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Last Beat Standing
By Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka—The Last Beat Standing

A Profile by Herb Boyd

There is a sign outside Amiri and Amina Baraka’s home in Newark. “9/11 was an inside job,” the sign proclaims, and the reaction it has stirred from various city agencies is in stark and disturbing contrast to the pleasant calm that pervades this charming middle-class neighborhood.

The sign may not be in keeping with the general tenor of the street, but to a great degree, it is consistent with Baraka’s turbulent odyssey, one that since his days as an enfant terrible in Greenwich Village hanging with the Beats, to his evolution as a grey eminence in a well-groomed enclave in Newark, is as he once wrote “the changing same.”

To listen to Baraka, who is just as outspoken today as he was back in the sixties, the sign, like his artistic career, has provoked Mayor Corey Booker to unleash the local law enforcement agency that has been relentlessly harassing Baraka and members of his family.

“Is the sign against the law?” Baraka asked in a recent article that appeared on The Black World Today web site. “And what does it have to do with Newark cops unless they know something we don’t! The stops of Amiri, Jr., a teacher at Weequahic High School, Ras, and my wife happened within two days of one another. Arrest warrants for our oldest and youngest sons happened within this same period. When the youngest was arrested and charged with ‘wandering,’ meaning he had no drugs but was in a drug suspected area. Hey, this whole neighborhood is a drug suspected area,” he charged.

Baraka’s encounters with the police are brutal milestones marking his furious passage. There is a photo of Baraka with blood streaming down his face after the police had arrested and then savagely assaulted him during the Newark rebellion in 1967. Here’s how he described that incident in his autobiography (The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones): “A mob of police surrounded the van, two of them pulling open the front and back doors. They had their shotguns and handguns trained on us as they dragged us out of the doors…’These are the bastards who’ve been shooting at us! Where are the guns?’ one of the cops shouted.”

During the fracas, Baraka recognized one of the officers. They were once students at the same high school. But the cop paid no attention to the recognition and slammed the butt of his .38 squarely against Baraka’s forehead, knocking him into a state of semi-consciousness. “Now blows rained down on my head,” he wrote. “One dude was beating me with his long nightstick. I was held and staggering. The blood felt hot on my face. I couldn’t see, I could only feel the wet hot blood covering my entire head and face and hands and clothes. They were beating me to death. I could feel the blows and the crazy pain but I was already removed from conscious life. I was being murdered and I knew it. I screamed, ‘Allahu Akbar! Al humdillah!’ spitting the rage and pain back at them.”

And that incident, that rage and pain is fitting grist for an artist who has thrown himself uncompromisingly—some would say recklessly, too—into the fray of American politics and culture with a matchless passion, and with an incomparable record of accomplishment. Few writers in the canon of American literature have demonstrated such a list of achievements in so many genres. Baraka has excelled in the field of poetry, playwriting, novels, essays, film, music, autobiography, short stories, and performance art. That versatility in the artistic realm is often reflected in his swirling, ever-shifting world of politics and ideology. Like W.E.B. Du Bois, Baraka has pursued his cultural muse with the same intensity as he has given to the search for the right philosophy and the right lifestyle to accommodate his insatiable drive for artistic freedom and political justice.

When I was a teenager, running from something with the same heedless abandon as I was pursuing something else, I used to see Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) in the Village with his wife and children. As if to declare his maverick nature—though at some point love must have entered the equation—Baraka had a white wife. That was no big thing in the Village because black men and white women, more so than black women and white men, was a fairly common sight. I would see Baraka and the cadre of beatniks who showered him with praise and adulation at jazz joints, poetry readings, in the middle of Washington Square Park, or strolling the midnight corridors, though I don’t recall ever speaking to him.

There was something special about him, something that even his cohorts—A.B. Spellman, Archie Shepp, Bob Kaufman, Bob Thompson, and Ted Joans—did not radiate. Joans, with a similar sounding name, came the closest, and it was through Joans that I gained a closer scrutiny of the “happenings,” most of which have been lost in a fog of memory, the hallucinogen of time and circumstance.

Baraka’s charisma illuminated the poetry readings, the jazz joints and the dens of inequity where such Beat luminaries as Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Diane di Prima delivered their words accompanied by bongos and snapping fingers. Free love, drugs, and bebop only compounded the uninhibited nights and Baraka had an almost god-like standing in a community where craziness was the norm.

Di Prima, one of the few notable female poets in the mix, recalled her fling with Baraka, with whom she once published a literary publication. “I thought of myself as Jones’ mistress in the European bohemian tradition,” di Prima said in an interview. “I had lovers before him, but I didn't fall in love until I met him, and after him I didn't fall in love for a long, long time. He had political commitment and passion. The relationship was creative and inspiring for both of us.”

In his autobiography, Baraka mentions di Prima’s name on several occasions when he refers to her as a contributor to one of the small magazines he published, but he changes her name when recalling personal details with her, including their longstanding affair that produced one child.

Though Baraka was in the spotlight, he managed to retain what most of us had forgotten, and those memories are ably abetted by a veritable paper trail, and a literary diary that has amassed these memories, whether he intended it or not. From the very first stroke of his pen, he seemed, again like Du Bois, to understand that his journey was worthy of documenting, that he was on a mission to leave something of value to posterity. “I have been a lot of places in my time, and done a lot of things,” he penned in the foreword to Home, a collection of social essays published in 1965. “And there is the sense of the Prodigal about my life that begs to be resolved. But one truth anyone reading these pieces ought to get is the sense of movement—the struggle, in myself, to understand where and who I am, and to move with that understanding.”

The first entry in Home is a long essay “Cuba Libre” and it’s basically a diary/essay chronicling his trip to Cuba in 1960 in the company of such African American luminaries as Robert Williams, Harold Cruse, John Henrik Clarke and Julian Mayfield. The essay takes up a third of the book’s 250 pages, and is a revealing portrait of the island shortly after the revolution; he also offers some insight on the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, the organization that had sponsored the trip. (Lee Harvey Oswald was also a key member.) This was Baraka’s second trip to Cuba. He had come to the island in 1955 on a three-day leave from his airbase in Puerto Rico where he was serving in what he called the “Air Farce.”

One of the paradoxes of the trip was expressed toward the end of the essay where he said that the idea of revolution had been very strange to him. “The rebels among us,” he confessed, “have become merely people like myself who grow beards and will not participate in politics.” He would soon rectify that lack of commitment to the struggle while relishing the fact that the essay, which was published in Evergreen Review, copped an award and put $300 in his pockets. “That was the most money I’d ever gotten for something I’d written,” he exclaimed in his autobiography.

Then came what he described as a series of “association complexes,” or digging deeply into himself via his novel The System of Dante’s Hell and earlier, and perhaps more metamorphically in his first collection of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. What he heard was the sound of an old skin being shed; he was slowly easing out of the cocoon of a former self, only to be engulfed by yet another chrysalis. It was a painful process dislodging a host of former selves, friends and loved ones in this longing to find himself and the muse of his choice. “African blues does not know me,” he wrote during this period, but he was already moving ineluctably toward a new hymn and a new him.

While Baraka may have begun his research on the material that would become Blues People, as early as the mid-fifties, a comprehensive study of his people’s music, it wasn’t widely circulated and discussed until 1963, and those reviews and comments would soon be swept well beyond “the embrace of the horizon” when his play Dutchman appeared on stage off-Broadway. In a way, a few scholars have contended, the play’s theme, a violent encounter between a black man and a white woman in a subway car, represented Baraka’s ultimate break with the downtown denizens, and, if that wasn’t the coup de grace, the assassination of Malcolm X was the final goodbye.

Lula, the white woman in Dutchman, perhaps signified and symbolized a world and habits Baraka was seeking to break from, to say nothing of Lula’s skinny, white neck. “Shit, you don’t have any sense,” says Clay, the play’s black character. “Nor feelings either. I could murder you now. Such a tiny ugly throat. I could squeeze it flat, and watch you turn blue…”

As Baraka’s white character turned blue, Clay became blacker and blacker, rushing madly to the refuge of Black nationalism, hurrying as fast and as tempestuously as he could from Lula’s sharp tongue and fatal stab. The transition was just about complete.

Among the more evident signposts of Baraka’s move from the Village to Harlem emerges from his poetry. Those seeking the political shifts in his journey to himself would be advised to parse closely his prose, but read even more carefully between the stanzas of his poetic lines. And sometimes you don’t have to peer intently because there is no intention to hide behind a simile.

This was Baraka’s “state-meant” in 1965 as he irrevocably put intellectual and emotional distance between where he had been and where he was determined to arrive.

Born in New Jersey, Baraka was drawn to Harlem like so many of the other “blues people,” who believed their dreams were on the other side of the cotton curtain, the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River or the Hudson River, as in Baraka’s case. Langston had come from Missouri, Arna Bontemps from California, Wallace Thurman from Utah, Zora from Florida, and Claude McKay from Jamaica, and this was their “heavy Egypt,” their pot of gold at rainbow’s end. But “Harlem is vicious modernism,” Baraka said in one of his poems composed somewhere in the vicinity of 125th Street. But now it was a time for poems “that kill…assassin’s poems/poems that shoot guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys and take their weapons leaving them dead / with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.”

Energized by the civil rights movement that by the late sixties and early seventies had morphed into the Black liberation movement, Baraka had found his métier or sinecure—at least for the moment. Now, without reservations and hosannas to Maulana Karenga and his Kawaida philosophy, it was “nation time” for Baraka and his cohorts, all of them genuflecting at the altar of Damballah and Shango. Ancillary to the Black liberation struggle was the Black Arts movement and the always flexible Baraka had that unique ability not only to straddle the artistic and political impulses of the period, but to be a key figure in shaping the strategy and tactics through a succession of organizations, most significantly BARTS (Black Arts Repertory Theater) and CAP (Congress of Afrikan People). But cultural nationalism was just a way station, a stepping stone to a higher, more refined analysis of matter in motion.

His politics, he observed toward the end of this stage of development, was in grave disorder. “Our politics…flowed from our mix-matched and eclectic ideology. We had straight-out white supremacy bourgeois opinions mixed with mass felt revolutionary ones. We wanted to destroy a system and didn’t realize that we still carried a great deal of that system around with us behind our eyes.”

In one of his fugitive essays, Baraka had disavowed Communism, playfully ridiculing the leftist persuasion with the comment that there was no “Marx on his Lenin.” Most of his enemies and even a few of his devoted followers caught wind of his ideological shift in 1974 at the Sixth Pan-African Congress in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Delegates from the United States—and they comprised a mish-mash of political tendencies—received copies of Baraka’s “manifesto,” indicating his new direction: Scientific socialism. At first, many of the delegates presumed it was nothing more than rank opportunism since they were guests in a government where the leader, Julius Nyerere, whose ideas formulated in Ujamaa, bore all the earmarks of socialism.

But the political change—and it was to some extent forecast—was a real one, and Baraka spelled out why it had occurred. “In terms of my change,” he declared, “it’s based on being involved in struggle—seeing, for instance, the whole nationalist thing turn into its opposite. A lot of people were talking about black liberation, national liberation, and then actually being in charge of the exploitation.” What was unmistakably clear to him was that change hadn’t occurred and that “skin color was not the determinant of political content.”

The only consistent thing for Baraka was change, though it should be noted that his political oscillations were always in concert with his cultural expression. That is to say, his art reflected his politics and vice-versa. He criticized capitalism and imperialism in his poems with the same fervor he had demonstrated in his political attacks against colonialism and racism in a previous life. “We’ll worship Jesus when mao do/when toure does/when the cross replaces Nkrumah’s star,” he explained in a poem.

For good or bad, Baraka has maintained his communist groove or what some would term “rut.” And the extent to which that may have stifled his artistic growth, I leave to the literary critics to debate. Recently, as we sat in his home while a storm raged outside, (a northerly whiff of Hurricane Gustav) he indicated that while his political activities have toned down a bit, there is no surcease with the writing. Nearby, in a room overburdened with books, are stacks of “Unity & Struggle,” his eight-page newsletter where he berates those on the left who, from his vantage point, “lack political clarity” in their denunciation of President elect Sen. Barack Obama. “There are even some utterly backwards cultural nationalist negroes who say ‘Obama is their enemy’ because he is not demanding that black people stop speaking English and speak their mother tongue (my mother tongue is Afro American) or that he blame the Jews for the world’s ills,” is the editorial he penned for the paper. “My God! You couldn’t win on those planks even if the election was for the NAACP or the Black Panther Party, or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.”

If there was a time in his political maturation that Baraka might have harbored similar notions dismissing Obama, that was ages ago. It’s hard to believe that someone who was once adamantly opposed to the impulses of the masses of Black Americans has now adopted a position that follows where the majority of his people are headed. “If 90 percent of the Black people want Obama, what does that tell you?” he asked rhetorically during our interview. “What do you think…that they’re just dumb? That they don’t know anything and you know something?”

Coaxed back to the realm of literature and asked to comment on certain black writers, particularly Stephen Carter, who we have interviewed and whose work we’ve reviewed in these pages, Baraka evinced little enthusiasm. “I haven’t read anything by him since his first thing on affirmative action was published. That was enough for me, now I hear he’s become a novelist. But you shouldn’t be surprised in this conservative age we live in. If you’re talking about some of the turbulence in the lives of upwardly mobile Negroes, then you can get some play. But if you talk about getting rid of the oppression and right wing ideology, then there’s no market for you.”

Baraka said he tries to write something everyday. “I have two books coming out this year,” he began. “One is called Digging—The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music. I’m editing this right now. The University of California is the publisher. It’s got about ten major essays and seventy other pieces. It’s going to be a pretty big book. The other book is called Razor—Revolutionary Art for Culture. This is a collection of pieces on the arts, poetry, literature, et al. Third World Press is publishing it.”

He noted that Home, his collection of essays of the early sixties, was being reprinted. “I am not that excited about this because I’ve gone past that and people get confused by where you are,” he said.

You would think that a writer of his stature, a writer who once was deemed the rightful heir to the niche left by James Baldwin, and whom, as a young Turk he castigated only to make peace in later years, would have publishers hovering around his door. But he explained that such is not the case, which leaves him with few options, and hardly any attention by the major houses and their sizable advances. “Big advances have not been my legacy,” he lamented. “The main publishing companies where you can get a big advance are controlled by our enemies. You see, I’ve made a name for myself around certain issues and certain ideas and those people don’t want to see them. I know some of these people pretty well, and I know where they’re coming from.”

One option he exercised many years ago during his “narrow nationalist” period was to publish his own works, as well as the works of others. But, he said, that requires too much time, energy and resources, none of which he felt he has in great supply. “I’ve published some of my own books but it’s hard,” he sighed. “We need publishers who can get into print the most advanced things we do, books that begin to tell the truth about this society. So, if you’re looking for the kind of books about truth and candor that James Baldwin wrote, you’re not going to find it. Only the poets are carrying on this mission.”

And Baraka continues to be one of these poets, one of these emissaries who are part visionaries and seemingly always on the cutting edge. Six years ago Baraka’s poetic mission was, to some degree, waylaid when he was asked to resign his appointment as Poet Laureate of New Jersey. He had caused a firestorm of controversy with a poem “Somebody Blew Up America.” His detractors disagreed with Baraka’s conclusion that the poem focused on the domestic terrorism black Americans have endured since slavery times. At the center of the charges against him—and this was an attack led by the Jewish Anti-Defamation League—was the assertion that his interpretation of the bombing of The World Trade Center was anti-Semitic. Baraka refused to resign despite the pressure from the state.

“This state and indeed this nation and this world,” Baraka wrote in a long rejoinder, “is desperately in need of the deepest and most profound human values that poetry can teach. That is what [John] Keats and [W.E.B.] Du Bois called for the poet to do, to bring Truth and Beauty. To be like the most ancient paradigmythic image of the poet. To be like Osiris and Orpheus, whose job it was to raise the sun each morning with song and story. To illuminate the human mind, and bring light into the world.”

In our hour long discussion, Baraka opined on a number of subjects, issues and people. For example, here’s what he had to say about music critic and social commentator Stanley Crouch: “I don’t think Crouch’s book, the one he was supposed to write on Bird [the jazz immortal Charlie Parker], will fill the bebop void left by Max Roach. He has not completed the book and I told him that people was shoving him off in different directions, which wasn’t his. Now you’re a novelist, now you’re a political speaker and he don’t know shit about these things. Stanley’s most important writing is about music, whether I agree with him or not. He definitely knows something about the music. But when it comes to politics and fiction he has a lack of understanding where we are. Now, he’s got our boy [Bill] Cosby picking up on some of his opinions.”

He was equally unsparing when it came to assessing the Presidential bid of Cynthia McKinney of Atlanta, who is running on the Green Party ticket. “Some people are going to vote for McKinney because they think they’re smarter than the rest of us,” he said. “But I think this is some kind of selfish pride. What they are doing in effect is outsmarting themselves. It reminds me of the story where these three guys are sentenced to death. They tried to electrocute the first one who had confessed to murder but the machine didn’t work. They tried it with the second one and once more it didn’t work. When they prepared the third one for electrocution he said ‘You dumb motherfuckers, don’t you know you’ve got to put the red wire with the blue wire?’ Well, he left immediately.”

When you are in your early seventies as Baraka is, some allowance is given for reminiscing. “Once upon time, back in the sixties,” he ruminated, “there were a number of black publications on the market, the Journal of Black Poetry, Soulbook, Black World, the Black Scholar, Black Books Bulletin, Black Creation, but that was because of the movement. It’s always the people’s movement that spurs the other things. When they stop everything sort of cools out. Just the other day I was looking at a magazine I put out with Larry Neal called Cricket, which was about the music. I would love to see those back in print. And there was Umbra and the Liberator, all of them grew out of the movement. Now all we have is a few slick magazines like Essence and Upscale that are on a wholly different level. The magazines I was talking about earlier were put out by activists, not institutions, like African American Review. Those kinds of magazines will have to come back because that’s the way we get our story told, and it must be told.”

Telling our stories, the American stories, has always been a priority for Baraka, and the latest collection, Tales of the Out & Gone, which copped a PEN Beyond Margins Awards in 2007, is a testament of this resolve. Readers familiar with his work will be reminded of his first volume of short stories, Tales, published forty years ago.

Though nowadays a bit physically stooped, Baraka does not stoop to conquer; in fact he remains as fiery today as he was in the sixties when his star blazed incandescently across the political firmament. From LeRoi Jones, roughly “King” Jones to Amiri Baraka or “blessed prince” in Arabic, there may have been a reduction in royalty but he continues to stride leagues ahead and beyond even the younger poets and prophets, and other so-called public intellectuals. He has lost none of that sense of adventure, that Don Quixote audacity, that imaginative vigor, that desire to challenge the state and the status quo.

He expressed a sample of this inextinguishable outrage in a recent letter to Governor Corzine of New Jersey. “I’m writing to register my disgust at a great injustice in this state, in our city of Newark. I am talking about the attempt to remove Central Ward Councilperson, Dana Rone from her office for a minor infraction. Despite a municipal court judge fining Ms. Rone nominally for “interfering with the issuance of a traffic summons” to her nephew, Dana Rone is now faced with being banned from state politics (or from holding any public employment) for life.”

The blessed prince, his pen a trusty lance, will not tolerate even the least harmful dragons among us. And he seems always to meld his artistic vision with his relentless political commitment. He is just as bold and creatively defiant as he was as a student at Howard University when he upset the administration while eating a slice of watermelon in the middle of campus; just as keen to the absurd as he was in those poetical flights in bygone Village nights where he soared with a posse of “angel headed hipsters.”

Who can say what will be the final incarnation as Baraka pursues himself from one terrifying moment to another. It’s no easier to speculate where he is bound as to say from what he is fleeing. No matter, whether he is exiting or entering, the benefit will be ours to cherish, even it’s nothing more than a warning, a sign outside his home.

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