Ishmael Reed on the Life and Death of Amiri Baraka

ishmael I came to New York Monday to support my play,”The Final Version,” a work that touches upon the on again off again relationship between the white and black New York left from the 1930s to the 1965. My director, Rome Neal, directed five of Amiri Baraka‘s plays throughout the years, yet the obituaries, some of them mean-spirited and ignorant, confine the playwright’s creative output to 1964, when he wrote “Dutchman.” So why do the obituaries say that Baraka was through after 1964, even though he continued to write plays, poetry and publish books around the world?

I published two of his books, “Sidney Poet Heroical,” a devastating satire about black Hollywood and “Un Poco Low Coup,” a book of his cartoons. Baraka’s work is considered “short lived” by some because he exposed the attitude of the mainstream toward black writers, that no matter how technically adept you may be with craft, it’s what you say that counts. What he said offended the members of what he would call “the ruling class.” He used his talent to write scathing indictments of racism and the capitalist system.

The Black Arts Movement, which he founded with poet Askia Touré and the late Larry Neal, was considered “short lived” because the media rely upon scouts to tell them what’s happening among blacks as though they were members of a nation that has its own ambassadors,whom the media rely upon to tell them what the drums they hear mean. Like the proletariat arts movement of the 1930s, the establishment wishes that the Black Arts movement would just get lost. Though I get associated with the movement, I was living in Chelsea at the time, writing my first novel, a sci-fi surrealist take on what I had experienced in Newark as a twenty something editor of a newspaper there. I had problems with some of its actors. So did Amiri. But this movement did more to expand a black readership than its critics.

Amiri Baraka and I clashed. Often. He once called me a “jet plane flying lying n—–.” My response was that when Amiri, a communist, gave up his American Express card, I’d start riding the bus. We set a standard for young people with our arguments. They were conducted by using poetry and wit. Not once was an AK-47 employed. But as the years went by, we found ourselves members of the curmudgeon club. In fact, one of his final essays about corruption in Newark appears in the latest issue of my magazine, Konch. His comments about “Django Unchained” will appear in a forthcoming anthology that I have edited about film. Our final correspondence took place on Nov.17.

One obituary called Baraka “polarizing,” which means that he contributed to something they market called “The Racial Divide,” when many of his patrons and supporters were white. Many Europeans are white, and they treated him as they would treat a great writer. Broadway with its parade of black servants, prostitutes, and black bogeymen wouldn’t stage his post “Dutchman” plays, but a musical for which he wrote the book was staged in Paris a few years ago. Even though the obituaries refer to him as an antisemite because of the controversy around his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” he has two brilliant daughters whose mother is Jewish, the author Hettie Cohen. When I participated in a writers conference held in Israel a few years ago, the organizer expressed regrets that Baraka couldn’t attend.

All of his children are achievers including Ras, who is a Newark councilman. His daughter Dominique, whom he had with the great poet Diane Di Prima, is a first rate television host. His beautiful partner Amina Baraka is a poet in her own right.

Amiri Baraka was controversial because his was a perspective that was considered out of fashion during this post race ghost dance, the attitude that says that because we have a black president, racism is no longer an issue, when the acrimonious near psychotic reaction to his election only shows the depth of it. In one of two books of mine that were published in Montreal, I argue that Barack Obama is not a Muslim. He’s more like the catholic priest in “The Exorcist.” Drawing all of the demons of American racism to the surface. Was Amiri Baraka an agit-prop writer? What was left out of the indolent obituaries that I read was that he was a two-time American Book Award winner.

Baraka’s artistic peers thought enough of his talent to admit him to the exclusive The American Academy of Arts and Letters. Maybe they recognized that Amiri Baraka was the kind of writer who comes along once in a generation or so. I once said that he did for the English syntax what Monk did with the chord. He was an original.

Ishmael Reed’s play,”The Final Version” is on this weekend at the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe. (212-780-9386). It closes next week.





Last week was a nutty one, in New Jersey. Bob Torricelli stepped down, and Amiri Baraka did not. Baraka, the poet, dramatist, and activist formerly known as LeRoi Jones, is the state's poet laureate. Why he is the poet laureate is a good question, considering that he's a revolutionary, a Marxist, and a conspiracy theorist, who not only goes around calling people "Nazis" but pronounces it "Nazzies" (as in snazzy).


There is nothing neccessarily wrong with any of these inclinations per se, but they would seem to give a politician pause. Still, in August Governor James E. McGreevy courageously or foolishly, proclaimed Baraka laureate, a sinecure worth ten thousand dollars a year, and managed to get in a few quiet weeks before he was made to regret the appointment, on learning that Baraka had written (and read aloud at a festival) a poem about September llth, titled "Somebody Blew Up America. " Baraka's poem suggested, among other things, that four thousand Israelis who worked in the World Trade Center had been tipped off about the terrorist attack and stayed home that day. This, of course, is a version of an insidious hot widely discredited ru- mor that has been embraced in places like Damascus and Marseilles but is beneath the dignity of Trenton and Newark The Anti-Defamation League went bananas and the Governor called for Baraka's resignation.


Last week, Baraka used an appearance at an event at the Newark Public Library to respond to his critics. The television reporters, rowdy disciples, and bewildered library patrons who packed the grand panelled hall on the second floor brought a prizefight atmosphere to the musty stacks. When Baraka hunched, gray-bearded, gray-suited, took the lectern, he said, "This is my statement I will not apologize, I will not resign. " There was raucous applause and cries of "Yessir!" Baraka began reading: "The recent dishonest, consciously distorted, and insulting non-interpretation of my poem by the Anti-Defamation League is fundamentally an attempt to defame me and, with that, an attempt to repress and stigmatize independent thinkers everywhere. "


There followed a forty five-minute diatribe, in which he defended his work, fleshed out his sources (Congresswoman, Cynthia McKinney, the Jordanian news paper Al Watan, and other such impeccables), and pressed his case that the terrorist attack, of 9/11 were part of a global white-supremacist conspiracy. While, short on logic, it was long on citation. (He even said "op. cit. ") Distressingly, crowd reaction was split-generally, blacks nodding their heads, whites shaking theirs. He concluded with some words about poetry, citing Keats and Du Bois, Truth and Beauty, and the imperative"to illuminate the human mind and bring light into the world. "


Afterward, he made his may out of the hall, greeting well-wishers, State of the Union style, and rode down an elevator with a few associates. ("Ask someone to bring me a barbecue sandwich, " he told one of them. ) Then he stepped out into a garden next to the library, for a press conference. There was some good mayhem in the garden Camera- men jostled and joshed. There were arguments, intra- and interracial, about racial profiling, Zionism, and Ralph Nader. A woman from the A. D. L. offered comment. A black man with a gray beard sidled up to white reporters and muttered, "Watch out, I'll stick a foot up in your ass. " Some activists had ducttaped a banner to the garden wall with lines from "Somebody Blew Up America, " which takes the form of an extended inquiry as to who perpetrated various atrocities and misdeeds:




Who made Bush president

Who believe the confederate flag need to be flying

Who talk about democracy and be lying



A producer from CNN asked, "Do you know who?"


Baraka said, "I don't purport to be a statistician. I don't have a mainframe. If I had a staff, like you do at CNN, I could answer these questions. "


"So there isn't actually a known answer to your questions?"


Baraka looked at her with some disdain. "No. " After a moment, he said, "It seems to me that the government and the A. D. L. ought to apologize to me. " Then he grinned. "They should also pay me. " His poet-laureate check, apparently was late.


It was hard not to wonder, as the crowd dispersed, about the role of poetry in today's fractious world. In 1969, Baraka wrote, in "Black Art, "




Poems are bullshit unless they are

teeth or toes or lemon, piled

on a step. . .

We want live

words of the hip world live flesh &

coursing blood.



Or perhaps it made more sense to turn to New York's official state poet, John Ashbery. "The true crisis is only now coming to rest," he writes, in "This Deuced Cleverness."



Birdie, on your tree,

I like you. Can't we be friends?



--The New Yorker, October 14 & 21, 2002, pags. 66-67