(On 19 October, 2013, Amiri Baraka visited the Cape Ann Museum. This is the text of the welcome given to him by the poet, novelist and translator, Ammiel Alcalay.)
If performance, image, object and sound-making are forms of knowledge, then what we now call art gives a unique view of how things in the world are or are not responded to.
In 1944, the great Martinican poet Aimé Césaire wrote “Poetic knowledge is born in the great silence of scientific knowledge” AND “what presides over the poem is not the most lucid intelligence, the sharpest sensibility or the subtlest feelings, but experience as a whole.”
That same year, Césaire’s student, Frantz Fanon, perhaps aspiring to also become a writer, found himself in Algeria as a French soldier, and was horrified by what he experienced; it would lead him to become one of the 20th century’s most innovative psychiatrists, its most important theorist of race and colonization, and an Algerian revolutionary.
On this side of the Atlantic, in the only hemisphere so thoroughly dispossessed that, up until very recently, not one single state used a native language officially, Bebop had already come into being, a phenomenon that Jack Kerouac called “the language of America’s inevitable Africa” expressing the “enormity of a new world philosophy.”
In 1944 Kerouac met Allen Ginsberg and poet Robert Duncan published “The Homosexual in Society,” announcing a new doctrine of human liberation that would also insure his continued UN-recognition as one of the century’s greatest poets. In 1944, alerted to changes in US policy in which Nazis and war criminals got filtered through the OSS and State Department to become key policy makers and scientists, Charles Olson resigned from his post at the office of War Information in the Roosevelt Administration to become, of all things, a poet.
Just some months before that, in a trial in Alabama over his status as a conscientious objector, Herman Poole Blount, known as Sonny, and later Sun Ra, did the unthinkable and unheard of: he told a white judge, in the deep south, that if he was forced to learn how to kill “he would use that skill without prejudice, and kill one of his own captains or generals first. The judge said: ‘I’ve never seen a nigger like you before,’ to which Sonny replied, ‘No, and you never will again,’ a response that immediately landed him in jail.” His psychiatric report echoed those of Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and so many others, in which he was described “as a psychopathic personality,” but also as a “‘well-educated colored intellectual’” who was subject to neurotic depression and sexual perversion.”1
These are the over and undercurrents of the world Amiri Baraka grew up in. Born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, NJ (where his son Ras now runs for Mayor), in 1934, Baraka’s importance and multiple legacies are truly mammoth.
In a review of a book about Billy the Kid, Charles Olson wrote:
“what strikes one about the history of sd states, both as it has been converted into story and as there are those who are always looking for it to reappear as art — what has hit me, is, that it does stay, unrelieved.”
This sense of the “unrelieved” and the pressure that brings to bear on what poet Ed Dorn called “this permissive asylum,” is enormous, and we know that the past cannot simply disappear. Given the circumstances of destroyed languages and peoples, slavery, and layered diasporas, we have a human, political, and cultural amalgam on this continent that is as dense and complicated as any the world has ever known.
The explosion of expression following World War II — Bebop, Abstract Expressionism, the New American Poetries, the Black Arts Movement, Free Jazz, Afro-Futurism and a host of other groupings and labels — is a massive response to this complexity, and represents an era of creativity that measures up to any known age of accomplishment we can think of. At the same time—facing the academic, ideological, and political straightjackets of the Cold War—these artists were first and foremost thinkers, and their work constitutes a vast realm of hardly explored concepts about the world we actually live in.
Amiri Baraka is one of a handful of the remaining key representatives of this era, and his personal, artistic, and political life cuts through almost every significant intersection of the age. There are no other living American writers able to traverse the traditional generic trio of poetry, prose, and drama, then move into the realms of essay, criticism, autobiography, and scholarship, while making an authoritative mark in each form. In fact, if we take the great British scholar Gordon Brotherston’s definition “that the prime function of a classical text is to construct political space and anchor historical continuity,” then Amiri Baraka is one of our truly CLASSICAL writers.
His disruptive and political practice refuses to conform to style or manner, allowing imagination to roam between the placard and the eulogy, between eyewitness reports stating facts and cosmic journeys reinstating the kinship of souls. He has both been “anchoring historical continuity” and redrawing the political boundaries of time and space, first in Newark, New Jersey, then in New Ark, out and gone, an otherworldly place through which he channels radio shows, movies, street banter, memories, diatribe, drama, scholarly study, fable, fiction, science fiction, investigative poetics, calculated public rhetoric, and on-the- spot reporting. He is a fantastic witness both to the astonishing un-reality of the daily real and an example of what can be done to answer it.
He has constantly exposed himself and his ideas to public scrutiny, even attack, opening a window into participation in the amalgamation of selves and ideas that form the creative, political subject. Amiri’s example has served as a constant reminder that such selves, ideas, forms, even communities, are won through struggle and confrontation with oneself and the world. They are not cheaply packaged and exchangeable things to pick up or drop for personal gain or according to dictates of fashion. Finally, though, this clarity of purpose rests in a stance, a position, a place one has to come to in consciousness and over which there can be no negotiation. The visibility of such a stance, bound to a real historical context, is itself a call to action, to activate those parts of one’s own consciousness and meet such a challenge in like terms. In recent years, Amiri has been quite explicit about the need to emphasize and carry on his diverse legacies. He has been extraordinarily generous in working with the Lost & Found Project; this began with a small collection of letters between him and Ed Dorn. Most recently, Amiri has lent his support to Il Gruppo, a gathering of writers initially convened to debunk a recent book claiming that Charles Olson was an exemplar of US imperialism, and that “Projective Verse” was based on a military paradigm. Amiri actually published “Projective Verse,” so if Olson is a big imperialist, perhaps, by association, Amiri is a small one. Without further ado, let’s give it up for Amiri Baraka.
[APPLAUSE, which should continue…]
1. John F. Szwed, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998), p. 44, 46.