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The Two Americas of Amiri Baraka (1934-2014)

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"The films of Warhol, when they are about anything are about sucking people off. This can be high art, to people who are interested in sucking people off.
But that will not liberate Black people."

-Amiri Baraka, Raise Rage Rays Raze: Essays Since 1965

These words written by Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) serve at once as the renunciation of the capitalist economy of America, disgust with a homosexual aestheticism he believed impeded an agenda for black liberation, and a nation whose spirituality he deemed an artificial commodity.

In 1950s New York City, while the Beat poets Ginsberg and Kerouac had the luxury of simply being poets, hitching their dreams to stars with the freedom and privilege of living in opposition to bourgeoise America ("a leisure made possible by the same colonialism"), swaggering upon the pavement of Greenwich Village with benzedrine-induced verses of spontaneous prose, LeRoi Jones was black in America.

Growing disillusioned with a gay, white bohemian subculture that he believed was engaged in a pseudo-liberation of America, Baraka separated himself from the East Village in the name of liberating himself. Changing his name to Amiri Baraka, he affirmed that there were two different Americas: an America experienced by whites and another experienced by Blacks.

In the days since Baraka's passing, publications have declared him as a polarizing figure, either trivializing his writing for its raw, unapologetic equations of Wall Street to plantation owners and condemnation of U.S. imperialism, to advocating for the right of self-determination for the Palestinian people.

Eulogizing Baraka is complicated: it is a task that must acknowledge inflammatory writing with regard to the institutionalized and everyday traumas of slavery manifest as racism, with regard to the dehumanization endured by black Americans in this country, and the acknowledgement that oppression endured by people of color is only recognized when it is palatable -- for only then is acknowledging its devastating impact permissible in America.

Eulogizing Baraka must also resist the tendency of elegies to selectively remember, without mention of writing that depicted the graphic abuse, subservience, and rape of women. His activism was informed by immersion in a black nationalist movement that had adopted misogyny as a standard and viewed deviations from gender roles as a threat to black identity. Baraka's writing and disparaging public comments about homosexuality imply his conflation of queerness with whiteness (such as the initial quotation of this piece implicating Warhol). However, in his novel The System of Dante's Hell, Baraka describes a black male protagonist who has sexual experiences with different men, only to write in his journal, "Am I like that?" Coupled with a Baraka's poetry calling for sodomizing NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, scholars have speculated whether intensely homophobic writing concealed a sexual past that would have dismissed him as weak and delegitimized his role in a black nationalist movement that equated heterosexuality with power and authority.

In the America experienced by Baraka, his work as a legitimate literary figure would continue to be undermined throughout his career; critics would dismiss his status as a poet, downgrading him to simply a "Race Man" and attribute his success to simply being black at a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights movement. In the America experienced by the Beats, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Cassady et al. would be credited with spawning a bohemian renaissance and an entire generation.

To be an American writer, after all, is to accept a literary canon founded upon Western European traditions, to speak in inherited tongues, and to articulate oneself in the language of the colonizer. For writers of color are always inking their contributions from the margins, enveloped by a literary canon constructed, defined, and imagined by writers who are white.

In a recent homage to Baraka, The New Yorker writer Hilton Als recounts his childhood spent visiting Baraka's children and the impact Baraka has had on his life. The tribute is an ironic twist of literary fate, considering Baraka cited the magazine as the very publication through which he felt alienated as a writer.

In The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones, Baraka remembers reading a poem from The New Yorker during his time on a military base in San Juan. As he reads the words of a magazine regarded as the bastion of the "cultivated American," he immediately realizes that he will never be able to write like The New Yorker author -- not simply because of limitations on his ability to write, nor necessarily because of his desire to -- but because of a pure disconnection with the very work regarded as written and understood by the epitome of intellectualism; he sobs.

Baraka likened his urgency to write to a maddening, beautiful resolution of energy that in any other context might be read as violent. Even then, he would only be remembered as a black nationalist and provocative poet first, and as an American after.

When they say, "It is Roi
who is dead?" I wonder
who will they mean?