Did Author Amiri Baraka 'Remix' Who He Was?
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Switching gears now. The funeral for controversial poet and playwright, Amiri Baraka, formally known as LeRoi Jones, is this weekend. His recent death inspired many tributes but also revived a fairly intense debate about his writing and his legacy, including the charge that his work was marred by anti-Semitism, racism and misogyny. If you are not familiar with the work, we have a short clip for you where that mix of lyricism and venom was on display. This is his poem "Why is We Americans?". And this is a clip from a 2002 performance of the piece for Def Poetry Jam.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEF POETRY JAM)
AMIRI BARAKA: We is also at the end of our silence and sit down. We is at the end of being under your ignorant smell, your intentional hell. Either give us our lives or plan to forfeit your own.
MARTIN: We wanted to take a closer look at Baraka's place in American literature and culture, so we've called upon Mark Anthony Neal. He is a professor of African and African American studies at Duke University. We often turn to him to talk about cultural issues. Thanks so much for joining us once again.
MARK ANTHONY NEAL: How are you doing today, Michel?
MARTIN: Well, better now. So before we get into his life and works, why don't you tell us your first experience reading Baraka.
NEAL: Reading a preface to a 20 volume suicide note in an English composition class 30 years ago, and not seeing many other examples of African-American writers in one of these huge kind of literature collections of the time. You know, there was no African-American - no anthology of African-American literature at that point in time. And instinctively knowing he obviously must've been a black writer 'cause his name was LeRoi Jones. And that took me to the - the E8 185 section of the library, and pulling his books off the shelf, finding out who LeRoi Jones was initially. And then, of course, then being introduced to Amiri Baraka.
MARTIN: To what do you attribute his appeal? Is it about the literary works, or is it his politics, which are very appealing to some people for their very uncompromising, you know, defiance?
NEAL: I think it's both-and. And let's start with the work. I mean, this is someone who performed at a high level in terms of, you know, poetry, fiction, drama, essays. You know, his book "Blues People," there's not a person, you know, at least of my generation, that has written about music that won't say that they got serious about doing - writing about music because they read Baraka's "Blues People" - and so his ability to be successful across these multiple literary and expressive platforms.
But the other piece about Baraka, you know, that was important is that he built institutions. And particularly for the hip-hop generation, which has really all - been all about doing things for themselves, to see the examples of the black arts repertory theater, to see the examples of the Spirit House Movers and Players in Newark. He built institutions. He sustained institutions. And much like hip-hop, he remixed who he was, you know, throughout the course of a 60-year public life.
MARTIN: And part of remixing who he was, though, was leaving his first family. He was married to a white Jewish woman who was very supportive of his career. Her name is Hettie Jones. And she, actually, I think is still, you know, teaching and writing along with their two daughters. And it's reported now that this was for political reasons 'cause he found that marriage incompatible with his subsequent embrace of politics and his subsequent embrace - I understand that, you know, at one point he used to fully embrace black nationalism after Malcolm X was assassinated. I think he was a convert to Islam for a while. And so, you know, where does that fit into his legacy? How should we feel about that?
NEAL: I mean, let's be honest - I mean, there's a way in which because he is this very public and, quote-unquote, controversial figure, that we pay a lot of attention to what just might have been a bad marriage and might not have had anything to do with the politics. We know the public narrative is about, you know, he had kind of a psychic reaction to the assassination of Malcolm X and decided to give up on his previous life.
You know, he - Hettie Cohen, who she was, you know, when they got married - and, of course, they had a very productive working relationship. They had two daughters - Lisa and Kellie. And so many years later, you know, there's kind of an irony that, you know, it's not like there's not a relationship still there. Kellie Jones, who was an art historian at Columbia University, just published a book about a year ago called "EyeMinded." And her father, Amiri Baraka, contributed to that volume, you know, as did her mother Hettie Jones and her husband Guthrie Ramsey and her sister Lisa Jones. You know...
MARTIN: Interesting point. So you're saying that, you know what, a lot of marriages in this country dissolve for all kinds of reasons, and...
MARTIN: ...We don't necessarily impute. Well, let me speak - let me speak to you, though, because we have so many things to cover. This is such a long career and so many issues that, you know, I apologize for that. But there's this one incident - I think that this might be all some people know about Baraka - and that was, he was the first and last poet laureate of New Jersey. And that position was dissolved after his poem "Somebody Blew up America," which, among other things, implied that there was Israeli involvement in the September 11 attacks. I'll just play a short clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF POEM READING)
BARAKA: Who knew the World Trade Center was going to get bombed? Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day? Why did Sharon stay away? Who? Who? Who? Who? Who? Who?
MARTIN: You know, he was - to the end of his days, he was unapologetic about that. Although it's interesting that earlier in his career, he did write a piece called "Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite" where he renounced his own - what he acknowledges was kind of an anti-Semitic strain in his earlier works. But he never walked away from this. And I just am interested in your perception of this, your reaction to this.
NEAL: You know, Baraka never stopped being a provocateur. And he is, in fact, just asking questions. You know, there were wrappers at the time, you know, that raised those same kind of questions about what happened. And...
MARTIN: Yeah, but the 4,000 Israeli workers being told to stay away. I mean, I think that most people would say that that's manifestly ridiculous and that many, many Jewish people died and - on this - they died. They did. That's a fact. So - so...
NEAL: Does that mean he made a - had a moment of questionable expression, or does that mean that he's an anti-Semite? Of course, you know, there's a whole history of Baraka writings that have come up around this question of anti-Semitism. When you look at Baraka's work in the 1960s, for instance, you know, his views and his critiques of Jewish-Americans fall pretty much in line with what we were seeing in the black left at the time. You're hearing the same critiques from Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik, El-Shabazz. You're hearing these critiques from the Nation of Islam. There's always been some questions even around issues of homophobia and misogyny in his work that really are the product of who we were as a country in that period of time.
We're really attempting to apply, what I think, is 21st-century, post-racial, you know, political correctness on the world that, you know, folks had to live and survive 50 years ago. And that doesn't excuse him for these kind of critiques. But again, he is, in that particular poem, "Somebody Blew Up America," you know, raising questions about what exactly happened on 9/11. I think the reality is that if that line had not been in the piece, he still would've faced the same kind of criticism because he was raising these questions in general whether or not it was taken - it took on a kind of feeling of anti-Semitism or not.
MARTIN: Tell us about in the - we have about a little under two minutes left. So I would like to hear as much as you can tell us in that time about what you think his legacy will be. Are people still, you know, reading him? Are there other artists working today who you think have inherited his mantle of, you know, both provocateur and high literary merit?
NEAL: There's a scholar by the name of Howard Ramsey (ph) that just published a piece about the hundred obituaries and tributes to Amiri Baraka that have shown up on the web in the last week or so. You know, Baraka himself talked, in talking about Miles Davis, said, you know, he can't imagine there wasn't an artist in America that had not created something while listening, you know, to Miles Davis. I don't think there are any rappers, fiction writers, poets, dramatists, scholars, you know - there's so many who will claim that, you know, they do what they do because at some point they read or listened to Baraka. I think in many ways, his legacy - and he really is a direct link between that black arts generation and the hip-hop generation, particularly for some of the older folks within the hip-hop generation.
I mean, this is someone who recorded, you know, with The Roots as recently as a decade ago. So I think that legacy will only continue. And because there's been so much of a focus on his career, you know, hopefully younger folks will go back and actually look at the work, which, again, is pretty astounding, right. This is the man, you know, for all his critiques of being somehow outside of the pocket of American society, he in fact won two American Book Awards.
MARTIN: And an Obie for one of his most famous works...
MARTIN: ..."The Dutchman."
NEAL: "Dutchmen," right.
MARTIN: Yeah. That was Professor Mark Anthony Neal. He's a professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. And he was kind enough to join us from a studio there. Professor Neal, thank you so much for speaking with us.
NEAL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.