A Turbulent Life: On Amiri Baraka

A Turbulent Life: On Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual
by Jerry Gafio Watts
NYU Press, 2001 577 pp $37.95
 

In 1961, LeRoi Jones, a young writer in Greenwich Village, published a slim collection of brooding, introspective poems entitled Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. “Each morning,” Jones wrote, “I go down to Gansevoort Street and stand on the docks./I stare out at the horizon/until it gets up and comes to embrace me./I make believe it is my father./This is known as genealogy.” But Jones’s poems soon took on a darker cast; his second collection, The Dead Lecturer (1964), revealed a deepening preoccupation with violence and self-loathing: “I am inside someone/who hates me,” Jones averred. “I look out from his eyes./Smell what fouled tunes come in to his breath./Love his wretched women.”

The murder of Malcolm X in 1965 radicalized Jones. He jettisoned his Beat identity, left Greenwich Village for Harlem, and eventually changed his name to Amiri Baraka. Gone were the brooding poems of the early 1960s; black liberation was his new fixation. Jones’s 1966 book, Black Art, began with a poem called “SOS”: “Calling black people/Calling all black people, man woman child/Wherever you are, calling you, urgent, come in.” If Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note was characterized by a creeping melancholy, Black Art was bursting with rage; it concluded with a poetic manifesto wherein Jones issued a call for “poems that kill,” “assassin poems,” poems that “wrestle cops into alleys/and take their weapons leaving them dead/with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.”

From 1965 to 1974, Jones devoted himself to the black nationalist cause, mostly in Newark, New Jersey, but also on the national level with the short-lived Congress of Afrikan Peoples. But those efforts left him disillusioned, and in 1974 he abandoned black nationalism for the rigid Marxism he adheres to today. Jerry Gafio Watts recalls running into Baraka on the Yale campus in the early 1980s, when the latter was a visiting professor. An elderly white man strolled past them. “That’s the old fascist Robert Penn Warren!” Baraka hissed. At the time, Yale’s dining hall workers were on strike, and Watts was astonished to see Baraka pull a pack of Xeroxed leaflets from his satchel, which he distributed to workers and students. The leaflets read: “SUPPORT THE YALE DINING HALL WORKERS! CALL FOR GENERAL STRIKE! SMASH THE CAPITALIST STATE!”

From the Beat generation to black nationalism to socialist revolution: what a long, strange, incendiary trip it’s been, one that has inspired reams of commentary and criticism. In his 1965 essay “New Styles in ‘Leftism,’ ” Irving Howe dismissed Jones as a charlatan, “an adjunct of middle-class amusement,” a “pop-art guerrilla warrior.” But subsequent critics, many of whom are black, are rather more generous to Baraka. Arnold Rampersad, the biographer of Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, has proclaimed that Baraka “stands with Wheatley, Douglass, Dunbar, Hughes, Hurston, Wright and Ellison as one of the eight figures. . . who have significantly affected the course of African-American literary culture.”

Jerry Gafio Watts’s hefty new book is not, alas, a biography of Baraka. Watts calls it “one person’s necessarily flawed, critical commentary on another’s life and work.” Flawed, one regrets to say, is the key word: Watts has written a flat, turgid book about a uniquely fascinating and disturbing individual, a book that hurls phrases like “demonic” and “pathetic” at its subject. But Baraka’s political career-along with his massive, uneven oeuvre, which consists of more than thirty books of plays, essays, poetry, fiction, and autobiography-deserves more subtle treatment. The definitive study of him remains unwritten.
 

EVERETT LEROY JONES was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1934. His mother was a social worker; his father was a postal employee who subscribed to Esquire. Racial consciousness came to Jones at a young age. When he was thirteen, he devoured Richard Wright’s Black Boy. Around the same time he saw a photograph of Emmett Till in Jet and was stunned by his “ruptured swollen horrible body.” In the seventh grade, Jones visited the Bronx Zoo on a class trip, and lingered in the elephant house, where he came upon a white custodian. “Wow, how do you stand it in here?” Jones exclaimed, referring to “the terrible odor of elephant shit.” “I don’t mind it,” the custodian retorted, “I live in Harlem.” “Yeh, a white guy said this,” Jones recalled in The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones, “and it went through me like a frozen knife.”

Jones attended Howard University, but recoiled at its “stiffness and artificiality,” its “petty bourgeois Negro mentality.” Its integrationist mission nauseated him: “In coldly sociological terms, under national oppression, it was the Sisyphus myth given numbers to chart the exact degree of pain,” he fumed in his Autobiography. “Or ants piling up tidbits of zero to build the Empire State Building and then not even own it.”

In 1954, Jones dropped out and joined the Air Force. Shortly thereafter he found a copy of Ulysses “and suddenly understood that I didn’t know a hell of a lot about anything.” He eventually became the night librarian on his military base, where he immersed himself in Herman Melville and Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust and D.H. Lawrence, Buddhist texts, and the Communist Manifesto. An anonymous letter to his commanding officer accusing him of being a communist put an end to Jones’s military career; among his sins was possession of a copy of Partisan Review. He was put on gardening duty, tending to the flowers on the base, and left the “error farce” shortly thereafter with a dishonorable discharge.

Jones arrived in Greenwich Village in early 1957 and took up residence in a tenement on East Third Street. Food and money were scarce, so he sometimes stole food from delicatessens: “My best shot was those nice barbecuing chickens they sit on the counter after taking them off the spit.” Jones soon found a job in a record warehouse, which fueled his interest in black music and brought him into contact with writers such as Nat Hentoff and Martin Williams. Friendships also developed with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, Gilbert Sorrentino and Hubert Selby, Frank O’Hara and Larry Rivers. For the first time, Jones began to associate with white women. He had a girlfriend who lived below Houston Street and, in the mornings, he would pass her Italian neighbors on the stairway: “It seemed they were all scowling at me and so were the ones in the street.”
In early 1960, Jones went to Cuba. “I was never the same again,” he has written.

By 1964, he had achieved considerable notoriety, thanks to a steady stream of plays, essays, and poems (“What can I say?/It is better to have loved and lost/Than to put linoleum in your living rooms?”). Watts has little to say about this work; his method throughout is to summarize a book or play, toss in an opinion or two, and then quote the opinions of other Baraka scholars, primarily Werner Sollors, author of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a ‘Populist Modernism.’ But Jones’s early work, much of which is dazzling, deserves more detailed treatment. In 1963, he published Blues People, a stirring treatise on Afro-American music. In 1964, Jones’s explosive play Dutchman opened at the Cherry Lane Theater, and remained there for a year, solidifying his reputation in Greenwich Village. Writing in the New York Herald Tribune‘s Sunday supplement, Jones announced his arrival in an essay that evoked Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself:

I write now, full of trepidation because I know the death this society intends for me. I see Jimmy Baldwin almost unable to write about himself anymore. I’ve seen Du Bois, Wright, Chester Himes, driven away-Ellison silenced and fidgeting in some college. I think I almost feel the same forces massing against me, almost before I’ve begun. But let them understand that this is a fight without quarter, and I am very fast.

On February 21, 1965, Jones, dressed in his usual attire-cap, hunting jacket, round dark glasses-attended a reception at the Eighth Street Bookstore. A friend burst into the room, shouting and weeping: “Malcolm is dead! Malcolm’s been killed!” Jones summoned his black friends into a corner, but they were too paralyzed by grief to heed his call, prompting his friend Joel Oppenheimer to quip: “That’s the trouble with the black revolution. Roi’s giving directions and nobody listens!” The assassination was a shock to Jones: “I felt stupid, ugly, useless,” he later wrote. “Downtown in my mix-matched family”-he was married to Hettie Cohen-“and my maximum leader/teacher shot dead while we bullshitted and pretended.” Jones responded to the assassination with livid verses:

For all of him, and all of yourself, look up,
black man,/quit stuttering and shuffling, look up,/black man, quit whining and stooping, for all of him,/For Great Malcolm a prince of the earth, let nothing in us rest/until we avenge ourselves for his death, stupid animals/that killed him, let us never breathe a pure breath if/we fail, and white men call us faggots till the end/of the earth.

In their newfound quest for authenticity, Jones and a small coterie of friends moved to Harlem, where they claimed a ramshackle brownstone on West 130th Street. The Black Arts Repertory Theater (BART) was born. Its goal? To “create an art that would be a weapon in the Black Liberation Movement.” BART offered classes in poetry, history, painting, music, and martial arts. It staged concerts (black musicians only) in parks, vacant lots, playgrounds, and streets, with performances by John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, and Pharoah Sanders. Outdoor poetry readings, dance, drama-all of it was undertaken, with improvised stages, in Harlem in that hot summer of 1965. Jones himself would go on to become the preeminent figure in the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s.

Watts’s book purports to be about Jones’s “life and work,” but the author is content to skim the surface. He mostly ignores Jones’s upbringing, his stint at Howard, his years in the military, and his Greenwich Village period. In short, Watts neglects his subject’s cultural, political, and intellectual development. In the preface, Watts declares that “at no time have I tried to interview [Baraka] or any of his closest former associates.” That was a mistake on Watts’s part, because his text contains numerous speculations about Jones’s behavior since 1960-speculations that might have been clarified by personal interviews with him. Consequently, Watts’s limited research distorts his critical judgment. With regard to BART, for instance, he concludes that its impact in Harlem was “minuscule,” but he also admits: “I have not surveyed the opinions and remembrances of black Harlemites concerning BART and Jones.” Watts’s lackluster treatment of Baraka’s Harlem period is indicative of his overall method: by relying almost entirely on secondary sources, he brings forth little that is new and original; in too many places, his book feels like a textbook rather than a “critical commentary.”

BART’s end was near by late 1965. Funding came largely from the Great Society programs, but Jones was in no mood to cultivate white government bureaucrats. When Sargent Shriver, a top aide to Lyndon Johnson, attempted to tour BART’s office, Jones barred him from the premises: “Later for them motherfuckers,” he sneered. “Fuck Shriver!” Jones also directed his rage at Jews in a torrent of vile, anti-Semitic verses:

Smile, jew. Dance, jew. Tell me you love me, jew. I got/something for you now though. I got something for you, like you dig,/I got. I got this thing, goes pulsating through black everything/ universal meaning/I got the extermination blues, jewboys/I got the hitler syndrome figured.

Many years later, in his Autobiography, Baraka expressed regret over some-though certainly not all-of these transgressions: “We were all ideologically confused,” he wrote in 1984. But BART’s demise (and, for that matter, Baraka’s own anti-Semitism) was not merely the result of “ideological confusion.” From the start, in BART’s case, the organization attracted thugs, and, when the money ran out, gangsterism ensued. Jones’s collaborator Larry Neal was shot, and the brownstone was ransacked. Jones, fearing for his personal safety, fled to Newark. He had just completed a book called Home, whose introduction concluded with a boast: “By the time this book appears, I will be even blacker.”

In Newark, Baraka stumbled upon a three-story wooden building, which he purchased and renovated. “Spirit House” was born. Baraka’s mission remained the same: to “bring political ideas and revolutionary culture to the black masses of Newark.” Concerts and plays proliferated, many of which featured neighborhood children. But Baraka soon fell under the influence of Ron Karenga, whose Kawaida doctrine-an African-oriented “philosophy” based largely on notions of polygamy, military discipline, and rote learning-appealed to his fiery cultural nationalism. Eventually, Baraka and his supporters would wear dashikis, and a cult of personality would develop around the Maximum Leader, one that included buttons with Baraka’s photograph and official celebrations of his birthday. But the Kawaida influence also led to the creation of an alternative school, the Afrikan Free School, which Baraka claims as his proudest accomplishment and which Watts largely ignores. Still, Watts’s book springs to life in the Newark phase, and his account of Baraka’s hubris-Watts’s primary theme-is damning.

Baraka immediately immersed himself in the life of black Newark. When riots shook the city in 1967, he was beaten by the police and jailed. For Baraka, the Newark “rebellion” was a heroic “cleansing fire.” Yet, as Watts notes, he responded to it by deepening his involvement in local electoral politics. Jones spearheaded a campaign to break the back of Newark’s corrupt white power structure by electing a black mayor, a campaign that drew such luminaries as Jesse Jackson and Harry Belafonte to the city. It was ultimately successful, and in 1970, Kenneth Gibson became Newark’s first black mayor. For Baraka, the election had revolutionary implications: “We will nationalize the city’s institutions,” he wrote before the vote, “as if it were liberated territory in Zimbabwe or Angola.”

It was not to be. Gibson, who needed Baraka’s help to win, but not to govern, was weak and ineffective, and he quickly descended into mediocrity and, later, alleged criminality on fraud and conspiracy charges. In the early 1970s, Baraka was deeply involved in national efforts to build a viable black left-in 1972 he chaired the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana-but he remained rooted in Newark, working, in a highly pragmatic manner, on numerous local projects. He and his followers tried to launch a cable television channel and a low-income housing project, for which they obtained six million dollars in state funding. But the housing project was scuttled by Gibson and local elites. By 1974, the funding for Baraka’s programs, including the Afrikan Free School, evaporated. The failures in Newark, combined with the factionalism and disillusion that followed the Gary convention, prompted Baraka to abandon black nationalism for Marxism. He began to quote from the works of Lenin and Mao, and he immersed himself in African liberation struggles. Describing this trajectory in his memoir, Baraka confessed: “The phrase ‘scientific socialism’ fascinated me.”
 

IN HIS CONCLUDING chapter, Watts affirms, with little evidence, that Baraka and his colleagues were “modern-day black clients in search of white patrons.” (Watts, sounding rather like Baraka himself, goes so far as to label him “a parasite on the parent social order.”) Watts’s case against Baraka rests largely on his sins-his sexism, his homophobia, his anti-Semitism, and his authoritarianism, which Watts likens to “neofascism”-but that’s the easiest vantage point from which to criticize him, and Watts is certainly not the first, nor the most eloquent, to do so.

What is needed is a deeper analysis of the man. Watts never gives us a sense of Baraka as an individual or as an artist-the corrosive satire in Baraka’s work generally eludes him-and the reader is left wondering about the deeper roots and motivations underlying his behavior. Was Baraka, like other silver-tongued rebels of the 1950s (Mailer and William Burroughs come to mind) a literary pugilist out to shock bourgeois sensibilities? Was he mentally unbalanced, as Martin Duberman suggested in the 1960s? Was his career, as Werner Sollors argued, an interminable search for a “populist modernism,” a black revolutionary avant-garde-and, if so, to what extent did he achieve it? Or was Baraka, as Watts asserts but never quite demonstrates, primarily driven by “his lifelong feelings of estrangement from black America”? A six-hundred-page book of this sort ought to contain an analysis of Baraka’s anti-Semitism, but Watts condemns it without ever exploring its roots.

Baraka’s most discerning critics have focused not on his political shortcomings, which are obvious, but his literary deficiencies. For the most part, Baraka’s artistic work declined after 1974; his hate eroded his talent. Baraka himself, interestingly, seems aware of the imbalance within his oeuvre: In a poem from the mid-1960s called “leroy” he wrote, “When I die, the consciousness I carry I will to black people./May they pick me apart and take the useful parts, the sweet meat of my feelings./And leave the bitter bullshit rotten white parts alone.”
 

WHAT ARE THE useful parts? It’s too early for a definitive assessment, since he continues to write, but one can readily discern the high points of Baraka’s career: the early poems, Blues People, Dutchman, and The Autobiography. “The tragedy of Baraka’s writing,” Greg Tate wrote in 1984, is that “he hasn’t been able, like Garcia Marquez, Cortazar and Cabrera Infante. . . to radically fuse his comprehensive knowledge of Western Literature with his need to address the condition and complexity of his people.” Ralph Ellison, whose contempt for Baraka was total, may have passed the 1960s on campus, far from the revolutionary gusto in Newark, but he produced a novel that will permanently endure. Baraka’s finest work is barely in print, and his place in the literary canon is precarious.

Yet Baraka still has the power to surprise us. In 1996, he published an astonishing collection entitled Eulogies, which Watts mentions in passing but never considers at length; perhaps it would undermine his one-dimensional portrait of Baraka. I know of no other book like it. It consists entirely of testimonials that Baraka delivered in churches in New York, Newark, and Philadelphia. He pays tribute to such celebrities as Miles Davis and James Baldwin, but also to neighbors and activists-“the fighters, the advanced, the artists, the intellectuals-people discontent with things as they are.” Throughout the book, Baraka’s voice is unusually tender; gone, for the most part, is the Marxism and the anti-Semitism and the race-baiting. One of the eulogies is for his sister, Kimako, who was murdered in 1984 by a mentally ill man she had tried to assist. Baraka began, “The failure of all of us in here is staggering! My self, particularly, to have let my own sister, my only blood sister, expire, in brutish violence. At the morgue, my father stumbled backward, a cry broke from his lips.” Baraka ended: “Jesus Christ. Not my sister . . . .Oh No!!!”

The Baraka who emerges from Eulogies is not the demonic figure depicted by Watts, but a man hemmed in by political defeat, shattered revolutionary dreams, and personal tragedy. In a tribute to Al Ryan, a California civil rights activist and lawyer, Baraka recalled the last time he saw his friend:

We went to a bar, and drank beer and talked. We were summing things up, what had happened, what was happening, what needed to happen. And I remember, as we started to split, we stood in a parking lot, still talking, still analyzing and plotting, still caught up in the dynamic of unity and liberation, still very intense in our different ways, about Black Self-Determination. We hugged each other, like we always did . . . .We waved as I got in another car headed for the airport . . . .”Hey Man, take care of yourself,” was the way Al put it. “Hey, you take care of yrself,” I shouted back. So quickly our lives pass by us, let us more consciously use them.

Very early in his book, in a rare moment of generosity, Watts writes: “I thank [Baraka] for giving us a corpus of works worthy of serious engagement. More important, I salute him for living a life full of risks and the resultant bruises, regrets and bumps.” A turbulent life, indeed; it’s a pity Watts has done so little to illuminate it.


Scott Sherman is a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.

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