When Amiri Baraka died last week, American letters lost the only poet who had stirred up as much controversy in his life as Ezra Pound. Most agreed he’d been a great writer—although poet Bryn Fortey isn’t alone when he says, “I prefer what he wrote as Leroi Jones”—but few had any patience for his homophobia, his anti-semitism or what seemed to be a colossal arrogance. Listen to Catfish McDaris:
In 2001 I heard Amiri Baraka was giving a day workshop and an evening reading at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I paid my money for the workshop. He kept the crowd waiting for 2 hours and finally cancelled with no refunds and no explanation. 4 hours later, he struts in. Before he has finished his first poem, he’s called me a white nigger, my gay friend’s fags and my Jewish friend’s kikes. Amiri is really on a roll of spewing hate. I had hoped to introduce myself after his reading and show him some photos of Ray (Bremser) and me and few poems Ray had given me. That nigger word was like being stabbed in the eye with a butcher knife, even from a black dude. Before I knew it, I lost my temper, I was on my feet screaming at this motherfucker and headed in his direction. 4 security guards grabbed me and escorted me from the campus.
That sounds like really stupid, immature behaviour for a guy of –what—66? (Baraka’s, not Catfish.) But then, who says anyone has to grow up, least of all poets? Baraka had been obnoxious in some ways for a long time, and in the racially-polarised America of the mid-Sixties (Trayvon suggests it still is), the former Leroi Jones—he shed his slave name like Muhammad Ali—probably had a good reason not to like white people. Or as good a reason as you can have. I’m white and I started out middle-class, although I’ve worked my way down. I don’t know what it’s like belonging to a minority the law allows to be hung from trees.
But having said that, and recognising the seed of truth embedded deep inside the following words, I still think he was a prick for writing:
Most American white men are trained to be fags. For this reason it is no wonder their faces are weak and blank.The average ofay [white person] thinks of the black man as potentially raping every white lady in sight. Which is true, in the sense that the black man should want to rob the white man of everything he has. But for most whites the guilt of the robbery is the guilt of rape. That is, they know in their deepest hearts that they should be robbed, and the white woman understands that only in the rape sequence is she likely to get cleanly, viciously popped.
Baraka questioned the 9/11 attacks too. suggesting in the poem that leads off this piece that Israelis had advanced warning and kept their own people home. This caused such outrage the Governor of New Jersey, where Baraka lived and had been appointed Poet Laureate, attempted to have him removed from his post. When this was deemed unconstitutional, the post itself was abolished.
Like all of us, Baraka was a man of contradictions—although in his case, perhaps, they were starker than most. In the 1950s, as Bryn says, he even had a Jewish wife:
When Hettie Cohen married LeRoi Jones on
October 11, 1958, it was against her families wishes. Even in the bohemian atmosphere of Greenwich Village, there were only half-a-dozen interracial couples. She was the practical force behind their magazine YUGEN., which attracted contributions from Bremser, Corso, Ginsberg, Kerouac, O'Hara, Olsen, Oppenheimer, Snyder, Whalen and Wieners after Jones had written to Ginsberg on toilet paper, asking for help. He wrote a poem 'For Hettie' in 1958 in which he praised her fierce determination, her bohemian lifestyle and her refusal to take orders. […].They parted in the early 60's and divorced in 1965, leaving Hettie to bring up their two daughters.
(Toilet paper, by the way? Another curiously sophomoric gesture; the sort of thing you’d do if you came from a small town and you wanted to be serious and you’d just finished a book about Cocteau.)
And Baraka the homophobe had had some homosexual experiences in the decadent hothouse of the 1950s American demi-monde. Contemporary histories are so rife with accounts of genital love between—well, everyone—he would have been unusual if he didn’t. But I’m not sure I buy the idea that his later denunciations of homosexuality were just an attempt to reinforce his reputation as a spokesman for black militants. Baraka was many things, but I don’t think he was a conman. What I see is a man who was making mental war with his own history; someone who had come from an ideological position he could no longer believe in, one that the radical black consensus, to some degree, had moved far beyond. Whether it seems right now to us as black or white readers and thinkers, Baraka’s life as Leroi Jones had been—as far as his militant brothers and sisters were concerned, and, I’m convinced, Amiri himself—a life of collusion with the white oppressor. Homophobia was a revolting by-product of, among other things, the movement of black activists towards radical Islam.
But radicalism is utopian, at least at the beginning; until it turns into dogma and zealotry. Like everyone who got into politics Baraka wanted to improve the world, and in his case right the wrongs done to his people over hundreds of years by—speaking just for myself now—my people. That’s generosity of heart on a global, historical scale. And even late on in life, despite his reputation (which,as we saw with the Willie Nelson-9/11 paragraph, may have something to do, still, with our wanting black men to keep their mouths shut) sometimes Baraka was capable of showing that generosity in surprising ways. Catfish McDaris again:
Ray Bremser told me and Dave Church lots of Beatnik tales and said Baraka let him crash with him after he got out of prison for awhile.
After Catfish had his scene with Baraka, being maybe in some ways the bigger man, he attempted a reconciliation:
I cooled down for a month and wrote Amiri Baraka at his
home. I apologized and sent him the material from Ray Bremser. I stuck my play called Maria Takes A Powder and a $20 in the envelope with a fan letter. Amiri said he might want to do the play. He included 2 rare chapbooks of his, one was: Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. Trenton, New Jersey
, here in Marquette University started a Special Collection section for me. Amiri Baraka’s books will live on there and be available. Baraka’s words will always live on. I think a man can be good and bad at the same time. Milwaukee
Those last words, for me, say it all: good and bad at the same time. That was Amiri Baraka, and it’s me, and it’s you too, whoever you are reading this. Any attempt to reduce ourselves or our heroes to one or the other of those conditions infantilises us; and that, as Charles Bukowski would say, “is when the whole thing becomes sickening.”
(Big thanks to Catfish and to Bryn--as ever--for their invaluable contributions to this piece.)