Author Topic: Romanticizing a revolutionary  (Read 238 times)

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Offline rangerrebew

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Romanticizing a revolutionary
« on: January 13, 2014, 06:36:55 AM »
Romanticizing a Revolutionary

January 13, 2014 by Bruce Bawer 1 Comment

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 bleep,” 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.

« Last Edit: January 13, 2014, 06:37:50 AM by rangerrebew »
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