The brilliant and controversial poet, playright and activist Amiri Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones, died on Thursday at age 79. In works like the poetry collection Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), the social history Blues People (1963) and the play Dutchman (1964), Jones celebrated the cultural achievements and the dignity of African-Americans while unblinkingly exposing the grave injustice of this country’s condescending attitude towards and often-brutal treatment of his people. A complicated figure, Baraka has also been criticized for elements of anti-Semitism, misogyny and homophobia in his works. As the poet E. Ethelbert Miller, chairman of the board of the Institute for Policy Studies and a friend of The Nation, wrote in e-mail message:
“One cannot talk about black literature, black politics, black music, black theater or even blackness without mentioning the name Amiri Baraka…. He was controversial at times because he was passionate and the times and our social condition demanded nothing less. Baraka taught us how to examine our beauty as well as our ugliness.
The Nation was one of the first major publications to publish Baraka’s work, beginning with poems like “The Invention of Comics” in 1962, “After the Ball” and “Tight Rope” in 1963, and “Morning Purpose” in 1964, and our critics kept a close watch on his work. In a review of Dutchman in April 1964, longtime Nation drama critic Harold Clurman called Baraka, then LeRoi Jones, “an outstanding dramatist” and “a turbulent talent,” noting, but not regretting, the troubling excesses which would later make his work so controversial. “While turbulence is not always a sign of power or of valuable meaning,” Clurman wrote, “I have a hunch that LeRoi Jones’s fire will burn ever higher and clearer if our theatre can furnish an adequate vessel to harbor his flame. We need it.”
Baraka’s most memorable contribution to The Nation was the essay “In the Ring” (June 29, 1964), about the fight between Cassius Clay and defending world champion Sonny Liston at Miami Beach that February. Later included in the collection Burning All Illusions: Writings from The Nation on Race, edited by Paula Giddings, the piece represents the best of Baraka’s writing.
The mock contest [in 1962 and 1963] between Liston and Patterson was a ‘brushfire’ limited war, Neo-Colonial policy to confuse the issue. Patterson was to represent the fruit of the missionary ethic; he had found God, reversed his underprivileged (uncontrolled) violence, and turned it to work for the democratic liberal imperialist state. The hardy black Horatio Alger offering the glad hand of integration to welcome 20 million into the lunatic asylum of white America.
In this context, Liston the unreformed, Liston the vulgar, Liston the violent, comes on as the straightup Heavy (who still had to make some gesture at the Christian ethic, like the quick trip to the Denver priest before the match, to see if somehow the chief whitie could turn him into a regular fella). “They” painted Liston Black. They painted Patterson White. And that was the simple conflict. Which way would the black man go? This question traveled on all levels through the society, if anyone remembers. Pollsters wanted the colored man in the street’s opinion. “Sir, who do you hope comes out on top in this fight?” A lot of Negroes said Patterson. That old hope come back on you, that somehow this is my country, and ought’n I be allowed to live in it, I mean, to make it. From the bottom to the top? Only the poorest black men have never fallen at least temporarily for the success story. And the poor whites still fall hard.…
The match meant most to the Liberal Missionaries. It was a chance to test their handiwork against this frightening brute. So a thin-willed lower-middle-class American was led to beatings just short of actual slaughter. Twice. And each time Patterson fell, a vision came to me of the whole colonial West crumbling in some sinister silence, like the across-the-tracks House of Usher…
But Liston, Jones wrote, “is the big strong likable immigrant who has always done America’s chores. He’s glad to oblige.”
That leaves us with Cassius X. Back in the days when he was still Clay it was easy to see him as a boy manufactured by the Special Products Division of Madison Avenue. Now I think of him as merely a terribly stretched out young man with problems one hoped would have waited at least for him to reach full manhood. Clay is not a fake, and even his blustering and playground poetry are valid; they demonstrate that a new and more complicated generation has moved onto the scene. And in this last sense Clay is definitely my man. However, his choice of Elijah Muhammad over Malcolm X (if indeed such is the case) means that he is still a ‘homeboy,’ embracing the folksy vector straight out of the hard spiritualism of poor Negro aspiration. Cassius is right now just angry rather than intellectually (socio-politically) motivated.…
So what kind of men are these who practice such deception on themselves? Oh, they are simply Americans, and some years from now, perhaps there will be this short addition: “you remember them, don’t you?”
In 1999, The Nation reprinted a speech Baraka had given at NYU the previous year at a memorial service for the poet Margaret Walker Alexander, who, Baraka said,
remains part of our deepest and most glorious voice, dimensioned by history and musicked by vision. What she tells us in her books, with that voice of sun and sky, moon and stars, of lightning and thunder, is in that oldest voice of that first ancestor, who always be with us. That is what we people have, inside, to reach where Orpheus goes each night-end to raise the day again. That voice to keep us live and sane and strong and ready to fight and even ready to love.
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