A lot of people are going to be writing hagiographies of Amiri Baraka, who died on January 9, at the age of 79. A lot of other people are going to be painting him as a hateful, irredeemable anti-Semite.
The truth is that Baraka wrote some of the greatest plays and poems of the post-war era. “Dutchman,” “The Toilet,” “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” —these are transgressive and ferocious, aesthetically discomfiting in all the right ways. His history of the blues, “Blues People: Negro Music in White America,” rightly diagnosed the political realities of a music in danger of being absorbed into the meaning-sucking sponge of the entertainment industry.
It’s also true that he wrote a lot of bad poetry. At his most dogmatic, Baraka often simply ranted and spouted ideology, blunting and diminishing his talent, confusing political righteousness for aesthetic soundness.
And though some of his poetry (almost exclusively made during the late 60s and early 70s while he was under the spell of the Nation of Islam) does indeed contain shockingly anti-Semitic rhetoric, his first wife was a Jewish woman and in the 1950s and early 60s, while he was affiliated with the Beats, he published many Jewish writers in the journals he edited. By the late 70s and early 80s, he’d come to regret, and repudiate, the anti-Semitism of his Black Nationalist period.
Baraka was an angry, intellectually and politically engaged man. A supremely talented artist who sometimes made foolhardy choices, sometimes said some pretty stupid things, but more often, in both word and deed, proved himself to be dedicated to the fight for a society in which the poor and disenfranchised are allowed to live with dignity, or to live at all, to be given an alternative to the slow starvation and inevitable slip toward oblivion that is the norm in American cities. To revile and dismiss him out of hand requires one to oversimplify what he achieved both as an artist and as a provocateur. It leads to the sort of binary thinking through which complexity — and often truth — is scrubbed away, leaving us susceptible to the half-truths and manipulations of those who seek to divide and conquer.
Look at the state of our country. Look at Detroit, Camden, St. Louis, Baltimore and our countless other cities in ruins. Look at Newark, where Baraka continued to live and work long after most people had given it up for dead. He didn’t just rap the black uplift rap on the college lecture circuit. His political rhetoric wasn’t a tactic for career development. To the end, he ran his little theater in Newark, communicating primarily to, from and with his community, spurning the enticements of American-style success which might have made him much more money, but would have required him to give in to an economic and cultural conformity he couldn’t abide. He could have cashed in on his fame and gotten rich. Instead he dug deeper into the trenches and dedicated himself to the audience of poor black city folk who mattered to him. Even in the 1990s and 2000s, when he surfaced on the larger stage, he brought with him the attitudes, beliefs and experiences of a segment of society that our country as a whole was forgetting existed. If some of his statements were shockingly hateful, it’s worth noting that these sentiments were a fair record of the sentiments of his community at that time and could also be heard on any corner of any urban ghetto in America.
The proponents of American Supremacy, those with a vested interest in the perpetuation of our military-industrial might, would like nothing more than for the Jewish population of this country, which has historically played a central role in the struggle against raw and ruthless power, to forget that blacks and Jews were once on the same side, to ask first, what’s good for the Jews and to forget the question of what’s good for humanity altogether. In doing so, we’d be making the same mistake Baraka did during the years he was in thrall of the Nation of Islam.
I’m not defending Baraka’s anti-Semitic rhetoric. But I ask you, dear reader, to withhold judgment long enough to see it in the context of his long career as an artist, activist and cultural critic. I ask you to allow him to change his mind (as every engaged citizen sometimes does) and to acknowledge his accomplishments as well as his failings. I’m asking you to recognize the discomfort he inspires as a challenge to take his larger message seriously, to reconsider how far we’ve travelled since the 1950s, what’s been lost, what’s been gained, and who’s really benefited.
Allen Ginsberg forgave Baraka for his mistakes — in the days before his death, he willed much of the money he gained from selling his archives to him — and if he was good enough for Ginsberg, he was good enough for me.
Before judging Amiri Baraka too harshly, read this, “An Agony, As Now,” from 1964:
Joshua Furst, author of “The Sabotage Café” (Knopf 2007), is a contributing editor of the Forward.