Romanticizing a Revolutionary

The death of Amiri Baraka.

amiriThe headline of his New York Times obituary described him as a “Polarizing Poet and Playwright,” and the obit itself began by describing him as a figure “of pulsating rage, whose long illumination of the black experience in America was called incandescent in some quarters and incendiary in others.” The Associated Press called him a “militant man of letters and tireless agitator whose blues-based, fist-shaking poems, plays and criticism made him a provocative and groundbreaking force in American culture.” The Washington Post celebrated “his protean place in American culture.” His legacy, according to NPR's headline, was “Both Offensive And Achingly Beautiful.” The people at Poetry Magazine, the legendary journal founded in 1912, pronounced themselves “deeply saddened to report” his death; the Academy of American Poetry was “sad” over his loss. Over the years, the death notices informed us, he had taught at such places as Yale and Columbia and received awards and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, from PEN, and from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations. Warren Beatty respected him enough to give him a small symbolic role in his movie Bulworth.

Who was this literary master? His name was Amiri Baraka, and he died last Thursday at age 79. When I was a graduate student in the English Department at Stony Brook University, Baraka (who had been born Le Roi Jones) was the star of the Africana Studies Department, directly across the quad. (At his death, he was an emeritus professor there.) I never met him, but when I took an undergraduate course in modern American poetry, his work was on the syllabus. It was without question the worst stuff we read that term; in fact it was the worst stuff in that whole edition of the Norton Anthology of Modern American Poetry. I was so astonished at the sheer awfulness of his poems, in fact, that I typed one of them up, banged out three others of the same ilk off the top of my head, and passed them around to a few of my dorm friends, asking if they could tell which three I'd made up and which one I'd copied out of the Norton. None of them could. But the joke, it turned out, was on me. What I later learned was that Baraka wasn't going for literary excellence: as he explained in a 1980 interview, his poems weren't intended mainly to be read by other people in books; he created them so he'd have texts to declaim at public readings. (Even then, appparently, he was making a good deal of money giving public readings – much of that money, one presumes, drawn from university treasuries.)

Another thing I didn't realize at the time was that Baraka's lousy poems in the Norton were actually among his most appealing productions. Later, reading other material by him, I discovered that, in addition to being aesthestically barren, his work was also viciously brutal, morally repulsive, and full of chilling contempt for whites, Jews, and gays, among others. To be sure, he went through a number of phases. As I wrote in my book The Victims' Revolution, he was “at first a communist, Castroite, and fringe Beat poet, then (after Malcolm X's murder) a black nationalist revolutionary, and later a Marxist (specifically a Maoist) and Pan-Africanist.” At some point he converted to Islam. But no matter what political or cultural label he wore at any given time, his work was nearly always marked by hatred and violence. On several occasions, his life was violent, too. His rap sheet, as I noted in my book, included “arrests in the 1960s for possessing firearms and disturbing the peace, in the 1970s for domestic violence, in 1989 for assaulting a police officer, and in 1990 for inciting a riot.”

In 1965 Baraka founded the Black Arts Movement – which, like the academic discipline of Black Studies, was a product of Black Power ideology. His poem “Black Art” served as something of a manifesto for the movement (whose other members included Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni), and outlined the kind of literature he wanted to see black people produce:

                        ...We want poems
like fists beating ni-gers out of Jocks
or dagger poems in the slimy bellies
of the owner-jews. […] we want "poems that kill."
Assassin poems, Poems that shoot
guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys
and take their weapons leaving them dead
with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.  […]
We want a black poem. And a
Black World.

Some of Baraka's poetry (to quote my book again) “reads like a parody by Howard Stern or a young Eddie Murphy of mindless black radical hate: 'Rape the white girls. Rape / their fathers. Cut the mothers' throats.'” Nor is this sort of language just confined to his poems. In one 1965 essay, he wrote that “[m]ost American white men are trained to be fags,” that black men should want to rape white women as a way of taking from white men everything they have, and that white women know that only when they're raped by black men will they “get cleanly, viciously popped.” Somehow he forgot to insult Jews in that one; but he more than made up for the omission in a number of other places, for example in this excerpt from a prose poem:

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....So come for the rent, jewboys, or come ask me for a book, or sit in the courts handing down your judgments, still I got something for you, gonna give it to my brothers, so they'll know what your whole story is, then one day, jewboys, we all, even my wig wearing mother gonna put it on you all at once.

We live in a time when a white biographer can be labeled a racist for not turning the black subject of his book into a plaster saint; when a white professor can be labeled a racist for correcting the spelling and grammar on his black students' papers; and when a black TV host can pronounce that it's racist to use the term “Obamacare.” To read Baraka's work is to see real racism, abhorrent, hideous, and repellent. Indeed his work is a rainbow flag of prejudice: obsessively anti-white; poisonously anti-Semitic; ferociously antigay; not to mention dripping with contempt for women and uniformly hostile to American society. Instead of denouncing and shunning this vile bigot, however, people in positions of cultural power routinely treated Baraka with respect throughout his career. Over the years, moreover, there were many claims (echoed in several of his obituaries) that he had eventually repudiated his own prejudices, or at the very least had come to regret his anti-Semitism. Indeed, in 1980 the Village Voice published a Baraka essay entitled “Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite.” And in 1991 a former professor of mine who edited The Amiri Baraka/Le Roi Jones Reader wrote in his introduction to that volume that Baraka, in 1974, had “dramatically revers[ed]” course by “reject[ing] black nationalism as racist.” The fact, however, is that long after his supposed reversal, Baraka was still a foaming-at-the-mouth Jew-hater. Indeed, the most famous example of Jew-hatred in his entire body of work was published in 2002, in his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” which became notorious for these lines about 9/11:

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?

At the time “Somebody Blew Up America” was published, Baraka was serving as the poet laureate of New Jersey. So loud was the outcry over the above-quoted lines that when it turned out that he couldn't legally be fired from the laureateship, the state legislature abolished the position outright. (What I don't think I knew until I was reading through the obits the other day was that the school board in Baraka's hometown, Newark, took such offense at this action that it named Baraka “Laureate of Newark Schools.”)

Largely lost in all the attention that given to those four lines of Baraka's 9/11 poem was the fact that the whole poem was extremely offensive. And derivative, as well: “Somebody Blew Up America” was a list poem cum hate poem cum diatribe of the sort that Baraka's old pal Allen Ginsberg had churned out on a regular basis. Perhaps Ginsberg's best-known work in this subgenre, “America,” which appeared way back in 1956, was a harangue about America; Baraka, in his post-9/11 poem, also ranted about America, and about Jews as well, of course, but the principal target of his bombast was white people, whom he portrayed throughout as the bad guys of the human race:

Who got fat from plantations Who genocided Indians Tried to waste the Black nation
Who live on Wall Street The first plantation Who cut your nuts off Who rape your ma
Who lynched your pa
Who got the tar, who got the feathers Who had the match, who set the fires Who killed and
hired Who say they God & still be the Devil...
Who? Who? Who?

Throughout the poem, the answer to Baraka's endlessly repeated question – “Who? Who? Who?” – was whites, whites, whites. (To be sure, the poem also slandered prominent black Americans whom Baraka regarded as Uncle Toms, namely Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, and Condoleeza Rice: “Who do Tom Ass Clarence Work for Who doo doo come out the Colon’s mouth / Who know what kind of Skeeza is a Condoleeza.”)

The Times obituary sanitized all this odiousness and vulgarity in the usual way: by tidily sweeping it all under the label “polarizing.” Critics, as the Times's Margalit Fox put it, were “divided” on Baraka: “He was described variously as an indomitable champion of the disenfranchised...or as a gadfly whose finest hour had come and gone by the end of the 1960s.” (Gadfly? How about hatemonger?) And again: “Over six decades, Mr. Baraka’s writings...were periodically accused of being anti-Semitic, misogynist, homophobic, racist, isolationist and dangerously militant. But his champions and detractors agreed that at his finest he was a powerful voice on the printed page, a riveting orator in person and an enduring was seldom possible to ignore.” Re-read those sentences: you could say exactly the same thing about Hitler. Ms. Fox did quote a 2002 comment by Stanley Crouch, the veteran black critic, to the effect that Baraka’s work since the late 1960s had been “an incoherent mix of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, black nationalism, anarchy and ad hominem attacks” – truer words were never spoken – but she was careful to balance this honest appraisal with effusive, and absurd, praise from critic Arnold Rampersad, who placed Baraka in the same league as Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston – an insult to all four of those writers.

Bottom line: Amiri Baraka was no artist. There's a lot of staggeringly bad stuff out there these days that goes by the name of poetry, but very few poets in our time have risen as high as Baraka did on so little talent. Perusing his oeuvre, one cannot help thinking of the many American poets and playwrights far better than he who languished in relative obscurity while he was being lavished with praise. (At Stony Brook alone, two of my professors were poets who were infinitely more gifted than he was.) The repulsive fact is that the American cultural establishment rewarded Baraka generously – appointing him to coveted academic positions, presenting him with major awards, and, in the end, according him respectful and prominent obituary attention – for no other reason than that he was a leading Black Power revolutionary who spent his life advocating for that very establishment's destruction. None of the universities he ever worked for, and none of the organizations that loaded him down with prizes, would ever have had anything to do with a white person who, even once in their lives, had written about blacks the way that Baraka wrote about whites a thousand times; but those universities and organizations were ready not only to overlook but to reward his hatred for whites (and for Jews, and for gays) because it was proffered – grotesquely – as the justifiable reaction of a victim to his victimizers. This romanticization of the rude, raw rhetoric of revolt is the abiding cultural sickness of the last half-century, and few – if any – profited from it more than Amiri Baraka did.

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