A Talk with Amiri Baraka
by Jon Rachmani
Photo: Lynda Koolish
In your recently revived play, Dutchman, Clay connects the brilliance of musicians like Charlie Parker with repressed rage. Do you see this, and similar rage, as being the wellspring of most significant art?
Well, I think that art for a lot of people is a means of expressing emotions that otherwise would be suppressed. I know that when you listen to blues and jazz that the dynamic of that comes from a kind of repression. People express their lives in whatever they're doing, wherever their heart is, and for slaves and for people held under discrimination and segregation that's going to be expressed, one way or another. I was saying that I know that the kind of rude focus of a lot of that activity, if it were directed towards, say, insurrectionary kinds of activities, it wouldn't have necessarily made it less possible to be so focused on the arts -- jazz and blues. Remember that that was one of the only expressions that black people had, was the music, to a limited extent, and so their whole culture and lives was put into that music. And I guess now in the United States that's still true to a certain extent, although, obviously, there are more outlets in society. But still you can tell from the most important of the rappers that a great deal of focus in the society comes out from them. Or for that matter plays, films. But then it's not free, you're not allowed to be free -- even white artists are not allowed to be free, although some of them think they're free -- but what they're allowed to do is within the scope of commercial society that allows only certain things to be said. Censorship in America is subtle in some ways, but it's obvious, too. So, any sensitive person is going to try to find one way or another to express how they feel, and art is probably the most sophisticated way.
Would you imagine that post-revolutionary art, after an expression of the people's political will, would be different in content and style from what people are trying to get across now?
It would be different. But it would still reflect fundamental concerns. There will always be contradictions in society, but they won't be as brutal and primitive. There's always going to be the distinction between what you desire and what is, no matter how much more sophisticated and developed it is than what exists today. Mao said, "In three hundred years what we say today will sound like children," but still there will be contradictions in society. There will be problems that we can't even conceive of. Like the problem, thousands of years ago, when they were struggling over whether they should cook food or not. So they got that one down, then: should they put on clothes or not -- so, it always raises us, but what we're doing now is still pretty primitive, I think. Let's hope we can get to the next level, minus billions of tons of blood. But it's always doubtful, there're always contradictions.
Could you talk about poetic truth versus political truth. Is there a difference between the two? And if there isn't, then does that mean that all beautiful art is working toward a political end?
Politics is more limited, in the sense that truth is always partial, first because we don't know it wholly. It's knowable, but we don't always know it. So it's always partial. And in politics you need to take the context of that society into account: is this a fascist state, a neo-fascist state, a bourgeois state, a democratic state? A political truth, like stating who are the people, the people at one point might include the national bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie, workers -- that might be the people. At another point the people might be fighting against the national bourgeoisie, and so the definition of the people has shrunk. So political truth is much more subject to change and there are always contexts because of the state of society at a given time. But aesthetic truth, when you think about art as an ideological reflection of the mind of the artist, even then what we might think is beautiful or what someone else might think is beautiful will differ. God knows, if we had to go in the Whitney or the Museum of Modern Art a lot of that stuff wouldn't make it in terms of what I think is beautiful. But on the other hand, the question of beauty, that which enhances the mind, the spirit, and also the lives of the people, is something that ultimately can be judged by wide groups of people, but maybe not initially. Truth is never in the hands of the majority at the beginning, because truth sometimes is a difficult entity to arrive at. Beauty sometimes is hidden like that. It might take people different lengths of time to appreciate what is beautiful. Although I still uphold Keats's and DuBois's idea of truth and beauty being the ultimate arbiters of what is of value. But, the political reality often obscures both truth and beauty and makes it dangerous to subscribe to either one. So there's always got to be the context of the arena of life itself: what is going on? Somebody could look out a plane and see an atomic bomb blow up a whole city and say: that's beautiful. But to hear that you would be appalled, you'd ask, "What are you talking about?" and the person would say, "I'm talking about the colors, the smoke, and all that stuff," but that's a maniacal view of sensation, irrelevant of its social connotation, just sensation. And you have to reject that, because what is beautiful and what is true will organize themselves in relationship to each other. Everything that you think is beautiful might not be beautiful if you knew the source of it, and the truth would not be truth if you found out its source was a lie. People can tell you things that are true, but tell you for negative reasons, they can tell you partial truth. Truth is always mitigated by the context, source, its reasons, and beauty is mitigated too as to what it means, what it represents.
Do you think that a lot of traditional European art that's highly esteemed will ultimately, if the source is revealed, be less celebrated.
I think so. Because, remember, even looking at theatrical art, there were no workers on the stage until the 20th century. There were gods, then kings, then the bourgeoisie, and by the time the worker gets on the stage, O'Neill and Brecht and them, we're almost at the present. So are we then to cast away all those other things? Not necessarily, but you have to look at them critically, see what they are, what they say, and see finally that they are pertaining to one particular class of people, one nationality, and their effect will be limited, since most people on the planet are neither gods nor kings nor the bourgeoisie, nor are they Europeans. But I think that when you talk about somebody like Shakespeare, what's interesting, because he was an advanced kind of cultural worker, is that he talked about things that still effect capitalist society. Most of the stuff that he talked about -- women's oppression in The Taming of the Shrew, antisemitism in The Merchant of Venice, the relationship between the rulers and the people in Julius Cesar: all of those things are still going on. Plus his language was unlimited because he had no dictionaries, so he could use Latin terms, Anglo-Saxon terms, do anything, make nouns verbs, verbs nouns, anything he wanted was completely open to him. But certainly as the world becomes more rational there will be a more rational view of what constitutes beauty. If Duchamps wants to put a toiletbowl up and say, "Dig this," we have to see this as exposing a particular society and class, but that doesn't mean that toiletbowl will forever be great. So, it depends on how the world shakes out. I believe the world will be ruled by the majority of the people if it is to survive. Global warming, wars, all these madmen, there's no guarantee that we'll even be here. They might even destroy the planet. There are deadly asteroids zooming around and there's not even the budget to shoot them down. That's bizarre. If they hit the planet it's going to destroy it. That's like somebody being attacked by wild beasts but not taking it seriously.
Perhaps people are really too busy killing each other to achieve a common aim.
That does take up a lot of time. That's right. They can waste their time killing each other.
George Orwell states in his essay, England Your England, that "At this moment, after a year of war, newspapers and pamphlets abusing the Government, praising the enemy and clamouring for surrender are being sold on the streets, almost without interference. And this is less from a respect for freedom of speech than from a simple perception that these things don't matter. It is safe to let a paper like Peace News be sold, because it is certain that 95 per cent of the nation will never want to read it." This information glut in the absence of wide curiosity sounds familiar. And yet Somebody Blew Up America pinched a lot of normally reactionless peoples' nerves. In these terms, do you consider the poem's reception a success?
Well, like I said, truth is the context. There's nothing universally objectionable in that poem. What do you object to: asking who has made slaves, who has assassinated people, who has created wars. But in terms of my intention: you could see the World Trade Center from the third floor of this house. You could see the fire from upstairs. So we were frightened, by then a month later, after listening to Bush, all that bullshit about terror, it occurred to me that the only reason I'm over here is because of terrorism, slavery. The Middle Passage. All these dark skinned people are here because of terrorism. We're even not in the South anymore because of terrorism: the Klan, lynchings and all of that. And then I thought: so let me talk about that terror. I started asking who the terrorists are. Bush? Trent Lott? The people who lynch people? Those are terrorists. And we've never addressed ourselves to those terrorists or the continuing terrorism of poverty, homelessness, lack of healthcare. And then it occurred to me that all these things around the world that actually, to me, had something to do with the terrorizing not only of African American people, but people all over the world were being ignored. People who'd been murdered or killed. Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, or Princess Di, you know? They're murdering people everywhere.
So who do you think was behind this attack?
I think it was the United States of America. I think it was Bush. I think it was a sector of the bourgeoisie. The same people that you saw wrote the article about needing a new Pearl Harbor. Wolfowitz wrote his PhD paper on this at the University of Chicago. But the real thing is that White Americans don't see with that clarity. I believe, to be frank, that they knew about this and decided to let it go forward. The people who had the put stocks in United and American Airlines withdrew. This indicates that a broad section of the bourgeoisie knew about this.
Moving on, by what means would the post-revolutionary proletariat in America prevent the dictatorship of the workers from being co-opted into a dictatorship of charismatic leaders who often scramble for power in times of rapid social change and use the rhetoric of the revolution divisively?
Well, we have that now. This is supposed to be a democracy. It's been co-opted by charismatic leaders, Bush, etc. There is no way to stop that besides the consciousness of the people. There's no automatic way. We've seen in our time the Soviet Union overthrown and replaced by the Russian Federation, just another form of imperialism. We've seen the Chinese compromise. Not to the same extent. I think because of the national question, the Chinese are more wary about integrating with World Imperialism. The revisionism that set in in the Soviet Union never set in in China. The only two nations to actually challenge Western Capitalist domination are China and Russia. Whatever you can say about those nations is that they've gone from groveling at the feet of Western Imperialism to being some of the most powerful nations in the world. You had a socialist country that was overthrown, you had a country that was sorely compromised -- the Chinese -- and yet those two countries, especially the Chinese, have economies that are the envy of the world. One thing about taking power is that you must have a cultural revolution functioning all the time, otherwise, even if you take power with a gun, they'll re-seize it. All the things the Black Liberation Movement in the 60s and 70s was working for sunk. It never goes down as low as it was before, but in terms of the aspirations that came, that went down. We just had our last hope for a minute wiped out when this guy Cory Booker was elected here in Newark. The idea of a locally controlled, people's development in this town has been thwarted for a while.
There is a wide consensus in the West that under the Soviet Union and in Chinese Communism there was a suppression of the arts to the extent that they challenged accepted party lines. How accurate is this perception?
It depends. There is no modern Western cinema without Russian cinema. What about Russian drama? This is the reverse of what they say about Socialist Realism stopping artistic development. Without Stanislavsky and without Eisenstein there's no drama or cinema. And the whole expressionism that informed Western drama in the early 20th Century that you can see readily in O'Neill and Langston Hughes or Williams: that comes directly from Russia. Now, the thing about China is that that's a different culture all together. The difference is between state-imposed Socialist Realism, which even the Russians were opposed to, and Mao Tsetung's line, "Let a thousand flowers bloom: the people will decide." And I think that's still the best. The people will decide. The problem is that our perception is based on American propaganda, so we don't really know. Recently we've been seeing Chinese art for the first time, bit by bit. I've got books of the art that came back in the Communist Period, and while you can see emphasis on State and Party participation, it all depends on what it is that you want to see. As far as I'm concerned my work has been censored. I don't think it's because it's not experimental. They don't like what you're talking about. And I'm sure under Communism they did the same thing to some extent. But I still would uphold Mao's line, "Let a hundred flowers, a hundred schools of thought, bloom." Because that is the most progressive line. Let all the art and the thinkers contend. Let the people decide what's of value. But they would rather just crush you. Fill Broadway with garbage, fill television with sub-garbage. Look at the Times Bestseller List and tell me what will last until even next year. Maybe what some bureaucrats did with the Proletcult was awful, but that was put down again by the Duma. They said, "There is a working class art and this is it." That was put down by Lenin then. But it takes a lot of strength to say "A Hundred Flowers." I wish that were done here, I wish that we had the same opportunity to contend with these famous bourgeois artists on stage, screen, in books, but that will never happen. Because as long as it's privately owned then they'll decide what gets published, produced, shown. They're even trying to do away with public art, any public control.
Are there any active measures that young artists can take to keep their art from being co-opted by consumerism?
Produce, produce! The only active thing you can do. Cooperate. Create cooperatives. And produce. Even if it's Kinkos and you have to hand it out. For fifteen years we had theater downstairs in this house. I fight with this city every day. They've let the city-owned theatre languish, perhaps the most beautiful theatre in the state. And they support NJPAC which is just a rental theatre without attachment. No city development, no youth being trained, no companies being created. And I've fought with them for 37 years. And still I fight. But it's the nature of the kind of politics that we have that they don't have to care what's of value for the people. But when it's election time they spend a lot of money and smile. Our son Ras was elected, a council member, but the Booker election swept him out. They spent 6.5 million dollars. It was our plan to municipalize these entities, set up repertory theatre. We're building a museum of African American music that should be finished by 08-09, but a lot more can be done. Right now we're just getting reoriented after this terrible defeat. Because if you've got 6.5 million dollars you can buy mayorship.
How do you respond to Noam Chomsky's notion of holding radical ideals and working at the same time for practical change within the system?
You have to do that. You have to work for reforms, but they must be revolutionary. A reform should allow the people to be more advance than they were, even though it's only partial and it doesn't solve long-range problems. But you have to accept these reforms. You would not turn down unemployment insurance simply because you know that that won't be the end of capitalism. And you have to adjust to it. But you have to keep telling the people the next step. Roosavelt seized on a lot of the methods of the Communist Party so as to save capitalism. But you couldn't talk against those terms when dealing with the quality of the peoples' life. What constitutes a revolutionary reform? We've been trying to get a police review board in this town since 1967. We've been trying to build the African American museum of music since 1982. So they are protracted struggles. But you always have to accept reforms. Unless it's a reform that goes backwards, a slick change that takes you back.
What do you think of Barak Obama?
I think he's the best candidate, but that's not saying much. I think he's better than McCain or Edwards or Hillary. But will they allow Obama to go past the nomination? My feeling is that they'll nominate Clinton. Then maybe they'll be slick enough to say, "Let's put Hillary and Obama on the same ticket. That might be slick!" And then even were he to get the nomination, what would that mean to him or the rest of us? Because entering into this system is a formidable thing. But still, the nomination is key. And one of the first things the Clintons did was to declare that they didn't need any public funds. That's very reactionary. I don't believe there should be any private funds in elections. You put private funds in an election and you get a privately owned candidate. And it allows them to go over the top financially. There should be no elections like that. But if there's enough noise and support for Obama, they might decide to make a daring choice. But I doubt that. Democrats are not known for being courageous, that I've ever seen. Their record is for voting for the war and backing that pitiful Kerry campaign. How Bush could do what he did for all those years and then for Kerry to come in so appologetic. I don't understand it. But the media had some photographs, even in the Times, of Bush looking like the real soldier and Kerry looking like a beatnik.
Looking back on your career, do you have any regrets, any major movement that you would have wanted to go about differently?
The thing that is most daunting is that the cultural organizations that we initiated we should have maintained. The Black Arts Reperatory Theatre, the Spirit House, Kimako's Blues People. Although, we're going to try to get Kimako's back up. But those are the most important cultural entities. And they should be maintained. No matter what I was doing politically, those entities should have been maintained. Because you can't do anything politically without a cultural arm, That's why Mao insisted on the Cultural Revolution. You have to. Without that the old power will unexplain to the people what you've already explained. All the things that seemed obvious in the 60s, by 07 are in the mist. It's the cultural organization that's important to maintain any political struggle. We need to rebuild both right now.