Revolutionary Equations: Amiri Baraka (1934-2014)

Shortly after the 1965 publication of his novel The System of Dante’s Hell, Amiri Baraka – then still named LeRoi Jones – wondered in an interview whether the energies he had put into writing it might not have been better used to ‘devise a method for blowing up the White House’. Perhaps he was right. But while the whole of Baraka’s work might not add up to a manual for creating a revolutionary movement, it is still among the most exacting and vital expressions of the struggle to create a militant poetics written in the ‘English’ language.

A key force in the intense constellation of African-American creation that emerged from the Black Liberation struggles of the late ‘60s, together with writers and artists such as Henry Dumas, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Jayne Cortez, and Sonia Sanchez, Baraka produced some of the most confrontational art of the Twentieth Century. The Black Arts Movement was the major avant-garde movement of the 1960s, a dialectical shift in the relation between form and content as mode and address. This was a poetry that was no longer an artistic representation of speech, but speech itself: ‘We wanted an art that was revolutionary. We wanted a Malcolm art, a by-any-means-necessary poetry. A Ballot or Bullet verse.’ It was actively revolutionary, and it was intended for the people who were capable of making that revolution. Lorenzo Thomas recalls a Baraka reading from around 1967:

We walked through the cold quiet streets a few blocks to a union hall or community centre sort of place where Amiri Baraka was reading feverish political poems to a few cheerful working class black folks [. . . ] Baraka was dressed in a flowing big-sleeved dashiki and a Moroccan knit cap. He was shouting and singing his poems [. . .] The audience, just like a church congregation, said ‘Amen’ when the poem was finished [. . . ] Ishmael Reed and I sat there with our eyes bugged out, wondering if the brother was mad. Talking like that. Talking that talk [. . .] The people were saying ‘yeh, uh, huh’, laughing and bopping their heads. Like in church. I was amazed at what the poems were doing.

It is a poetry that is un-interested in only speaking to aesthetes, one that refuses a distinction between artistic work and revolutionary activism. ‘The artist and the political activist are one’, wrote Larry Neal, in the afterward to the Black Arts anthology Black Fire, edited by himself and Baraka in 1968, ‘they are both shapers of the future reality’. But in no way – as the caricature of the later Baraka goes – was this a sacrifice of complexity. The relationship to the content of the work, as well as to the audience, was transformed. Artists summoned images and histories inaccessible to the comprehension of the racist enemy, that were both educational – they were committed to art as pedagogical street communication – and revolutionary, in that the world being proposed was one that was entirely other than the one in which they were made to live.

We brought street-corner poetry readings, moving the poets by truck from site to site. So that each night through that summer we flooded Harlem with new music, new poetry, new dance, new paintings, and the sweep of the Black Arts movement had recycled itself back to the people. We had huge audiences, really mass audiences, and though what we brought was supposed to be avant and super-new, most of it people dug. That’s why we knew the music critics who put the new music down as inaccessible were full of shit. People danced in the street to Sun Ra and cheered Ayler and Shepp and Cecil and Jackie McClean and the others.

Baraka’s later work was criticised by more than one reactionary avant-gardist for being one-dimensional and didactic. It’s a stupid (and sinister) criticism, deliberately dismissive of a large and complex body of work that included music criticism, drama, fiction, musical performance and political organisation as well as a wildly various body of poetry. And while t nhese different aspects of the work were obviously distinct, they were also inseparable, feeding into and informing each other. The didacticism was intentional, and never simplistic, but rather the development of a new poetics – the poem as political speech, the political speech itself as music, the slogan as essay, the essay as poem etc. ‘We can learn more about what poetry is by listening to Malcolm’s speeches, than from most of Western Poetics’, claimed Larry Neal. If that is true, then it requires an absolute transformation of what is expected from poetry, and of how it is to be judged. And that is not to say that militant poetry must simply become crudely utilitarian. Quite the opposite: the transformation of poetic energies into revolutionary energies requires, at base, a transformation of our understanding of the imagination itself.

Imagination, or rather, the work of the imagination, becomes the summoning of historical energies, be they ones officially documented by the dominant culture, or ones concealed by the forces of that domination. The work is a gathering, a summoning, of the energies (dreams) of oppression and the resistance to that oppression, to condense those energies into a confrontational poetics and art whereby the hidden history of subjugation is revealed, at times apocalyptically. The content of the militant poetics of the Black Liberation Movement, then, is to activate historical data, and to condense that data into energies and intensities that can give those who hear it the strength to act (a method for blowing up the White House). Frantz Fanon called it the ‘literature of combat’. For Baraka it was the struggle to express what he called ‘struggle images’, where the imagination is solidified into a counterimage intended to challenge and overcome the image-networks of the dominant culture, that system of lies that provides an alibi for the idiot barbarism of the civilized west, a system of lies that Baraka felt extended even into the work of so-called ‘radical’ poets, who in a late essay he referred to as having ‘the good manners of vampires’. And poets, to steal an image from a later group of radical African- American artists, must be ‘fearless vampire killers’.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Writer and leading figure of the Black Arts movement in the United States, Amiri Baraka died this January, aged 79. Before 1966, when he changed his name from LeRoi Jones, he was a celebrated avant- garde poet and playwright, an associate of Ginsberg and the Beats, and New York poet and art curator Frank O’Hara. As the sixties progressed he began to question his association with such figures, and, following a trip to revolutionary Cuba, his work, and attitude towards what poetry was, became increasingly radicalised. With the murder of Malcolm X he placed himself at the forefront of militant, separatist black cultural politics and poetics. His output in the 1960s was extraordinary: poetry, short stories, a novel, political tracts and Blues People, the first book on African-American music actually written by an African-American, and still considered a key work of jazz criticism today. After 1966 he was also a prominent activist, spokesman and organiser, setting up the influential Black Arts Repertory Theatre / School. Much of the work of this period was characterised by a revolutionary rage unmatched by any other poet of the period. In the 70s he rejected Black Nationalism, and became a Marxist-Leninist, a political position he retained for the rest of his life, and the later poetry constitutes a major contribution to the traditions of twentieth century Marxist poetry. In his later years his importance to US African- American history was increasingly recognised: his work was increasingly included in surveys of 20th century poetry and he was awarded various literary prizes and fellowships. But despite this seeming acceptance by the establishment, he remained committed to grass-roots, politically radical arts organising, un-mediated by literary and academic restrictions.