Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Changing Same Ol Same Ol

[I first published this review in CROSS CULTURAL POETICS.]

Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual
Jerry Gafio Watts
New York University Press 2001

What does it tell us about the current state of scholarly publishing in America that this book appears from a reputable university press, presumably peer-reviewed, accompanied by words of praise from a number of truly distinguished writers?

There are the minor annoyances that should have been caught before the book was released: the inadvertently political typo (repeated on the very next page) that has “traditional black intellectuals in a unique vice” (9); the constant confusion of “adverse” with “averse”; the comment that Hoyt Fuller’s “most important task was to illegitimate white critics of black literature” (194); the seemingly inverse mixed metaphor of “lenses that have been filtered through racist images” (244); the bizarre reference to “the Cannibal Adderly Quintet” (114 – That’s not a typo; look at your keyboard. Watts really thinks that Julian “Cannonball” Adderly’s nickname is “Cannibal”). A decent job of copyediting might have saved this author from his own weaknesses as a writer, but where were the peer-reviewers when Watts was writing of the birth of a non-existent son to Baraka and Diane Di Prima? Oddly enough, the sources that Watts cites for this include my own book Writing between the Lines and Baraka’s Autobiography, neither of which at any point claims that Baraka and Di Prima gave birth to a son. As it happens, their daughter has become quite an accomplished broadcast personality, currently working with Steve Harvey on radio, and remains unmistakably female.

Such carelessness and speculation typify the author’s use of his sources throughout. In a note to his introduction, Watts observes that the LeRoi Jones / Amiri Baraka Reader, ably edited by William J. Harris, contains no excerpts from the book Raise Race Rays Raze, adding: “It is as if Baraka were ashamed of those essays” (481). Never before have I encountered a critic who assumes that the absence of a work from a selected volume edited by somebody else is an indication of an author’s shame at having written the work.

As badly as Watts does by his acknowledged sources, however, far worse is his unwillingness to do his homework. Coming to Baraka’s criticisms in Home of Peter Abrahams and James Baldwin, Watts writes: “Being unfamiliar with Peter Abrahams’s writing, I cannot verify the validity of Jones’s criticisms of him” (59-60). Watts tells readers in his acknowledgments that this volume, like his earlier book on Ellison, had its origins in his dissertation. I have a pretty good idea how my dissertation adviser would have responded to such a comment. He would have pointed me in the direction of the nearest library and told me to come back when I had become familiar with Abrahams (a major novelist, most would agree). Similarly, when addressing the short career of the Black Arts Repertory Theater, Watts asks, and answers:
What did typical black residents of Harlem think about BART? Did they even know about it? I cannot imagine many Harlemites being intensely attuned to the plays and concerts of BART . . . (164)

Of course, this is not at all the sort of question that needs to be answered in the imagination. It would not be all that difficult, indeed it would be expected of most dissertation researchers raising such a question, to engage in the kind of reception studies that have become common in recent years, or at least to examine the popular press of the day. Watts confesses, “I have not surveyed the opinions and remembrances of black Harlemites concerning BART and Jones,” going on to posit that “We cannot accept at face value Jones’s claim that the black masses of Harlem were captivated by the offerings of BART” (165). Nowhere does Watts address the most obvious issue raised by this discussion. If we are not to accept at face value the judgements of Baraka, who was, after all, there, why should we accept at face value the suppositions of a critic who has not bothered to do the most basic forms of investigation on the very question that he raises?

These are merely samples drawn at random from a poorly-written and barely researched volume of weighty scholarship. When I first picked up this book and felt its heft, I looked forward to a thorough critique of Baraka’s politics and art (which does seem to be what’s promised in the subtitle), a book that would match in scholarship and thought the admirable work done by Komosi Woodard in A Nation within a Nation examining the cultural politics of Baraka’s career. The length of Watts’s book, it turns out sadly for readers, is explained by the stultifying summaries of Baraka’s works, including individual lyric poems, that take the place of sustained critical inquiry in this volume. The formula for Watts’s work appears to be two parts condescension and one part ad hominem. In a note to chapter fourteen, Watts comments that “Literary critics like Harris can be excused for being unfamiliar with Marxist and economic thought” (548). I am not at all sure why a literary critic would be excused for unfamiliarity with the political philosophy of his subject (and I do not believe the charge is fairly applied to Harris in any event). But Watts goes on to argue that “there remained little justification for an American literary critic not to be familiar with Walter Benjamin, Raymond Williams, Fred Jameson, Terry Eagleton, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Georg Lukacs, as well as other significant Marxist literary intellectuals” (549). There are, obviously, some rather significant names missing from this reading assignment, and one finally has to wonder what to make of such an observation in a book whose works cited include no references whatsoever to the works of Cedric Robinson, George Padmore or C.L.R. James. It is not, evidently, sufficient for Watts to condescend to other critics and to the subject of his study, he must also engage in the most reprehensible mingling of ad hominem and presumption. In his tenth chapter, Watts accuses Baraka of a “broader strategy to bury his own homosexual past” because he “knew that popular knowledge of his homosexuality would have undermined the credibility of his militant voice” (335-36). I had thought that this sort of thing had joined McCarthyism on the junk heap of history’s appeals to homophobia. What are we to make of the argument that any homophobia in the works of Baraka’s cultural nationalist period is attributable to an attempt to “defuse any claims that might surface linking him with a homosexual past” (336)? This is the stuff of Fifties-era Hollywood movies, in which homophobes were invariably “latent” homosexuals. (Come to think of American Beauty, maybe Watts isn’t the only one clinging to this myth.)

It is not that Baraka is beyond criticism, though oddly enough Watts seems peculiarly unmoved by Baraka’s own many efforts at self-criticism, but surely an author of Baraka’s stature and complexity deserves better than this. Watts warns us in his preface of his propensity for inference, cautioning that he “may mistake an involuntary blink of the eyelid for a wink” (xiii). Still, as a practicing professor and critic who works often with the academic press, I’d like to think that most editors, being led to a blind horse, would insist that a nod is not as good as a wink. I know of all too many brilliant young scholars who have had to battle mightily with peer reviewers ill-equipped to take the measure of their innovative research and criticism. I know of too many worthy books that have circulated for years before finding publication. I have to wonder how it is that such an unmitigatedly bad book could appear, to such proud fanfare, from a seemingly reputable press. I suspect that being well-connected helps. Watts mentions in passing his “buddies Skip Gates and John Blassingame” (xiv). One of those “buddies,” I can’t help remembering, wrote a scathing review of Baraka’s Autobiography for the New York Times describing Baraka’s poetic evolution as a tumble from “imitating” Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Williams and Olson to “agitprop.” It is probably significant that Gates, in writing that review, did not list any black poets among those the young Baraka “imitated.” Had Watts read Baraka’s body of work a bit more carefully, he might not have been so quick to claim that Baraka’s “early artistic influences show that he was located . . . outside of a black poetic tradition” (48). One of the most profoundly moving memories recorded in Baraka’s poetry is found in “Why Didn’t He Tell Me the Whole Truth,” where he recalls his grandfather urging him to commit James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation” to memory, to learn it by heart. This is the same grandfather named so powerfully near the close of “Black Dada Nihilismus,” the same man memorialized so effectively in The System of Dante’s Hell (which Watts dismisses as a narcissistic novel) and in the early short story “Suppose Sorrow Was a Time Machine.” Baraka’s grandfather moved with the tradition of African American verse in his very bones, and the way that he lived this poetry marked Amiri Baraka ineradicably. To pretend that this is not the case is simple mendacity.

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