Back in 2005, as a high school student in New Jersey, I was assigned a history project: to interview an “eyewitness to history.” I immediately thought of the state’s most controversial poet, Amiri Baraka (previously known as LeRoi Jones), a figure whose many poetic and political affinities spanned from Beat poetry to Black Nationalism to revolutionary Marxism. He was a man of many strong convictions who was not afraid to voice them in any context.
In 2003, two years earlier, Baraka’s brief tenure as state poet laureate had been revoked and the position abolished in the wake of accusations of anti-Semitism in his poem “Somebody Blew Up America?” The poem, a response to the 9/11 attacks, insinuated Israeli foreknowledge (“Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion / And cracking they sides at the notion”). As a gay white Jew, I was in some ways petrified of the person I’d chosen to interview; he had a history of hostility towards all three of those categories, despite being an admirer of Allen Ginsberg.
But on the phone, Baraka was friendly and forthcoming as he described the odyssey of his life, the oppression of his community, and his quest for artistic liberation – without pulling any punches about his resolutely radical and sometimes violent politics. Perhaps perceiving the interviewer as a version of his bookish teenage self, he set out to re-educate me about class, race, and the revolutionary role of words (and to defend some of the more troubling moments in his past).
After all this time, I remain unconvinced that poetry should directly serve political ends, if that is the implication – but in rereading his arguments, I agree wholeheartedly that the often unspoken questions of who writes, who publishes, and who reads are both deeply political and vital to the enterprise of literature.
Amiri Baraka died five years ago on 9 January 2014 and would have turned 84 in October. This interview is appearing here for the first time, thirteen years after his candid telephone conversation with an anxious high school kid. Needless to say, the views expressed are Baraka’s, not SAND’s.
On becoming a writer early in life, inspired by the blues.
Amiri Baraka: I started writing really in elementary school. Matter of fact, I had published a newspaper when I was about eleven or twelve. It only had ten editions, ten copies, because I had to write them all out by hand. And then I had a whole little strip that was published by the school in the seventh grade. Then I took writing courses. I took all the writing courses I ever took in high school – I took a year of creative writing.
I liked poetry as a teenager; I mean, I liked the blues. I always liked spoken-word blues by people like Larry Darnell. Even the old blues like Lionel Hopkins. My grandparents had the blues, my parents had Nat King Cole, and teenagers – we liked the Bird groups, The Orioles and all those groups. And I always liked the spoken word in that. Because in the church, there’s always that. They’re always speaking around the music. I always thought that that was a single thing, words and music.
There was three of us who thought we were intellectuals: this Italian[-American] guy, this Jewish guy, and myself. We were the three intellectuals. I was sort of on the outside because I was black, but we were all tight friends and we all had this kind of alienated commentary on everything. And we thought we were going to be writers in high school. I mean, it might have seemed bizarre at the time, but we thought that. And the poetry thing was something that emerged, finally, because it was the easiest thing for me to write. It was the thing I wanted to do more than, say, write stories or plays, although I’ve done all of that. But still the thing that strikes me as the most effective and direct expression of my own feelings is poetry.
On learning about class and race at school.
I came from a social worker mother and a postman father, the bottom of the middle class. So going to a ninety-percent Italian[-American] high school was a shock, in the sense that I had gone to mostly black schools before. I saw a certain kind of social relationship reversed, since I was suddenly a minority. But I still lived in the black community. I had to come back from school every night, so it was like having two different contexts to develop in. Makes you kind of schizophrenic. I didn’t like the high school because of that, although I stayed there.
Howard [University] was the first time I came to grips with the meaning of the black middle class, the black bourgeoisie. Coming face to face with a more mature context, and beginning to understand the meaning of what that was in the world. And that’s always a kind of learning process, not all of it very pleasant. It’s a learning process of what it is to be a minority and to be excluded in some sense from the social life of a place.
I didn’t like going to Rutgers either, because I was tired of being that kind of “isolated black.” Obviously, you could slide into that… and that would be your identity, as the isolated black person… but I never felt good in that situation because I wasn’t really raised in that kind of situation. I was raised in the black community and its social life. My family was mainly in that black community. And so, both the high school and the early college experience were really dissatisfying, as far as I was concerned. It left a lot to be desired, emotionally.
An Air Force librarian.
Well, I had a friend who was sort of my hero in high school. He was a track star. I was on the track team, and I looked up to him. He was the state champ in the mile and the half-mile, and we ran cross-country. Plus, his parents knew my parents, so I looked up to him. Then he graduated and moved to New York. And that was fascinating. He lived in the Village; he was a bohemian. I finally went over there and saw him and began to talk to him, came to his house, saw how he was living. It impressed me. And I would go there before finally I got kicked out of college and went to the Air Force, and I still communicated with him.
Then I became willfully determined to become an intellectual because I’d been thrown out of school and I felt kind of ashamed, but at the same time I felt that the reason that I got kicked out is that I wasn’t interested in that stuff. So I was determined to find out, “Well, what were you really interested in?” I became the night librarian in the Air Force. Even though I was flying planes – I mean I was a gunner on a plane, a weatherman. Still, in the evenings, when we weren’t flying, I was the night librarian.
And that’s where I began to do more deep reading. There were a group of us who used go in every night, a mixed group: black, white, Latino. We’d go in there, and we actually educated ourselves to a great extent. We studied the history of Western music, Western literature. I would get stuff and we would read it and discuss it night after night. So it was really ironic that although I hated the service, I have to say I learned a lot there, certainly about literature. I would read the bestseller lists religiously, order those books, and then I began to find a lot of stuff that I didn’t know about before. You know, reading nineteenth-century lit. I read Proust, Thomas Hardy, and all that garbage. And at the same time a lot of modernist stuff: Gertrude Stein, and Eliot, and Pound, all that kind of stuff. So it was like people do in jail. You have all this time on your hands, and if you’re motivated to do certain things, you’ll learn more than you would otherwise because you don’t have as many diversions.
After about two and a half years, I finally got kicked out of the Air Force. They said for false enlistment. I never told them organizations that I belonged to when I was in the college. But that’s fake too. I mean, that was, I thought, trumped up. I mean, I might have passed out some leaflets for some organization once but I was never really…
But at the trial, when they started bringing this stuff up, I was happy. I mean, I wouldn’t fight it. They wanted to kick me out and I said, “Right on.”
On Allen Ginsberg.
Well, see, I had found out about Ginsberg when I was in the service. He’d just come out with that book Howl. I was fascinated by that because I had been sending poetry out in the service, and it was getting rejected, because that was the period of the kind of academic chokehold on literature just like it’s getting to be today. I mean, this period now [the mid-2000s] is sort of a replay of the fifties. You know, the reactionary essays of those people, those Southern agrarian poets, you know… I can’t even think of their names. Swanee Review, Southern Review, Partisan Review, Kenyon Review. You know, Seven Types of Ambiguity, Empson’s book, all that stuff. You know, people writing poems where they have to quote Latin or Greek. And that’s just the kind of atmosphere that poets faced then, so if I came to New York I always thought I was going to get together a group of people and publish anybody to make a kind of statement against that kind of dull stuff. So this was just because they rejected my poetry.
Well, you know, the newspaper called The Village Voice was just coming out. That should get you to around 1955. And they had a lot of stuff about Ginsberg. And I finally got the book and read it and I liked it, and I contacted him. He was in Paris when I got out of the service, he was living in Paris. And I wrote him a letter. I wrote him a letter on a piece of toilet paper, and asked him, was he for real? And he wrote me back on a better piece of toilet paper. Said he was for real but he was tired of being Allen Ginsberg.
And then he gave me a whole list of people that he thought should be published. And so I was glad to get that, and I started publishing all those people [in my journal Yugen]. You know, Burroughs and Kerouac and Whalen and McClure and Snyder. But I was publishing all those people that he had listed as being part of the new poetry and I liked their poetry. So that’s how that started. And then I met a lot of people in New York: Frank O’Hara, Creeley, and Olsen, and all the people associated with the Black Mountain and the New York School.
Moving to Harlem.
I think myself and a lot of people had this truck about organizing a black theater and black arts organization. When Malcolm [X] got murdered, that simply just put it all into perspective. I decided to cut ties because it seemed absurd to be downtown, you know, bullshitting people about art when the real thing had to be done. Because you remember during that period, the Civil Rights Movement was in motion. 1957 was Dr. King down in Montgomery and then 1959 was Cuba, Fidel Castro [whom Baraka met in Havana in 1960].
The Black Arts Repertory Theater/School.
It was a group of black writers, and painters, intellectuals, living in [the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York]. Some in Harlem. The Malcolm X thing tore our relationship with the white world. That was no longer important. We had thought of the Village as a place where one went to be an artist. It seemed to us then that it was more important for us to be in Harlem, and that the art we made had to be part of black people’s struggle to liberate themselves. We wanted an art that would help the struggle that Malcolm laid out, that King was involved in, that the Black Panthers later on would take up. But that’s what we were doing: trying to make art revolutionary.
What we did was mobilize black artists in New York and then it spread throughout the country. Suddenly the focus of black artists at that period became to help in the revolutionary struggle, not just to decorate the walls in theaters of white bourgeois America. And so, of course a lot of people took that as being very negative. A lot of the white officials condemned us, and I guess we were extreme in our attempt to disconnect ourselves from things that we had been connected to the minute before.
For the first time we had black audiences because we went to them, we went to these people, we went to the parks, we went to vacant lots, we went to taverns, we went to street corners.
It wasn’t under white people up there. Black Arts was aimed at, and succeeded in reaching, thousands of black people who, as avant artists, we would have heretofore missed. That’s what we were trying to do. We were trying to do three things: create an art that was mass art, an art that was revolutionary, and an art that actually would fight on the side of the people for liberation. That’s what we wanted. That’s what we said. That’s what we tried to do.
The problem was that black is not an ideology and so when people call themselves black anything, when they try to define that, they find they got twenty-five different versions of that and it started to just combust. We were just “black” as opposed to being a specific ideology, and you find that black can be black communist, black capitalist, Black Panther, black preacher, black vegetarian.
The 1967 Newark Rebellion.
The Black Arts Repertory Theater/School fell apart by ’66. I moved to Newark just before it broke up. That’s one of the reasons it broke up, because I got disgusted with it. People were fighting, pulling guns on each other, and so forth.
Now people were fighting back. After the three hundred years of slavery, etc., the people started openly resisting. Each generation resists its own way, and when it came to my own generation’s youth, they were the ones that fought. The fact that China got liberated, India got liberated, the Vietnam War was going on – all that influenced us, and we figured: “Hey!” We learned from what was going on. We learned from Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh. We learned from the African Liberation Movement and [Patrice] Lumumba. So that was all part of it.
You had a majority black population [in Newark] ruled by an outspokenly racist little Mafia-oriented administration. And then there were some things: the race brutality issue. They had broken into this mosque and beat up the people in this mosque. They wanted two hundred acres of land for a medical school, which I guess they might eventually get. There was a black man who was supposed to become secretary of the Board of Education who had this master’s degree from Cornell, and [Mayor] Addonizio rejected him and appointed this guy who was a high school graduate (laughs), one of his cronies. The John Smith thing was a cab driver who got beat. So there were all kinds of things, plus a kind of sentiment that had been building up.
Down in the Central Ward, it just went off. It was an explosion. That day we were picketing outside the precinct. It was just all over, you know, I mean everywhere you had the feeling that “This cannot go on.” We were talking already about wanting to elect a black mayor. That was ’67. (In ’70 we achieved it, but [meanwhile] all of this kind of unrest was going on.) We were organizing – this was my wife Amina and I – at the Spirit House, we were using the same things, we were using the Black Arts, using theater and poetry. We had put out a little newspaper. You know, we were agitating. Stokely Carmichael would come out and talk about “black power.” So it was an agitational sense and so when the thing went off, people started breaking out windows. It just spread: “Chooom!” Remember, Detroit had happened. Two years before that or three years before that, Watts had happened. So there were paradigms that people took up and they went and did it.
Baraka’s arrest. “Didn’t they say you had firearms or something?”
Yeah, they said I had two guns. I mean you know, one is not enough. That was all trumped-up stuff. They had been looking to jam me up because we were very outspoken about what we were doing. And even in the coroner’s report, they said that Spirit House was a place full of agitators, and so forth, and so on. The judge read out a poem of mine called “Black People” and he included that as a reason. He said it was a “prescription for criminal anarchy.” Poetry really gets you in trouble.
It’s my feelings obviously, but to try to say that because I’m writing about a rebellion that I know is going to happen… I mean, even a fool, if he lived in this community, he’d know after a while these people are not gonna take that. They’re not gonna take that. I mean Shakespeare’s talking about stuff that’s still happening today. Do you know what I’m saying?
If you talk about something like that and someone says “Wow. You… did this. You planned this rebellion.” I mean that’s so crazy. You would not be able to write anything. Anything that you envision.
It’s just the nature of mediocre people that they are so opposed to literature that is alive, and literature that sticks its nose into what’s going on in the world at the time. I’m not interested in writing about flowers and birdbaths and birdies and stuff like that. I mean, if I had to write about that, I wouldn’t write.
Reading Wittgenstein many years ago, I read that “ethics and aesthetics are one” – and I believed that, but seeing it put into those words or, for that matter, reading Mao Zedong or Lenin, then it becomes clear that that’s true. What you write shows what you love, what you hate, what you uphold, what you put down. It shows what your class relationships are. It’s obvious when you read something that’s a prescription, a description of you, but that doesn’t mean that you have done the things that you’re writing about.
What to write about.
Well, you’ve got to write about what concerns you, that’s all. What concerns me is the world. You have to find out about the world to write about it. And it has to do not only with your reading and study, but it has to do with what you actually do, what kind of practice you engage in, what’s your day-to-day work.