The political positions of a Panther poet
Poet and playwright Amiri Baraka might have changed his mind on Beat poetry, nationalism and anti-Semitism, but his writings are unshirking in their assertions, as a Cork audience will hear on Saturday, he tells Belinda McKeonat his New Jersey home
IN GREENWICH VILLAGE, in 1957, the young LeRoi Jones wrote to the young Allen Ginsberg, then living in Paris, on a piece of toilet paper. "Are you for real?" the letter asked.
"I'm for real," Ginsberg wrote back, "but I'm tired of being Allen Ginsberg." The exchange was the beginning of a friendship that was to last until Ginsberg's death in 1997, by which time LeRoi Jones had become Amiri Baraka, the poet, playwright, essayist and activist famous for founding the Harlem Black Arts Movement. "He wrote back to me on a piece of toilet paper too," Baraka remembers today, with a grin: "a better piece of toilet paper, though." Though his friendship with Ginsberg lasted for 40 years, it did so against the odds; the distance between the two writers, with Baraka having returned in 1966 to his native city of Newark, New Jersey - which also happened to be Ginsberg's home town - had become much more than one of geography.
Following the death of Malcom X, Baraka had rejected the Beat scene as a bourgeois indulgence, and he and Ginsberg had grown into conflicting cultural and political positions. "We used to argue all the time," he says. "But we still had respect for each other, even though in the last years we were very much opposed to each other's views. You know, he was a good friend of mine."
Traces of friendships from that period in the late 1950s and early 1960s are everywhere to be seen in Baraka's book-crammed home in Newark's central ward, the city's old third ward, where the 1967 riots first began. On one wall, a framed typescript of Langston Hughes's protest poem Backlash Blues, written to scorn the white response to the civil rights movement which would find one of its most infamous and desperate expressions in the burning and looting of those Newark streets; "to LeRoi", the typescript is signed by Hughes, with the last four lines - you're the one/ Will have the blues/ not me -/ Wait and see! - circled with the handwritten words "Some ferocious animal will come along!"
Opposite, above a stack of books on the Black Panther movement and the October Revolution, is a framed photograph of Baraka with John Coltrane at a jazz session in 1963; in the photograph, the young Baraka is basking in the afterglow of having discovered that Coltrane had already read and enjoyed his book of essays on music, Blues People, which Baraka had published that year, and a copy of which he had travelled to the session to give Coltrane. "He said, yeah, I read that," remembers Baraka, with another grin. "So that was kind of encouraging." Since Blues People, a seminal work on the place of jazz and blues in American history, Baraka has published several books on music, another of which, Digging, will come out later this year, and the cover of which will be graced by that same photograph of him with Coltrane. He has also published a number of books of cultural and political essays, chiefly expounding his views on the need for and the nature of revolutionary art, on the form of cultural revolution, and another such collection, Razor, will also appear this year.
The community arts salon Kimako's Blues People, which he runs with his wife Amina in the basement of their home, still takes place on the last Saturday of every month, and next month, a jazz opera written by Baraka with the saxophonist David Murray, The Sisyphus Syndrome, will open in California; with two weeks to go to opening night, Baraka remarks in passing, the director of the production has just walked out, and he has had to make a number of trips to Oakland "to sort of finish bringing it up". In the midst of all of this, this weekend he makes his first trip to Ireland, to read at the World Book Festival in Cork.
He'll turn 74 this year, but Baraka clearly has no intention of adjusting the active literary and political presence for which he has been known since the 1964 premiere of his controversial play The Dutchman. "It's my belief," he says, "that art is a great influencer of people's opinions and that even the bourgeoisie, the rulers, use art, whether it's on the radio or television or in the movies or theatre or newspapers, that they use writing, they use photography, they use music, to influence people to either accept the status quo or to believe in various reactionary ideologies. And that the artist should not be neutral in that, but should take the other side in that, and should fight for a more progressive world view. And that's what I see myself doing."
OVER THE LAST 50 years, Baraka's understanding of precisely where the other side is has shifted frequently and dramatically. A spell as sergeant in the US Air Force preceded his time in Greenwich Village, and the idealism of his Beat period was punctured by a 1960 visit to Cuba, which, he says, changed his whole political worldview; the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X changed that all over again, and saw him reject everyone and everything that was not black art and black culture (including his first wife and their children) as he moved to Harlem and devoted himself to a militant black nationalism. "When they killed Malcolm," he says, "that was a declaration of war. And I figured, how can I be down in Greenwich Village when we're going to have to fight a war?"
The theatre repertory and school which Baraka founded in Harlem, a school with intensely anti-white politics and aesthetics, exerted a real influence on American theatre, giving rise to productions and institutions in its image across the country, but it was short-lived in its own right, shut down by police after a reported discovery of arms in the theatre in 1966. But by then, in any case, Baraka was ready to move on again, to another position, another identity; he moved back to Newark and converted to Islam, dropping his "slave name" Jones, taking on his Muslim name, and producing a series of anti-Semitic works which he would later disown.
Some years of focus on the political and cultural life of black Newark followed, but in 1974 another radical turnaround saw him reject this nationalism and declare himself a Marxist. Thereafter, apart from a declaration of anti-Zionism in 1980, he settled into a career less of statement and more of steadiness; what statements there were became framed by the formal structures of academia, as he progressed towards a professorship of Africana Studies at Stony Brook, the state university of New York. With his second wife, Amina, he had five children, and alongside his teaching work, he remained rooted in the work of community. Official recognition of his stature came in 2002, when he was appointed to the post of poet laureate of New Jersey. And then, at a poetry festival in the New Jersey village of Waterloo, Baraka read the poem he had written, months before becoming laureate, about the events of September 11,2001. And after the applause - which, he says, was warm and sustained - came a sound with which Baraka, at this stage, has become very well acquainted.
The sound of something messy and unpleasant hitting the fan.
The poem, Somebody Blew up America, is characteristically unshirking in its assertions, accusing Israelis of having advance knowledge of the Twin Towers and Pentagon attacks. "Who told 4,000 Israeli workers . . ./To stay home that day/ Why did Sharon stay away?" it asks. Not only did James E McGreevy, the then governor of New Jersey, demand Baraka's resignation in the wake of his reading of the poem, he passed legislation to dissolve altogether the office of poet laureate. "And if poetry wasn't important, they wouldn't do that," says Baraka now. But he's still angry about what happened, he says.
Anyone "who is not illiterate" can see, in the poem, that there is "nothing anti-Semitic". But what the poem does, indisputably, contain are extraordinary charges, of extraordinary conspiracies, and Baraka stands by those charges; of messages sent to Israeli companies and employees, of the reasons behind a cancelled New York trip by Ariel Sharon, of inexplicably undisturbed flight paths through the financial and military hearts of America.
The controversy poured delicious irony on the well-intentioned quoting by McGreevy of the words of another New Jersey poet, William Carlos Williams, when he named Baraka poet laureate: "It is difficult/ to get the news from poems," Williams wrote, and McGreevy cited these lines as his inspiration behind the appointment.
McGreevy got his news, and then some. And so, too, around the same time, did Baraka, and not news of the kind he welcomes, not uproar of the kind he likes to incite and inflame, but tragedy, personal and deeply painful. A month after his deposition as poet laureate, his 31-year-old daughter Shani was shot dead by her stepsister's estranged husband. Even if unconvicted, Shani's killer would have to face the wrath of his community, Baraka told reporters before the court case which found his former son-in-law guilty of the murder; "let him walk the community," Baraka said. "let the citizens question him."
Ultimately, the court handed down the conviction, but Baraka's comments made clear the extent of his investment in local life.
Newark is home, he says, for all its problems. "I can't walk down the street without having conversations with people. We've got four sons who are all over this community . . . we are very much rooted in this town.
"This is our town. I mean, I would like it to be better. There are certain things that I would like to see and would have done, if what we had wanted to create had become actual." He shakes his head. "But politicians in this country, unless they're enormously motivated, they usually get boxed in by how they got into office and who they think they have to relate to in office. You have to have a great impact on them to have them actually want things that you want done." And that's not an impact, he believes, that African-Americans have ever truly been able to wield.
COULD THIS CHANGE with the 2008 election? He thinks so. Yet in 2002 he spoke of black politicians such as Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell as "no blacks", but as "Americans", as a "comprador class" who looked black but were, in fact, something else. If Barack Obama succeeds with his campaign, is there not the risk that his presidency will prove similarly disappointing for Baraka? "Well, that's why I've been urging people that they have to participate in this if they want to have an impact," he says. "That if we let him become completely isolated in American bourgeois politics, then there is nothing that we can expect. Obama's entering in a different fashion to Rice and Powell and we hope that there can be enough influence by progressives, and by the Afro-American people, to see that his course is somewhat different."
Of Obama's recent rough spots, as he calls them, he is dismissive. "You just go into any black church on a Sunday" and you'll hear statements of the kind made by Reverend Wright, he says. "Why should the slaves be praising America?" He laughs. "And certainly, working-class Americans and poor Americans are bitter about their economic situation. What should they be doing, celebrating it?"
With that, he's off down the street, for a Saturday morning appointment "down here on the corner"; neighbours call out to him as he strides past wooden-fronted houses with placards for Obama stuck into their front lawns. It's perhaps better not to comment on the fact that the street he's heading for, one of Newark's busiest thoroughfares, is called Clinton Avenue.
He's looking forward to Ireland, he says, but there's something he needs to do before the flight; he can't take a transatlantic flight without his music. "And I'm still trying to figure out how to get the music off the computer onto my Blackberry. I'm putting it off every day. To me that's a real task, you know?"
And that's saying something.
Amiri Baraka will read from his works this evening as part of Cork World Book Fest. For details, see http:// www.corkcitylibraries.ie/whatson/librarynews/#d.en.9629