Books by Amiri
Tales of the Out &
The Essence of Reparations /
Somebody Blew Up
America & Other Poems
of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka /
Selected Poetry of
Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones
* * *
Jones: Pursued by the Furies
of Home on the Range
By Paul Velde
blacks may not be the only ones who want to chuck the whole of
Western civilization and start over again, but they seem to be
the only ones the majority of whites are willing to believe, or
at least to make a good pretense at it.
LeRoi Jones, for instance, is taken literally when he
calls for the death of all white devils, or whatever.
The question with Jones is just how one should take him.
To take him seriously as a racist, but not as a poet, is
the usual reaction, but that is too easy, and perhaps dangerous
most recent Jones sally against the devils was his piece for
voices and music which played in an East Village theater to a
mixed audience of blacks and whites attending a benefit for the
jailed leaders of California’s Black Panther Party.
The piece was both a proto-liturgy for black raciality
and, more interestingly, an attempt to get back to the origins
of blackness. Rather,
one should say that Jones tried to evoke those beginnings,
or any beginnings that promised to work.
On the most obvious level, the effect of the performance
was to raise the tension between the blacks and whites to a
point that at times seemed close to combat.
calls his piece “Home on the Range,” which apparently drops
with sarcasm on the right ears.
It begins with a long stretch of electronic mix, soul
sounds rather effectively blended with what seemed to be African
and Arabic influences, “Black,” says a male voice, repeating
the word at intervals, then alternating it with “blackness.”
As the intervals become shorter, the voice takes on a
chanting quality: “black, blackness, blackness, black.”
At this, one settles back on the seat, hopefully for the
other elements are introduced.
One line, “older than time,” seemed particularly
suggestive, and gives a fair idea of the direction and tone of
the earlier parts of Jones’ “Range.”
lines had to do with truth and sex, all asserting in one way or
another the mystique and mystery of blackness. Up
to this point, however, the reference is only to color.
The chanting is followed by a litany of attributes,
“black is beautiful” on through ultimates of being, time,
creation, godhead, arriving, presumably, at an ontological
wonder of blackness. The
color is no longer an attribute, but being itself.
Despite the blatant hocus pocus of the manipulation, and
the language which was nothing special, the overall result was a
quite moving recitation that curiously did seem to touch the
chords of racial history.
for Jones’ purpose, he is trapped by his reliance on English.
In the end, it is the racial drama of the West, not of
Africa that he traverses with his thesaurus categories.
Perhaps this accounts for the certain pathetic quality of
all superlatives. For
if national and cultural histories have to do with exploits,
defeats and accomplishments, racial histories with their
primordial expansions and contractions carry the weight of the
sheer misery of existence.
They are creations, too, for race is one of the excuses
for necessity in life, whether told in the woe of the Jews or
the Manichaean luminations of Jones.
have sat through an an hour or so of Home on the Range
is truly to be home again, with the terrorized voices of
Masters’ Spoon River when the grave is closing in.
Finally, the piece gets to dealing with whites
specifically and in terms hardly recommended for sensitive
souls. Jones had
made the same points in a talk earlier in the evening, that
blacks are more natural, more creative than whites, who are
imitative and who basically want to be like blacks.
“Blacks are naturally superior; the whites will
submit,” was the message.
shares the poverty of the West, its dreadful absolutes, and its
hysterical drive to cut the Gordian knot.
Whether this inheritance will be sufficient to liberate
him and his black brothers from racial servitude is uncertain.
It all depends on what is meant by liberation.
But at this stage of Jones’ investigations into
blackness, the result appears to be a militant form of black
racism. Inasmuch as
he is a poet laboring in English and a product of a literary
tradition that prides itself on its essential humanism and its
moral stance as critic of society, this has been more
disconcerting to whites, educated or not, than the rhetoric of
Malcolm X, or the earlier Marcus Garvey.
when the New Jersey judge cited a line from Jones’ poetry
(“Up against the wall, motherfucker!”) when sentencing him
to prison, few liberals did not experience mixed feelings over
the matter. Under
normal circumstances Jones would have been a cultural hero, on
principle if not out of personal preference.
He is a cultural hero to blacks, and to some whites for
reasons that are not necessarily masochistic.
(His up-against-the-wall line was what Columbia students
shouted at police over the barricades, some quite non-violent
types have been known to sense the poetry of the line.)
for most liberals the New Jersey scene was a sorry business best
forgotten. Judge Learned Hand, whose eloquent defense of the Smith Act
was once set up as a model of responsible liberalism, but which
few remember now, would undoubtedly have known better than to
hold Jones’ poetry against him.
But it is still a sorry business to see a poet go to
jail. Some argue,
however, that Jones is not a very good poet.
Maybe a national poetry commission could be established
to do to Jones what the boxing commission did to Muhammad Ali.
if Jones is still to be regarded as a poet, then it only makes
sense that he be allowed the same complexity of position and
statement that his fellow poets are.
That implies in part the recognition that he cannot
safely skip over the difficult parts of his development, or that
the final outcome of his investigations into his human condition
should be anymore known to him than ours is to us.
Jones commanded black legions marching on the country with guns,
this might be a different story.
But as it happens, the only legions Jones commands are in
his imagination and in ours.
There is an imaginary battle going on between blacks and
whites in this country, not unlike the chess battles fought by
Chinese generals in lieu of a real slaughter. Nobody seems to want to get killed, though clearly a lot of
people want to do some killing.
black community so far has managed to confine their slaughter to
a mental action. The
same cannot be said of the whites with their gun-wielding
police. However, if
the fullness of the actual event is not necessary to resolve the
racial conflict in America, then the liberal celebrators of the
American experience can for once say that this country has
this point the outcome is very much in doubt.
Jones and the whole problem of racism in the country
calls upon whites to truly use their imaginations.
Jones is performing the minimum Western ritual to bring
this about, possibly because he is in no position to do
otherwise. But it
is an indication of the fear and immaturity he faces that a New
Jersey judge mistook a line of poetry for a gun in hand.
The same literal-minded approach fills the communications
is not to say that Jones is not perfectly capable of using a
gun. But then
neither side has yet been compelled to go the full route of race
war. If racists do
their work with fire and steel, then perhaps it is not very
useful to see Jones as a racist.
Because Jones works on the head.
There is a difference, even though some fail to see it.
Poetry has its uses.
Velde, a former assistant editor of Commonweal, wrote on
the new media for The Nation, The Village Voice and
28 June 1968
* * *
* * *
Race, Incarceration, and American Values
Glenn C. Loury
pithy discussion, renowned scholars debate
the American penal system through the
lens—and as a legacy—of an ugly and violent
racial past. Economist Loury argues that
incarceration rises even as crime rates fall
because we have become increasingly
punitive. According to Loury, the
disproportionately black and brown prison
populations are the victims of civil rights
opponents who successfully moved the
country's race dialogue to a seemingly
race-neutral concern over crime. Loury's
claims are well-supported with genuinely
shocking statistics, and his argument is
compelling that even if the racial argument
about causes is inconclusive, the racial
consequences are clear.
shorter essays respond: Stanford law
professor Karlan examines prisoners as an
inert ballast in redistricting and voting
practices; French sociologist Wacquant
argues that the focus on race has ignored
the fact that inmates are first and foremost
poor people; and Harvard philosophy
Shelby urges citizens to break with Washington's
political outlook on race. The group's respectful
sparring results in an insightful look at the
conflicting theories of race and incarceration, and the
slim volume keeps up the pace of the argument without
* * *
A Taste of Power: A Black Woman's Story
By Elaine Brown
Brown here relates
the dramatic story of her youth, her
political awakening and her role in the
Black Panther Party when she succeeded
her lover Huey Newton to become the
group's first female leader. Though
smoothly written, the book contains much
reconstructed dialogue that may daunt
readers. Brown's memoir takes her from a
Philadelphia ghetto to California, from
college to cocktail waitressing, from
wanting to be white to joining the black
power movement. She meets Eldridge
Cleaver, George Jackson and Bobby Seale,
goes to jail, visits North Korea and
North Vietnam, debates Marxism and gets
involved in Oakland, Calif., politics.
When other Black Panthers seemed to lose
sight of the revolution and seek power
for its own sake, Brown, with a growing
feminist consciousness, left the group.
* * * * *
Negro Comrades of the Crown
African Americans and the British Empire Fight the U.S. Before Emancipation
By Gerald Horne
Dr. Gerald Horne, professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston, said, the American revolt of 1776 against British rule “was basically a successful revolt of racist settlers. It was akin to Rhodesia, in 1965, assuming that Ian Smith and his cabal had triumphed. It was akin to the revolt of the French settlers in Algeria, in the 1950s and 1960s, assuming those French settlers had triumphed.” Dr. Horne explores the racist roots on the American Revolution in his new book, Negroes of the Crown. “It was very difficult to construct a progressive republic in North America after what was basically a racist revolt,” said Horne. “The revolt was motivated in no small part by the fact that abolitionism was growing in London…. This is one of the many reasons more Africans by an order of magnitude fought against the rebels in 1776, than fought alongside them.”In this path-breaking book, Horne rewrites the history of slave resistance by placing it for the first time in the context of military and diplomatic wrangling between Britain and the United States.
* * * * *
So Rich, So Poor: Why It's So Hard to End Poverty in America
By Peter Edelman
If the nation’s gross national income—over $14 trillion—were divided evenly across the entire U.S. population, every household could call itself middle class. Yet the income-level disparity in this country is now wider than at any point since the Great Depression. In 2010 the average salary for CEOs on the S&P 500 was over $1 million—climbing to over $11 million when all forms of compensation are accounted for—while the current median household income for African Americans is just over $32,000. How can some be so rich, while others are so poor? In this provocative book, Peter Edelman, a former top aide to Senator Robert F. Kennedy and a lifelong antipoverty advocate, offers an informed analysis of how this country can be so wealthy yet have a steadily growing number of unemployed and working poor. According to Edelman, we have taken important positive steps without which 25 to 30 million more people would be poor, but poverty fluctuates with the business cycle.
The structure of today’s economy has stultified wage
growth for half of America’s workers—with even worse
results at the bottom and for people of color—while bestowing billions on those at the top. So Rich, So Poor delves into what is happening to the people behind the statistics and takes a particular look at the continuing crisis of young people of color, whose possibility of a productive life too often is lost on their way to adulthood.—
* * * * *
Salvage the Bones
A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake.
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update 17 January 2012