Amiri Baraka, Revolutionary Poet 1934-2014

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Amiri Baraka is one of the most controversial names in poetry, a field not known particularly for its controversy, and I say “is” because even since his death in 2014 his work continues to provoke. Now that certainly says something about the power of his poetry. His initial fame came as one of the beat poets, under his birth name, Leroi Jones. But under both names, his focus has always been a social and political one, mainly as a stand, in no uncertain terms, against oppression and injustice, in particular against African-Americans. And he names names with no hesitation.

Perhaps the most well-known and problematic controversy was over his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” referencing 9/11. The link above also gives context to the controversy itself in which the state of New Jersey, which had selected Baraka as its Poet Laureate, literally dissolved the post of Poet Laureate under the patently false bit of rhetoric “arts should focus on the art, not the individual (artist)” — as if this was a sudden bolt of intellectual lightning. The purpose of eliminating the position of Poet Laureate was to remove Mr. Baraka because some were offended by his poem. “Some” meaning the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, which called the poem “antisemitic” for its implication that Israel was somehow complicit in 9/11. Whether or not one agrees with this opinion, Baraka’s argument on behalf of his poem and his refusal to retract it, was simply that Israel is not the same as Judaism or Jews, but a nation. This implies that the nation could make mistakes, even egregious ones.

Of course, what is at stake is not a “mistake” but complicity in a crime which has become pivotal as the raison d’être of the global war on terror, something Israel would likely find useful to its security, but also something Israel would not to be associated with in this way. That 9/11 was the crime that triggered invasions of other countries, military actions against “terrorism” and the hyping and flame-fanning of war-mongers keen to incite anti-Muslim sentiment, makes such an accusation quite consequential. Nevertheless, it is technically an opinion and not a legal accusation, certainly not a denigration of the Jewish people any more than accusations, within the same poem, against the CIA accusing it also of complicity, is somehow a slander against the American people. State actions are always separate from their people. (Not always an easy fact to maintain in a politicized world.)

Importantly, the poem expressed an opinion, one covered in the first amendment to the Bill of Rights. The very same poem also ranted against the Holocaust and against discrimination against Jews among others including African-Americans. Many Jews within the nation of Israel have voiced opinions highly unfavorable of Israeli government policies and actions with impunity. That the ADL would strongarm the State of New Jersey, which was bound by contract to keep Baraka as its Poet Laureate at its contracted salary, to go around their legal obligations by removing the post entirely, indicates there are forces more influential, certainly in this case, than democracy itself or the constitution. That those “forces” or that group would be able to railroad their demands through is also testament to how little people understand what freedom of speech or expression means. That political voices or voices of dissent would be thus deliberately suppressed while pornography or demonstrations by the KKK be allowed under the first amendment speaks volumes. Pornography only offends families of children or women (and some men) who find it misogynist — certainly not so different from antisemitism — but these people have no clout. And without clout, apparently, the Bill of Rights is just another contract to work around and circumvent. Was anyone offended at this unfair treatment or at the defamation of a man merely expressing his opinion. He was outspoken, and not all his opinions are ones I would necessarily agree with. But I would fight to the death for his right to say them.

Meanwhile, here is an older poem about racism, a less controversial subject these days, thankfully. Unless, of course, one accuses the “wrong” person…

Dope

BY Amiri Baraka

uuuuuuuuuu
uuuuuuuuuu
uuuuuuuuuu uuu ray light morning fire lynch yet
uuuuuuu, yester-pain in dreams
comes again. race-pain, people our people
our people
everywhere . . . yeh . . . uuuuu, yeh
uuuuu. yeh
our people
yes people
every people
most people
uuuuuu, yeh uuuuu, most people
in pain
yester-pain, and pain today
(Screams) ooowow! ooowow! It must be
the devil
(jumps up like a claw stuck him) oooo
wow! oooowow! (screams)

It must be the devil
It must be the devil
it must be the devil
(shakes like evangelical sanctify
shakes tambourine like evangelical sanctify
in heat)

ooowow! ooowow! yeh, devil, yeh, devil
ooowow!

Must be the devil must be the devil
(waves plate like collection) mus is mus is
mus is
mus is be the devil, cain be rockefeller
(eyes roll
up batting, and jumping all the way around
to face the
other direction) caint be him, no lawd
aint be dupont, no lawd, cain be, no lawd,
no way
noway, naw saw, no way jose — cain be
them rich folks
theys good to us theys good to us theys
good to us theys
good to us theys good to us, i know, the
massa tolt me
so, i seed it on channel 7, i seed it on
channel 9 i seed
it on channel 4 and 2 and 5. Rich folks
good to us
poor folks aint shit, hallelujah, hallelujah,
ooowow! oowow!
must be the devil, going to heaven after i
die, after we die
everything going to be different, after we die
we aint gon be
hungry, ain gon be pain, ain gon be sufferin
wont go thru this
again, after we die, after we die owooo!
owowoooo!
after we die, its all gonna be good, have all
the money we
need after we die, have all the food we
need after we die
have a nice house like the rich folks, after
we die, after we die, after we
die, we can live like rev ike, after we die,
hallelujah, hallelujah, must be
the devil, it ain capitalism, it aint capitalism,
it aint capitalism,
naw it aint that, jimmy carter wdnt lie,
“lifes unfair” but it aint capitalism
must be the devil, owow! it ain the police,
jimmy carter wdnt lie, you
know rosalynn wdnt not lillian, his
drunken racist brother aint no reflection
on jimmy, must be the devil got in im, i tell
you, the devil killed malcolm
and dr king too, even killed both kennedies,
and pablo neruda and overthrew
allende’s govt. killed lumumba, and is
negotiating with step and fetchit,
sleep n eat and birmingham, over there in
“Rhodesia”, goin’ under the name
ian smith, must be the devil, caint be vortser,
caint be apartheid, caint
be imperialism, jimmy carter wdnt lie, didnt
you hear him say in his state
of the union message, i swear on rosalynn’s
face-lifted catatonia, i wdnt lie
nixon lied, haldeman lied, dean lied, hoover
lied hoover sucked (dicks) too
but jimmy dont, jimmy wdnt jimmy aint lying,
must be the devil, put yr
money on the plate, must be the devil, in
heaven we’all all be straight
cain be rockefeller, he gave amos pootbootie a
scholarship to Behavior
Modification Univ, and Genevieve Almoswhite
works for his foundation
Must be niggers! Cain be Mellon, he gave
Winky Suckass, a fellowship in
his bank put him in charge of closing out
mortgages in the lowlife
Pittsburgh Hill nigger section, caint be him.
(Goes on babbling, and wailing, jerking
in pathocrazy grin stupor)
Yessuh, yessuh, yessuh, yessuh, yessuh, yes-
suh, yessuh, yessuh, yessuh, yessuh,
put yr money in the plate, dont be late, dont
have to wait, you gonna be in
heaven after you die, you gon get all you need
once you gone, yessuh, i heard
it on the jeffersons, i heard it on the rookies,
I swallowed it
whole on roots: wasn’t it nice slavery was so
cool and
all you had to do was wear derbies and vests
and train chickens and buy your
way free if you had a mind to, must be the
devil, wasnt no white folks,
lazy niggers chained theyselves and threw
they own black asses in the bottom
of the boats, [(well now that you mention it King
Assblackuwasi helped throw yr ass in
the bottom of the boat, yo mamma, wife, and
you never seed em no more)] must
a been the devil, gimme your money put your
money on this plate, heaven be here soon,
just got to die, just got to stop living, close yr
eyes stop
breathin and bammm-O heaven be here, you
have all a what you need, Bam-O
all a sudden, heaven be here, you have all you
need, that assembly line
you work on will dissolve in thin air owowoo!
owowoo! Just gotta die
just gotta die, this ol world aint nuthin, must be
the devil got you
thinkin so, it cain be rockefeller, it cain be mor-
gan, it caint be capitalism
it caint be national oppression owow! No Way!
Now go back to work and cool
it, go back to work and lay back, just a little
while longer till you pass
its all gonna be alright once you gone. gimme
that last bitta silver you got
stashed there sister, gimme that dust now broth-
er man, itll be ok on the
other side, yo soul be clean be washed pure
white. yes. yes. yes. owow.
now go back to work, go to sleep, yes, go to
sleep, go back to work, yes
owow. owow. uuuuuuuuuu, uuuuuuuuuuu,
uuuuuuuuuuu. yes, uuuuuuu. yes.
uuuuuuuuuu.
a men.

Source: The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (Basic Books, 2009)

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Filed under African American poets, Civil Rights, Human Rights, Poetry, Poets, Remembering Poets

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