On Amiri Baracka: Thought Policeman

Writers Seminar at the Atlanta Black Arts Festival August 1994



Playthell, Sonya Sanchez, and Baraka circa 1994


 RecentlyI received a phone call from my good buddy and former colleague at the University Massachusetts, Mike Thelwell, a distinguished writer and Professor of literature, who told me that Amiri Baraka had just given a lecture at a Conference on Art and Politics in the Age of Martin Luther King, which was in session at Georgetown University in Washington. 

Mike told me that Baraka had proclaimed to this august congregation of genteel scholars and artist: “The New York critic Playthell Benjamin does not believe that art has a role in politics.”Given the concerns and priorities, indeed the raison d’etre of the conference, this declaration was intended as a dis.   

What Baraka was referring to was a 1994 column I wrote when I was an Editorial Page columnist for the New York Daily News.   Titled “Art Must Obey Inner Voice, Not Politics,” the commentary argued that all great art is an honest reflection of the unfettered vision of the artists, and mere politicians must never be allowed to subvert that process in order to use their art as propaganda for the politician’s vision of reality.

The genesis of my commentary – which was his ridiculous antics at an important international festival of Pan-African artists –  and the portrait of Baraka it conveys, explains why he was so upset about it.  But all I did was report his behavior – which was a colossal pain in the ass for everybody, as the column reprinted below will show – so if he looked like a pugnacious buffoon it was entirely his own doing.  I sure didn’t tell no lies on him!

As one who knew Amiri Baraka back when he was Leroi Jones, a master word sorcerer who inspired a movement with performances of his revolutionary verse, it is painful to witness what he has become – a sad and angry old man desperately trying to even scores by scandalizing the names and misrepresenting the ideas of his intellectual adversaries.

As a founding member of the Revolutionary Action Movement – along with Max Stanford and Don Freeman – I was around when the Spirit House Movers, under the spiritual and artistic guidance of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka,electrified audiences with songs that celebrated the strength and beauty of black people and fortified us for the fight.

I remember sitting in Philly smoking wisdom weed with my good buddy Larry Neal, another conjurer of redemption songs, when he dreamed of coming up to New York and meeting the great Leroi Jones, this bad brother from Sarah Vaughn’s home town who was creating a new art with the spoken word, an art that celebrated our black selves with no apology.

And I was on the scene in Harlem when it was the incubator of the Black Arts movement, with the Juju music of the Milford Graves/ Don Pullen Duet warming up the audience for the verbal magicians that painted brave new worlds in which we could envision a future where the revolutionary masses of the Bandung World would drive the white devils into the sea: “Black people! Black people!  Black people!…white people”  brother Baraka chanted to our delight. 

 Askia and Sonya

Askia and sonya sanchez

They be Word Sorcerers!

Like all the other young seekers of wisdom and truth I basked in the beauty of their inspired words – Yusef Rachman, Askia Muhammad Toure, Calvin Hernton, Larry Neal, et al –as they lifted us to astral planes with the power of their poetry.  I believed it was an art that could move the masses and change the world.  In these days – Larry Neal called them “Divine Days” – Harlem enjoyed an embarrassment of cultural riches. Unique talents were everywhere because just like the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s gifted black folk came from all over the Pan-African world to get in on the action and find their voices.

Max and AbbyMax&abbey

  The First couple of the Blacks Arts Movement!

Yet the truth be told the pivotal figures in the birth of the Black Arts Movement were native New Yorkers: Cecil and Ronnie Braithwaite – who evolved into Elombe and Kwame Brath  and remain cultural warriors in the field as I write – and Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, the first couple of the movement, who together founded The African Jazz Art Society in 1958.

This organization foreshadowed the cultural developments of the Sixties, and their Album “We Insist: Freedom Now”   Set the standard for revolutionary black art.  At that time Baraka was still Leroi Jones – whom his Jewish wife Hettie Cohen describes in her revealing book, How I Became Hettie Jones, as a nice middle class Negro from Newark who was well liked in the white beatnik milieu of Greenwich Village.

   Hettie Jones

Hettie Cohen

 Baraka’s first wife and Mother of his talented daughters

I think that anyone wishing to understand this complex, fascinating and enigmatic poet should read Hettie’s book.  I found it trustworthy because it is surprisingly free of rancor from someone who has legitimate cause for anger – considering that LeRoi had cavalierly abandoned her and their two daughters once he was bitten with the black nationalist bug and decided he needed a black wife, then quit the lily white downtown environs of Greenwich Vilage for the black, brown and beige cityscape of Harlem.

Hettie calmly describes how she had developed a hatred for racism when she attended college in Virginia, and how when the Civil Rights Movement began she and “Roi” watched the demonstrations together on TV and were equally outraged at the behavior of the savage southern whites.

She also describes how when “Roi’s” plays began to become popular among black college students he started going to performances without her. She also describes in moving detail how she watched him as he began telling people that his popular play Slave was autobiographical; which was a blatant lie!

Hettie also paints a compelling portrait of “Roi’s” central role in the development of the literature of the “Beat Generation” and the emergence of the distinguished Jazz critic Martin Williams, because he edited a journal that published them all.   And finally she tells a bizarre tale about sitting at a wine and cheese book party in the Village on Sunday afternoon, a celebration of the publication of his book The System of Dante’s Hell, with their white avant garde artsy fartsy down town crowd on the day Malcom X was assassinated.

Suddenly a car pulled up and some somber looking black guys wearing sun shades got out and came over to Roi, she recalls, and announced that Brother Malcolm had been assassinated and bade him come with them.  He left with them and that was the end for her.

Then there is also the revealing portrait of Leroi Jones, the Village Beatnik poet evolving into a revolutionary, in the critical assessments written by Harold Cruse in The Crisis Of The Negro Intellectual, a work the distinguished and innovative historian Christopher Lash calls “a masterpiece of Twentieth Century criticism” in his thoughtful and provocative book The Agony of the American Left.

Here Cruse evaluates Baraka at various stages of his development.  First there was Cruse’s appraisal of his skills as a dramatist, and where he stood among the black Playwrights of the early Sixties.  Addressing Baraka’s first success on the New York stage, Dutchman, Cruse, who had previously dismissed Lorraine Hansberry’s much celebrated Broadway debut A Raison in the Sun as lightweight melodrama, writes “What passes for new drama is but glorified soap opera about domestic conformity – the ‘best face forward’ evasion of the critical facts about Negro inner-group class conflict – or else, the 1930’s protest message revamped for the 1960’s.”

Harold goes on the explain how “Leroi Jones managed to break new ground in Dutchman, but even there a question remains about the meaning of the play’s shock-symbolism.”  In other words Cruse liked Baraka’s willingness to break the shackles of tradition – as shallow as that tradition was – and break new ground; yet he found the message of his art confused.

 Harold Cruse

 OBIT Harold Cruse

The Premiere Theorist and Critic Of the Black Liberation Struggle 

 Later Cruse would look at the way black intellectuals interpreted jazz and the plight of the jazz musician, and offer his appraisal of Baraka’s magnum opus as a music critic. “The Negro creative intellectuals, the literary and cultural civil righters, supposedly understand and appreciate Jazz music.  But even Leroi Jones, whose book Blues People is an important critical landmark in the analysis and interpretation of Jazz in terms of a social art, almost completely passed over the 1920’s.”

Pointing out the shortcomings of Blues People, Cruse noted: “He did not deal at all with those first attacks on Negro jazz and the ‘damming-with-faint-praise’ criticisms of Seldes and others.  Jones deals adequately with the evolution of Jazz styles (i.e., the content of jazz and jazz styles and blues modes of expression), but not the social structure (the nature of the cultural apparatus to which Negro jazz and its artist are subordinated)”

Ah, but we should be careful what we wish for, because  that attitude would eventually change once Baraka acquired what he believes to be a “science of society” that explains how everything, even artistic production, is determined by one’s relationship to the “forces of production;” which  defines one’s “class consciousness” and  world view.  The claim Marxist ideologues  make for Marxism rivals the claims theoretical physicist make for a “Unified Field Theory,” except they have never been able to develop one!

Yet through his many incarnations – as beatnik poet, racial assimilationist, public intellectual, revolutionary Black Nationalist, Marxist ideologue etc – Leroi Jones has remained essentially an artist.  The distinguished Afro-American historian and literary critic Wilson Jeremiah Moses paints a compelling cameo of Baraka the artist in his book The Wings of Ethiopia; a remarkable combination of personal reflection and broad scholarship by one of our nation’s most learned minds.

The reigning authority on the history of Black Nationalism in America, Moses looks at the turbulent Sixties in an interpretive essay titled Rediscovering Black Nationalism in the 1960’s.   “Of all the figures associated with Black Nationalism in the 1960’s,” he writes “there is, perhaps, no one who symbolizes better than Amiri Baraka the movement’s continuity with the assimilationist patterns of the nineteenth century.”

Professor Moses describes Baraka thusly: “Half mad, half visionary, always erratically individualistic and egotistical, Baraka has faithfully acted out the traditional role expected of the artist in America.  His erratic genius, emotional virility, naïve zeal, and boundless energy make him the archetypical artist – as artists are conceived here in the west…We want to see ‘flashing eyes and floating hair,’  and we don’t believe anyone is an artists until he gives us reason to ‘close our eyes with holy dread.’”

 Well, Brother Baraka has given us many reasons for holy dread after he dramatically exchanged Jesus for Marx and found a new religion.  After that revelatory event we were even commanded to evaluate the cosmic spiritual musings of John Coltrane by some spurious Marxist critique of art, – a tendency from which the great traditions of Chinese art are still struggling to recover.

The critical lesson to be learned from the Chinese experience is that the willful employment of their art in service to political struggle by activist artist, such as “The Great Helmsman’s” use of poetry to raise the morale of his troops on the amazing “Long March,” during the arduous days of the Red Army’s attempt to seize power through protracted revolutionary war, is one thing; the use of state power to suppress or dictate artistic expression based on political criteria is quite another.

I applaud the former with deafening decibels and I reject the latter unequivocally!   In my youth I read with rapture Mao’s Lectures at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, and once made it my bible on matters of artistic production and the role of the artist – and thus the basis of my criticism of art.  Until I discovered that it had but litle to do with the political and cultural reality of blacks living in the United States.

 Chairman Mao: The Great Helmsman

 Mao the Helmsman

 Amiri Baracka misapplies his Lessons On Art

When I was a child I thought as a child, but now I’m and old man and I have long ago put away childish things.  We are not now, nor have we ever been, in a revolutionary war in this country!   Recognition of this fact is the minimal essential proposition on which I and the survivors of the black radical struggles of the Sixties must agree in order to continue this discussion with any hope of making sense.

Hence the thoughtful observer must learn the real lessons about the policy of the Chinese government toward art and artist during The Great Cultural Revolution – especially what it means for the African American artist today.  

In order to recognize the dimensions of this disaster for the Chinese artistic community it is enough to simply witness Chang Ching, Mao Tse Tung’s wife and leader of the notorious “Gang of Four,” charging the conductor’s podium during a rehearsal of the Peking Symphony Orchestra and snatching the baton out of the conductor’s hand, piously announcing that she will teach them how to make “revolutionary music!”

A sonic nightmare ensued that was a vivid sound portrait of the chaos and confusion that plagued Chinese society during the tragic misstep that was the Cultural Revolution.  Although their efforts were well intended, as Baraka no doubt is, a sincere effort to advance the political revolution using culture as a vehicle, I cannot imagine a more graphic illustration of the dangers of placing politics over aesthetics in matters of art.

It is especially dangerous if a government – which has all of the means of persuasion and coercion already in their hands, including a monopoly over the use of organized violence – also insist that art must serve the politics of the state or political party.

Such an arrangement will inevitably result in crass philistines ignorant of art dictating to gifted and perceptive artist what their work should be about.  Which almost always has to do with the pedestrian concerns of those in power who wish to remain in power; purely artistic concerns be damned!

This tendency, as the gentle reader will discover when they read my commentary on politics and art Amiri Baraka was referring to, which is posted right below this essay, was my concern.  And it is a real concern, since this is what has happened everywhere in the world where the politicians who run governments have dictated what the proper role of art is; it doesn’t matter a fig whether the government is right or left in its ideology.

Ideologues are always convinced that their vision of the world is based in reality and everyone else is deluded or “counter-revolutionary,” hence dictatorships of the right and left behave remarkably alike in the ways they seek to exercise total control over their citizenry. That’s why the German Nazi’s and the Russian Communists both held positions on Jazz that were virtually indistinguishable.

This is not to say that there were no distinctions, but it was a distinction without a difference since both concluded that jazz was the sound of a civilization in decay!  And so have the Muslim fundamentalists; in fact the Ayatollah banned all but martial music after the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.  This should be enough to make the thoughtful observer wary of those who preach the gospel of art serving politics – especially jazz lovers!



Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

October 31, 2009


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