"'Let the world be a Black Poem': Frantz Fanon in Amiri Baraka’s Poetry of Revolt" by Tatjana Milosavljevic
Tatjana Milosavljević holds an MA degree in English Literatures and Literary Theory from the University of Freiburg (Germany) where she also worked as a tutor for the course Introduction to Literary Studies. She has another MA degree from the University of Novi Sad (Serbia) in the area of critical discourse analysis, and is currently working there on her doctoral thesis in Black British fiction. Email:
To fight for national culture first of all means fighting for the liberation of the nation, the tangible matrix from which culture can grow.
(Frantz Fanon The Wretched of the Earth)
We want a black poem. And a
Let the world be a Black Poem
And Let All Black People Speak This Poem
(Amiri Baraka, “Black Art”)
There have been few prominent American writers of late who have provoked more controversy than Amiri Baraka, “the Frantz Fanon of poetry” (Harris, n.pag.). During his prolific career in the letters that spanned more than five decades, Amiri Baraka’s militant aesthetics helped to destabilize the entrenched approaches to art as a non-pragmatic realm of human agency, fiercely polarizing both the readership and scholarship on the issue of literature as a form of political protest.
The founding father of the Black Arts Movement, a prominent Black Nationalist leader, a revoked Poet Laureate, an award-winning playwright, a recognized music critic, at times demonized, at others, sanctified, Amiri Baraka was above all a man haunted by Frantz Fanon’s work on the wretched of the earth. Baraka’s poetry lent a distinctive voice to America’s dispossessed, a voice at first cautious, contrived and evasive, but soon to become forceful, strident and impatient with stylistic minutiae and poetic conventions. His death last year produced obituaries of mixed sentiment both toward his literary oeuvre and his activist legacy. The New York Times, for example, reported that “he was described variously as an indomitable champion of the disenfranchised, particularly in the racially charged political landscape of Newark, where he lived most of his life, or as a gadfly whose finest hour had come and gone by the end of the 1960s” (Fox). His supporters highlight the significance of the experimental vitality and the revolutionary fervor of his art for the cultural reawakening of African Americans throughout the turbulent 1960s and 1970s and the role he played in encouraging black artists, as part of the broader political movement toward the transformation of American power structures. This view is shared by the poet and editor of the authoritative The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader published in 1991, William J. Harris, while his biographer, Jerry Watts, in his 2001 work (like many of his detractors) reproaches him for politicizing literature to the point where it lapses into didactic pamphleteering in the service of Black Nationalism and later Marxism, drained of aesthetic pleasure and wanting in literary merit. The avant-garde poet Kenneth Rexroth, too, lamented that “he [Baraka] has succumbed to the temptation to become a professional Race Man of the most irresponsible sort, and that ‘his loss to literature is more serious than any literary casualty of the Second War’” (qtd. in Reader xxvii).
Commencing a career in the arts as an avant-garde Beatnik in the late 1950s Village circle dominated by Ginsberg and Kerouac, the young poet Leroi Jones, as Baraka was then called, showed little regard for racial politics. In a 1960 interview with Modern American Poets, he asserted:
I’m fully conscious all the time that I am an American Negro, because it’s part of my life. But I know also that if I want to say, ‘I see a bus full of people,’ I don’t have to say, ‘I am a Negro seeing a bus full of people.’ I would deal with it when it has to do directly with the poem, and not as a kind of broad generalization that doesn’t have much to do with a lot of young writers today who are Negroes. (qtd. in Reader xix)
This sentiment will prove temporary and Baraka was soon to have an epiphany about the priority of color in both his personal and creative life. Baraka was profoundly moved by the spirit of Castro’s revolutionary Cuba, and his 1960 visit to the island, when he had the opportunity to discuss the decisive social role of a Third World artist with Cuban authors, marked his shift toward overtly political themes. He would later recall in his Autobiography by claiming that “[T]he Cuban trip was a turning point in my life” (243). Cuba jolted him into recognition that it was not only inconceivable but immoral to surgically excise one’s art from the socio-historic locus of its creation, when one speaks from the loaded position of a politically and culturally maligned race, denied intellectual history, and indoctrinated with the false universalism of Eurocentric standards in art. Baraka’s ensuing disillusionment with the white liberal milieu of the Greenwich Village and their political stasis gradually grew, and his personal ideology and literary sensibility migrated toward the politically charged Black Nationalist arena during the Transitional phase of his work from 1963 to 1965, which anticipated further radicalization in the second half of the decade (Autobiography 196; Reader). The murder of the legendary leader of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, in 1965 provoked Baraka into a complete breach with the white bohemian circles, and a divorce from his white Jewish wife Hettie Jones, prompting his personal and artistic transition toward the Black Nationalist phase (1965-1974). Baraka was to spend the following decade in harnessing his artistic genius for the advancement of the radical Black Power movement that sought for black empowerment and eradication of racial oppression beyond Martin Luther’s non-violent, integrationist politics which Baraka deemed ineffective (Autobiography 237). Baraka proclaimed a new role for himself as a poet of Black cultural nationalism in the famous essay “The Legacy of Malcolm X ad the Coming of a Black Nation.” Here he writes:
If we take the teachings of Garvey, Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X (as well as Frazier, Du Bois and Fanon), we know for certain that the solution of the Black Man’s problems will come only through Black National Consciousness. We also know that the focus of change will be racial. […] The Black artist, in this context, is desperately needed to change the images his people identify with, by asserting Black feeling, Black mind, Black judgment. The Black intellectual, in this same context, is needed to change the interpretation of facts toward the Black Man’s best interests, instead of merely tagging along reciting white judgments of the world. (Reader 166-67)
In 1964 Baraka’s lurid, artfully stylized play Dutchman was first staged, a poignant dramatic allegory of America’s race relations today regarded as his magnum opus, and a singular contribution to modern American theatre (Reader xx). The play won accolades of the American literary establishment and received the prestigious Obie award, yet the emerging belligerent voice of his racially conscious work alienated Baraka from the literary mainstream, and he seldom succeeded in winning back the critics’ favor after the close of the 1960s. This is especially the case with his poetic output. As his style was becoming less aestheticized and more confrontational, so did the tone of the reviews plummet from praise into disdain. Yet Baraka never flinched from infusing the poetic craft with race and class politics, nor from openly naming in his work the public figures he saw as the arch-enemies of the profoundly dichotomized world of his poetry.
The birth of Baraka’s racial and political consciousness and the development of a concomitant poetics was also the point of convergence with the thinking of the leading theorist of decolonization and the psychopathology of racism. A psychiatrist, philosopher, and an active agent in the Algerian National Liberation Front, Franz Fanon was born in 1925 on the Caribbean island of Martinique, a former French colony and present day French département. As an 18-year-old, he entered WWII on the side of France, and later returned for his baccalaureate to Martinique where his intellectual development and political maturation flowered under the mentorship of Aimé Césaire. He later pursued studies in medicine and psychology in Paris, where his personal incidents involving racism and his command of social theory, history, and psychoanalysis would produce Black Skin, White Masks (1952), a pioneering study of the fragmentation of consciousness and psychological trauma that racism inflicts on the Black subject. Fanon’s subsequent ground-breaking work The Wretched of the Earth took the West by storm in 1961, the year it was originally published, when Jean-Paul Sartre urged Europeans in the book’s preface to “have the courage to read this book, for in the first place it will make you ashamed, and shame, as Marx said, is a revolutionary sentiment” (xlix). What was “dangerous” for Europe in the book was Fanon’s disturbingly lucid analysis of the dynamics of colonial relationships and advocacy of the practical and therapeutic power of violence of the oppressed toward the oppressor in the decolonization struggle, which are to cure the oppressed from the neurosis incurred on him by the colonial master.
II. Fanon and Baraka: The Neurosis of the Black Writer
Baraka’s ideological and literary course coincides almost uncannily with the three stages of the “colonial writer” that Fanon propounds in The Wretched of the Earth. The themes, aesthetics and sensibility of Baraka’s work as we move from his Beat to Transitional to Black Nationalist and finally Marxist phase closely follows the path of the development of a colonial author that Fanon sets out. Although Baraka was not a colonial writer, America’s treatment of its black population seems to have simulated the dynamics between the colonizer and the colonized that lent the singular sentiments and ideals of a Third World intellectual to an African-American author in the turbulent 1960s. The American color caste system, with its Jim Crow laws, open hatred and violence, biased judiciary, inferior housing, unequal educational and career opportunities, indeed mirrored the racial divide in the colonies, both in the material and in the psychological toll it took on the black citizens. While most Africans were gradually decolonizing their bodies, lands and resources, African-American writers and activists simultaneously recognized the necessity to decolonize their minds and manuscripts from America’s enduring ideological yoke. In a 1970 interview with Ida Lewis, Baraka spoke of this mission of grassroots activists like himself in helping black people to transcend the limiting Negro identity they have been awarded by white America, so as to gather momentum to fight for their rights, thus evoking ideological false consciousness to explain why the black masses had not so far been more combative in the fight for their rights. Baraka then goes on to cite Fanon among his authorities (Sekou Toure, Julius Nyerere, and Kenneth Kaunda are others) when he proclaims that the forging of a political voice for the African-American cultural nation is the primary objective of the Black Nationalist program (“An Exclusive Interview” 79-80).
The central question of the cultural practice within an oppressed group was: “Should the colonized/black author employ the forms inherited from the European tradition to capture his/her experiences, or is there a necessity for constructing alternative discourses to render one’s distinct historicized and racialized subjectivity?” Audre Lorde famously dealt with this topic in her 1984 conference speech “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” when she asserted there was an urgent need to write in a distinct black voice rather than imitate Anglo-American models rooted in the Greco-Roman paradigm, the content and aesthetics of which are profoundly alien to the black experience of the world. Fanon casts the first, imitative phase of the politically unformed black writer as a period when the writer seeks entry into the echelons of elite culture exactly by means of imitating these white models: “The colonized intellectual, at the very moment when he undertakes a work of art, fails to realize he is using techniques and language borrowed from the occupier” (Wretched 160). Baraka movingly wrote in Autobiography about the devastating moment he had recognized the insurmountable gap between his own artistic sensibility and that of the white-dominated American high culture:
One afternoon I had gone to San Juan by myself. I had found some places in Old San Juan I could walk around. (…) I’d stopped at a bench and sat down near a square. It was quiet and I could see a long way off toward the newer, more Americanized part of the city, the Condado Beach section, where I could only go if in uniform, so they would know I was an Americano and not a native. I had been reading one of the carefully put together exercises The New Yorker publishes constantly as high poetic art, and gradually I could feel my eyes fill up with tears, and my cheeks were wet and I was crying, quietly, softly but like it was the end of the world. I had been moved by the writer’s words, but in another, very personal way. A way that should have taught me even more than it did. Perhaps it would have saved me many more painful scenes and conflicts. But I was crying because I realized that I could never write like that writer. Not that I had any real desire to, but I knew even if I had had the desire I could not do it. I realized that there was something in me so out, so unconnected with what this writer was and what that magazine was that what was in me that wanted to come out as poetry would never come out like that and be my poetry. (167-68)
This revealing episode recounts the time Baraka was serving in the USA air force in the mid-1950s in Puerto Rico, from which he would be discharged on the grounds of suspected communist sympathies. Ironically, Baraka did become a staunch communist, but only some 15 years after the charges leveled against his library reading list, which included the Communist Manifesto (Autobiography 166). It is an emotional account of a young, black poet’s distressing alienation from the literary and cultural heritage of the nation he is born into and whose uniform he is wearing. The young Baraka is also quite aware that it is not only impossible for him to successfully replicate the poetic models of the dominant culture, but that whatever it is that “comes out as poetry” from him will be judged by the critics as a lesser form of imitation, at best. Fanon captures this ideological conditioning of the black subject by the Western claims of cultural superiority when he asserts:
In its narcissistic monologue the colonialist bourgeoisie, by way of its academics, had implanted in the minds of the colonized that the essential values, meaning Western values – remain eternal despite all errors attributable to man. The colonized intellectual accepted the cogency of these ideas and there in the back of his mind stood a sentinel on duty of guarding the Greco-Roman pedestal. (Wretched 11)
The disconnection from the mainstream society drew Baraka to the Greenwich Village upon leaving the army. The young poet initially felt a kinship with the predominantly white anti-establishment subculture, but by the early 1960s, he grew dissatisfied with the limitations of political expression within the Beat aesthetics and came to resent the racial divide in the group highlighted by the liberal politics’ ineffectiveness in addressing the oppression of African-Americans. He would later recall the narcissistic landscape of avant-garde circles: “Yet as wild as some of my colleagues were and as cool as I usually was, the connection could be made because I was black and that made me, as Wright’s novel asserted, an outsider (To some extent, even inside those "outsider" circles)” (Autobiography 230).
It is from this ambiguous position of (un)belonging in Greenwich Village that Baraka produced his first poetry collection, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961). At the time committed to formal experimentation, often with a surrealist bent, Baraka’s lyricism could not accommodate race politics. However, the lyric persona of the Preface is hardly desensitized to the experiences of racialization, and the volume churns with intermittent spasms of suppressed trauma underneath the masterfully crafted imagist motifs and distraught punctuation in the style of the modernist tradition. Baraka’s escapism from the daily brutalities of a segregated America is strained with the tension of a contradiction between the reality of the poet’s material existence as a black man and the impotent, diffused resentment of a colorless artist. Such is the tone of the poem “Notes on a Speech,” concluded with Baraka’s disavowal of Africa and erasure of difference within the American identity: “Africa | is a foreign place. You are| as any other sad man here| American.”
Thus, Baraka’s Beat phase corresponds to Fanon’s assumptions about the assimilation of western models that is typical of the early work of the colonized writer. Fanon proceeds to elaborate how this imitative phase plagued by imported imagery and artificial diction gives way to a burgeoning national consciousness in the writer caught in the flames of the liberation struggle. According to Fanon, in the second stage, the writer’s ideals are shaken in the fervor of the decolonization war, which ignites a desire in him to immerse himself in the primordial myths and folklore of his people. In this phase, the writer endeavors to conjure in the present an idealized irrecoverable past, but is only left with a Derridian trace. The imagined ancestral culture with which the writer suddenly becomes desperate to reconnect render his art “steeped in humor and allegory, at other times anguish, malaise, death and even nausea” (159), which is applicable to Baraka’s style during his Transitional phase (1963-1965). The poems of Baraka’s second volume The Dead Lecturer were written in the state of a polarizing subjectivity at a time when Baraka no longer identified with the Greenwich Village scene (the phase of his career he would come to regret and denounce as esoteric whiteness), but was yet to forge his singular black voice. The collection uses improvisation inherent in jazz music to portray the irresolvable paradoxes and complexities in the life of a black artist. The poem “An Agony. As Now” is the best testament to Baraka’s understanding of improvisation as a metaphor for the perpetually shifting African American identity, which for all its transformative undulations remains rooted in a black centre (Lee 373).
Written in broken syntax that is intrinsic to the meaning of the poem, “An Agony. As Now” can be read as a confrontation of the black lyric persona with the delusion of its identification with the white subject. The poem’s opening lines establish the double frame of a mind plagued by internalized racism, as the speaker asserts he sees himself1 through the eyes of his antagonist: “I am inside someone who hates me│ I look out from his eyes. Smell│ what fouled tunes come in│ to his breath. Love his wretched women” (l. 1-6). Thus we are introduced with the schizophrenic speaker in his ambiguous place of identification, the double perspective pertaining to the conflicting halves of his split personality. The speaker’s two harrowing voices compete throughout the poem. The first voice articulates the agonizing psychological pain the speaker is enduring, and the second voice, syntactically presented in successive open brackets, at times reinforces and at others undermines the first voice. The voices act as the Other to the Self. The tormenting mental polarization and self-loathing of the speaker can be interpreted in the light of the disorders induced by racism which Fanon diagnosed in Black Skin, White Masks in those black colonial subjects who move to a Western metropolis. According to Fanon, the European culture alienates the black subject from himself by addressing him in racist stereotypes with which the black subject does not identify and does not recognize as pertaining to him. This process of false identification, of one’s calling into being in relation to the otherness, where the Other is at once the Self (in the case of the black man), results in gradual internalization of racism and rising self-contempt (Black Skin 191). Fanon further asserts that “the Negro lives an ambiguity that is extraordinarily neurotic” (192), while in the Wretched of the Earth he would conclude on the same topic: “Inevitably, you [the colonized] stumble up against yourself. Here lies this core of self-hatred that characterizes conflict in segregated societies” (Wretched 232). Fanon also notes how in the campaign of dehumanizing the colonized, the colonizer assures his Other that he is “not only the absence of values, but also the negation of values […] a corrupting element, distorting everything that involves ethics or morals, an agent of malevolent powers and unconscious and incurable instrument of blind forces” (Wretched 6). We recognize the effects of such psychological maiming in the interior conversation of the divided black speaker of Baraka’s poem: “It can be pain. (As now, as all his |flesh hurts me.) The bracketed voice quarrels with his Other over the ownership of the pain: “(Not mine. Or yours|, if you are the soul I had| and abandoned when I was blind and had| my enemies carry me as a dead man| (if he is beautiful, or pitied.” (l. 14-18).The first voice is at the mercy of “the cold men in their gale”(l. 32) while the other retorts “They chant at my heels, not at yours.)” (l. 34). In the hostile world of the poem, “the God is a Self, after all.), i.e. only God is in possession of a coherent identity, while the speaker is denied wholeness (l. 36). The speaker is stuck on the pain and reiterates “pain” four times. He discloses that his essence is a captive of his body from which he yearns to escape: “It is a human love, I live inside. A bony skeleton │you recognize as words or simple feeling” (l. 39-40). He then dehumanizes himself by calling his trapped Self “thing” and concludes the poem with a sudden, feverish glimpse into the torture that the outward, bodied Self inflicts on the inner Self: “But it has no feeling. As the metal, is hot, it is not, │ given to love | It burns the thing│ inside it. And that thing│ screams” (l. 41-45). The poem is fashioned as an unmediated, direct expression of the violent rupture in the speaker’s mind, we are in the speaker’s present (as implied in the title), and the distance between the speaker and his experience is minimal. On the level of the enunciated, the concluding lines of the poem compellingly evoke Fanon’s assertion in Black Skin, White Masks that the white society reduces the black man to his physicality by conceptualizing him in exclusively animalistic and sexualized terms, as a body without the spirit, which forces the black man to live “locked into his own body” (225).
III. The Poem as an Agent of Social Change
Baraka made a decisive break with the solipsism and esotericism of his early poetry in the mid 1960s, when he consciously turned toward social and political topics in lieu with the ideals of his Black Nationalist agenda. The perspective he employs in the poems that appeared in the collections Black Magic (1969) and It’s Nation Time (1970) largely remains that of an explicit subjectivity, but we find ourselves on the terrain of the speaker’s exteriority more often than being granted access to his intimate thought processes. Respectively, the language too grows markedly vernacular and conversational. The socio-historical context of the poems of Baraka’s Black Nationalist phase is more tangible, at times reconstructed into a concrete, recognizable reality with the aid of pop culture references, and the mention of prominent black leaders and white politicians as metonymic agents of oppression, while the addressee is often identified as the black masses, that is, it is collective. The overt political subject matter and the heightened pragmatism that is increasingly superimposed to the poetic function are the consequence of Baraka’s new theorization of art as an instrument of revolution. The influence of Fanon’s thinking on Baraka becomes more salient from this stage in his career, and we can once again turn to Fanon’s texts as a key to unlocking Baraka’s artistic trajectory.
Franz Fanon, by many “the revered prophet of the Third World Liberation” and by others “reviled as the exterminating angel” as Homi Bhabha remarked in the foreword of the 1986 edition of Black Skins, White Masks, shared with Baraka not only this ambiguous judgment of the public, but also all the extremity and exigency of a revolutionary in the decisive hour of the battle. Contemporary criticism of Fanon’s intellectual legacy centers on his presumably outdated dual language of racialized inequality which he employed to describe the global economic compartmentalization, while his narrow definition of, and emphasis on, nationalism as an anti-imperialist strategy can be interpreted from today’s vantage point as dangerous and misguided (Bhabha, Wretched ix-x). However, as both Bhabha and Fanon’s biographer Alice Cherki have noted, Fanon’s Manichean vision of the world transpires today in what we recognize to be “an incomplete project of decolonization” (Bhabha, Wretched xxvii) and we hear Fanon’s prophetic voice of a genealogist of the “globalization of exclusion” (a term used by his biographer Alice Cherki) in the plight of today’s wretched of the earth, the multitudes in the Global South dispossessed by the neocolonial and neoliberal practices. It should be noted that, although both men extolled national consciousness as “the highest form of culture” (Fanon, Wretched 179), they also warned against the pitfalls of misguided nationalism, since both their notions of national sovereignty were firmly grounded in the Marxist tradition of Third World solidarity and internationalism. This excerpt from Baraka’s speech at the 1974 Pan-African Congress affirms this perspective, aligning him once more with Fanon:
But Nkrumah and Cabral have also pointed out very clearly that nationalism is only an initial step and ultimately if nationalism is not merely a form of preparation for true national liberation struggle which should in any progressive guise lead directly to socialist construction or socialist revolution, then nationalism, black or yellow, becomes as reactionary as the European variety, in fact it is in direct or indirect partnership with the European variety. In such cases nationalism becomes the last refuge of rascals and new capitalists yearning only for control of their national market which political liberation or superficial national liberation has made possible. (6th Pan African Congress 7)
Baraka and Fanon met only in the ideological sense of the word, as Fanon had died at the young age of 36 in a Maryland hospital some six years before the poet known as Leroi Jones changed his name to a ‘bantuized’ Imamu Amiri Baraka and embraced radical politics of Black Power, which drew inspiration from anti-colonial liberation wars in Africa, Asia and South-America. Among other works, Fanon’s widely influential tract on decolonization The Wretched of the Earth provided theoretical foundations for this militant strand of black politics which would shape Baraka’s poetry and drama of the Black Nationalist phase. Black Power movement’s objective was the self-determination of the black race and formation of black political and economic institutions. This political ideal found its cultural counterpart in the Black Arts Movement that sought to address the Afro-American experience and identity in an experimental and politically engaged literary form. Baraka’s role in the movement was paramount, and his Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School(BARTS) founded in Newark in 1967 inspired the establishment of hundreds of similar black-oriented art institutions around the country (Woodard n.pag.). The movement brought greater recognition to African-Americans in literature and the arts, and drew other renowned poets and novelists such as Maya Angelou, Askia Touré, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, Etheridge Knight, and Haki Madhubuti, among others. Baraka reminisced with ardor about this momentous era in his 1984 autobiography:
The concept of Black Power had reached me and I would walk around stenciling a black fist with the words ‘Black Power’ over it. We had not completely focused on the meaning of the term, but we knew it was correct and ours! (Autobiography 345)
Although primarily an American phenomenon, the Black Power movement was international in vision and scope, which is evidenced in the names and programs of its offshoots such as The Republic of New Afrika and The Congress of African People, an important organization led by Amiri Baraka (Woodard). Black nationalists sought for a redefinition of black race in nationalist terms, and conceived of the black America’s fight for racial justice as coextensive with the Third World liberation efforts (ibid.). Besides being at the vanguard of the experimental black theatre with BARTS, Baraka edited a magazine of African-American literature (Black Fire) and became a prominent figure in black nationalist politics, in which he would emerge as one of its most aspiring leaders (Harris, Reader xxiv-xxv). One of the cohering imperatives of the various currents in the Black Power movement was a new-found pride in blackness and the forging of a black national consciousness, ideas that echo Fanon’s convictions from The Wretched of the Earth with regards to the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). National consciousness and black pride became central tropes of Baraka’s poetry of this era, pervading the volumes Black Magic (1969) and It’s Nation Time (1970) with a view to propelling not only the content, but also the form of poetry away from the white center.
The Black Nationalist phase in Baraka’s career is uncannily consistent with Fanon’s description of the typical third stage of a colonized writer. Fanon called this stage “a combat stage” where the now politically mature writer utilizes his voice to rouse the people to fight for freedom, he “turns into a galvanizer of people” (159). This is the period when the writer contributes to the canon of national literature whose intended reader and primary subject-matter is the colonized man. Fittingly, the subject and the addressee of the black Nationalist Phase for Baraka is the black man (often a black male, in lieu of the male-centered, paternalistic politics of the black nationalist movement), which makes for yet another comparison with Fanon, of whose The Wretched of the Earth Sartre famously noted is written about the white man, but not for him (Wretched xlv). Baraka took part in this pivotal inversion of the centuries-long Western discursive binary, by pushing the white man to the passive object position in his poetry.
One of the most militant poems of Black Magic, “A Poem Some People Will Have to Understand,” is Baraka’s parting letter with his white bohemian friends, as well as an indictment of the Civil Rights Movement for its timid demands that ventured no further than demanding formal citizen’s rights for black Americans while largely shying away from combating the wider issue of racism that, to this day, continues to underlie institutional and legislative discrimination. Written with the vigor of black pride and self-determination, the poem communicates with the literature of decolonization and links Baraka to Aime Cesaire’s revolutionary version of Negritude. The poem parodies the call for the betterment of African-Americans as a step toward assimilation by posing a question “What industry do I practice?” The speaker replies acerbically: “I practice no industry. │I am no longer a credit │to my race. I read a little, │scratch against silence slow spring │afternoons” (l 5-9). On another level, it is also a refusal of the speaker, heightened by the mocking assonance of the /s/ sound, to respond to the aggressive demands of capital in the post-industrial America. In the Autobiography (237), Baraka wrote about this poem:
I rejected Martin Luther King’s philosophy. I was not nonviolent. I had written a poem about this time that ended:
We have awaited the coming of a natural
phenomenon. Mystics and romantics, knowledgeable
of the land.
But none has come.
But none has come.
Will the machine gunners please step forward?
The radical speaker also denounces his previous “Watercolour ego” and berates his past self for being “Without the preciseness│a violent man could propose” (l. 12-13). With a newfound clarity, he declares that the patience of the oppressed has run out, and it is vital to note here the shift from individualism toward pluralism in the speech situation of the poem. The speaker is now “we”, as he speaks for the disaffected masses: mystics, romantics and the knowledgeable workers of the land. He affirms the loss of hope with the repetition of the phrase “but none has come” and concludes with an overture into a violent revolution against the established order as the last resort of the dispossessed: “Will the machine gunners please step forward?” After the jolt of the last line the curtain falls, and there ensues an ominous silence. This silence reverberates with Fanon’s vindication of collective violence in the revolt against colonial oppression, when he asserts in The Wretched of the Earth that liberation is “always a violent event” (2), not only in the streets, but also on the battlefield that is cultural representation. The task Fanon carves out for the poet-soldier in the national liberation struggle matches Baraka’s aesthetic and ideological aims expresses in the poem: “After the assimilation period of rhyming verse, the beat of the poetic drum bursts onto the scene. Poetry of revolt, but which is also analytical and descriptive” (162). Hence, “A Poem Some People Will Have to Understand” is Baraka’s initiation in the African-American liberation struggle on the terrain of poetics, it is the beginning of his poetry of revolt, a sublimation of the poet’s “rational and irreversible commitment of the side of people in arms” (ibid.)
Fanon’s suggestion that liberation can only be achieved through violence runs through another paradigmatic poem from Black Magic collection, “Black Art”, a poem infused with radicalism, in which the speaker envisions groups and individuals he holds responsible for the oppression of black people in USA as the victims of retributive violence. The choleric, imagist opening of the poem foams “Poems are bullshit unless they are teeth or trees or lemons piled on a step” (l. 1-3), reflecting Baraka’s view of poetry as a form of protest, and emphasizing the perlocutionary force of “useful” (l. 6) poetry, set on agitating the reader into action (Brennan 306-308). The performance value of poetry is further elaborated as the poem is personified and made the perpetrator of violent attacks on the agents of oppression: policemen, liberal politicians, Jews, the white man, and the treacherous black leaders, who betray the interests of the African-American community they represent by colluding with white officials (l. 31-36). The explosive energy of the poem is heightened in an exclamatory personification (“Put it on him poem!”) and the extensive use of onomatopoeia (l. 25-27) gives substance to the agent-poem, the poem that wreaks havoc. The extended vitriol in sprawling enjambments is, however, followed by a turn in tone in the line 44, and an arresting vindication of the speaker’s rant ensues:
Clean out the world for virtue and love,
Let there be no love poems written
until love can exist freely and
cleanly. Let Black people understand
that they are the lovers and the sons
of lovers and warriors and sons
of warriors. Are poems & poets &
all the loveliness here in the world
We want a black poem. And a
Let the world be a Black Poem
And Let All Black People Speak This Poem
The speaker does away with the stale, classical conceptions of art as depositories of transcendental feelings and beauty, which he repudiates as futile at the historical juncture at which he finds himself (“Let there be no love poems written until love can exist freely and cleanly”). He asserts that it is pointless to create aesthetically pleasing art on abstract ideals when the conditions for the creation of such art are not met, i.e. when the poet is in bounds. By means of a cementing parallelism and a dynamic polysyndeton on the syntactic level, the speaker then urges the black race to take pride in its origin: “Let Black people understand | that we are the lovers and the sons | of lovers and warriors and the sons| of warriors. Are poems & poets”). The poem ends in a triumphant appeal for the birth of black national literature in the form of poetry (“We want a black poem”). The self-referential poem is declared the ultimate manifestation of black consciousness and a herald of a new world reigned by the black man, followed by an affirmation that the right to self-expression through art is the speaker’s ultimate objective (“And Let All Black People Speak This Poem| Silently| or LOUD).
Another poem from the same collection, “Ka’Ba”, is a joyful celebration of blackness (“Our world is full of sound │Our world is more lovely than anyone’s” (l. 5-6)) as well as a journey into the primordial Africa. The stress on the African folklore, the mention of “masks and dances and swelling chants” (l. 11) as well as “magic” (l. 21) and “spells” (l. 22) echoes Fanon’s warning of the colonized author’s impulse to “renew contact with their people’s oldest, inner essence, the farthest removed from colonial times” (Wretched 148). The poem asks for a retour into the idealized past which is to serve as the foundation for the future of the people forcibly wrenched from their homeland: “We have been captured, │ brothers. And we labour │to make our gateway into│ the ancient image, into a new │correspondence with ourselves and our black family” (l. 15-20). The past and the future are in constant dialogue in this poem, and the deep nostalgia for Africa hides the poem’s main paradox from the speaker himself: the primordial Africa of his imagination which he posits as the foundation for the future is an elusive mythical prototype, not a firm center. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon expresses skepticism toward regression into archaic tradition and atavism, which he sees as adverse to culture. Revival of the past must not be dogmatic, however necessary it is as an antithesis to the racist discourse of a barbaric pre-Africa (147). Culture, according to Fanon, is in constant flux (here Fanon’s influence on postcolonial theory transpires) and its complexities defy simplification and reduction to archetypes. Thus, the romanticized pursuit of African roots in the poem paradoxically reveals Baraka’s geographical and temporal distance from them.
The following volume from the Black Nationalist phase It’s Nation Time (1970) furthers Baraka’s nationalist agenda. The poem of the same title “It’s Nation Time” is a revolution in verse, and it is typical of the performative and vernacular aesthetic of the Black Arts Movement. Intended for live jazz performance where it is to ignite revolutionary zeal of the audience for national sovereignty and unification under blackness, the poem employs discontinuous syntax, idiosyncratic language (the most interesting example being the neologism to nationfy), repetition and sound effects to develop into a frenzied, hypnotizing chant of “one strong fast black energy” (l. 3).
Baraka’s subsequent ideological shift toward Fanonist Marxism is again prophesized in The Wretched of the Earth, where Fanon observes: “The colonized intellectual, steeped in Western culture and set on proving the existence of his own culture, never does so in the name of Angola or Dahomey. The culture proclaimed is African culture” (150). The statement reflects the concept of Pan-Africanism, i.e. the idea that all people of African descent constitute a single nation on the premise of shared culture. This is the central trope of Baraka’s poem “Afrikan Revolution” written in 1973 in which Baraka addresses “Anywhere Afrikans” to unite in the overthrow of white, capitalist forces of oppression. Emblematic of his evolving politics, the poem marks a transition in Baraka’s thought from Black Nationalism to Third World Marxism, and Harris treats is separately in the Reader (243). Baraka’s political sympathies made a gradual turn to the left around 1972, and he eventually incorporated his solidarity with the black cause with a new awareness of the centrality of class, rather than race, in the fight against imperialism, repudiating his previous nationalism as uninformed racism (Reader xxviii). This development in Baraka’s thinking brings him once again in alignment with Fanon, for whom Marxism formed the backbone of his writings on Third World decolonization. A new commitment to class-based revolt had the effect of further politicizing Baraka’s poetry, at times reducing it to programmatic catalogue verse in the poetry collection that marked this period, Hard Facts (1975). In the poem “A New Reality is Better than the New Movie”, for example, Baraka calls for the overthrow of the capitalist America in favour of a socialist utopia, while the poem “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” opens with the chanting inculcation of the Marxist slogan and develops into a prose treatise. Speaking at the 6th Pan-Afrikan Congress in Dar es Salaam in 1974, Baraka has come to a full compliance with Fanonian perspective by firmly linking capitalist oppression to the ideology of racism, as capitalism’s suprastructural adjunct, and by identifying socialism as the only viable liberatory ideology. In the same speech, he reiterated the priority of solidarity among the globally oppressed:
We know that where cultures are most dissimilar is when imperialism has the hardest time absorbing the people. This is one of the intensifying factors in the contradiction between imperialism and the Third World. We should be most sensitive to that contradiction, that vicious conflict between Afrikans, on the continent, in the West Indies, the Pacific Islands, or North America, and imperialism, because we share a common heritage, though it is variously reconstructed by our various specific experience and history, spread as we are throughout the world. Oppression has singled us out, and generalized our condition and therefore brought a general description to our various Afrikan subcultures, as the wretched of the earth. (“Revolutionary Culture” 14)
Baraka’s exile into the literary underground since the mid-1960s raises debates about how far the poetic genre can be stretched as a medium of social enquiry without tipping into propaganda. William J. Harris concludes despondently that literary establishment tends to treat Baraka’s trajectory as something of a fallen artist, a poet turned political pundit (Reader xviii), largely owing to Baraka’s theorization of art as a means to a political end and the shunning of the solipsistic l’art pour l’art credo. It can be argued that in his socially engaged poetry Baraka at times subordinated aesthetics to politics. Yet, it is interesting to note that while Baraka is often derided for the crippling effect of polemics he poured into his work, the critical apparatus on which such hostile interpretations are based is rarely left unchallenged over its own historical, political and socio-cultural positioning. This has been observed by Piotr Gwiazda, who remarks that the poem “Somebody Blew Up America”, for example, may not be “a ‘good’ poem by, say, Elizabeth Bishop or James Merrill standards”, but that “it is a well-crafted performative text, a self-conscious poetic utterance with a clearly defined sense of audience and an extensive use of devices such as sound effects, hyperbole, irony, indirection, pun, and wit, many of them operating within specific African American idioms and traditions” (477). The paradox of scholarly denunciations of Baraka, therefore, is that they repeat the very error they ascribe to his work: if Baraka’s poetry suffers from tainting the poetic with the ideological, questions should be raised as to why criticism of his work, too, often falls into the trap of weighing literary merit of his work against the backdrop of his controversial and at times unpleasant politics (which in various periods flirted with black supremacy, homophobia, misogyny and anti-Semitism) while disregarding the aesthetic effect and rhetorical constructedness of his texts that bypass the Western models. What is the critic’s politics, may we ask?
Interpretation in a vacuum, it seems, is impossible in any critical debate about Baraka. Baraka, for his part, refused to defend his controversial 2002 poem “Somebody Blew Up America” from accusations of anti-Semitic hate speech by resorting to age-old definitions of poetry as a non-pragmatic art form. The debate around this almost unanimously condemned poem “reflects the long-standing and still largely unresolved tension between aesthetics and politics in American poetry and the demands these categories place on the questions of poetic practice”, as Gwiazda remarked (461). Contrary to the still influential New Critical approaches to art, poetry for Baraka was not an autonomous artifact of universal values, which can be sifted out upon close textual analysis, but a fluid, historically embedded political process that from its conception interacts with the socio-political reality of its making. The meaning in Baraka is to be found outside the text, in the poet’s surrounding, and deciphered in dialogue with him (Hudson 58). A related problem with Baraka’s poetics from the perspective of literary criticism, which is still dominated by the modernist anti-biographical approach to text, is the inability to step outside the scope of Baraka’s personal life when talking about his literature. With Baraka, the poet’s being in the world, that is, his racially, ethnically and socially constructed self are inseparable from his poetic idiom.
If we are to acknowledge the centrality of politics for much of Baraka’s poetry, especially since 1965 when he came out as a dissident with the statement that "the Black Artist’s role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it" (Reader 169), the question remains what to make of this conjunction of the poetical and the political. Post-structuralist and particularly historicist approaches to literature have made it apparent that literary texts have never been created in a vacuum from the times and politics of their origin, a fact that renders criticism of Baraka’s fusion of poetry and politics rather parochial and dated. Baraka’s sin, however, may be in the artlessness in which he at times chose to politicize art, as an unmediated and unwrought mirror-image of his radical impulses, modeled around accessible, provocative slogans. But more importantly, what makes Baraka less palatable than other politically engaged artists is the irreverence with which he exposed and demystified this contraband, yet integral, relationship between politics and art, unmasking literature as an intrinsically political idiom, a field of multiple power struggles. It also remains to be explored why Baraka consciously chose not to detach his political being from his poetic being, especially as the craft of his previous highly stylized work proves he was versed in the principles of modernist aesthetics and well capable of satisfying mainstream criticism. It is at this juncture that we can turn to Frantz Fanon for a model on which Baraka fashioned his literary sensibilities, and a comparative analysis of Fanon’s writings and Baraka’s poetry reveals a framework that gives shape and momentum to the latter’s shifting poetics.
Baraka’s enduring tenet that poetical is political leads us on the trail of the writings of the great 20th century theorist of decolonization. The ideological intersections and convergences between the two men are especially poignant when it comes to the trajectory of the colonized writer as outlined by Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth, which largely overlaps with the stages of Baraka’s oeuvre. Thus, when Baraka “lives inside someone who hates [him]” (“An Agony. As Now”) he echoes Fanon’s psychopathology of racism, internalized by the self-loathing black subject. When Baraka instrumentalizes poetry and points “dagger poems’’ (“Black Art”) toward the racist American police, we are stirred by the vision of retributive violence of Fanon’s oppressed. When Baraka imagines a “black world”, a world “split open” and “turned upside down” (“Afrikan Revolution”) he takes on the role of Fanon’s revolutionary poet whose imperative is to spur social transformation. We discern Fanon’s dream of national literature in Baraka’s call for a “black poem” (“Black Art”), and we read Fanon’s diatribe against the young black bourgeoisie in Baraka’s “Poem for HalfWhite College Students”. When Baraka asks the black American masses to “nationfy” (“It’s Nation Time”), we once again hear Fanon extolling national consciousness as the highest form of culture. The white capitalist of Baraka’s poetry is Fanon’s colonizer imago. Where Fanon decolonized discourse, Baraka set out to decolonize the American poem. The hallmarks of Baraka’s post-Greenwich Village poetry such as African-American vernacular language, culturally evocative names, sound effects, strong rhythms, irony, collective addressee, and attention to the verbal performance of the poem were born out of Baraka’s creed of black self-determination, as much a political statement against imperialism, as a poetic revolt against the hegemony of Eurocentric standards in literature. Baraka’s militant aesthetics, thus, is akin to Audre Lorde’s conviction that “master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”, an attitude also propounded by Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth.
Decolonisation of Africa, Fanon’s single major preoccupation, had repercussions in the USA as far as it instigated the decolonization of the African-American consciousness, galvanizing black Americans to assert their racial identity with pride, to critique America’s racist power structures in politics and art, and to subvert them by forging an antithetical cultural and literary heritage freed from the burden of the Eurocentric canon. Hence, in order to salvage Baraka’s literary legacy, it is vital to navigate the wide and versatile landscape of his poetics with a keen awareness of the times and passions that informed his work, an approach which would expand the horizon of our understanding of the function and possibilities of poetry outside the ivory tower of aesthetic authority. Baraka took poetry out of that tower and catapulted it directly into the street, in an act of literary dissent. If for Fanon violence was therapeutic, regenerative and constitutive of a “new man” in the colonies (Wretched 5), then Baraka’s poetry is the site of his birth in American literature. Baraka’s poetics is an ambiguous battlefield that replicates the polarity and extremity of the colonial relationship with a view to effecting its deconstruction, in order to reverse the imperialist binary and pin the colonizer to the position of the colonized, because such reversal precedes any possibility of a future predicated on the abrogation of the binary. The poetic revolt and verbal violence of Baraka’s work provide a much needed catharsis for the reader, an act of retributive violence in verse in the function of healing the collective unconscious of the wounded black America. Baraka’s militant aesthetics, therefore, holds a preeminent place in the history of modern American literature because it is precisely in “the madness of violence” of Baraka’s poetry that the silenced black speaker recovers his voice.
- Baraka, Amiri. 1974. “Revolutionary Culture and the Future of Pan-African Culture.” Sixth Pan-African Congress. Dar es Salaam, Tansania. June 19-17, 1974.
- ——-. 1991. The Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader. Ed. William J. Harris. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.
- Bhabha, Homi. 1986. “Foreword: Remembering Fanon.” In Black Skin, White Masks. Frantz Fanon. Trans. Charles Lam Markman. London: Pluto Press.
- ——. 2004. “Foreword. Framing Fanon.” In The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press.
- Brennan, Sherry. 2003. “On the Sound of Water: Amiri Baraka’s Black Art.” African American Review 37: 299-311.
- Cherki, Alice. 2006. Frantz Fanon: A Portrait. Trans. Nadia Benabid. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
- Fanon, Frantz.  1986. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markman. London: Pluto Press.
- ——-.  2004. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press.
- Fox, Margalit. 2014. “Amiri Baraka, Polarizing Poet and Playwright, Dies at 79.” The New York Times. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/10/arts/amiri-baraka-polarizing-poet-and-playwright-dies-at-79.html?_r=0. Access: Sept. 12, 2015.
- Gwiazda, Piotr. 2004. “The Aesthetics of Politics/The Politics of Aesthetics: Amiri Baraka’s ‘Somebody Blew Up America.’” Contemporary Literature. 45. 3: 460-485.
- Harris, William J. 1985. The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic. Columbia, Missouri: Missouri University Press.
- ——-. 2015. “The Sweet and Angry Music of Amiri Baraka.” Boston Review. Available: http://bostonreview.net/poetry/william-j-harris-amiri-baraka-sos-poems. Accessed: Sept. 12, 2015.
- Hudson, Theodore, R. 1973. From LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka: The Literary Works. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.
- Lee, Ben. 2003. “Leroy Jones/Amiri Baraka and the Limits of Open Form.” African American Review 37.2-3: 371-387.
- Lewis, Ida. 1994. “Leroi Jones: An Exclusive Interview.” Conversations with Amiri Baraka. Ed. Reilly Charlie. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
- Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. New York: The Crossing.
- Sartre, Jean-Paul. 2004. “Preface.” In The Wretched of the Earth. By Frantz Fanon. New York: Grove Press.Watts, G. Jerry. 2004. Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. New York: New York UP.
- Woodard, Komozi. “Rethinking the Black Power Movement.” Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Available at: http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-black-power.html, Accessed: Sept. 12, 2015.
1 I am using the pronoun he to include both male and female gender because of the decidedly autbiographical nature of Baraka’s poetry, i.e. the frequent equation of the speaker with his person. The male pronoun is also used when imperial domination is discussed, due to the traditionally patriarchal Western power structure. Additionally, Fanon’s prototype of a colonized subject whom he discusses in The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks is also male, in lie with his phallocentric theorization and writing. ↩