Friday, January 10, 2014

Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka, radical playwright and poet, dies aged 79 in Newark

Amiri Baraka, the radical man of letters whose poems, plays and criticism made him a provocative and groundbreaking force in American culture, has died aged 79. Baraka, who had been in hospital since last month, died on Thursday at Newark Beth Israel Medical Centre, said his agent Celeste Bateman. Perhaps no writer of the 1960s and 1970s was more radical or polarising than the man formerly known as LeRoi Jones and no one did more to extend the political debates of the civil rights era to the world of the arts.

He inspired a generation of poets, playwrights and musicians and his immersion in spoken word traditions and raw street language anticipated rap, hip-hop and slam poetry. The FBI feared him to the point of flattery, identifying Baraka as "the person who will probably emerge as the leader of the pan-African movement in the United States."

Baraka transformed first to join the Beat caravan of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and then to lead the Black Arts Movement, an ally of the Black Power movement, that rejected the liberal optimism of the early 1960s and intensified a divide over how and whether the black artist should take on social issues. Scorning art for art's sake and the pursuit of racial unity, Barak was part of a philosophy that called for the teaching of black art and history and producing works that bluntly called for revolution.

"We want poems that kill,'" Baraka wrote in his landmark Black Art manifesto published in 1965, the year he helped found the Black Arts Movement. "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." He was as eclectic as he was prolific. His influences ranged from Ray Bradbury and Mao Zedong to Ginsberg and John Coltrane. Baraka wrote poems, short stories, novels, essays, plays, musical and cultural criticism and jazz operas.

His 1963 book, Blues People: Negro Music in White America, has been called the first major history of black music to be written by an African-American. A line from his poem Black People! – "Up against the wall mother fucker" – became a counterculture slogan for everyone from student protesters to the rock band Jefferson Airplane. A 2002 poem he wrote alleging that some Israelis had advance knowledge of the September 11 attacks led to widespread outrage.

Poet, writer, teacher, and political activist Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones in 1934 in Newark, New Jersey. He attended Rutgers University and Howard University, spent three years in the U.S. Air Force, and returned to New York City to attend Columbia University and the New School for Social Research. Baraka was well known for his strident social criticism, often writing in an incendiary style that made it difficult for some audiences and critics to respond with objectivity to his works. Throughout most of his career his method in poetry, drama, fiction, and essays was confrontational, calculated to shock and awaken audiences to the political concerns of black Americans. For decades, Baraka was one of the most prominent voices in the world of American literature.

Baraka’s own political stance changed several times, thus dividing his oeuvre into periods: as a member of the avant-garde during the 1950s, Baraka—writing as Leroi Jones—was associated with Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; in the ‘60s, he moved to Harlem and became a Black Nationalist; in the ‘70s, he was involved in third-world liberation movements and identified as a Marxist. More recently, Baraka was accused of anti-Semitism for his poem “Somebody Blew up America,” written in response to the September 11 attacks.

Baraka incited controversy throughout his career. He was praised for speaking out against oppression as well as accused of fostering hate. Critical opinion has been sharply divided between those who agree, with Dissent contributor Stanley Kaufman, that Baraka’s race and political moment have created his celebrity, and those who feel that Baraka stands among the most important writers of the twentieth century. In the American Book Review, Arnold Rampersad counted Baraka with Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison “as one of the eight figures . . . who have significantly affected the course of African-American literary culture.”

Amiri Baraka, a controversial playwright, poet and activist who set a new path for fellow African-American artists by bringing militancy and verve to works about race in America, died on Thursday at age 79 at a hospital in his native New Jersey, a representative said. Baraka had been in failing health and passed away at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, surrounded by family, said his booking agent Celeste Bateman.

Baraka had associated with Beat Generation poets in the 1950s and he published his first collection of poems in 1961. In 1964, he won fame in some circles, notoriety in others and an Obie award for his explosive play "Dutchman." In the play, a white woman sexually teases and taunts a black man named Clay on a subway, they clash venomously and he speaks of seething anger at whites. The work ends with the woman stabbing Clay in the heart, then eyeing another black rider.

The New York Times, in a 2007 review of a new production of the play, called it the "singular cultural emblem" of the black separatist movement in the United States. Among Baraka's other well-known works are his nonfiction book "Blues People: Negro Music in White America" and the poems "In Memory of Radio" and "An Agony. As Now."

Born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, he later became known as Amiri Baraka. On his way to increased political militancy, Baraka in 1965 divorced his white wife, Hettie. After the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X, Baraka played a principal role in the creation of the Black Arts Movement as the head of a theater and school in Harlem, the historic center of African-American creative expression. The movement served as the cultural wing of the militant Black Power Movement espoused by groups such as the Black Panthers and which had grown out of the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. "The Black Artist's role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it," Baraka wrote in an essay from the time. Baraka also embraced Marxism and artists in the developing world who, like himself, made political statements.

Revolution song
In 1964, when the play Dutchman by LeRoi Jones premiered at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, terms such as "black nationalism", "black aesthetic" and "the black criterion" were seldom uttered by writers and artists. Three years later, by which time Jones had transformed himself into Amiri Baraka, or "Blessed Prince", the labels and concepts they had introduced were impossible to ignore. Jones's "drastic personal shift would affect almost every contemporary black writer of the slightest importance, as well as the entire [younger] generation", wrote Arnold Rampersad, the biographer of Langston Hughes. Jones's change of identity had been coming for some time, but only when Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965 did he take the "drastic" step of evicting himself from his Greenwich Village base, his white wife and bohemian friends, and moving uptown to Harlem.

There he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre, with the express intention of "producing art to try to bring black people to revolutionary positions". The downtown Beat poet and avant-garde publisher of, among others, Jack Kerouac and Frank O'Hara became a black-nationalist organiser and "cultural worker". The titles of poems such as "Crow Jane", "Black Art" and "Return of the Native" - "Harlem is vicious / modernism. BangClash" - are at once statements of future intent and mocking jeers over the shoulder at what is left behind. As Jones, he had already given birth to the striking figure of Black Dada Nihilismus, who threatens to "choke my friends / in their bedrooms" in the name of a "blacker art".

Jones was not a native returning to Harlem. He had emerged from a milieu he describes as "the black bourgeoisie", attending Rutgers and Howard universities before spending three years in the air force, where he attained the rank of sergeant. In the service, he read furiously, discovering a taste for "long books that I'd heard were difficult: Proust and Dostoevsky were glad tasks for me", and developing an unlikely passion for Evelyn Waugh. "I read every novel of his I could find and often wondered how to pronounce his name. I thought Sebastian Flyte was marvellous!" At the same time, he reached the understanding that, no matter how much he appreciated the beauties of English literature, "I could never write that way. There was something in me so out, so unconnected with what these writers were, that what was in me would never come out like that and be my poetry." The preface to the last book he wrote as LeRoi Jones, a collection of essays pointedly called Home (1966), prepares readers for his evolution: "By the time this book appears, I will be even blacker."

"It was the influence of the African liberation movement, the anti-colonial movement," Baraka says. "We were very much impressed by that. And remember that, for a long time, to be called an 'African' was, for a black American, insulting. So we began to take pride in that, and to say, well, we don't want to have our slave names - that is, the names that had been given us." Baraka would not claim to have introduced the revolutionary tune into African-American literature. "The stream is quite clear, the insistence that black life was more precious than it was treated as in America. You see it in Richard Wright, even in Langston Hughes - that sensitivity to abuse. Go back to Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave writing some of the most beautiful prose in the 19th century - the determination to speak out is there. It just gets more directly rebellious. When you stand on these people's shoulders, you are obliged to move from criticism to defiance."

Earlier this year, Dutchman enjoyed an extended run at the same theatre at which it opened 43 years ago. The audience then had been almost entirely white; now it was mixed - "I take some responsibility for that," Baraka says. All the audience seemed to accept as justified the intimidating lacerations directed their way by the black character Clay, before he is stabbed to death by the blonde teaser Lula. Baraka feels that the play "has a resonance that you might not expect in a work that old. The real deal is that, unfortunately, there are so many truths that are still relevant."

At 72, Baraka is pugnacious and wiry. He lives with his wife Amina in a three-storey Victorian house off Springfield Avenue in his home city of Newark. The rooms are full of masks, sculptures and other items of Africana. Artworks by Baraka and others hang on the walls. The only white face on view belongs to Lenin, who surges forward, fists clenched, in a giant poster in the kitchen, above a slogan in Chinese. Nailed to a board outside is a poster urging voters to elect his son Ras Baraka as mayor of Newark.

Here are some of the most insightful quotes from Baraka’s career.
1. “A man is either free, or he is not. There cannot be an apprenticeship for freedom.”
2. “Art is a weapon in the struggle of ideas, the class struggle.”
3. “There is no justice in America, but it is the fight for justice that sustains you.”
4. “Art is whatever makes you proud to be human.”
5. “God has been replaced, as he has all over the West, with respectability and air conditioning.”
6. “Warriors are poets and poems and all the loveliness here in the worlds.”
7. “Since the rich eat more/ than anybody else/ It is reasonable to assume/ that they are more full of shit.”
8. “Thought is more important than art. To revere art and have no understanding of the process that forces it into existence, is finally not even to understand what art is.”
9. “There is no depth to education without art.”
10. “If the flag of an armed enemy of the U.S. is allowed to fly over government buildings, then it implies that slavery, or at least the threat of slavery, is sanctioned by that government and can still legally exist.”
11. “Poetry is music, and nothing but music. Words with musical emphasis.”
12. “The attempt to divide art and politics is a bourgeois which says good poetry, art, cannot be political, but since everything is … political, even an artist or work that claims not to have any politics is making a political statement by that act.”

Amiri Baraka (born Everett LeRoi Jones; October 7, 1934 – January 9, 2014), formerly known as LeRoi Jones and Imamu Amear Baraka, was an American writer of poetry, drama, fiction, essays and music criticism. He was the author of numerous books of poetry and taught at a number of universities, including the State University of New York at Buffalo and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He received the PEN Open Book Award, formerly known as the Beyond Margins Award, in 2008 for Tales of the Out and the Gone. Critical reception of Baraka's poetry and writing is a conflict of extremes. Critics within the African-American community compare him to James Baldwin and call Baraka one of the most respected and most widely published Black writers of his generation. Baraka's brief tenure as Poet Laureate of New Jersey (2002–03), which involved controversy over a public reading of his poem "Somebody Blew Up America?" and accusations of anti-Semitism, brought Baraka's work a barrage of negative attention from critics, politicians and the general public. Other critics, most notably Jerry Gafio Watts, explain Baraka's expression of violence, misogyny, homophobia and racism as evidence of psychological projection.

Pres Spoke in a Language
by Amiri Baraka

Pres spoke in a language
“of his own.” What did he say, between the
horn line
s, pork pie hat
tenor tilted
pres once was a drummer but gave it up cause other dudes
was getting
the foxes
while he packed his tomtoms
“Ding Dong,” pres sd, meaning
like a typewriter, its the end
of this
line. “No Eyes,” pres wd say, meaning
I didn’t cdn’t dig it, and what it was was
lame, Pres
had a language
and a life, like,
all his own,
but in the teeming whole of us he lived
toooting on his sideways horn
translating frankie trumbauer into
Bird’s feathers
Tranes sinewy tracks
the slickster walking through the crowd
surviving on a terrifying wit
its the jungle the jungle the jungle
we living in
and cats like pres cd make it because they were clear they,
at least,
had to,
to do anything else.
Save all that comrades, we need it.


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