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The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones

By Amiri Baraka

Commentary by Rudolph Lewis

 

 

Books by Amiri Baraka

Tales of the Out & the Gone  / The Essence of Reparations / Somebody Blew Up America & Other Poems  / Blues People

 Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka / Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones / Black Music

*   *   *   *   *

 

Preface

to

 The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones

For me being here has always been a condition of struggle and, hopefully, growth. These are attempts to sum up my life, before having lived it all. Attempts to "make sense" where it has been difficult to see any sense.

 

Steps

of a life

turns

under the sun

& the sun

turns &

burns &

finally one last day

goes

out

Its history

is a tail

Tales for

remembering

words for understanding

 

A long way (opens)

Back then &

there

we see now

again

To know

Seeing

& understand

Our

Being

Amiri Baraka

from The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones

 

Introduction to Commentary

The comments below were written over a two-week period (May 25June 9 2006). It was  a spontaneous response to the reading of Amiri Baraka's  Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka (1984).They are rather half intelligent in that the comments were written without knowing the entire book, only that which had been read to a point. Of course, I was somewhat informed by a little history of Baraka's life and career and the times about which he was writing. For instance, I did not know that the the book would only cover the first 40 years of his life (1934-1974). My harsh criticism gradually grows into great admiration at what he had achieved in the writing about his life and what he had achieved by his personal and public struggles.

I shared this reading with those in my aol email address book. I received a number of responses, maybe five out of 100 or so persons who received the comments. These five or so however were helpful. For they let me know that I was doing something important and worthwhile and that I was indeed getting through and that others like myself had not read Baraka's  Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, and that they had made a decision also to read the work.

Some of my responses are of a very personal nature, concerning what I was going through that particular day and at times, as stated above, are not very informed responses. What makes this commentary work, I suspect, is its honesty and earnestness, that is, an attempt to appreciate truly a work that I had neglected though I knew that the work had its value. I ended the book with a great admiration and love for Baraka, primarily because his writing taken in the whole was so extraordinary and that he was so honest and open about his own shortcomings, as honest probably as anyone can be without crucifying the self. Of course, even in telling the truth we are filled with half truths. His admiration and love for his second wife I found quite glorious and enviable.

I sent these commentaries out with a poem. Here I have not included the poems. I have decided however to retain the title of the poems as subsection headings. The poems, at least a couple, might have been influenced somewhat by the daily readings, like the Malcolm and the Five Spot poems. But, on the whole, the poems are a response to the settings in which the poems were read, that is, the environs of Jerusalem, the village in which I am now residing in southeastern Virginia.

Minor changes have been made. But the commentaries retain their immediacy.  Rudy

Shedding from the Inside (5/25)

The last few days I have been reading Baraka's  Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka . I have had it since 1990, but have just got around to it. It's that cultural lag they talked about when I was an undergraduate at Morgan State College. It's an intriguing work, a hip black urban view of black life. I did not grow up in the city but rather on a small farm. Of course, country (the South) does not come out well in these urban narratives. Of course, the ethnic conflicts in Newark Baraka reports were totally absent in my own Virginia childhood. His was primarily ties to/conflicts with Italians. Mine was altogether an Anglo world. I did not come into social contact with whites until I was 20.

I found of interest especially his recount of life at Howard University fascinating. I wonder did they have that as one of the topics at the recent BAM conference at Howard months ago. I doubt it. Myself, I've never been part of a club, a fraternity at a black college. So all the taunts and bullshit of such societies I missed. Though I finished the mandatory two years of ROTC at Morgan State College I never stayed at a black school long enough to get into the on-campus hierarchical lifestyles and perspectives of black life. What Baraka calls the yellow aspirations. 

Also the preceding chapter of "Black Brown Yellow White" was also exceedingly moving; with it he combines a corresponding class analysis. Though I was aware of colorism from a country perspective, we were all rather dirt poor (class was rather flat—no dentists, doctors, lawyers types) so it did not have the intense effect that he describes on me, though my wife of a few years was indeed yellow and I probably had my share of yellow girlfriends. I am uncertain what can be read into that.

I am now with him in Greenwich Village, well, the Lower East Side.

He has just gotten his first apartment after being forced out the Air Force while in Puerto Rico. He had started a self-education of the Moderns, writing poetry, keeping a journal, wanting to be a poet. He had been reading the Partisan Review and was thus accused of being a Commie. 

Throughout there is the interlacing of his knowledge of music. I find it quite amazing his teenage knowledge of jazz music of Bird and Dizzy and Monk. But maybe that's the advantage of his urban black life. And of having studied the trumpet and tuba.

From the Outlands of Jerusalem (5/26)

The people who talk most always report in terms of their own limited class, racial, religious, gender, and age perspectives.   They truly believe themselves to be telling the truth—and they are, as far as that goes.     WM

I’m still with Baraka in the Village. This may be the longest chapter in the  Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. He is faraway from being “Leroy.” He has for sometime now been “LeRoi.” And he’s in the Village searching blind, and in a sense trying to make a name as a writer, as an intellectual who knows what is happening. I can relate to that experience, though I visited only briefly the Village in 69 during one of the last SNCC meetings before Che and Featherstone met their demise outside the Belair Courthouse in a car bombing before the Rap Brown trial could get started.  My “Village” became Charles Village up near Hopkins University in Baltimore.

This chapter has a different tone than all the previous chapters. Baraka here is at his most serious. For it relates, lays the grounding for some assertions and explaining that are sure to come, as the sun out of the East. I like his telling of this experience because it reminds me of my own training as a librarian and what it did for me and the work I now try to do. Baraka quits a job and he had no money. He wanted to be free and he kinda threw himself in midair and without money (to pay rent, buy food) in New York. He lived by his wits. But a situation came through—a job at The Record Trader (271 Sullivan Street). There, as a clerk, sending off records, he met Martin William, Nat Hentoff, Dan Morgenstern and other “astute” white music critics. And white women.

He “studied bands and players from different periods, labels and trends.” He “got to know the key personalities in the different periods of jazz” and “began to understand when and how the music changed.” In farther “deeper research,” later, he would assert “why it changed,” which he believes is “the most important question.”

 In a similar position at Jake the Snake, Baraka describes his experience:

Jake had literally thousands of records in his cellar which he sold to collectors by mail all over the world. It was my job to put these records in alphabetical order. These jobs were like graduate school. . . . From both jobs I gained not only a great deal of knowledge but also a respectable collection of traditional jazz and swing and blues

But this chapter is about much more than music training. As I said it’s a great chapter and I am only about half way through. There is also his relationship with Tim Posten and white women and his founding of Zazen. There’s his letter to Ginsburg on toilet tissue and Ginsburg’s answer on tissue. Posten was surreal, cynical, funny—a real poet, that is, one who knows “what it was he wanted to say.” Baraka handles with much grace and delicacy his relationship with his first wife Nellie Kohn. He speaks admiringly of Langston Hughes: “I even caught Langston reading with Mingus at new club called The Five Spot.” He mentions the publication of his poem “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.” This chapter also has its hilarious moments.

In short, it is a pleasure getting to know the 23/24 year old LeRoi  Jones. . . .

Showdown at The Five Spot (5/28)

You know how family can "push." JK

I am still reading Baraka's  Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka.  I read it like Henry Miller read Proust. Or Ellison Joyce. You know that it's sense when it all seems so much nonsense. That there's art even in its unfamiliarity. It speaks to the soul of manto what is "in our hearts, something open and bright." Of something beyond the "comaraderie of smugness and elitist hedonism," of something in "the real world."

I'm still wrestling with John Edgar Tidwell's distinction, in his intro to Frank Marshall Davis'  Livin' The Blues, between a memoir and an autobiography. I am still in the Village section of Baraka's retelling, which has much to do with music and everything else, as if there was no distinction between the sounds and the rest of our lives.

What I realized here is that Baraka  is not writing his autobiography but rather he has written. It's a fine distinction. So I am not sure who the "I" really is in this work. For instance, in explaining why in his Zazen 4, there is only "the one colored guy," poet in that issue, namely, LeRoi Jones. Baraka quotes the response of a National Book Award rep on why no blacks appeared on their list: "We were looking for quality literature and that is what we got." In 1957 there were no quality black poets other than LeRoi? To that question Baraka (or is it Leee Royyy) who says, "Amen."

I do not think nevertheless a memoir tells all. And Baraka tells more than he has to. Like his idiotic near overdose on cocaine. Or his being beaten down in the streets by white thugs and his holding them off with a switchblade knife like a crazed nigga. Or his duking it out with Mingus at The Five Spot as a result of something he had written on music. Or his screwing several women at the same time and making a baby he doesn't claim. And on a white woman, a co-editor. He tosses in numerous scenes and events seemingly disconnected to anything other than his desire to report everything, as it happened.

In any event, no review of a writer's work can answer the obvious questions to every reader. What is true and not true. Even LeRoi (or is it Baraka?) had to reread his play Dutchmen, he says, again, to understand what everybody else (at least what the reviewers) were reading: "Shit, and it was only that crazy Dolly I'd dressed up and set in motion and some symbols from out of my life."

One wonders which LeRoi/Baraka is being courted today when he's invited to speak and he's called "Baba," "Elder" and the like. Do those words include those moments when he was speedballing, chippying, screwing around and all the other little hedonist acts that were interspersed between the Blues People and the Dead Lecturer. All of which he reveals in the Village section of his  Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. He cannot be hanged, at this stage, on the cross of respectability.

At best what can be said is that LeRoi Jones was a man who endeavored to meet the challenges of life as they came, beyond the forms and characters they presented themselves. He was continually reinventing himself. And in many instances, he won, literarily, and in some manner we all are the beneficiaries of that work.

Aunt Oprah Incorporated (5/28)

Last night, on returning from Richmond, I try to put my cat up for safety sake. He ran away as if it were a game. Last night, a black dog ate its food. I've tried to resume my reading near the woodshed, Baraka's  Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. I managed only one sentence  on page 188: "I was at Barbara Teer's house when she married Godfrey Cambridge." This morning, I've called his name over and over, Bobo. It seems my cat is missing. If he never returns I've written this poem in remembrance.

Malcolm Is Dead! (5/29)

I've finished the Village section of Baraka's Autobiography. He has moved to Harlem (130th Street) and, essential, he has found himself a black girl friend. Downtown couldn't hold him he had become too militant: black guys with white wives and girl friends had begun to threaten him while packing heat, that is, there were brothers ready to kill to hold onto their white girlfriends and wives. Roi is giving up his familyhis Jewish wife and two daughtersfor the Revolution.

Dutchman turned his life around and created, seemingly, a new man. He was more militant than Malcolm. Of course, Malcolm was already in Harlem, and no white wife. So as slaves used to say, Roi had a heavier row to hoe. Now on to Black Arts.

In the Shadow of the Hawk (5/30)

I am in the Black Arts section of Baraka's  Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. BARTS worked excellently the summer of 1965. There's a thorn, however, in the midst of beauty, sometimes of our own making, it seems, that cannot be escaped. Led by LeRoi Jones, they had great programs running all over Harlem.

"Bringing art to the people, black art to black people, and getting paid for doing it was sweet," recalls Baraka. Of course, all this was done under the guise of post-Malcolm revolutionary activity.

"We brought paintings to the street with outdoor art exhibitions. . . . We brought new music out in the streets, on play streets, vacant lots, playgrounds, parks. . . . We brought drama out in the street as well. . . . We brought street corner poetry readings, moving the poet by truck from site to site." Much of this was accomplished with "government funds" (211-212). 

Then Sargent Shriver attempts to visit BARTS (The Black Arts Repertory Theater/School). Roi refused his entrance with "Fuck Shriver."

Then Baraka writes: "we were too honest and too naive for our own good. . . . We talked revolution because we meant it; we hooked up programs of revolutionary and progressive black art because we knew our people needed them, but we had not scienced out how these activities were to be sustained on an economic side." This remains a dilemma.

Summer 1965 I had just graduated from Central High (Sussex, VA, where I am presently)less than 90 black graduates for the entire county, though there were 200 of us in the 8th grade. I was 16 and on my way to Baltimore to Morgan State College. On my high school graduation I knew little or nothing of King, Malcolm, and, certainly not, LeRoi Jones, though I would indeed in Baltimore in 1968 see one of his plays at a church on Edmondson Avenue (maybe it was the Slave) and meet him and even ride with the little genius across town.

Stokely too was there. I believe the S.O.U.L. School (The Society of United Liberators) brought both of them (and the actors) to town. After the play, whites were told to leave for a discussion with the remaining blacks. I stayed but I cannot recall anything memorable. I do remember showing Roi and his men where the party was taking place in East Baltimore.

Of course, I am now 8 years older than the Baraka who published The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones in 1984.

No Soapboxes Here But Trees (5/31)

My mind has been going in five different directions today. I woke up this morning to a busted water heater and we still don't have hot water. I have been trying to sort through this business with Brinkley's book. I ain't being loved the way I want to be. And I am flatulent.

Still I am trying to get through Baraka's  Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. I am a slow reader and I just finished the Black Arts section. It is a curious chapter. Here Roi is more acted upon than actor. It is his first foray into public leadership. Though he had a .357 magnum in his briefcase he could not manage his business and he couldn't keep his pecker in his pants, however much he loved, adored, and admired Vashti. For a moment he wanted to be polygamously black. He failed to stand up to the cultural nationalists in his midst.

BARTS failed and he ran away to Newark and left the niggas to fight it out among themselves. Larry Neal was the first casualty.

Here is his explanation:

The guilt I carried about my life in the Village always undermined the decisive actions I had to take to preserve any dynamic and productive development in the Black Arts. Plus, obviously, I didn't know enough, and what I thought I needed to know I was wrong about, also. I needed to know the art and science of politics and how to run an institution. It was a long time before I learned either.

One must ask, Was that the reason for the failure of the BLACK ARTS, for BARTS? Was it the lack of financial resources, of his alienation of the poverty program bureaucrats? Was it something much deeper? Of course ignorance and arrogance had much to do with it as it has in the Tragedy of New Orleans. Of course, the latter had more devastating effects. Roi's failures in Harlem is miniscule in comparison.

In any event I am on to the HOME section of the  Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and he's living in his parents’ house with an unmarried woman (Vashti) making film in the backyard, where he meets his second wife, Sylvia Wilson (1967). I am wondering whether this is Amina. I suppose I'll have this finished and find out the answer by the weekend. I have to dig his other books out of boxes in the storehouse.

Jerusalem in the Loop of the River (6/2)

Grayce, it is good to know there is someone out there listening. I know there are those who think I'm a weird cat just jerking off and bugging the shit out of them with my obsessions. Of course, indeed it is all important to me, trying to live as close to and struggle with the reality of living in this world. Baraka is a good example of someone as in his  Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka  trying to be as honest as possible with himself and his readers.

Well, we all fall into bullshit in our best efforts. But it is the effort that counts in the end, however deluded one is at a particular moment. It is in that effort, Baraka gains my respect and, at this point, my adoration.

I am now in the Home section of his  Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. His book of essays by that title (Home) has been published and he is back in Newark, the place of his birth and childhood. In some sense the book has made a circle, or an upwardly, advancing spiral. He imagines it somewhat as the prodigal son returning home. But he is far more than the son who has returned home. He is another being shaped by that internal spirit that is uniquely his, a spirit that has worked on numerous experiences that none, not even himself, can fully understand and absorb fully. He is highly tooled and skilled, and conscious of a dreadful shortcoming in America's democracy and cultural life.

In some sense, this Home section is a kind of reevaluation and cleansing of himself and his life. For in some sense he has soaked up and admired some of the worst aspects of Western culture. It is too a further extension and advancement of his work with BARTS. He finds another arts house. This one he names Spirit House. One of the first things he does in returning to Newark is organize an arts festival. Note too that whatever money he is making from his notoriety is that he is pouring it back into the community. The other item of note is that he creates vital, vibrant creative communities wherever he goes, however blindly he is propelled forward.

We meet Stokely Carmichael and his concept of "Black Power." There are some sharp portraits of the poetics of Larry Neal, Askia Toure, Yusef Rahman, and Amus Morall documenting their influence on him and on the development of a new black poetry and how it infused elements of the most black musical geniuses of the time in the delivery and performance of words that spoke of and to black urban America.

Baraka's insights cannot be overlooked if we want a real history and portrait of the 60s in America and how the mind and spirit of America was undergoing an internal revolution.

Mixed in with all of this literary history we also find, a lot of personal bullshit that he sloughs off to become a greater man, a greater writer, a greater human being. One of the things holding him back from fulfilling his destiny is his "black bohemianism," which is a worship of self-indulgence, cynicism, and hedonisma kind of cultural nationalist, neo-African hipness.

Two of the women he loves dies, namely, Vashti, the woman who worked closely with him at BARTS; and the other Bumi, "a child" woman who is nowhere his intellectual equal. There are his attempts to set up a polygamous relationship with two women. There's all kind of crazy shit he's trying to cleanse himself of it was all in the air and it was labeled black. And he wanted to get beyond the whiteness of his Village years. And then there is the guilt of all of that. Baraka is far from callous. He even allows that a lot of that stuff he had going on with women in his life was male chauvinism. And that he had to change that in himself.

There is an interesting portrait of Ron Karenga, the "dynamic little fat man," who is "nothing if not aggressive" with his own personal "chorus," chiming in with "Teach!" One of the most extraordinary things one discovers in the Autobiography is that Baraka is one of the most skillful storytellers still walking this earth.

But at this point in my reading, Baraka has begun a course of action that makes him beyond rhetoric and cultural emphasis truly political, that is, he has moved to change how politics operates in Newark, a town that is 60% black but is ruled by an Italian-American mayor, who indeed has his black flunkies, and the Mafia.

Baraka is sinking his roots deep down in the communities, including organizing people within the vicinity of Spirit House and reaching out to kids and putting them to work running a community newsletter. His contact with them points out the failure of the school system and its failures to teach black kids to read and think. Then there is the power move by the wealthy and powerful elites to displace tens of thousands of blacks by seizing 155 acres of land under the guise of establishing a medical system. His major point in response is if Johns Hopkins is on less than two acres what's the rationale here in Newark for 155 acres.

I haven't gotten far into this chapter. I do however recall, from the times, the central role Baraka played in getting the first black mayor (Gibson, I believe) elected in Newark.

In short, my point is that  Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka  is not only about the intellectual development of a black writer; in some sense, it is about the intellectual, spiritual, and political growth (and/or detour) of a people. If there is any book that is must reading in high schools and colleges across our nation, this indeed is the book. But that probably will never happen in my lifetime. 

Public education is about respectability and LeRoi Jones can't be hanged on that cross. Public education is about getting a job and integrating within the corporate world. In short, public education is not about education at all, but the creation (a training) of little drones who do what they are told and strive to be better than their brothers and sisters. In short it is not about democracy, civic responsibility, and the creation of a dynamic culture. But rather slavery and repression.

Mockingbird Sings in the Rain ( 6/4)

My reading of  Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka has slowed to a crawl. I am still in the Home section. In some sense the writing here is more dense. It is less personal, certainly. It involves more social and political descriptions and analyses. It comes closer to and overlaps my own period of Awakening, which I date as the summer of 1967, while I was still enrolled as a student at Morgan State College. I had been up from the countryside only two years. And much of the urban world was as foreign as a that of a tourist visiting another country.

In this part of the Home section, Baraka and his woman Sylvia Wilson (Amina) have left Newark, temporarily, for his appointment as a visiting professor at San Francisco State College (SFSC), which became a hotbed of black political activity in the mid-60s. Baraka notes the founding of the first black studies program in the country by Nathan Hare and Jimmy Garrett at SFSC. There Baraka organized a "Communications Project," operating through the College's Black Student Union (BSU). His other arts projects had gone directly to the streets to the masses of the black working class. So this work with students is another kind of community appeal.

This seems to have been Spring 1967. (The dates are not always clear in Baraka's narration.) He notes late, however, "It was early '67 and Watts was not even two years in the past. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense had just formed [fall of 1966], based across the bridge in Oakland."

He also notes his work with Ed Bullins and Marvin X Jackmon, who were "extremely supportive. They had put together Black Arts West, along with Duncan [Barber] Hilary [Broadus], and Carl [Boissere], down on Fillmore Street." They put together a repertory that toured college campuses in the area, including Merritt College and Laney College, "two heavy Panther enclaves." Sonia Sanchez is also in San Francisco. Both she and Marvin X are electrifying the audiences organized by the BSU and Baraka's Communication Project.

We must recall that Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton had been community college students when the Panther Party was organized.

There is an interesting portrait of Eldridge Cleaver, and his driving a wedge between "cultural nationalists" and "revolutionary nationalists," and his preference for white political allies. Baraka notes: "Cleaver had gotten the Panthers, ostensibly through Huey Newton, to throw the artists, many of whom were cultural nationalists of one kind or another, out of the Black House, saying that all the artists were 'reactionaries'."

There is an unexpected extended portrait of Maulana Ron Karenga (the Master Teacher of Nationalists) and his US organization, which Baraka notes that he followed Karenga's doctrine "politically and socially for eight years." Baraka was very impressed by the pseudo-militarist aspects of Karenga's US organization. Maybe as a result of his failure with BARTS in Harlem. Maybe because of his own military background.

It is curious. The militarist/ideological aspects of certain black organizations (Nation of Islam, Panthers, US, etc.), for me, were a turn-off. But I was turned off even by ROTC, which was mandatory at Morgan State for freshmen and sophomore males. Baraka's attachment and later abandonment of US caused considerable consternation within the black community for many who were either attracted or loyal to him. This ideological hardening of positions (of who was the most militant, the most revolutionary) led to fratricidal war: Panthers vs US; Panthers vs Panthers. At the core, these ideological shifts also led to Malcolm's death.

Maybe it was this divisive ideological role that Baraka played that delayed my reading of  Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka  (1984). I have actually had the book on my shelf since 1990. I know this for I still have the purchase slip. Ultimately, this is of little import. I am reading it 16 years later but I am probably making the best use of it by this delayed reading of the work.

By summer 1967 Baraka had returned to Newark to continue the political struggle there. He writes an extraordinary description of that summer's riot (rebellion). It's a description gathered from riding around observing the progress of the destruction: the window breaking, the looting, and then the fires.

Mistakenly, he and a couple of his friends are viewed as snipers. The cops stop his VW bus and wreak their revenge:

They were beating me to death. I could feel the blows and the crazy pain but I was already removed from conscious life. I was being murdered and I knew it. I screamed 'Allahu Akbar. Al Homdulliah!' Spitting the rage and pain back out at them.

This reading ends with Roi in "solitary confinement" in a Newark jail (1967).

There is some discussion of his relationship with Sylvia Wilson (Amina), his black sweetheart. She bears his son: this child is given the name Obalaji Malik Ali. Ras Baraka will be his second son. But Baraka castigates Roi for his male chauvinism for his excessive pride in producing sons. So the learning curve continues upward.

Sister Sadie Be What She Be (6/5)

Doubtless there were many blind excesses of the 60s & 70s as there always be in efforts to right wrongs and move our evolution forward. This indeed is recognized by Amiri Baraka in his  Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka (1984). My impression is that many women were turned off and remain so by the assertions of "blackness" and black masculinity during that period. And subsequently we have had rightly a slew of women writers, including Alice Walker’s Meridian (1976) and Toni Morrison's Paradise (1998), to bring attention to these black male excesses.

In that Baraka was a prime example during the times of such male exertions many female readers were turned off from examining (reading) his writings. Whatever the gender, we can all go too far in trying to right wrongs that we become blind to the realities of struggles—whether they are personal, social, or political. The point I wish to make here is that Amiri Baraka is well aware of his own excesses and he makes no apologies but lays it plainly on the table for study and reexamination. This text is thus useful for both our sons and daughters.

As stated before, Baraka points out he was a follower of Karenga's doctrine for eight years. He goes to great length in the Home section of  Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka  to show his extrication from that black nationalist ideology:

"Karenga also had wild stuff in his doctrine about how women ought to dress, and how what they should wear should always be 'suggestive'. He said they should show flesh to intrigue men and not be covered up so much. I could never adjust to Karenga's thing with women either on paper or in the flesh. He was always making 'sexy' remarks to women, calling them 'freaks' and commenting loudly on their physical attributes. In LA Karenga even sanctioned 'polygamy' and was rumored, himself, to have pulled many of the women in the LA organizations.

"What stopped us from getting too far out in Kawaida was my wife, Amina, who not only waged a constant struggle against my personal and organizational male chauvinism, but secretly in her way was constantly undermining Karenga's influence, figuring, I guess, that I would not come up with as much nuttiness disguised as revolution as he, though I did my share.

"All the black women in these militant organizations deserve the highest praise. Not only did they stand with us shoulder to shoulder against black people's enemies, they also had to go toe to toe with us, battling day after day against our insufferable chauvinism.

"The US organization started out as community activists but gradually they became more and more just cultural nationalists putting out an abstract doctrine of 'blackness'. I became myself one of the chief proselytizers of Kawaida. Actually, if it were not for CFUN [Committee for United Newark] and later Congress of Afrikan Peoples (CAP), the Kawaida doctrine, the Seven Principles, and the holiday Kwanzaa would never have been as widely known as they are. Certainly it was not through any kind of community organizing on Karenga's part, though he did have a dramatic, humorous, very charismatic was of speaking and carrying himself."

There is nothing more important than our individual humanity and our respect for its dignity and integrity. Again, I recommend The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones as a means of discovering how we got to today's "Black consciousness." Baraka was one of the chief architects.

*   *   *   *   *

Dark Clouds Hang Over Jerusalem (6/7)

Dear Friends:

I am in the last few pages of the Home section of  Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. Maybe it is a good thing that there is no Contents page, no Index page, no subsections in this book. For it indeed should be read from cover the cover. But one should be able to get in and get out as quickly as possible. But in some sense all the sections are tragic (like drugs and its highs): one begins down, then one gets higher and higher, and then there is the let down.

This Home section has much more to do with Maulana Ron Karenga than I expected. But it also has to do with the practical aspect of struggles for Black Power as in winning elections (electoral campaigns) in black majority cities (or sections of a state), as manifested in Newark in the person of Ken Gibson. Amiri Baraka put much energy and organizing effort into both the Kawaida doctrines of Karenga and much time and effort into getting elected a black mayor of Newark, who kow-tows before white power. After a high in support of both of them, both ultimately are outrageous disappointments.

A few of the sharp remarks Baraka makes on Gibson, the man he and CFUN (Committee for a United Newark; in which he met with Gibson and others every Sunday before the election) helped to make the first black mayor of Newark: 

1) Gibson "was pulling a disappearing act right before our eyes."

2) "Each week, after a while, there was some new affront, some new confrontation between the old team and Gibson."

3) "So that even in a black majority city with a black mayor no housing could be built for the poor and moderate-income people because of Gibson's weakness and vacillation."

4) When the Puerto Ricans protested police brutality, Baraka supported them. "Gibson came out with his Hitler-like declarations that there would be no demonstrations, we really got down to organizing. Fuck him! Let him do whatever he thought he had to, we were going to organize, and march. Some 2000 to 3000 people, mostly Puerto Ricans, marched from the North Ward right down to the middle of Broad Street to City Hall."

5. "Gibson was making his quick march even further to the right, taking a tiny little pimple of middle-class colored bureaucrats with him."

On Karenga and his Kawaida doctrines. CFUN was part of the larger national organization CAP (Congress of Afrikan Peoples) has the following criticisms:

1) "For one thing, it encouraged a feudalistic, even dictatorial style of leadership. It was Maulanaism; we always had various councils and committees and various checks and balances, but that one-person 'godlike' rule was evident and we were criticized for it, mostly behind our backs, but some of the criticism was accurate. We needed even more."

2) "Another deeply negative aspect of Kawaida was its position and social practice relating to women. Some of the doctrine was so far out I never attempted to bring it to Newark. Karenga's peculiar focus on women, all women, led me to believe semi-subconsciously that many of his statements and prescriptions about women were best left alone."

3) "A third backwardness of Kawaida, even as it was manifest within CFUN and CAP, was the openly metaphysical character of the ideology. Kawaida as an is, if it still exists, a religion. On one level this had its tactical usese.g., it enabled us to go into many of the prisons as priests and teach black nationalism. It allowed us tax exemptions . . ."

4) "So the big three cornerstones of our backwardness: feudalistic, one-man domination; male chauvinism give legitimacy as 'revolutionary'; metaphysics. These three deeply rooted errors led to many others for which these were the base, but I feel these are the most important.'

There are some interesting reports on the Black Power Conference in Atlanta in 1971 (which include reports on the bizarre behavior of Karenga fearing for his life from the Panthers after US murdered two Panthers in LA) and the National Black Political Convention in Gary in 1972. On the Gary conference, Baraka takes a different rift on Shirley Chilsom than what is found in the film on her run for the presidency. There is also an interesting portrait of Jesse Jackson trying to take credit for Gibson's win in Newark.

Most interesting of all is Baraka's love song about Amina, his wife, and their five children. As I said before this Home section is dense. The Autobiography of Leroi Jones is much more than a literary biography: what we have here is also social history and political analysis.

Of course, it is indeed personal and revealing, exposing the weaknesses of not only the participants in the political struggles of the 60s and 70s, but also of Baraka himself as social activist: his throwing himself wholeheartedly into matters he has thought out halfway. If it moved the "struggle" forward (an inch) he pounced on it with all his heart and soul, too often to his own hurt and that of his wife and maybe his children.

I think a lot of this blind devotion results from an artistic sensibilitythe innocence and the naiveté associated with the artist. What saves Baraka is that he has an extraordinary sense of ethicshis is a striving after principled acts, especially when it goes beyond matters personal.

Again, I believe this book is necessary reading. For the dilemmas of Newark in the early 70s are been repeated over and over in every black majority ruled city. The people of New Orleans know this tale all too well.

Wild Turkey Sacrificed at Jerusalem (6/8)

Dear Friends,

I've finished  Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, except for the Summing Up section. It covers the first 40 years of his life. One correspondent tells me Baraka is ill. I do not know that is true. It may indeed be. But the  Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, in effect, ends 7 October 1974 on his 40th birthday. (I was 26, in the midst of my own broken marriage, working as a porter at Maryland General. To a great degree my community activism and black political work had come to an end.) On that day he moved away from being a "black nationalist" to become a socialist, "at least in name."  Maybe, more specifically, a Pan African socialist. In 1970 he moved away from Sterling Street, where the Spirit House had been. This final turn in his "life of changes," in effect, occurred in Dar es Salaam, on the Indian Ocean. (It was in 1982, at age 33, I took my African trip, lived mostly in Bukavu (ten weeks), next to Lake Kivu.) He provides a rather poignant description, here in part:

"Though I had shed some of my naive cultural nationalist delusion about Africa, I had been rewarded with an even greater hope, which I know to be a revolutionary optimism. Knowing was is real, no matter how painful, is the only prerequisite for making real change.

"Our ancient home is more beautiful than our words, but at the same time, if we are absolutely realistic and scientific, it is much more ugly as well. In the lull of the sweet air off the Indian ocean, as I sat in the sand, contemplating the speech I was to make at the 6PAC [Sixth Pan-African Congress, the first to be held on African soil], and at the same time watched my tiny son romping up and down in the warm water, happier than adults can ever be, I felt remorse at having been among the slaves taken from these shores. . . .

"I realized, also, that the US was my home. As painful and complicated as that was. I realized that the 30 million African Americans would play a major role in the transformation of black people's lives all over this planet. . . .

"I was no longer a nationalist, I knew clearly that just black faces in high places could never bring the change we seekall of us who are conscious or describe ourselves as advanced or progressive. . . . I had seen Gibson and domestic 'neocolonialism, I had been to Africa and seen the same boy at work over there holding the people down. It was clearer to me that only socialism could transform society, that the whole world must be at the disposal of the whole world, that all of us must benefit by each other's existence, a few billion primates of an arguably advanced species in a world dominated by insects."

CAP [Congress of Afrikan Peoples] began to work with white groups. "At forty years old, then, I was acknowledging another tremendous change in my life. In my life of changes."

Baraka, Amina and their five children move to Clinton Hill, in the South Ward:

We paid down on a big square fortress of a stucco house which I painted red and trimmed in black, and when the seasons allow the trees to come full out, the tableau is like a not quite subtle black nationalist flag. . . . A great many things happened after the October 7, 1974, date of our public notice to the world of our socialism. . . .But we are alive and well, struggling still in the world for us and it to get better."

The Autobiography has nine parts: 1. The childhood; 2. Music; 3. Black Brown Yellow White; 4. HU [Howard University]; 5. Error Farce [his tour of duty with the Air Force]; 6. Village [on his black bohemian life in NY]; 7. Harlem [BARTS]; 8. Home [return to Newark]; and 9. Summing Up. Indeed it is quite a journey. He is “true” to each era of his life. In some sense he acts it out in the appropriate language for the period and time. It is quite a writing feat and deserves great applause, a standing ovation, and several curtain calls.

I do not know the details of Baraka’s life from 1974 to today, a period of 32 years. It would be fascinating indeed to read, I’m sure. If Baraka is indeed ill I wish him a speedy recovery and hope that he has another 20 years with us and that we will indeed see a sequel, The Autobiography of Amiri Baraka. You, Amiri Baraka, have all my love and admiration.

Green Beans Harvested at Jerusalem (6/9)

Here's the opening paragraph of the "To Sum Up" section of  Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka:

I look at my son Ras sometimes and maybe think I see me then, round and brownly rosy. Eyes bulging into the world, alive with life, whirling around like wild computers. I think I must've been like that, little and big-headed, full of myself, intently digging my own head's nose.

"'If we ever split, you better take him with you', sez Amina. 'He's too much like you. I couldn't stand it!' Though they have traces of my self and hers. But Ras, whom I stayed up all night with, plotting the historical metaphysic of his name, has such a striking resemblance it provides the other comparisons. And when he plays at the trumpet, reminding me of a would-be hip little dude with an imitation-leather 'gig bag' hippety-hopping across High street--it's too much.

Yesterday Amiri Baraka issued a A Plea on behalf of his son: "Ras Baraka Must Be Reelected in the June 13 Run-Off Election."

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Note: This Freundlich edition (1984) disguises key people and publications. For instance, Baraka refers to his ex-wife, Hettie Cohen, as Nellie Kohn; poet Diane DiPrima as Lucia DiBella; and the Partisan Review as the Sectarian Review. (from Library Journal)

See also: How I Became Hettie Jones (1990)

posted 10 June 2006

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Mockingbirds at Jerusalem (poetry manuscript) / The Autobiography of Medgar Evers

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AALBC.com's 25 Best Selling Books

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#7 - The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight
#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London

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Debt: The First 5,000 Years

By David Graeber

Before there was money, there was debt. Every economics textbook says the same thing: Money was invented to replace onerous and complicated barter systems—to relieve ancient people from having to haul their goods to market. The problem with this version of history? There’s not a shred of evidence to support it. Here anthropologist David Graeber presents a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom. He shows that for more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods—that is, long before the invention of coins or cash. It is in this era, Graeber argues, that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors.  Graeber shows that arguments about debt and debt forgiveness have been at the center of political debates from Italy to China, as well as sparking innumerable insurrections. He also brilliantly demonstrates that the language of the ancient works of law and religion (words like “guilt,” “sin,” and “redemption”) derive in large part from ancient debates about debt, and shape even our most basic ideas of right and wrong. We are still fighting these battles today without knowing it. Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a fascinating chronicle of this little known history—as well as how it has defined human history, and what it means for the credit crisis of the present day and the future of our economy.   Economist Glenn Loury  /Criminalizing a Race

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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updated 4 November 2007 

 

 

 

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