I f***ed your mother
On top of a house
When I got through
She thought she was
(from “T.T. Jackson Sings,” by Amiri Baraka)
Amiri Baraka has a long and distinguished record as an unrepentant Communist and anti-Semite. His racist hate speech brought him from the margins of ’60s radicalism to the position of poet laureate of New Jersey (and the syllabus of an American Studies class at this institution). But more than anything else, he has become the thing he fears most: a profoundly uninteresting man.
Yes, we all remember when Baraka grabbed our ear and shouted:
Who knew the World Trade Center
was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers
at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
(From “Someone Blew Up America”)
He certainly had the “establishment” in a tizzy then, didn’t he? Only a poet of Baraka’s prodigious talents could turn a malicious lie into such a delicious artistic achievement. But wait, Baraka tells us that he should be read for more than mere aesthetic pleasure, impressive though it be, because he aims for “an art that is revolutionary, that will be with Malcolm X and Rob Williams, that will conk klansmen and erase racists” (Preface to “The Amiri Baraka Reader”). Klansmen are surely trembling in their hoods at his efforts. Or do they hate Jews too? Who can keep all these racists properly aligned?
When Baraka speaks at the Af-Am house today, he will bring with him a pathetic legacy of artistic impotence, and he is fully aware of it: “In the literary sense, it has always been somewhat difficult to ‘appear’ or be heard.” Surely he does not speak of blacks in general; no one can deny the outstanding contributions of black artists to music, literature, dance, etc. It is Baraka who has trouble being “heard.” Rather than confront this difficulty by honing his craft, he chooses to court controversy.
This brings us to the excerpt with which this column began. Perhaps the term “poetry” includes any form of verbal self-expression, and even the most vapid lines have merit when taken in their socio-historical-political context. But I sincerely doubt it. The lines from “T.T. Jackson Sings” don’t exactly “enlarge a solitary existence,” as Harold Bloom is fond of saying. In fact, they’re vulgar, immature and insulting to anyone who cares about poetry (but at least they rhyme). Unfortunately for Baraka, who wrote the poem in the mid-60s, the value of shock art diminished greatly as supply skyrocketed, and the bubble has long since burst. Baraka now swims in a boring sea of artists who loudly say nothing.
To be fair, Baraka occasionally demonstrates a small degree of imagination. In 1970, he said to the Pan-African Congress: “Now let us face these realities: a nigger wants to put down the Zionist and the Zionists control the radio, the television, the movies, the education, the intellectual life of the United States, the morality of the United States-Judeo-Christian ethics. The minute you condemn them publicly, you die. They will declare a war on you forever.” Someone would have to hear Baraka (and take him seriously) in order to “declare a war” on him. This is exactly what he wants, because it is the only way he can fulfill his old wish, to “be heard.”
Baraka recently told an audience at Stanford that “A skilled artist is one of the most dangerous things in the world.” Finally, we arrive at a point of agreement. Amiri Baraka ranks among our most harmless poets.
Michael Anastasio is a junior in Davenport College.