Black Mass, suggest equally gloomy predictions for African Americans who favor white creations. Second, the actual appearance of the Beast and its subsequent role in the didactic drama allow viewers to focus upon the exemplum of the Beast as a tangible product of "art for art's sake."

Several Western influences assume seemingly lesser roles in the multiple strategies which Baraka employs for depicting the Beast. For example, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein provides a suitably familiar plot which allows Baraka to elaborate upon Elijah Muhammad's philosophy, with few alterations. Several of the novel's stock qualities figure prominently: the obsessed scientist who gives life to a hideous being; the innocent creature doomed to a life of isolation because of its physical distortions; and the creature's ultimate destruction of its creator. Although Baraka utilizes these particular aspects of Shelley's novel, he deviates, especially in his portrayal of the Beast. The creature that was put together by Dr. Frankenstein is given to compassion and kindness. Baraka's nameless Beast, though carved from Shelley's mold, is the antithesis of her warm, human-like protagonist; Instead of the refined diction of Shelley's version, Baraka's Beast is barely intelligible, capable only of reiterating one phrase: "I white. White. White. White." Instead of empathy which the readers are able to experience through first-person narration, viewers only see the Beast's physical repulsiveness and thus are more likely to have a one-dimensional view of it.

The Faustian legend is also identifiable in Black Mass, yet it is doubtful that Baraka's intended audiences could identify it as an influence nor, for that matter, did they need it to comprehend the basic truths of Baraka's morality play unfolding before them. The plot of Christopher Marlowe's dramatized version of the legendary Dr. Faust us involves an overly ambitious Renaissance man who sells his soul to gain the magical powers of necromancy. To be sure, each of the unemployed, poverty-stricken, and disillusioned blacks who witnessed the play could easily identify with this level of high-stakes bartering needed to merely survive in America.

Another Western legend evident in Black Mass, which, more than likely, immediately jogs the consciences of African-American viewers, is that of Dracula. Versions of the legend have appeared in so many aspects of American cultures that it is very easily recognizable. The Gothic tale of the highly contagious vampire whose bite transforms its prey into one of the same is suggested when the Beast bites Tilla:

The woman stumbles toward Jacoub, her face draining of color. Her voice grows coarse, she screams, covering herself with her robes. She emerges, slowly, from within the folds of the garment, her entire body shuddering, and beginning to do small hop the beast did. Suddenly she throws back the robes, and she is white, or white blotches streak her face and hair. She laughs and weeps in deadly cross between white and black. Her words have turned to grunts, and she moves like an animal robot.

In his use of the Dracula legend, Baraka likens the influence that the dominant white culture has over blacks who embrace assimilation to the ghastly interdependence between a bloodthirsty vampire and its unwitting prey. These highly suggestive images become especially evident when the white beast bites one of the female characters and "infects" her with his whiteness. Baraka also shows, however, through the victim's incomplete transformation from black to white that the effects of assimilation for blacks is never absolute. Unfortunately for Tilla, these remnants become evident when she "laughs and weeps in deadly cross between white and black." No matter how much they claim whiteness, they will always be black and will always be regarded by whites and other blacks as such. For African Americans who have abandoned their culture in favor of another, their awkwardness is multiplied by "the widespread use of cosmetics to bleach the black out of one's skin … and nose thinning and lip-clipping operations." What results is a similar mutation.

Implications of Edgar Rice Burrough's legendary creation Tarzan are also intertwined throughout Baraka's Black Mass. Enjoying immense popularity in the United States, the edenic version of the white man of the jungle was catapulted by the visual media to a symbol of American culture, much like today's Rambo image. Just as Dracula is an easily recognizable prototype for the African-American audience, so too is Tarzan.

Baraka's inversion of the Tarzan legend is particularly relevant to his concept of wasted or misdirected knowledge. In the original legend, Jane insists upon instructing Tarzan in etiquette and proper speech, though he obviously has no need of either in his jungle home. Similarly, in Black Mass, Jacoub insists that the Beast be taught: "We will teach this thing the world of humanity. And we will benefit by its inhuman…." He proceeds to educate the creature using a patronizing manner similar to Jane's.

Amiri Baraka's Black Mass incorporates principles from yet another western myth—Pandora's Box. The basic storyline of this Greek myth and universally popular tale involves a woman who is entrusted with a box containing all the ills that could plague mankind. Not able to resist temptation and against the counsel of others, she eventually opens the box and lets loose a myriad of evil forces. In particular, Black Mass follows three sections of the myth's structure: the prophesy, the disobedience,and the prophetic fruition. In this sense, the unleashing of evil upon the world is a result of Jacoub's disobedience to the prophetic entreaties of his associates, and the prophetic fruition occurs as the Beast eventually escapes out into the audience of the theater. The influence of the Pandora's Box myth is especially evident in the comments of Tanzil ("You have turned loose absolute evil") and in the appended words of the final detached Narrator:

And so, Brothers and Sisters, these beasts are still loose in the world. Still they spit their hideous cries. There are beasts in our world, Brothers and Sisters. There are beasts in our world. Let us find them and slay them. Let us lock them in their caves.

Baraka's recurrent tendency to juxtapose opposites in order to create absurd images is prevalent in Jacoub's determination to teach a creature that Baraka has so grossly caricatured that the act appears laughable. Just as he parodies the science and magic which Jacoub initially misuses in creating the Beast, in this instance, he underscores the futility of knowledge which does no more than ricochet off the Beast.

Mel Gussow, who reviewed the 1972 production of Black Mass at a Baraka Festival in New York, notes, in particular, the play's offensive story line: "Black man creates white man—definitely not in his own image—and then ridicules him. A portentous ritual suddenly turns into a clown show, a notion that seemed to delight the almost all-black audience opening night." Clearly the white critic was offended by what he perceived as the play's condescension toward the white race. Yet apparently Baraka had staged a play in which the ends justify the means. That is, he harnesses the general popularity and acceptance of the Islamic myth, makes several alterations, and produces a humorous, though disturbing, statement about the African-American's ritual practice of imitating white America.

George Piggford (essay date Spring 1997)

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SOURCE: "Looking into Black Skulls: Amiri Baraka's Dutchman and the Psychology of Race," in Modern Drama, Vol. XL, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 74-82.

[In the following essay, Piggford explores Baraka's psychological analysis of black American men in Dutchman.]

Houston A. Baker, Jr. has rightly observed [in The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature and Criticism, 1980] that "the radical chic denizens of Bohemia [and] the casual liberals of the academy" have never recognized LeRoi Jones's/Amiri Baraka's achievement as a playwright and a poet because his "brilliantly projected conception of black as country—a separate and progressive nation with values antithetical to those of white America—stands in marked contrast to the ideas set forth by Baldwin, Wright. Ellison, and others in the fifties." That is, according to the integrationist politics that continue to dominate discussions of race in the United States, what we might in the 1990s call the "African-American problem" is indeed seen as the African-American's problem to examine and solve, not the white's. Baraka's Black Power political agenda, which perceives the United States as a society at least as black as it is white, a country built on "oppression and destruction," stands in marked contrast to the general integrationist bent of American racial politics. The call to revolutionary action inscribed into his drama demands a rethinking of both the American social system and the ways that it is typically examined in the generally liberal critical discourses of the predominantly white academy.

Baraka's one-act play Dutchman (1964) amply illustrates the persistence of racial tension in the United States in the 1960s and represents an emerging militant attitude on the part of American blacks, and on the part of black American playwrights. According to Samuel A. Hay [in African/American Theatre: A Historical and Critical Analysis, 1994], the African American Protest Drama of W. E. B. Du Bois, which viewed theatre as an integrationist "political weapon," was transformed by Baraka into the separatist Black Revolutionary Theatre of the 1960s, which "no longer represented appeals to share power," but depicted "seizures of power." Baraka himself has claimed that his play is an early example of "The Revolutionary Theatre," a theatre, like Artaud's "theatre of cruelty," that "should force change; it should be change" [Baraka, Home: Social Essays]. Baraka continues:

The Revolutionary Theatre must EXPOSE! Show up the insides of these humans, look into black skulls. White men will cower before this theatre because it hates them. Because they themselves have been trained to hate. The Revolutionary Theatre must hate them for hating. For presuming with their technology to deny the supremacy of the Spirit. They will all die because of this.

Baraka's strong words point emphatically toward the end of this theatre: a revolutionary change in social structures. The idea that theatrical performance should attempt to force social change was initially articulated by Antonin Artaud in The Theatre and Its Double: "our present social state is iniquitous and should be destroyed. If this is a fact for the theater to be pre-occupied with, it is even more a matter for machine guns." Theatrical groups such as Julian Beck and Judith Malina's Living Theatre, founded in 1951, attempted to put Artaud's theories into practice. For the directors and performers of the Living Theatre: "Life, revolution, and theatre are three words for the same thing: an unconditional NO to the present society" [Julian Beck, quoted by Theodore Shank, in American Alternative Theater, 1982]. The Black Revolutionary Theatre represents an attempt to racialize the Artaudian "theatre of cruelty" by instigating its audience to act in revolutionary and violent ways to overthrow the white-dominated American social order.

For Baraka, the theatre of which Dutchman is an example is centrally political; it will ultimately lead to the (at least) symbolic death of the white race. It is also, however, a psychological study, though one that exposes the limitations of the psychoanalytic process. As Samuel Hay states it, "Black Revolutionary drama deconstructed both Outer Life and Inner Life." In Dutchman, Baraka attempts to psychoanalyze the black male in America, typified by the character Clay; his technique is meant to lay bare the social forces that make black men into neurotic subjects. His cure for their neurosis is race revolution and mass murder.

Frantz Fanon, in Black Skin, White Masks, extols the power of language rather than political activism to solve what he terms the "color problem," suggesting that this problem exists primarily in language itself: "From all sides dozens and hundreds of pages assail me and try to impose their wills on me. But a single line would be enough. Supply a single answer and the color problem would be stripped of all its importance." Fanon implies in this passage that if language is transformed—if the answer to this "problem" is found—the issue of race will simply disappear. This assumption is based on Fanon's naïve trust in the Freudian psychoanalytic method. Freudian psychoanalysis asserts that one can solve psychological problems through language in a similar way, by making unconscious desires conscious through therapy. The surfacing of a psychological disorder in the conscious mind of the patient through the linguistic give-and-take of psychotherapy should, according to Freud, cure the disorder. He makes this clear in Dora: "the practical aim of … treatment is to remove all possible symptoms and to replace them by conscious thoughts" (emphasis mine).

Fanon's approach to the "color problem" reproduces Freud's method within a sociological frame: "I believe that only a psychoanalytical interpretation of the black problem can lay bare the anomalies of affect that are responsible for the structure of the complex." By applying the psychoanalytic process to the black man as an idea. Fanon hopes to "destroy" the "massive psychoexistential complex" that underlies "the juxtaposition of the white and black races …, by analyzing it" (emphasis mine). Like Freud, Fanon assumes that by making this "psychoexistential complex" conscious, he will eradicate it. Dutchman as historical text demonstrates that Fanon's solution was overly optimistic: the problems associated with black and white race relations did not evaporate in the decade between the publication Peau Noire, Masques Blancs, and the first performance of Baraka's play; indeed, they had multiplied and intensified. Baraka's text explores the psychology of race in the United States by looking "into black skulls." and is in this way similar to a Freudian case study like Dora. Further, it provides a thematization of the ways that race, gender, and sexuality are constructed in American social consciousness.

However, Baraka, unlike Fanon, does not attempt to understand the "color problem" in order to solve it through a psychoanalytic sleight-of-hand; rather, his exposition of the situation of blacks in American culture is geared to an ultimate destruction of that culture: "The Revolutionary Theatre, which is now peopled with victims, will soon begin to be peopled with new kinds of heroes…. [T]hese will be new men, new heroes, and their enemies most of you who are reading this" [Baraka, Home: Social Essays]. Dutchman's Clay is presented as an example of the "victims" that people Revolutionary Theatre; he is identifiable as a Faustian anti-hero rather than a hero. But Baraka's intentions are clear: Clay, characterized primarily by his repressed desires to rape and murder whites, is martyred for the black revolutionary cause.

It is within the gothic, dreamlike atmosphere of Dutchman that the text's anti-hero, Clay, moves from a state of repression to one of acceptance of his unconscious desires. Indeed, the play encourages its black audience members to do likewise and warns its white viewers that the revolution is coming. Though he eventually expresses his desire to "[m]urder," Clay refuses to act on this impulse—indeed, it is Lula, the white villainess of the play, who will murder him. Clay dies at Lula's hands, then, as a self-aware but impotent and castrated subject. Lula functions in Dutchman as both Clay's mother and his demonic psychotherapist by bringing Clay's repressed desires to the surface of his consciousness. Through her verbal taunting she eventually peers into Clay's "black skull" and finds his murderous unconscious impulses.

A dutchman, "the theatrical term meaning a strip of cloth used to hid[e] the crack between the seams of flats, or, in a more general sense, a contrivance used to hide a defect of some kind" [Robert L. Tener, "Role Playing as a Dutchman," Studies in Black Literature, Vol. 3, No. 3, 1972], connotes something impermanently and fragilely held together that provides the illusion of solidity and permanence. The title Dutchman can be understood in this way as a metaphor for "the meretricious facade of civility" [George Ralph, "Jones's Dutchman," The Explicator, Vol. 43. No. 2, 1985] utilized by Clay both in his dress and his language to hide his murderous inner desires. It is this façade that Lula relentlessly strips away, as a psychoanalytic therapist might, attempting to access Clay's unconscious by getting behind "whatever surface his unconscious happens to be presenting to his notice at that moment," by asking him leading questions about his innermost thoughts. Towards the end of scene one, Lula informs Clay, "You're a murderer, Clay, and you know it," and, anticipating his denial, continues, "You know goddamn well what I mean." The still-repressed Clay uncertainly responds to this accusation with a questioning "I do?" Lula's pronouncement of Clay's desire to murder whites is based on the assumption that all black men are secretly murderers, and she successfully proves this theory by bringing out the potential murderer in Clay. This is Clay's innermost "defect." the secret buried in his unconscious mind.

Though Lula suggests that Clay is "too serious to be psychoanalyzed," her comment can only be read as ironic, for she proceeds to psychoanalyze him successfully. As Sherley Anne Williams has correctly observed [in "The Search for Identity in Baraka's Dutchman," in Imamu Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones): A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Kimberley W. Benston, 1978], "Lula … control[s] the situation. She picks Clay up. She encourages him. And it is she who goads him into revealing things which must have been carefully hidden deep in the most secret places of his heart." When Lula makes her diagnosis, when she reveals Clay's inner self to him. he resists coming to terms with his own murderous "pumping black heart":

LULA […] Clay, you got to break out. Don't just sit there dying the way they want you to die. Get up.

CLAY Oh, sit the fuck down.[…] Sit down, goddamn it.

LULA […] Screw yourself, Uncle Tom. Thomas Woolly-head.[…]

CLAY Lula! Lula![…] Lula … you dumb bitch. Why don't you stop it?

But she eventually goads him into disclosing his "neurosis":

LULA You're afraid of white people. And your father was. Uncle Tom Big Lip!

CLAY […] Now shut up and let me talk. Shit, you don't have any sense, Lula, nor feelings either. I could murder you now.[…] It takes no great effort.[…] Just let me bleed you, you loud whore […] A whole people of neurotics, struggling to keep from being sane. And the only thing that would cure the neurosis would be your murder. Simple as that. I mean if I murdered you, then other white people would begin to understand me. You understand? No.[…] Murder. Just murder! Would make us all sane.

Clay's insanity, according to his newly discovered understanding of it, is a by-product of the neurotic, white culture which insists that he hide his inner feelings while it goads him into revealing them. His neurosis is simply the neurosis endemic to being a black man in American culture. Immediately after making this discovery, he imagines a utopic space where this neurosis would be eliminated in the act of black revenge for his "castration" at the hands of whites.

But even after revealing his inner nature, Clay embraces the essential repressiveness of his social and cultural situation: "Ahhh. Shit. But who needs it? I'd rather be a fool. Insane." Unlike a Freudian case study, and unlike Fanon's approach, Baraka's text does not provide a cure for the "color problem" through an understanding of it. Though Fanon's "single answer" to the "color problem" is articulated by Clay—and that answer is "murder"—the problem is not eliminated. For Baraka, a public expression of this answer is a necessary first step but it is not—as Fanon wrongly assumed—the revolution itself. Even Freud acknowledges that the efficacy of psychoanalysis is limited by "the patient's own will and understanding," and it is Clay's own desire to remain an "Uncle Tom" that forecloses the possibility of his becoming an actual murderer, at least for the moment.

But by goading Clay into revealing his unconscious wishes, Lula has produced a self-conscious potential murderer, one who might pose a threat to white society sometime in the future. She has pointed out to Clay his hidden identity: he is a middle-class black, which she identifies with the insulting label "Uncle Tom"; simultaneously, he is a potential revolutionary who wants to murder her. As Louis Phillips explains [in "LeRoi Jones and Contemporary Black Drama," in The Black American Writer, edited by C. W. E. Bigsby, vol. II, Poetry and Drama, 1969], "Lula mocks Clay and accuses him of being an Uncle Tom … whereas Clay would like to see himself as a black revolutionary. The truth, however, is that he is neither one nor the other, and, hence, feels a real lack of identity." This lack, or space internal conflict, can be understood metaphorically in Freudian terms as evidence of Clay's "castration" by white society, represented ultimately by Lula's murder of Clay with a suspiciously phallic knife. Indeed, Lula indicates clearly to Clay that their entire dialogue is about Clay's status as a man:

LULA […] we'll sit and talk endlessly, endlessly.

CLAY About what?

LULA About what? About your manhood, what do you think? What do you think we've been talking about all this time?

CLAY Well, I didn't know it was that. That's for sure. Every other thing in the world but that.

Numerous critics have pointed to Clay's "emasculated life" and have discussed his "castration" at the hands of Lula. Lula's power over Clay is based on what seems to be her uncanny knowledge of him, but when Clay says to her, "Hey, you still haven't told me how you know so much about me." Lula responds, "I told you I didn't know anything about you … you're a well-known type." Dutchman, therefore, adheres to the pattern of a Freudian case study, in which the neurosis of a particular individual typifies a general kind of neurosis that can be treated following the methods of a particular case.

It is possible to understand Lula and Clay both as lovers and as mother and son, suggesting that the themes of black revenge and incest are crucial to Baraka's play. According to Diane Weisgram [in "LeRoi Jones' Dutchman: Inter-racial Ritual of Sexual Violence," American Imago, Vol. 29. No. 3, 1972], "Clay and Lula are the primordial parents fused in a violent sexual encounter; and in keeping with the fluid identifications of primal scene fantasies, they are also mother and son. Clay's expulsion from the car [after his murder] suggests an image of violent birth. This situation places the two characters in a position of incestuous seduction. The text raises the issue of incest when Lula tells Clay: "You tried to make it with your sister when you were ten.[…] But I succeeded a few weeks ago." Not only does this statement suggest "an unconscious incestuous union" between Clay and Lula, but also it places Lula securely in the phallic position in their relationship. After all, Lula is the one who "made it," a phrase used for both for Clay's failed attempt and implicitly for Lula's successful attempt to penetrate Clay's sister.

In order to prepare Clay for his death/birth at the end of the text, Lula—playing her part of white phallic mother—even teaches him his proper lines, his proper role, as a mother would instruct her son. But she teaches him the exact words he should use to commence a seduction of her:

LULA […] Now you say to me, "Lula, Lula, why don't you go to this party with me tonight?" It's your turn, and let those be your lines.

CLAY Lula, why don't you go to this party with me tonight, Huh?

LULA Say my name twice before you ask, and no huh's.

CLAY Lula, Lula, why don't you go to this party with me tonight?

This interaction generally parallels what Freud has termed "parental seduction"; Lula, the mother/lover, attempts to seduce Clay the son/lover, though her seduction will not lead to sexual union but to her murder of Clay. This seduction scene, with its overtones of miscegenation, suggests what has traditionally been perceived as the horrifying possibility of an incestuous union between races; Baraka here explores the horror of the sexual aspect of the politics of integration.

According to Baraka, in "American Sexual Reference: Black Male," "white women become men-things, a weird combination, sucking the male juices to build a navel orange, which is themselves" [Home: Social Essays]. White women are forced to play this vampiric role because white men have become castrated and feminine: "[m]ost American white men are trained to be fags," an identification he associates with powerlessness, femaleness, and therefore castration [Home: Social Essays]. This identification exists at odds with Baraka's more conflicted understanding of homosexuality in his play The Toilet, which was running off Broadway at the same time as Dutchman. In that text, the mutual homosexual desire between a black student gang leader, Foots, and a white student, Karolis, is treated with complexity and sympathy. After Foots' gang beats up Karolis for sending Foots a "love letter" (though it may have been Foots himself who sent the note), Foots, alone with Karolis, "kneels before the body, weeping and cradling the head in his arms."

In "American Sexual Reference," however, Baraka's simplistic (and often misogynistic and homophobic) discussion of the gender/race system reinscribes binaristic constructions of male/female, white/black, heterosexual/homosexual. Baraka strives to invert these binaries; he does not challenge the overarching binaristic system which privileges one (albeit arbitrary) category over another.

Further, Baraka associates the mutilation of genitals that often accompanied the lynching of black men with an attempt to "remove the threat of the black man asserting [his] manness" [Home: Social Essays], that is, the threat of black men raping white women, the revenge of black Americans for the horrifying oppressions of slavery. "[White] America," he asserts, "has always tried to … make [the black man] swallow his manhood" [Home: Social Essays]. White women, Baraka claims, are both repulsed by and sexually attracted to black men. The feelings of black men are mutual: "[f]or the black man, acquisition of a white woman always signified some special power the black man had managed to obtain … within white society" [Home: Social Essays]. Fanon associates this power with the "whitening" of the black man:

Out of the blackest part of my soul … surges this desire to be suddenly white.

I wish to be acknowledged not as black but as white.

Now … who but a white woman can do this for me? By loving me she proves that I am worthy of white love. I am loved like a white man.

For Baraka, as for Fanon, the relationship between black men and white women can be contextualized in terms of seduction. Understood in this way, however, the seduction between Lula and Clay must be in some sense mutual.

One way to make sense of the relationship between Lula and Clay in Dutchman is found in a reading of the text as an internal conflict. Certainly the "dreamlike" quality of the text noted above supports a reading of the play as a representation of an identity crisis experienced within Clay's psyche. Traditional Freudian readings tend to interpret Baraka's play as "a play which exemplifies the function of the id, and … its so-called 'absurdity' and 'obscenity' are reflections of its function" [George R. Adams, "Black Militant Drama," American Imago, Vol. 28, No. 2, 1971]. From this perspective, Lula and Clay become manifestations of Clay's split self. Dutchman raises the possibility that Lula was a hidden aspect of Clay's own "black skull," an intrinsic part of Clay's own psyche. Lula is both separate from and a part of Clay, much as white and black America are both distinct and inseparable. Lula can be understood in this text as what bell hooks [in "Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination," in Cultural Studies, 1992] has discussed as "the representation of whiteness as terrorizing" in the consciousness of black Americans. Understood in this way, Baraka's play suggests that the terror of whiteness must be removed from black skulls before it can be removed from society through political action.

This reading is supported by Julia Kristeva's re-theorizing of Freud's notion of parental seduction. According to Kristeva [in "Place Names," in Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, 1980], this seduction happens only in the realm of the imaginary, as a result of an individual's repressed wish to have been seduced by his parent: "We thus come to the shaping of this image of the child-parent, the seducing child, a child always already older, born into the world with compound drives, erogenous zones, and even genital desires." This understanding of parental seduction can be associated metaphorically with Baraka's notion of the relationship between white women and black men. Black men want both to murder and to seduce their phallic mothers, the white women who are made "men-things" by American society. But for Kristeva this desire exists primarily within an individual psyche: "through the seduction myth, [the child] sees itself as being attached by drive … to this object of love [its phallic mother]." This mother is, however, simply an idea generated in the mind of the "child"; she is a "type" rather than a "real" individual.

The dumb show presented before the dialogue begins in Dutchman supports the plausibility of this reading:

The man [Clay] looks idly up, until he sees a woman's face staring at him through the window; when it realizes that the man has noticed the face, it begins very premeditatedly to smile. The man smiles too, for a moment, without a trace of self-consciousness. Almost an instinctive though undesirable response. Then a kind of awkwardness or embarrassment sets in, and the man makes to look away, is further embarrassed, so he brings back his eyes to where the face was, but by now […] the face would seem to be left behind.

This scene parallels a Lacanian/Kristevan "mirror stage," where "the Same sees itself altered through the well-known opening that constitutes it as a representation, sign, and death." In this reading. Lula becomes a "return of the repressed," a re-enactment of a primal scene in which the subjectivity of Clay takes on identity through the perception of an other—in this case his own internalized terror of whiteness—within his own imagination. Importantly, this entire exchange occurs in the mise-en-scène of the play, rather than in its relatively naturalistic dialogue.

If Dutchman can be understood as an internal conflict, a dream, it is a dream in which the binaries black and white, male and female, become contextualized in the individual psyche of one person. Blackness signifies in this text virtue and naïveté; whiteness vice and disingenuousness. Maleness signifies castration, and femaleness phallic power. The text inverts the typical significations of the tropes of whiteness and blackness in white American culture. The relationship of these significations to the themes of incest and parricide, particularly patricide, is made clear by Clay:

CLAY […] tell this to your father, who's probably the kind of man who needs to know at once. So he can plan ahead. Tell him not to preach so much rationalism and cold logic to these niggers. Let them alone.[…] Don't make the mistake, through some irresponsible surge of Christian charity, of talking too much about the advantages of Western rationalism, or the great intellectual legacy of the white man, or maybe they'll begin to listen. And then, maybe one day, you'll find they actually do understand exactly what you are talking about, all these fantasy people.[…] And on that day, as sure as shit, when you really believe you can 'accept' them into your fold, as half-white trustees late of the subject peoples.[…] They'll murder you, and have very rational explanations. Very much like your own. They'll cut your throats, and drag you to the edge of your cities so the flesh can fall away from your bones, in sanitary isolation.

Clay's desires are clear: he wants to murder the white father. The character Clay, himself a castrated, "half-white trustee," here reveals a vision of race revolution which will lead to an inversion of the dominant structure of power. First he will purge the internalized whiteness from his own psyche (the seductive phallic mother, in Kristeva's terms), then murder the white father who controls the social structures of racial domination.

Clay's apocalyptic vision also evokes the hellish atmosphere of Baraka's novel The System of Dante's Hell, his exploration of a particularly middle-class black nightmare. While the representation of an anti-hero like Clay is a necessary step in the history of black Revolutionary Theatre, Baraka's attitude towards this neurotic black is expressed in his contemporaneous novel: "I put The Heretics in the deepest part of hell, though Dante had them spared, on higher ground. It is heresy against one's own sources, running in terror, from one's deepest responses and insights … that I see as basest evil." Dutchman, then, examines the "skull" of a repressed middle-class black in order to expose the horror of his daily life, his personal hell as it were. It also functions as a warning—both to "heretical" blacks like Clay who help support the nightmare of black oppression through inaction and to whites—that the revolution is coming. By exposing the horror of race relations in America through the psychological case study Dutchman, Baraka both diagnoses the problem in American society—white dominance—and prescribes his cure: race revolution and murder.

Carla J. McDonough (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: "Amiri Baraka: Angry Young Men," in Staging Masculinity: Male Identity in Contemporary American Drama, McFarland & Company, 1997, pp. 30-2.

[In the following excerpt from her Staging Masculinity, McDonough studies Baraka's treatment of black manhood in his works.]

While [Eugene] O'Neill, [Arthur] Miller, and [Tennessee] Williams were produced chiefly on the main stages of Broadway, the avant-garde, off-Broadway plays of Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), which were often written within and for the Black Revolutionary theater, became a powerful voice for issues of race within American culture, an issue that is at the heart of American identity. His confrontational style of theater is at the forefront of the 1960s off-off-Broadway movement that cultivated Shepard and opened the way for … other dramatists…. Baraka's theater, however, is distinctly masculine in its orientation, as Michele Wallace's Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman has so vividly and controversially demonstrated. Wallace argues that, like many other leaders of the Black Power movement, Baraka's fight for black power and black liberation in his plays and essays is focused chiefly on black manhood. Referring to Baraka's essay "American Sexual Reference: Black Male," which opens with the statement "Most American white men are trained to be fags" [Home: Social Essays, 1966], Wallace shows that "according to Jones the struggle of black against white was the purity of primitivism against the corruption of technology, the noble savage against the pervert bureaucrats, the super macho against the fags." Baraka's equation of white men with "fags" is clearly intended to be the worst insult he can think to throw at another man, a concept based on homophobia, which Wallace also critiques. This homophobia has traditionally been a key to maintaining and protecting the dominance of a certain type of heterosexual masculinity, as is apparent, for instance, in Streetcar Named Desire.

Though many critics may have been taken aback by Wallace's critique that demonstrates how the African American fight for power was collapsed by its male leaders into the black man's fight for his manhood, Baraka himself has indicated that Dutchman is first and foremost about black masculinity. In "LeRoi Jones Talking" he wrote:

Dutchman is about the difficulty of becoming a man in America. It is very difficult, to be sure, if you are black, but I think it is now much harder to become one if you are white. In fact, you will find very few white American males with the slightest knowledge of what manhood involves. They are too busy running the world or running from it.

[The first half of this] highly provocative statement regarding white males … begs for attention now.

True to Baraka's statement above, perhaps no other play within the American theatrical canon illustrates more vividly the dilemma that results from being black and male in America, a country that insists that its men enact an assertive and powerful masculinity at the same time that it crushes and even kills black men who attempt to do so. The issue of enacting gendered behavior, of gender as performance, is as crucial to this play as it is to Streetcar. The audience of Dutchman is encouraged to view Clay's actions—his masculinity—as a performance he has chosen to enact. Lula calls Clay a well-known "type," and Clay later admits to being so out of choice. When pushed by Lula's insults to take a stand for himself, Clay tells her:

If I'm a middle-class fake white man … let me be. And let me be in the way I want. I'll rip your lousy breasts off! Let me be who I feel like being. Uncle Tom. Thomas. Whoever. It's none of your business. You don't know anything except what's there for you to see. An act. Lies. Device. Not the pure heart, the pumping black heart.

This self-knowledge seems to be the ultimate cause of Clay's murder. Clay is acting the part of a "middle-class fake white man," and warns Lula that he does so "to keep myself from cutting all your throats." He reveals to Lula that although he pretends to be an "Uncle Tom" he is actually hiding or repressing his anger and hatred, and it is this anger that Lula wants revealed so that she will have a reason, or an excuse, to kill him. As long as he plays the Uncle Tom "type" (as does the conductor whom Lula ignores at the end of the play) without acknowledging his performance, he is no threat to the system, but Clay both enacts a demure exterior as a defensive measure and remains aware of "the pure heart, the pumping black heart" within him. Subsequently, he is considered to be dangerous to the white patriarchal system, ironically represented (in a more vivid way than we saw in The Hairy Ape) by a white woman. Clay's "danger." as his final speech indicates, is that he might at any moment choose to perform his role differently.

Clay's self-knowledge is somewhat akin to that of Blanche, who performs a role created for her by the white patriarchy of her Southern culture, at the same time knowing it is a role. Although it is not always comfortable for her, though it is often even hypocritical, that performance is also necessary for survival, something that Blanche understands. Like Clay, it is her self-knowledge that destroys her because she cannot reconcile the performance with the reality, although Stanley manages to do so for himself by simply not acknowledging his performance as anything but reality. In a certain way, Blanche and Clay both expose the danger and dilemmas of self-knowledge if the self does not fit into neatly, predefined social categories. In Stanley's world, there is no place for Blanche because she does not fit into only one of the "appropriate" roles he envisions for women: wife, mother, or whore. In Lula's world, there is no place for Clay because he resists neat dichotomies: he is neither a white man nor an Uncle Tom.

Clay's emphasis on his performance reveals, however, the extent to which performance is necessary to his survival. In proving that his performance is a way to mask his rage. Clay's references are to professional entertainers from the black community, notably Bessie Smith and Charlie Parker, who he claims also mask their rage behind their performances. The professional "performance" of music or poetry, Clay argues, is simply channellings of the rage that all blacks, all the "blues people," actually feel towards whites. Clay, Baraka's version of the average black man, is presented as playing the same game as the professional performer, what Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson refer to in Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America as a "relentless performance … in a theater that is seldom dark." To "pass" through a while world that refuses to acknowledge a black man's right to existence and chooses to see him as a threat, he must disguise himself in a manner that will be perceived by his white viewers as nonthreatening. This image of the mask appears often in plays by African Americans that treat the difficulty of finding and knowing one's identity in a culture that seeks to take away that identity.

In addition to the theme of masculine identity that Baraka details, Dutchman provides an influential style of theater for presenting this issue. The violence and rage of his male characters, while overtly motivated by racial injustice, are covertly reflecting a confusion regarding gender identity that is apparent in the rage and violence among the men in the plays of [Sam] Shepard, [David] Mamet, [David] Rabe, and, to a lesser extent, [August] Wilson. Violence and aggression are associated with masculinity not only by these playwrights, but by sociological definitions of masculinity…. Baraka's theater is an angry theater, his men are bitter and defensive, threatened and imperilled, but fighting back. We … see similar characteristics among men in [other] plays …, indicating that certain gender issues are at the heart of the anger and violence that are so often exhibited by male characters in contemporary plays by both black and white men in America.

The vagaries, the fracturings, the insecurities of male identity are all present within plays by O'Neill, Williams, Miller, and Baraka, who serve as sometimes direct, sometimes shadowy influences on the leading male playwrights of the next generation. Although all of the playwrights … indicate that they see their plays as encompassing a wide canvas of American experience (the family, business, war, the frontier), consistently within the plays of all four dramatists, that canvas shrinks as the American myths or subjects they treat reveal themselves to be gendered as male. The plays … reveal, at times unintentionally, the "invisible" or "unspeakable" idea that masculinity is often as disempowering for the men who seek to enact it as it is empowering. This disempowerment explains in part the defensiveness and even paranoia that plagues so many male characters. Masculinity, manliness and manhood, far from comprising a stable, monolithic construct, become fractured and insecure in these plays, yet masculinity is also the territory over which these playwrights and their characters fiercely fight for mastery.


Baraka, Imamu Amiri (Vol. 5)


Baraka, Amiri (Drama Criticism)