Looking for Amiri Baraka and LeRoi Jones on Martin Luther King’s Birthday
By Stuart Mitchner
“Amiri Baraka, The Last Poet Laureate of New Jersey.” This is how Baraka, who died at 79 on January 9, signed the introduction to his 2007 short story collection, Tales of the Out & the Gone (2007).
In the headline above the photograph on the front page of Friday’s New York Times, he’s “Amiri Baraka, Firebrand Poet, Playwright, and Activist.” Inside, in the headline over the full-page obituary by Margalit Fox, he’s “Amiri Baraka, Polarizing Poet and Playwright.” The first sentence describes him as a writer of “pulsating rage, whose long illumination of the black experience in America was called incandescent in some quarters and incendiary in others” — which is what Fox News might call a Fair and Balanced Farewell.
The terms would probably have been less extreme or at least differently phrased except for a few lines toward the end of a long poem Baraka read at the 2002 Dodge Poetry Festival called “Somebody Blew Up America.” Unless you read the whole poem, you might assume, as I did, that the central thrust builds toward the six lines echoing the hateful, ludicrous, and much-denounced rumor about Israel’s possible foreknowledge of September 11. That’s what set off the uproar leading then-Governor McGreevey to attempt to remove Baraka as poet laureate. What followed was a stunning example of poetic justice. When the poet predictably refused to be removed, the position of poet laureate was abolished, giving Baraka the opportunity to justly refer to himself as the last poet laureate of New Jersey. In effect, the poet himself wrote the last line of that particular piece of public poetry.
Harsh and Bluesy
Search for Amiri Baraka on YouTube and you find a long scream of a poem from the 1970s called “Dope,” performed with theatrical, at times evangelical, gusto and a harsh, bluesy, jazzy fervor. This verse exorcism, which in its litany of evils is not unlike the poem that blindsided the laureateship, puts in play what Baraka once said of jazz great Charlie Parker, “who would literally imitate the human voice with his cries, swoops, squawks, and slurs.” Written in 1963 when he was still known as LeRoi Jones, the observation comes from his book Blues People: The Negro Experience in White America and the Music that Developed From It. “Parker,” he goes on to say, “did not admit there was any separation between himself and the agent he had chosen as his means of self-expression.” The same is true of Baraka and his poetry. The big difference is, to use the terms from the Times, that Parker’s playing is incandescent and Baraka’s writing, at least in “Dope” and “Somebody Blew Up America,” is incendiary.
Remembering LeRoi Jones
When I read Baraka’s Black Power/Third World Socialist/Marxist narrative in the Times obituary, I was remembering a slightly built, neatly bearded man in a three-piece suit named LeRoi Jones. Working in a bookstore in the heart of Greenwich Village in the time period recently reprised by the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, I saw someone whose dapper attire seemed a marked departure from the customary who-cares attitude of the Beat scene in which he was active as a poet and founding editor of the journal Yugen. Jones’s first book of poetry, Preface to a 20 Volume Suicide Note, was published, as was Yugen, by Corinth, the small press run by my employer, the Eighth Street Bookshop. Having heard just the other day, out of the blue, that Jones was employed there himself at one time, I assume he dressed more casually when he was working the cash register, helping customers, or unpacking books.
Baraka’s Autobiography of LeRoi Jones lends credence to my memory of the serious dresser, however. Around the time he transferred from Rutgers to Howard University in 1952, he frequented a “kind of English store the likes of which are found no more in Newark …. With saddles and riding boots and crops for decoration, cloth laid about. Very traditional and English and it impressed the hell out of me …. And the clothes now I began to buy out of that mold. The English conservative clothes that the Ivy tradition is the natural extension of.”
He must have been 18 at the time. Aspects of his sartorial evolution can be seen in the photos accompanying the Times article: dashiki-clad in one from 1968, looking Thelonius-Monkish in performance with jazz bassist Reggie Workman in 1999, clad in a suit and dancing with Maya Angelou in 1991, and appearing the thoughtful, pinstripe-shirted scholar poet at home in Newark in 2007.
Baraka and King
When I realized that this issue of Town Topics would be coming out on January 15, Martin Luther King’s 84th birthday, I went to YouTube again and found a video of Baraka’s address at the 2011 Community Celebration of King at the University of Virginia.
Of all the tributes and remembrances on Martin Luther King Day 2014, you’re unlikely to find any to equal Baraka’s from January 28, 2011. In his hour and twenty minutes he hits all his personal flash points, reads “Somebody Blew Up America,” answers questions, and makes it clear that he’s still angry about the 2003 murder of his daughter. Nevertheless, the heart of the talk — and “heart” is the word for it — is Martin Luther King, Jr. At 77, Baraka still shows flashes of the firebrand when he refers to people not knowing “why Christ got iced.” As that piece of street talk suggests, Baraka isn’t attempting to mimic King’s inspirational style in his toned-down paraphrasing of passages from the best known speeches. He mutes his angry muse even as he’s subverting the benign stereotype of King, who was not, as Baraka puts it, “the passive individual that the McDonald’s commercials suggest.” You could almost say that he’s remaking King in his own “incendiary” image, stressing the man’s toughness and stamina, his moral courage, the fact that he was jailed 16 times, that he put his life on the line every day.
About 45 minutes into the video, Baraka appears moved as he offers his version of King’s eve-of-death “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech at the Bishop Charles J. Mason Temple in Memphis. Baraka begins by pounding out a beat on the lectern as he softly half-sings half-chants “Don’t Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” the protest song King and six thousand protestors were singing as they marched in downtown Memphis in support of the striking sanitation workers. Stressing the life-on-the-line theme, Baraka puts his more informal language in place of King’s rhetorically heightened account of the incident in New York when he suffered a near-fatal stabbing and was later told by doctors that if he had “merely sneezed” he “would have died.” Even a genius orator would be hard put to bring off King’s “If I had sneezed” mantra, surely not one of the high points in any King documentary. Still speaking as King, Baraka simplifies and quietly underplays the incident, reducing it to a sentence, “Only a few years ago a woman they said was crazed plunged a knife into my chest and the doctors said if I’d sneezed I would have died.” Keeping it low-key while quietly building to the emotional peak of the speech, Baraka tamps down the rhetorical dynamite of the mountaintop and the promised land, so that the emphasis falls on the simplest but most powerful line in the speech: “I may not get there with you.” Baraka’s King says “wit” instead of “with” and it’s effective. He’s singing King’s song in his own way. For the last lines, though, Baraka stays with the text, letting the passion surface but still without attempting to match King’s glorious, ringing “And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
King Comes Calling
The warmest part of Baraka’s 2011 tribute comes in the context of King’s visit to Newark to lead “the poor people’s march” in late March 1968. Baraka describes looking from his front window at the crowds coming down the street, the sound of helicopters overhead (“I thought we were about to get busted”): “The doorbell rang. I opened the door, There’s Dr. King standing on the doorstep. A photographer took a picture of me with my mouth hung open …. Dr. King came in my house, he says, ‘Hello, Leroy.’ [Baraka chuckles at the “Leroy”] You don’t look like such a bad person.’ [another chuckle] People told me you were a bad person.’ [one more chuckle] Here’s King came with stubble on his face, open shirt, poor people’s march, the next week he was dead.”
Baraka says the photograph he mentions hung for years in Newark’s City Hall — until it was moved by Mayor Cory Booker, perhaps a variation on the removal of the title of poet laureate. Baraka has his own ideas about that. He figures every time the mayor walked past the picture it was “making noise” about issues Baraka had with Booker.
Amiri Baraka’s funeral will be held at Newark Symphony Hall at 10 a.m. on January 18. Metropolitan Baptist Church will hold a viewing on Friday, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Almost exactly 10 years ago, I received a nice message from Carl Faith, who died January 12 (see this week’s obituaries). In his response to my piece on George Kennan, he recalled talking with Mr. Kennan at tea and lunch during Mr. Faith’s tenure at the Institute. I remember him not only as the first reader to write me but as a fellow book lover and devoted customer of John Socia’s Old York Bookstore in New Brunswick and later of the ongoing used book sale at the library.