Amiri Baraka is gone. Where shall we go? What is to be done?
Let us remember Baraka was a revolutionary, communist, anti-imperialist and internationalist who deployed art and language in the cause of Black liberation, working class freedom and human emancipation.
His extraordinary intellect combined with an extraordinary will and unshakeable principles and morality. In spite of his glorious mind he never privileged himself. He often seemed embarrassed when people made a fuss over him.
Never has poetry, music, drama, literature, eulogy, music commentary and criticism been so effectively deployed in the cause of freedom. It was obvious that for him art and revolution were two sides of an inseparable dialectic; in other words, if you didn’t want revolution you didn’t want art, at least art committed to the people. Far more than the usually construed academic option where art and reality are like form and content, in his praxis it was the unity of the historically inevitable, collective consciousness and the existential that produced people’s art.
Amiri’s was a long journey, that mirrored the complexities and contradictions of the time he lived, and his ambition to use his indomitable will, passion and drive to right the wrongs of history, especially the crimes committed upon his beloved Afro-American people.
His life did not proceed linearly. Like all things in history and nature it advanced in and through contradictions. Yet, at the end of the day he was a genius seeking to do all he could to free his people. In the course of his life he became a part of us and we of him.
Through our grief and tears we must prepare for the ideological onslaught of the buzzards of the ruling elites (the New York Times threw the first blow) and their black and white academic deconstructors who will now seek to invent and reinvent Amiri. The defense of Amiri is the defense of our national liberation and working class emancipatory aspirations.
“Like Du Bois and James Baldwin, Baraka was a social force. His power arose from the connection of his genius to the black masses. This relationship deepened over his life, giving a power to his intellect which I’m sure amazed him as it did us. To those who will invent a Baraka that fits their ambitions and class interest, we remind them as he did when speaking of James Baldwin: “’reality’ exists independent of any of the multivisioned subjectivism that nevertheless distort and actually peril all life here.
For me, one clear example of the dichotomy between what actually is and what might be reflected in some smeared mirror of private need, is the public characterization of the mighty being for whom we are gathered here to bid our tearful farewells!”
Amiri discovered his poetic voice in the middle 1950’s as a part of the beat poets. Yet while finding his own voice he shaped the voice of American poetry. In those years he was an organizer of journals, poetry slams and protest. His radical vision challenged the political and cultural frameworks of an America preparing the century for American empire and war. His poetry was democratic and radically anti-establishment, albeit, as he admitted, petit bourgeois. He invents new meter, rhythms, punctuation and spelling creating a type of Baraka-speak. He attacked the dullness of academic poetry.
For him, like his friend Alan Ginsberg, poetry was from the people and should reflect their lives. All the time he desired to go beyond the isolation of poetry, beohemianism and hip beatnikism. He says, “The abject racism and economic super exploitation, denial of rights and national oppression and the imperialist overbeing was pressed upon me even in the eastern city of LaLa Land, ‘The Village.’ It grew, this sense of it, as I grew, intellectually, experientially, ideologically…whatever. I had seen a pattern, social, aesthetic, and ideological, that had worked on me…”
“The assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 forced Amiri to rethink not only where he should locate his efforts, but also who he must become. He relocates to Harlem, later moving to Newark, New Jersey, his hometown. In Harlem he leads the Black Arts Movement and for the first time sees Black Art as a democratic and potentially revolutionary force. In a certain sense he was putting to practice the thesis in his landmark Blues People (1964).
However his Black Arts praxis morphed into cultural nationalism and his becoming a follower of Kawaida philosophy and Maulana Karenga. The democratic and revolutionary possibilities of Black art were trumped by the sexism, and homophobia of cultural nationalism. In Newark, in search of black authenticity he becomes for a time a Muslim, changes his name to Ameer Barakat and later Swahilized to Amiri Baraka. He founds Spirit House and participates in the 1967 Black Power Conference and during the Newark uprising is beaten to within inches of his life by Newark police.
However, he does something previously not attempted by Black nationalists, he joins cultural nationalism to electoral politics. Who could remember a poet – more, AfroAmerica’s leading poet and playwright – involved in the nitty gritty of electoral politics? His efforts help to elect Newark’s first Black mayor Ken Gibson and in 1970 he forms the Congress of African Peoples (CAP).
In this swelter of cultural and political activity profound ideological contradictions arise between the democratic essence of Black culture and the anti-democratic character of cultural nationalism, especially its sexism. His wife Amina Baraka (formerly Sylvia Robinson) challenges the misogyny of the Kawaida doctrine. She points out the inconsistency of fighting for Black liberation but oppressing women. Baraka was also aware of the left and revolutionary trend within the liberation movements in southern Africa. The Marxism of Amilcar Cabral and the socialism of Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere particularly influence him. Amina Baraka insists that they make a complete break with Karenga’s doctrine.
At the Sixth Pan African Congress in Dar Es Salam Tanzania in 1974 Baraka delivers a speech entitled “Revolutionary Culture and the Future of Pan African Culture” where he stated that if African American nationalism did not advocate for socialism it would become reactionary. Throughout 1974 he used CAP position papers to signal his increasing move away from cultural nationalism, defining it as narrow and reactionary nationalism and linked his thinking to Marx, Lenin, Mao and African and Third World Marxists. He recognizes that neither Kawaida nor Black electoral politics could produce the type of revolutionary ideology he aspired to.
Amina Baraka insists upon a complete break with cultural nationalism and a “Bolshevik,” i.e. Leninist, reconstruction of CAP. CAP is renamed, the Revolutionary Communist League. Cultural nationalism had lost perhaps its best-known and most effective organizer. The Afro-American radical tradition acquired a most formidable intellect and voice.
In a 1976 interview he defines culture in class terms, rejects the racial strategy of cultural nationalism and rejects his previous stance against unity with white folk. He says, “I think the purpose of real art today is to show people how to make revolution in this society.” Concerning Black struggle he proclaims, “we’ve got to fight for revolution, because racism and oppression will never be eliminated until the system of monopoly capitalism is eliminated. Racism, after all is built upon the economic foundations of capitalism, and it won’t collapse until its material base us destroyed.”
While positioning his thinking within what he called the “revisionist communist movement” and “Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought” his views are also close to those articulated in 1973 by Henry Winston, Chairman of the Communist Party USA, that culture separated from a class consciousness could never be a weapon of liberation.
Baraka’s early Marxism is dogmatic, highly rhetorical, sectarian and infantile. However, coming from within cultural nationalism it was seen as a repudiation of Karenga and his Kawaida principles. His enormous stature as a result of his literary achievements, his role in Black electoral politics and the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, in 1972, made his drastic ideological shift a highly significant political event.
His changes reflected other changes among young African American radicals, including the Marxist forces within the Black Panther Party, the leftist move of Stokely Carmichael’s (Kwame Ture) All African Peoples Revolutionary Party and the formation of Black revolutionary formations, known as the Revolutionary Union Movement, within the United Automobile Union. The left and Marxist trends within the African Liberation Struggles and the consolidation of the Cuban Revolution and Cuba’s selfless support for African independence were strategic influences.
Once making the initial break, the issue for Amiri and Amina was how to develop their new ideological stance, and how to address the burning questions of the Black movement, especially sexism and increasingly homophobia.
What form would revolutionary culture, music, art and literature take in an advanced democratic and revolutionary struggle? What internationalist stance should be adopted and what side of the Soviet Union-Chinese ideological split should be taken. What was the relationship of the Afro-American struggle to the armed struggles in southern Africa. And what would be the relationship of the struggle for Black Self Determination to African Liberation and the movement towards world revolution, i.e. the world revolutionary process.
To break from the traps of dogmatism and left sectarian politics Baraka is forced to rethink and resituate himself in the African American radical traditions. W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America and James Baldwin are irreplaceable in his understanding the advanced democratic character of the Black struggle, and its working class foundations.
By the mid 1980’s Amiri and Amina had, along with others, worked out the principle groundings of their Marxism, which understood the centrality of democracy and Black liberation to the class struggle and socialism. However, he needed a better grasp of black resistance.
His return to Baldwin (the non Marxist and non Black Nationalist) presents him with the intellectual groundings of a real Black Marxism in a nation whose ruling class was forever flirting with right wing authoritarianism and fascism.
In his eulogy at Baldwin’s funeral he passionately and emotionally insists,
“He was spirit because he was living. And even past this tragic hour when we weep he has gone away, and why, and why we keep asking. There’s mountains of evil creatures who we would willingly bid farewell to—Jimmy could have given you some of their names on demand—We curse our luck, our oppressors—our age, our weakness. Why & Why again? And why can drive you mad, or said enough times might even make you wise!”
He continued, “His spirit is part of our own, it is our feelings’ completion. Our perceptions’ extension, the edge of our rationale, the paradigm for our best use of this world.”
Amiri proclaims, Jimmy “was like us so much, constantly growing, constantly measuring himself against himself, and thus against the world.” And than he shows how Baldwin will help shape the intellectual architecture of the rest of his life.
“At the hot peak of the movement Jimmy was one of its truest voices. His stance, that is our judgement of the world, the majority of us who still struggle to survive the bestiality of so called civilization, (the slaves) that is true and not that of our torturers, was a dangerous profundity and, as such, fuel for our getaway and liberation!
“He was our consummate &complete man of letters, not as an unloving artifact, but as a black man we could touch and relate to even there in that space filled with black fire at the base and circumference of our souls. And what was supremely ironic is that for all his aestheticism and ultra-sophistication, there he was now demanding that we get in the world completely, that we comprehend the ultimate intelligence of our enforced commitment to finally bring humanity to the world!
“Jimmy’s voice, as much as Dr. King’s or Malcolm X’s, helped sheppard and guide us toward black liberation.
“And for this, of course, the intellectual gunmen of the animal king tried to vanquish him. For ultimately, even the rare lyricism of his song, the weeping aesthetic obsession with feeling, could not cover the social heaviness of his communication!
“The celebrated James Baldwin of earlier times could not be used to cover the undaunted freedom chants of the Jimmy who walked with King and SNCC or the evil little nigger who wrote Blues For Mr. Charlie!”
Along with this there was always the music; the blues, R&B, gospel, bebop, hardbop, free jazz and avant-garde jazz. He returns again to music. (See the collection Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music). He analyzes, but searches for the progressive and revolutionary kernel of all Black music. The blues of Bessie Smith and Diana Washington and the advanced re-articulation of the blues in Billie Holliday.
He embraced the avant-garde like the later Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Grachan Moncur III, Nina Simone, Fred Hopkins, Craig Harris and David Murray. In the music he saw a pure form of the democratic and social transformative aspirations of Black folk.
He said, “The music is created by people in struggle. For whom struggle is one constant tone of life’s registration. It shapes every aspect of Black life.” Ultimately, though, “We need a Cultural Revolution in the US and internationally, to reorient the world and ultimately transform it where we and everybody else is self-determining. Our music, naturally, will be a big part of that because that is how we communicate with ourselves, each other, and the world.”
As the American ruling class after Reagan moved to consolidate the American global Empire and situate it as the single superpower and “indispensible nation,” Baraka realized the threat of constant wars abroad threatened bourgeois democracy and made fascism at home inevitable. After the 2001 attack upon the World Trade Center and the Pentagon he proclaims in the poem “Who Blew Up America” that it was a dangerous alliance of domestic and international forces seeking a rationale for war and repression that were behind it. He conceived of an anti-fascist strategy that translated in electoral struggles to siding with the “lesser of two evils” between the Democrats and Republicans.
This strategy reversed an almost 25 year rejection of the two party fraud. By 2007 he is in the embrace of Barack Obama. At the end, however, he saw that rather than a lesser evil Obama was but a new articulation of the same old evil but with a different symbology. His anti-fascist strategy did not and could not work. It failed! Which leaves us to find the foundations of new democratic and revolutionary possibilities in the second decade of the 21st century.
In the end Amiri returned to Baldwin and Du Bois. In a 2007 essay on Baldwin he proclaims:
“In these days of American Weimar, with a counterfeit president for a fake democracy, it is a deeply inspiring and absolutely necessary weapon and shield of true self-consciousness against an oppressor nation, its lieutenants, deranged pets, hired killers, artists, academic courtesans, and the dangerously uninformed, to reflect on the obvious grandeur, wisdom, and strength of that tradition of the Afro-American intellectual, artist, teacher—and know that it is revolutionary and democratic. Jimmy B. is high up in that tradition.”
Amiri’s was a complex life, which reflected the complexities of the Black liberation struggle. He leaves this earth standing upon the ideological and political ground that defined Du Bois as he left this plane: capitalism is an unsustainable system, it brings fascism and war and therefore for the sake of humanity it must be replaced with socialism.
From Black Agenda Report
Anthony Monteiro is a professor of African American Studies at Temple University.
January 15, 2014