As the son of a white feminist mother and the nephew of two adopted Jewish feminist aunts, I can't say that my experiences in the black neighborhoods of Lakewood and Tacoma, Washington were paradise. They were safer spaces for us than the rest of the state, however. There were familiar aesthetics of oppression: the occasional stranger — feeling that my family members were the only white people they could affect — would go out of their way to say something loaded to us; and the street harassment some black men would engage in was so ugly I had to be the wild little man to scare dudes off. I soon found out that I had to be that little man almost everywhere, however, with no province to race, and my mother and aunts were conscious of letting me know that we were experiencing a broader gamut of humanity in Hilltop and the outer eastside of Tacoma than we were in University Place and the north end of the city. For the most part, black people didn't have time to consciously fuck with me because of my white mother. They were trying to live.
More than that, my family had more sympathetic ears downtown. The majority of the people who knew us understood that our circumstances — relating to our being in poverty due to my father's drug and alcohol abuse and the way he somehow blamed it on us — resembled a travesty. They also knew that the people who believed in the narrative mentioned above (or forwarded its ethos without knowing us) were of a performative class that had no use for them either. They knew that the person who called my mother a "white bitch who brought a black man down" believed in a privilege structure that could care less about their humanity and that the neighborhood activists who were publicly and viciously anti-semitic had little regard for the pain of what was going on in Hilltop in the late 80s (or regard for anything except getting something out of liberals they thought they could sucker).
This leads to the subject of this essay: Amiri Baraka, the most influential figure in identity politics in the last half-century, and a name that, in my interactions with this performative class, I could never escape. For better or worse, his story is embedded in our cultural history. It mostly has nothing to do with his early beat poetry, which was charming but so derivative of William Carlos Williams that I could tell the exact poem he was mimicking and when he was mimicking it. No, almost every ugly moment that has come from black leftist politics in the last 50 years owes a debt to his saga of political disillusionment, divorce from his wife, outbursts of sexism, antisemitism, and homophobia, and constant, constant, endless calls for revolutionary murder.
The details of such texts are paid scant attention in such eulogies as Willam Jelani Cobb's breezy recollection of his career and what he meant to him as a young activist, Michael A Gonzalez's memories of what his anger and statements meant to him as a young writer, and Ishmael Reed's take on Baraka's career that adds to little more than an ad hominem attack on his critics. To make these carefully crafted progressive-friendly constructions of the man, they had to step over or overlook a cemetery of Baraka's dream dead bodies: murderous reveries about dead white and Jewish women ("Crow Jane," "Black Art"), dead white women with black children along with the children themselves (The Slave), dead white and Jewish men ("For Tom Postell, Dead Black Poet"), dead gay men ("Civil Rights Poem"), dead black women who slept with white men ("Experimental Camp #1"), and dead black people who disagreed with him ("Poem for Half White College Students"). To read Baraka is to read a man who fetishized murder more than any figure in the history of American literature, and the lack of attention paid to this shows how little black poetry is thought of as a closely read art form and how much it is seen as an extension of the gruesome fringe of multiculturalism.
The apathy Baraka's defenders have towards his rages begs the question to the conscious literary critic: how do we review a piece of work that only exists as a call to murder? If a poem has no structure, form, narrative, or purpose other than to call the mass extinction of groups and groups of people, should one even care how innovatively it scans? What kind of person sees these calls for casualties and thinks, "but the sentences are placed so well on the page"? And with so many books, subjects, and stories in the world to digest and not an infinite amount of time to digest them, is it worth an ethical critic's time to debate such a person?
In the political evasiveness that Baraka's defenders have had regarding his violent rages, a sensibility as response forms. "You don't like what he said? Tough. You have to take it. Baraka being useful to U.S. History shows we have it worse, and you have to accept the rage we give you." It was the belief system that allowed black people to be openly racist toward my mother and aunts, and it is the same belief system — operating under the reasoning that it is a response to stand your ground, stop and frisk, and a series of brutal police lynchings that have symbolized a neo-Jim Crow era — that makes Baraka's defenders so cavalier of the people he wanted off the face of the earth.
Another subtext to Baraka's agitprop was how little regard he had to black life outside of mountains and mountains of theory. As a beat provocateur, Baraka has as disdainful and condescending an attitude toward black culture as Kerouac at his worst. He called James Baldwin Martin Luther Queen. He openly stated there were no poets worth following in mid 20th century African American poetry. Ralph Ellison slaughtered the paternalism he shows in Blues People better than me or any other writer ever could.
And when he "left the white world" his revolutionary art prescription for his people consisted of… Artaud, Artaud, and even more Artaud! In "Short Speech to White Friends" Baraka says, "They have become our creators. The poor. The black. The thoroughly ignorant." And no one dared to ask him just who the hell he was calling ignorant. Though he went on and on in surface lip service about the black tradition in literature and made sure to dance with Maya when a camera was flashing, Baraka had little use for traditions of black poetry on the page. The blues structures and the radical experiments in voice, form, and dialect that mark black innovations to poetry and the language are almost nonexistent in his murder works: they live on the page only as theaters of cruelty with agitprop statements slathered over them, horrorcore imitations of Beckett that show no involvement with black humanity save Baraka's incessant demands that they did.
"But what of his apologies, the acts that help him somewhat soften his image and reframe the narrative of his career to make him something more palpable?" 1979's "Confession of a Former Anti-Semite" is treated as his Saint Augustinian tract of redemption, but I don't see the grace in blaming one's wish to murder Jews and commit graphic violent sex crimes against Jewish women on "being mad at Zionists." And his anthology of African American women poets — complete with an apology to sisters for his sexist acts — would carry more weight if it didn't seem like a career-saving move after his domestic violence conviction and if he didn't troll Alice Walker for writing The Color Purple afterward.
Though the nightmare of oppression isn't a card Baraka and his defenders have a right to play (or capital they have a right to spend), that doesn't mean the details of it are not palpable. The abuse I took and have taken in black communities almost doesn't register compared to the racism I experienced in white neighborhoods and the abuse I have to take on an almost daily basis as a forward-thinking black man in America. I understand the complexity of the human experience: my right to define what being biracial means stops at my nose. However, any one's right to describe their experience stops at their own; and I have no patience for the popular rhetoric that plagues too much writing about being mixed (in which I am benighted by my genealogy, whites are all beacons of liberal tolerance, blacks are all ready and willin' to throw me out the tribe and the only thing for me to do is embrace my benightedness, is…disown my black ancestry, ignore the fluidity of human experience, and put myself in a black-free box that says "biracial").
That said, I will not rhetorically kill my mother and aunts to make a social justice schmuck feel comfortable. It isn't just that — though their beliefs systems are at the different side of the political spectrum — the rage eulogies of Amiri Baraka and the most gleeful defenders of killer cops have a frighteningly similar disregard for the lives of the people they consider "other." It's that, to quote Irving Howe's disregard of Ezra Pound, "on such painful occasions one can only say: not that I love literature less, but I love life more." Specifically, in my case, I love the lives of Glennis Wilson, Pat Wallace, and Marilyn Nault. The women who loved me, fed me, and raised me when almost no one else did, the women who went through a hell they didn't need in their own lives so I could have a better life, and the women that so many of Baraka's defenders want me to put on an aesthetic spit. The hostility of these critics is part of the price I will pay for being an artist and a human being. They can have their lecturer, but to live a life that disgraces a mother's love is, in this writer's opinion, to choose a fate worse than being murdered.
In the end, however, the burden of Amiri Baraka’s legacy won't be on contrarians like myself or the white liberals he mentally beat into the ground.
It is with the young black poets who are supporting him now. They have a choice. They can applaud the image of him, the open expressions of anger, and the agitprop posturing that never seems to stop flowing out of his mouth. They can parrot the academic journals that have talked about his importance in the canon without mentioning poems. They can even parrot the arguments about his anger in the context of his time and that anger is somehow being therapeutic.
Or they can actually read what the man has written
If they want to defend him, it’s their turn to read now. Parroting poetry cliff notes without textual analysis has done nothing but keep this man’s atrocious legacy alive. So many decent writers have tried to explain how much this man is a disgrace to civilization, and have been shunned because of it. And have been called racist because of it. And have been called misandrist because of it. And have been called uncle Tom's because of it.
Goodbye to all that. If they are going to continue to defend Amiri Baraka, fine. If they are going to wash clean all of liberalism’s sins because the tea party is bad and the republican party is in a racist/sexist/homophoboic/xenophobic sewer, fine. It’s a free country. Just know that there are people who read, who read profusely, who read the words between the lines of the books of African American poetry, the African American poetry you say you love so much. And we know the damage that they have done. We know the damage they are doing right now. We know the damage they will continue to do. They may, to flip the bible verse, keep his name in the street, but they are helping all that is good about black poetry cherish from the earth.