In 1990, Amiri Baraka was denied tenure by the English department of Rutgers University. An aging polemicist unable to find a publisher for his recent work, Baraka was hardly a promising academic with a bright future ahead of him. But instead of taking the rejection in stride, he characteristically decided to fight the decision, and spewed vitriol at the tenure committee. "The power of these Ivy League Goebbels can flaunt, dismiss, intimidate and defraud the popular will," Baraka charged. "We must unmask these powerful Klansmen. These enemies of academic freedom, people's democracy and Pan American culture must not be allowed to prevail. Their intellectual presence makes a stink across the campus like the corpses of rotting Nazis." This occasion was not Baraka's first--or most intense--foray into the world of inflammatory rhetoric. Indeed, this hyperbolic attack was a sign of progress for Baraka, as he cast Nazis, rather than Jews, as the villains.
More than for any single work or movement, though, Baraka is remembered for his inexhaustible and unmatched passion for berating Whitey. When Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were killed along with James Chaney in Mississippi, Jones remarked that "those white boys were only seeking to assuage their own leaking consciences." By contrast, Malcolm X--not exactly a racial moderate--observed about the murders that "I've come to the conclusion that anyone who will fight not for us but with us is my brother." When a white college student tracked Malcolm down in Harlem and asked what she could do to help blacks, he answered, "Nothing"; but this harsh (and wildly untrue) comment pales in contrast to Baraka's suggestion: "A woman asked me in all earnestness, couldn't any whites help? I said, 'You can help by dying. You are a cancer. You can help the world's people with your death.'"
Never one to allow logic to get in the way of demagoguery, Baraka declared in 1967 that blacks who listen to European classical music are traitors to the cause. Some self-styled black nationalists, Baraka said, were "schizophrenic" and too "connected up with white culture. They will be digging Mozart more than James Brown. If all of that shit--Mozart, Beethoven, all of it--if it has to be burned now for the liberation of our people, it should be burned up the next minute." And he did not limit his outbursts to public appearances. Hysteria tricked out as analysis has long been a central element of his written work.
Watts dates the beginning of Baraka's decline around 1970, with It's Nation Time and In Our Terribleness. Those books, to be sure, are dreadful. Yet Baraka's story is not one of artistic decline. He began low. His literary career is one of constantly accelerating race-baiting. While he demonstrated a penchant for attracting media attention, Baraka was never the virtuoso that Watts portrays. In the roiling racial dynamics of the late 1960s and the early 1970s, critics mistook Baraka's anger for eloquence; but the main reason to read Baraka is not to see how much the artist has changed, but to see how much the times have changed.
This raises just one question: who in hell thought it was a good idea to appoint Baraka as New Jersey's Poet Laureate? Well, we have the answer to that, from the New York Times:
Mr. Baraka was selected by a committee convened by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities and the State Council on the Arts. His name was forwarded to the governor, who signed a proclamation on Aug. 28 giving him a two-year, $10,000 appointment "to promote and encourage poetry."
Gerald Stern, the state's first laureate and a member of the selection committee, said he pushed for Mr. Baraka partly because "I thought it was important for the black community to get recognition."
I would agree with that last statement, if only I had some clue what it meant. Apparently Amiri Baraka is "the black community." The whole black community.
Okay, I lied. It raises another question: if a white poet laureate had used racial slurs in the course of his duties, how long would it take the state to figure out a way to replace him? A few hours, max? posted by David Nieporent at 9/29/2002 05:51:00 AM |