Amiri Baraka: An Unconventional Bard

Née Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, in 1934, Amiri Baraka has been an outspoken, politically committed activist and cultural figure in the United States for over half a century. His experimentalist and non-conformist nature aligned him with the emerging subculture of Beatnik America. In 1958 he married Hettie Cohen, his first wife, and established Totem Press, an independent publishing house which would produce the works of Beat icons Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, among others. Meanwhile, his natural propensity for rhythm set him from the start onto the path of poetry, with the publication of his first collection of poems, Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, in 1961. Also active on the dramatic scene, LeRoi Jones wrote The Slave and Toilet before hitting it big with Dutchman in 1963 – all of which were concerned with the inevitable tension between black and white social strata in America at the time. Then, in 1965, the life of LeRoi Jones, like that of most African Americans, suffered a cataclysmic blow with the assassination of Malcolm X. LeRoi Jones shied away from his previous life, divorced his (white Jewish) wife, embraced Islam as an alternative and became Amiri Baraka. 

What does all of this have to do with Caribbean literature, you might wonder. Just bear with me one minute: it all starts with Johnny Depp on his way to the desert, frantically spewing a wild speech in his impersonation of Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I recently watched the film and also picked up Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. Something I read there prompted me to do some research as to whether Thompson is considered part of the core of the Beat movement. According to the Wiki, he is not – but Amiri Baraka is. By chance, I had recently re-read Baraka’s controversial poem, Somebody Blew Up America in a pretty edition published by – take note, now: this is where it all comes around full circle – House of Nehesi Publishers from Sint Maarten. 

House of Nehesi also publish his collection of essays The Essence of Reparations (2003); however, what I really want to talk about here is a remarkable book of short stories entitled Tales from the Out and the Gone, which I purchased last year at Calabash in Jamaica (see, there’s another link to the Caribbean – sort of). The collection includes short stories by Baraka spanning from the mid-seventies to 2003. The first part of the book comprises the six older stories in a sub-section called “War Stories.” These stories do not, necessarily, provide an enthralling read, and some of them (I’m thinking specifically of “Neo-American” right now) are almost dull in their fastidious detail. Baraka himself admits in the introduction to the book that many of the tales “would be juiced-up journalism if I did not think they needed to be something else to be fully grasped.” Well, perhaps I did not fully grasp them, but the earlier mention of Hunter S. Thompson, the Father, the Son and the Holy Gonzo of Gonzo journalism, was not only anecdotal: A lot in “War Stories” reads similar to Fear and Loathing in wherever, in that they are obviously inspired by real experiences, adulterated (in real time, or later, during their transcription) for greater effect. And yet, much like in Fear and Loathing on the campaign Trail ‘72, there is a piercing concern for American politics, an overwhelming knowledge of the American reality, and, ultimately, a pervading sense that, as Baraka explains in the same introduction to the book, the tales are effectively immersed within, are part of, the social movement that was taking place at the time and that eventually changed America. 

Two of the “War Stories” stand out for their quality: “Norman’s Date,” a mysterious sex story Baraka managed to sell to Playboy in 1982, and “Mondongo”, a compelling story of two outsiders in the US Air Force, stationed in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, and looking for trouble in the red-light, off-limits, district of town. “Mondongo” is particularly entertaining in the despondency with which it discards everything, from Aguadilla itself (“a nasty little dot at the tip of Puerto Rico’s shore”), to the protagonists, “Laffawiss, the scrawny humpbacked Groucho ‘Jew bastard,’ as some of the quainter Southern boys called him, and Johns, ‘a fucking nigger snob,’” to the Air Force, which he cleverly dubs “the error farce.” Nevertheless, when it comes to the more entertaining of “War Stories,” what stands out long after having read them is the anger, the frustration, the resignation that Baraka encapsulates in a comment by Johns: “What a sight this must be, Johns thought, black and white butts flagging away in unison–shit, it’s what Civil Rights is all about, goddamnit.”

The second part of Tales of the Out and the Gone consists of nineteen pieces, most of them much shorter than the previous six, most of them short stories, mixed with an essay here and there. Dating from the nineties onwards, these tales are far more experimental in their use of language. Baraka the poet can be found in every page here, as can be Baraka the jazz and blues specialist, through countless allusions to music setting the rhythm, creating the atmosphere and even helping people move from one place to another. Furthermore, Baraka adds a new trick to his fold in the guise of sci-fi, building fantastic arguments with futuristic dialogues about shoes that would fly you to your destination by telepathic communication, tunes that would land you wherever they were being played, or a clothes ray that would make clothes out of light. 

However, the real difference between “War Stories” and “Tales of the Out and the Gone” resides in what the latter seem to lack, namely, the almost oppressive anger that can be sensed in the earlier pieces. Which is not to say that there is no struggle, no commitment, no dissatisfaction in the later ones. On the contrary, if one story stays vividly in the memory of the reader after finishing the collection, it is “What Is Undug Will Be”, an allegoric monologue “trancespoken” by Baraka in 1996, where all the issues tackled bluntly in the earlier tales can be sensed anew, even if the cryptic style and structure of Baraka’s rant do not allow them to be truly understood. Except, that is certainly the effect he seeks to cause, possibly in order to evoke the intensity of a feeling rather than the analytic coldness of reason. 

Precisely this anger, in fact, reemerges in the last text of the collection, “Post- and Pre-Mortem Dialogue,” written in 2003 and focusing on 9/11. Here Baraka dwells on the notion, also explored in the poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” that the Bush administration was at least aware of the impending terrorist attacks prior to them taking place. Indeed, the poem got him into so much trouble with the Governor of New Jersey that he was stripped of his position as Poet Laureate of the state. Once it transpired the Governor was not actually entitled to do this, the figure of the Laureate Poet was altogether eliminated from the state of New Jersey. And so, these days, Amiri Baraka signs off as “the last Poet Laureate of New Jersey.” 

Amiri Baraka. Copyright: Linda Koolish.

Be that as it may, it remains undeniable that Baraka’s stories are almost unique, not so much because of their attachment to a social cause, but because of his masterful combination of fiction and reality, of science fiction and sociopolitical activism. One consequence of this highly localized combination is that Baraka becomes a quintessentially American writer: (much like Hunter S. Thompson) it is hard to understand what he talks about if you are unfamiliar with the context he describes; by the same token, trying to understand American society without being exposed to the sentiments and realities put forward by Baraka in his stories would result in building a radically incomplete picture. After all, when successful, Baraka’s fiction combines vastly discrete elements to provide the sort of intelligent entertainment that leaves the reader puzzled, that prompts internal as well as external questioning and that does provide a certain level of amusement, only to be followed by an uncomfortable, if somewhat unspecific, aftertaste. Poet Laureate or not, Amiri Baraka remains a most disconcerting, most unconventional kind of bard. 






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