by Richard Oyama
“Who was that masked man?” I asked myself when Amiri Baraka passed in January. It wasn’t just that Baraka was a man of various gifts. He was a man of swift metamorphoses and violent repudiations, leaving wreckage and confusion, friends and former wives in his wake.
The early “In Memory of Radio” includes these lines: “Saturday mornings we listened to the Red Lantern & his undersea folk. / At 11, Let's Pretend / & we did / & I, the poet, still do. Thank God!” Poetry, like radio, is a form of artifice and imposture, and the voice of the poem may be persona, like Lamont Cranston the Shadow.
As Imamu Amiri Baraka, a black nationalist, he cultivated a quasi-mystical racial mystique, using words like “spirit” and “vision” often. But before he took a new name Baraka was LeRoi Jones, a poet who associated with gay poets like Allan Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara, wrote the ferocious play Dutchman, the novel The System of Dante’s Hell, and the nonfiction books Blues People and Black Music.
This early work was crucial to me, as it was written from the tortured perspective of a black intellectual in jagged, poetic shards. A child of Nisei parents interned during World War II, I grew up on Morningside Drive west of Harlem and attended Harlem schools. Intermittently, I was the target of anti-Asian epithets. The effect of internment was dispersal and diaspora. The vilification instilled a “double consciousness” in me. I was both American and not-American, as masked by “the face of the Enemy” as Jones was.
Jones’ collection The Dead Lecturer was another key work, one informed by the poetics of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. Consider these lines: “I am inside someone / who hates me. I look / out from his eyes. Smell what fouled tunes come in / to his breath. Love his /wretched women. / Slits in the metal, for sun.” (from “An Agony. As Now.”) Adrienne Rich said Creeley saw in this poem “life . . . in a literal body which the surrounding ‘body’ of the society defines as hateful—an unacceptable condition.” It isn’t difficult to extrapolate from Baraka’s poem the intolerable status of the yellow body during World War II, the brown body hunted by la migra, the “Arab” body suspect after 9/11.
But fissures appear. As Rich wrote in 2009, “The reflexive, un-self-critical use of ‘fags’ and ‘jews’ as familiar, still-poisonous code names for class enemies certainly disfigures the poet’s achievement, along with misogyny and its images craving the woman victim.”
After Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965, Jones fled the East Village for Harlem, changed his name, and was instrumental in growing the Black Arts Movement. With Black Magic Poetry, he lost me. After centuries of white supremacy and racial stigma, it was understandable—even necessary— to affirm black culture and personhood. Yet the mystification at times verged on incoherence, “later parodied by genius Black comic minds like Richard Pryor and George Clinton as soon as they felt safe,” Greg Tate wrote in a lengthy memorial essay on Baraka this year.
And mystification was the least of it. From “Black Dada Nihilismus”: “Rape the white girls. Rape / their fathers. Cut the mothers' throats.” Assume Baraka’s poem is an anti-art gesture that extends Andre Breton’s statement: “The simplest Surrealist act consists of . . . firing blindly . . . into the crowd.” Still, the imperative form could be inflammatory in an inflammatory time. What Baraka touted as “EXPRESSION” could degenerate into feeling for feeling’s sake, validating spoken-word/sound performances sometimes more cathartic for the maker than the listener.
In 1975, Baraka rejected cultural nationalism, proclaiming himself a Communist. At benefit readings for an anthology of Asian American poets at Basement Workshop, an arts organization in Manhattan, Baraka read recent work including the poem “Dope.” The performative skills were intact, but these pamphleteering poems evidenced decline. One poem included a nasty Uncle Tom slur against novelist Ralph Ellison, ignoring Ellison’s Invisible Man as a vital contribution to American literature. The mean-spiritedness was palpable.
In the end, Baraka’s work suffered because he preferred ideology over art, forgetting the latter outlasts us all. The conclusion to his Autobiography was marred by Marxist rhetoric. His post-9/11 poem “Who Blew Up America?” was construed as anti-Semitic, resulting in the defunding of New Jersey’s Poet Laureate post that he held. Its paranoid logic is impeccable: “Who killed Princess Di?” Huh?
LeRoi Jones once meant a lot to me. But Baraka’s career came to represent a cautionary tale of the worst “tendencies” of the 1960s—the alienating rejections, the fanatical self-righteousness, the impulse toward separatism and Stalinist repression versus multi-racial/class coalition-building.
I write this not with any real delight, but rather with the regret one feels at lost possibilities, the evanescent hopes for something grander than a black corporatist president who Band-Aids a nation that’s slipping irrevocably into the second-rate.
Richard Oyama is a poet. His first collection, The Country They Know, was published by Neuma Books in 2005. His forthcoming novel is titled Orphans of the Storm.