Because Dead Men Don’t Talk: Amiri Baraka’s Real Legacy

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“Poems are bullshit unless they are teeth or trees or lemons piled on a step.”

 

When Amiri Baraka, the distinguished man of letters and tireless crusader, passed away unexpectedly last week, few were even aware that he’d been in failing health. Maybe with a little forewarning, journalists would have invested more time critically assessing his artistic contribution and his legacy. But then again… maybe not.

Baraka crammed a lot into that dash between 1934 and 2014. “Blues People” published in 1963 when he still was Leroi Jones, is the definitive survey of America’s blues and jazz roots. The Dutchman, his groundbreaking allegorical play on race and gender, won an Obie. And then there are the bevy of anthologies that ultimately catapulted him to fame,  among them Preface to a 20 Volume Suicide NoteThe Dead LecturerWise, Why’s Y’s, and the polemical  Somebody Blew Up America.

Within an  hour of his death announcement, publications nationwide were sifting through the poems, the plays, the prose and lofty accolades attempting to craft his legacy. Baraka, the ‘controversial firebrand’, the ‘polarizing poet’ both  ‘lauded and chided’, and  ‘one of the most offensive artists’ of the 20th century, was dead at 79. Their obituaries shook with fear. No one wanted to risk celebrating one of the foremost literary figures of the 20th century when that figure held a world view that frankly, made Whites uncomfortable. So they rattled off his accomplishments before rehashing the controversy, as if 2002 was the defining moment of his career. Oh how they missed the mark.

Baraka inherently understood the revolutionary potential of language and he used his words as weapons, a means of confronting the  established power structure, at a time when for a Black man, such acts of transgression could mean life or death. He knew that good writing, like good music and good film, could get inside of people, rouse their deepest emotions, enlighten and call to action.

Critic Arnold Rampersad named  Baraka as one of the  most historically significant literary figures in the African-American cannon, along with  Wheatley, Douglas, Dunbar, Wright, Ellison, Hurston and Hughes; pivotal  writers who shaped the Black literary cannon. But it was Baraka’s dissatisfaction with Black literature that, in part, came to define his approach.

In “The Myth of a ‘Negro Literature'” he   proclaimed that unlike jazz musicians, who use their agency for self-expression, Black writers use their agency  in pursuit of White acceptance. These socioeconomic ambitions he argued, and the desire to prove oneself to White intelligentsia, conflicted with authentic self-expression.

In “Philistinism and the Negro Writer” he contends that Black writers who aspire toward the mainstream, must forgo the artistic mining of their own culture, concluding that “The Negro writer can only survive by refusing to become a White Man.”

Regarding literature  as an active, socio-linguistic force, he was at the helm of the  Black Arts Movement, the artistic arm of the Black Power Movement. Born in the wake of assassination and urban rebellion, BAM scorned the notion of ‘art for art’s sake’ and championed Black consciousness  along with Black  proprietorship.

“We want poems that kill,” Baraka wrote in his landmark “Black Art” manifestos published in 1965.  “Assassin poems. Poems that shoot guns/Poems that wrestle cops into alleys/and take their weapons leaving them dead/with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.”

“From Amiri Baraka, I learned that all art is political,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist August Wilson once said.

Baraka expired several times before his final death in 2014, each time reappearing in a new lucid, ideological incarnation. Leroi Jones died along side Malcolm X in 1965,  when after the assassination,  he left his White wife (Hettie Cohen), cut off his White friends and moved from Greenwich Village to Harlem. He renamed himself Imamu Ameer Baraka, “spiritual leader blessed prince”.

In the 70’s Baraka extirpated his nationalist roots, distanced himself from the Black Arts Movement, which he claimed was being infiltrated, and began moving closer toward third world liberation and Marxism.

Baraka’s perspective evolved through out the course of his career, but his authenticity never wavered nor did his utilitarian approach to writing. He was an arbiter of literary resistance,  credited with helping to bring multiculturalism into the artistic mainstream. He fundamentally changed the genre,  creating a space for the aesthete/activist in popular culture. For Baraka, words were flowers of an individuals’ subconscious and a measure of consciousness.  He made political expression through poetry a thing… before it was the thing. 

He re-imagined the form and function of poetry inspiring at least one generation of poets, playwrights and musicians. His immersion in spoken word traditions and raw street language anticipated rap, hip-hop and slam poetry.

Suffice to say, dead men don’t talk. They don’t have the luxury of repudiation or emendation.  Perhaps Baraka was always cognizant of his vulnerable legacy and the fact that his detractors would one day have the last word. So he left no concession poems in  his wake, work that  his biographers might use to obscure his more radical leanings, as is often done with Langston Hughes. He never apologized or explained away, not even  his most reviled poem. There are no question marks or equivocations scattered on Baraka’s half-century of work. Shifting ideology yes, but a constant, clear call to enlightenment, an earnest truth (his truth),  and  profound connection with people trapped in the struggle against oppression.

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