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Opal Palmer Adisa Headshot

Amiri Baraka: an Anansi Spirit of Poetic Disguises/Genius

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I have been accusing words of being stingy, but now I must admit I have been afraid of words, of what saying them might mean, the implications, because it is the proper thing to praise a great poet, to profess great admiration. Otherwise you might be accused of being disingenuous or as we say in Jamaica, "bad-minded" and a writer so charged, especially when leveling remarks against a great icon such as Amiri Baraka, might not be able to withstand the wrath of the closing of the circle that excludes you, put a blight on your writing career.

Usually anthropomorphic, Anansi, the spider, who came to the new world in the Kinte clothes of the enslaved Africans, is one of the preeminent trickster figures throughout the Caribbean, who breaks all the rules, defies convention and plays tricks on others. Anansi's trademarks are his acute cunning demeanor, his subterfuge and his ability to out-wit the largest and most powerful. Naturally, given the context of colonialism, that this diminutive spider figure was able to technically get over on "massa" the overseer, made him an endearing hero to the masses. In a not so dissimilar context, Amiri Baraka, came of age under similar colonial context, and perhaps even worse in the framework of the United States and its segregated, racial attitude towards its African descendant citizens, prior to the civil rights movement of the 60s, by which point Amiri Baraka was a young adult, already out of college. Consequently, reframing Baraka's attitude and his work under such Anansi's lens offers another perspective from which to evaluate this icon and his body of work.

But the fact remains that until this faltering attempt I have not written a tribute to Amiri Baraka as I wanted to write something profound, a poem worthy of such a man -- something no one else has said, shed light on the side of his face that has always been in the shadow, take the time to sit with my true feelings and state simply what this man's work has meant to me, what his work has given the world, what stains his presence have left now that he is gone. The best anyone of us can do and hope for is to be remembered by our words and deeds, and in this regard Amiri Baraka aka LeRoi Jones need not fear not being remembered. His works have already been planted firmly in the annals of history. His bravado, his daring and showmanship have captured and offended countless, simultaneously, his eloquence and diatribe have given pause to many, and his words have branded some with love, hope and right on, while concurrently, peeling the skin off others, leaving them to writhe in pain.

While I have met Amiri Baraka a few times in person, and even shared the stage with him in Oakland, California once, I did not know the man personally, but was moved by much of his work, and the various political and cultural manifestations that he had both disavowed and embraced throughout his life. On a whole I pegged him as a brash man, full of himself, and often, I believe, he insisted that his rightness was the only truth. I deeply admire his prolific, and diverse body of work, and am often ambivalent about his seemingly reckless courting of controversy. I do not think that he, Amiri Baraka, was good at listening to others; he was relentless and insistent in driving home his own point, and he certainly loved to hear himself talk and seemed to take pride in haranguing those who did not share his ideology. There were times I was suspicious of his motive, and wondered how far he would go to garner attention. He appeared hungry for attention. Yet despite this, or indeed because of these characteristics, Amiri Baraka was a blacksmith of language, had an ear for the poem's truth, was adept at using an anvil to give shape to the syllabus, battering the rhythm with the hammer, torching the stanza until it caught fire, flaming the pages and burning readers' ears as they listened and/or read his words.

Amiri Baraka was not a man to be dismissed or ignored, and for this I love him. A writer and artist cannot afford to be mamby-pamby if he wants to have an impact. A writer must be willing at some point to risk it all, to walk on fire, and to dance naked under the noonday sun. A writer such as Amiri Baraka knows Anansi, and in a similar fashion, strategically shook things up to get the upper hand. Baraka's poetry embodies the Anansi spirit of subterfuge to come out with a winning hand. However, my first introduction to Amiri Baraka's work was as LeRoi Jones through his play, The Dutchman, which when I first read it, at the age of seventeen, I was deeply disturbed by Clay, the malleable African American male protagonist who seems not able to fight his way out of a wet paper-bag, and allows Lula, the white woman whom he encounters on the subway, to completely undress him in a disparaging manner. I did not know at my first reading that Baraka was perhaps addressing his own path, and the psychological impact of integration. The entire action of the play was confrontational and developed to trigger deep and dramatic feelings in the audience. Amiri Baraka achieved his goal and the play won an Obie Award, in 1964, about the same time Jones became Baraka, gave up his Bohemian, assimilationist life style, where he was a member of the avant-garde, beat poets, and was married to a Jewish woman, and embraced Black nationalism, being one of the major architects of the tenets of that cultural revolution.

One of Amiri Baraka's most potently, political Anansi poems is entitled, "Wise I."
Baraka achieves a coup with this poem, as based on one's knowledge or lack thereof, the poem has a universal, though pointed political trope, that manages to deconstruct the colonial agenda, provides historical narrative, as well as serve as a spiritual code for Blacks about their present identity crisis and the root cause. The poem is seemingly conversational as well as light in tone, yet the undertow is message driven, even didactic, as he emphasizes: "then you are in trouble/
deep trouble" this refrain repeated twice in this thirteen line stanza.

"Wise I "

WHYS (Nobody Knows
The Trouble I Seen) Traditional

If you ever find
yourself, some where
lost and surrounded
by enemies
who won't let you
speak in your own language
who destroy your statues
& instruments, who ban
your omm bomm ba boom
then you are in trouble
deep trouble
they ban your own boom
ba boomyou in deep deep
trouble

humph!

probably take you several hundred years
to get out!

Who is Anansi tricking in this above poem and to what end? Baraka astutely uses the second person "you" as the subject, which could be read as inclusive, but in fact has the opposite effect -- it is not at all open, but rather coded, as were the spirituals, the message understood only to the enslaved whose freedom hinged on duplicity. Almost all of Baraka's extensive body of work employs Anansism as a device of multiple messaging which is not the same as double-entendre.

To die at 79 year of age is to transition young, and I can't help but wonder what we the world, the poetry world in particular, have missed by his demise. How would he have evolved in this century from more than five decades seeped in Black Nationalism? What hopes would he have embraced, what causes would he have thrown his weight behind? Would Baraka have mellowed more as he aged, becoming what he was already to many, the venerated elder poet? Would he have evolved to be more inclusive in his outlook as a result of the times, his experiences and the global shrinking of the world? Others, as well as I, can continue to speculate based on the body of work he left and his last writings of record. But regardless of his trajectory, regardless of how narrow or far-embracing was his closing ideology, I will continue to teach some of my favorite Amiri Baraka's works, and when libation is poured and we are asked to call out ancestors of worth, Amiri Baraka's name will resound as a man for whom words swirled as molten gold in the crucible, singeing pages. The poem entitled, "Leroy," about his mother who was a social worker, and written in 1969 when Baraka was only thirty-five years old, aptly sums up what he thought of his life as a poet and how he wants the world to measure and use him, but mostly it is homage to his lineage and how what his mother got from her people, served to fortify and sustain him:

"Leroy" by Amiri Baraka, 1969

I wanted to know my mother when she sat
looking sad across the campus in the late 20's
into the future of the soul, there were black angels
straining above her head, carrying life from our ancestors,
and knowledge, and the strong nigger feeling. She sat
(in that photo in the yearbook I showed Vashti) getting into
new blues, from the old ones, the trips and passions
showered on her by her own. Hypnotizing me, from so far
ago, from that vantage of knowledge passed on to her passed on
to me and all the other black people of our time.
When I die, the consciousness I carry I will to
black people. May they pick me apart and take the
useful parts, the sweet meat of my feelings. And leave
the bitter bullshit rotten white parts
alone.

And my own offering to the wordsmith.

Wording the Landscape by Opal Palmer Adisa
for Amiri Baraka

in the hour
of the day
when words
are quiet songs
that move the heart
you must be
have to be adroit
your senses alacritous
your tongue
quick quicker quicker
than a lash branding a back
more poised
than coonhunters/pattyrollers
lassoing a runaway

you must be
your words have
to interrogate
stand your ground
vigilantes
black men
killing each other
randomly
judiciously
being shot by cops
in every city
on every corner
incarcerated
into the new
not so original
penal/slavery
corporation
in this not yet
post racialized
techno era

words forming in
the blood of need
words stretching
in the ache of entrapment
words sounding the abeng
of conviction
words sounds noises
naming the peace
you sought but never quite found
word language lexis
bringing injustice to its knee
righting a people for whom
hunger seemed a distant
memory

you have to be
must have a cunnilingus tongue
that subdues all tyranny

Opal Palmer Adisa, professor of graduate and undergraduate writing in the Literature and Writing Programs at California College of the Arts, newest poetry collection is, 4-Headed Woman (Tia Chucha Press), 2013.