Tuesday, September 06, 2016

E. Ethelbert Miller - The Aldon Nielsen Project No. 23 - Late Baraka

Q.  It seems few critics examine Baraka's collection of essays Daggers and Javelins; why is this?  Isn't the period between 1974-1979 key to the last stage of his intellectual development?

Few critics have given more than cursory examination to any of Baraka’s work after about 1972, a remarkable thing - pretty much blanking out four decades of an artist’s work. In the general curriculum, Baraka has been represented by a few anthology selections for decades now, occasionally including “In the Tradition” as sole survivor of the works dating from his Marxist turn. Among those who read at all more broadly, it’s usually restricted to those poems, along with Dutchman and Blues People. The second version of Harris’s Baraka Reader thankfully remains in print, but that dates to 1999, and now we have the deeply flawed SOS: Poems 1961-2013. The Reader and SOS at least give a broad overview of what Baraka accomplished in those decades, and yet, even now, neither critics nor teachers seem to spend much time with the late Baraka. In too many circles, the cliche has taken hold that the post Black Arts Baraka was a sadly diminished trafficer in agit prop. (Though there are other critics who mark the decline as dating to the Black Arts era itself. There isn’t a whole lot of attention given to the essay collection Raise, Race, Rays, Raze either.) 

Yes, there is agit prop to be found, particularly among the plays, but what this attitude does is provide cover for people who can’t be bothered to read deeply in the work, and the shame of that is that our discussions tend to overlook the lyric intensity of work such as the very late poem “Hole Notes”:

A below a sideways
An alley clings to the garden
Owning your alternatives
Why do you want to
Be here broke
Spring won’t appear
Afraid of winter here
Everybody refuses to
Acknowledge their everyness

Anybody who was not closely following developments in the Congress of African Peoples (and how many were following that closely?) might have been confounded by Baraka’s emerging as a committed Marxist in the early seventies. Where just a few years before, as we see in the essays in Raise, he had shown little patience with those who would urge the study of Marx on Black Americans, here he was announcing himself as a student of scientific socialism, as an adherent of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse Tung Thought. There was a deep split in the ranks of CAP as a result of this change in direction, and many, including Haki Madhabuti, were openly repelled by the development. Baraka’s 1972 poetry collection, Hard Facts, carried Marxist iconography on its red cover, signed the t “M-L-M,” and contained poems with titles like “Das Kapital” and spoke of the people “demanding the / new socialist reality.”  It also included denunciations of “a colorless shadow for / black militants in residence, to / bloat the pockets and consolidate / the power of an international / bourgeoisie.” There were signs of that same lyric intensity I spoke of, something that never went away even when militant-in-residence readers might have. There were other signs. The book was labeled excerpts, an indication that there was something much larger out there waiting to appear in print. And where even Black Magic with its white voodoo doll stuck full of pins on the cover and its scattered acts of antisemitism had been published in both hardback and paper by a major commercial house, this little red book appeared under the imprint of The Revolutionary Communist League and was a stapled affair.

From the outset, Baraka had been a DIY kind of guy. Recognizing early on that the poetry he cared to write was a poetry the New Yorker and Harpers would not care to print, he invented his own venues, started magazines for his own work and that of his radical compatriots. In an introduction to Poems for the Advanced, Baraka has claimed that it was easier to get into print with “hate whitey” than with “hate capitalism.”  Was he right? The cultural nationalist Raise was published by Random House even at a time when he was bringing out many of his works with his own Jihad Press, and now he was publishing as the Revolutionary Communist League. No matter what else may be said of Baraka, it has to be said that he was unafraid in taking his positions and putting his work before whatever public could be assembled. The move to the Black Arts left behind integrationists of an ameliorist bent. Baraka was not sad to see them go. The shift to Marxism dismayed cultural nationalists, including cultural nationalists who had come to that ideology under Baraka’s influence. But Baraka had seen “something in the way of things,” and he would call it out no matter the cost to his own prospects as a publishing author.

And the prospects were heavy. There’s a sub-theme in Daggers and Javelins that comes into view when you read the acknowledgments and publication notes. This was the era of solicitation followed by rejection. I witnessed this at first hand during Baraka’s residency at George Washington University.  Somebody (perhaps somebody who had never read Baraka’s work?) thought it a good idea to solicit an essay from the university’s famous visiting author for publication in GW Magazine, which the university describes as its “flagship” alumni and university periodical, with a circulation today of 200,000. Let’s just say they weren’t happy with what they got. That same somebody sent a student go-between to try to negotiate something less inflammatory from Baraka, but that was not going to happen. The same sort of thing happened when Columbia Records asked Amiri Baraka, noted music critic and frequent author of liner notes, do provide the notes for the album Woody III. Woody Shaw and Baraka had known each other for decades and shared a Newark background, as you can see in the title of the album’s lead piece, “On the New Ark.” Columbia was horrified by the Marxist inflected essay Baraka submitted, and sent an agent to try to talk him down. Problem was, as Baraka reported to me rather gleefully, the album sleeves had already been printed up with a note indicating that there was a Baraka essay inside. So the liner notes did appear, but were dropped from subsequent pressings. My understanding is that something similar happened with Baraka’s still unpublished Coltrane book. What I have heard over the years is that Howard University Press had contracted for the book with Baraka, but recoiled when they saw the manuscript in progress. Selections from that work have appeared as essays over the years.

Much of the initial reaction to Daggers and Javelins was hostile. When Kirkus Reviews weighed in they said, “More like dull kitchen knives and wet noodles than daggers and javelins: as those who've followed the Baraka (LeRoi Jones) career might expect, these essays and speeches are repetitious, monotonic, shrill--and painfully clotted with Marxist-Leninist jargon.“ Of course, Baraka was used to hostility by then, had been, since his earliest days as a poet, and one person’s “Marxist-Leninist jargon” may be another’s sharp description. There are moments in the essays when they read as if Baraka were simply running various cultural and political phenomena through the class analysis meat grinder. But one thing that becomes apparent when you read all of Baraka is that class had been at the heart of his thinking from the outset. It runs all through Blues People and is foregrounded in much of the early book reviewing. Just reread Home and you’ll see. But the sort of dismissiveness we see in that Kirkus review is something to which we’d already grown accustomed. Much the same sort of thing had been said about the work of the Black Arts era. Much the same strategy had been used in dismissing Baraka as merely a Beat poet, one of the bearded barbarians. What a review like that is meant to do is keep readers away from a text, and if you don’t read Daggers and Javelins you won’t understand what had happened to Baraka in the course of his ideological evolution, and you will miss his insightful commentaries on jazz, film, the revolutionary tradition in Afro-American literature, C├ęsaire, or Ngugi wa Thiong’o. (Driving Baraka to Union Station one day, with C.L.R. James in the car, I mentioned that I had just read Ngugi’s Petals of Blood, just out in paperback. I remember Baraka asking eagerly from the back seat how it was.) 

Along with his readings in Marxist theory, Baraka had been reading the fiction and criticism of the writer we know variously as Lu Xun or Lu Hsun, real name, in Pinyin, Zhou Shuren. (I’ve found on my trips to China that there is always a problem talking about the Chinese artists we read in English.  I will make several stabs at the name as we know it in America, and eventually somebody will suddenly smile and say joyfully, “Oh, you mean ______________,” with all the Chinese readers expressing delight that we know this author, if not this name.) The title of this book derives from Lu Hsun’s commentary. The critic throws the javelin against distant enemies; wields the dagger for close enemies. Baraka saw in this a good description of his essays.

There is much from which readers can benefit in Daggers and Javelins, but scholars need to attend to this book too if we are ever to have any accurate understanding of Baraka’s becoming a Marxist critic. At present, the best sources for comprehending Baraka’s move from cultural nationalism to Marxism are his own autobiography, Komosi Woodard’s A Nation within a Nation: Amiri Baraka and Black Power Politics, and Michael Simanga’s recent Amiri Baraka and the Congress of African People: History and Memory. It’s not hard for those of us who lived through the period to see how Baraka could have lost faith in his politics of the late 1960s. In D.C., we had experiences with Marion Barry that closely paralleled Baraka’s disillusion with Newark’s Gibson. It surely was important to elect Black leadership to cities that had for so long been dominated by White politicians. But . . . there were limits to the cultural revolution. When Barry first ran for mayor of the nation’s capitol, he was often seen about town in dashikis. (To give him credit, he was one of the first local political figures to recognize the needs of the gay community, he was fiercely dedicated to jobs for youth, and his stated politics were vastly preferable to the Democratic machine politics that would have been empowered by the election of Walter Fauntroy.) But once Barry was in office, the dashikis more often remained in the closet, the Armani suits showed up more often, and the city became the plaything of real estate developers. (When Barry emerged from his jail sentence years later and re-entered local politics, the Kente cloth was much in evidence.) Baraka never abandoned the commitment to changing consciousness, but he came to understand something Fanon had described years before about the national  bourgeoisie. Political power doesn’t grow out of the sleeve of a dashiki, which is to say that changing the color of the figures in power in a political structure may ameliorate, but if the structure itself is not changed the oppression and immiseration will continue.

Baraka learned from his experiences, and he came increasingly to recognize the material basis for consciousness and ideology. It was that experience that prepared the way for his shift to Marxism. We need a much clearer study of how Baraka and his CAP colleagues made that shift, though. Baraka, we have to admit, generally lurched toward the more authoritarian end of whatever ideological spectrum he joined, and the move to Marxism was no different. He had sympathized with the Karenga version of nationalism for a time in the sixties,   and his Marixsm was similarly doctrinaire. At the time I met him, he had a row of framed photos on his desk. There were Marx, Lenin, Mao . . . and Stalin . . . and Enver Hoxha,  First Secretary of the Party of Labour of Albania, saints preserve us. If the poetry and drama of the period was somewhat less sectarian, the pages of the newsletters Baraka participated in at the time swirled with details of splinterings and denunciations within the Revolutionary Left. As part of my research into the life and work of C.L.R. James, I have been required at times to immerse myself in the arcana of Trotskyist reconfigurings, a dispiriting exercise I have to admit. Left historians may one day provide a full history of Baraka’s groups and their movements from the Congress of Afrikan Peoples to the Revolutionary Communist League (M-L-M) to the League of Revolutionary Struggle (M-L). For now, those who are interested may peruse the outline provided by the activists themselves in their “Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line,” where one may read of the period when “The situation was also complicated by the fact that the anti-revisionist communist movement itself was still very inexperienced and going through struggle to define a correct orientation and line for the U.S. revolution. There were various opportunist forces which had not yet been exposed or defeated. These would have an impact on CAP/RCL, with the organization coming under the influence of the ultra-left line of the so-called “Revolutionary Wing” for a period of time.”

I’m guessing not a lot of poetry critics are going down that rabbit hole.  Still, if we are to be fair to Baraka, as fair as we routinely are to Eliot and Pound, I think we need to do the work of untangling these histories and taking the evolution of Baraka’s ideology seriously.

Doing that, though, I believe we will also find, as I have argued over the years, that the “through line” is of greater importance than local political disputes. The poet who wrote “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” was still the poet who wrote:

I thought there were things
I didn’t understand
that wd make the world

The essayist who looked at the movement from jazz’s origins to Swing and Bop and Free Jazz and beyond through the lens of class was the same essayist who wrote of Coltrane in a way Howard University Press couldn’t quite abide. The same man who wrote Tales wrote Tales of the Out and Gone. And this is why Daggers and Javelins desires, requires, the same close attention as Home then or Razor now. We are not trying to become members of Baraka’s Marxist denomination, even if we are Marxists or post-Marxists. We don’t have to sign off on his political line at every one of its turnings to love him and his work, any more than being a post-Eliot poet requires signing off on Eliot’s racism. There is much of real value to us in Daggers and Javelins, not simply to those of us working as poets and scholars, but to those of us grappling with the politics of our day. “We Live in a Political World,” sings Bob Dylan:

Wisdom is thrown in jail
It rots in a cell
Is misguided as hell
Leaving no one to pick up a trail.

That would be the same Dylan who went with his girlfriend to see Dutchman when it was playing in the village. (Pound was at a performance in Italy a few years down the road!) Baraka may have preached to choirs, but he also said you never want poetry that is simply a checklist of opinions for you to give your assent. You don’t have to go to church with Baraka to learn deep lessons from his writing. His daggers and javelins could be right useful in our trumped up political world.

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