January 10, 2014

"You look like you live in New Jersey with your parents and are trying to grow a beard. That's what. You look like you've been reading Chinese poetry."

Says a beautiful white female character to a black male character in "The Dutchman," a 1964 play by LeRoi Jones, who died yesterday at the age of 79.
[Critics said "The Dutchman"] expressed deep hostility towards women — a charge that followed the playwright for much of his life. After the murder of Malcolm X, he left his white wife and two daughters to live by radical black nationalist ideals.... "In the '60s, after Malcolm's death, black artists met and decided we were gonna move into Harlem and bring our art, the most advanced art by black artists, into the community."

The Black Arts movement was a basically a counterpart [sic] to Black Power, and Baraka wrote a number of books now seen as foundational for a certain kind of black aesthetic and cultural identity. He converted to Islam, changed his name [to Amiri Baraka] and in the 1970s, turned towards Marxism. His work would always emphasize social and political issues: "The people's struggle influences art, and the most sensitive artists pick that up and reflect that," he said.
He became the Poet Laureate of New Jersey, which is what he was at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and his poem on the subject, "Somebody Blew Up America," was not appreciated. I suspect that most younger people, if they remember him at all, remember him as a man who was disgraced by a single poem. But there's much more to the story of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, much more grace and disgrace.

ADDED: Here's the full text of "Somebody Blew Up America." Excerpt:
Who do Tom Ass Clarence Work for
Who doo doo come out the Colon's mouth
Who know what kind of Skeeza is a Condoleeza
Who pay Connelly to be a wooden negro
Who give Genius Awards to Homo Locus
Subsidere....

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
ALSO: State-level poets laureate might seem like it shouldn't be a thing, but it is. The states that have no such position are: Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and (post-Baraka) New Jersey. ("Because of Baraka's defiant refusals to apologize or resign as poet laureate and that there was no mechanism within the law to remove him, the position was abolished by the legislature and Governor James E. McGreevey in 2003.")

My state's poet laureate is Max Garland, who's an English professor at UW-Eau Claire. Here's his poem "Fedoras."

52 comments:

Capt. Schmoe said...

The excerpt above is at least a step below Chines poetry. I know nothing about Chinese poetry.

ironrailsironweights said...

In much more interesting news, Turkmenistan's 2010 cotton harvest was 1% higher than expected.

Peter

AustinRoth said...

When I read "poetry" like that, all I can think of is "Oh, rarely had the words poured from my penny pencil with such feverish fluidity."

Levi Starks said...

NPR celebrates the life of another hero.

gerry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gerry said...

He converted to Islam, changed his name [to Amiri Baraka] and in the 1970s, turned towards Marxism.

How fashionably dialectic!

Smilin' Jack said...

"Poet Laureate of New Jersey"--well, what did you expect?

Carnifex said...

I made 2 better poems with bowl movements today. Sounds just like another hater to me. Good bye, hate to see ya go, and I hope Satan ass rapes you in hell.

YoungHegelian said...

After his wartime experiences, the British poet Siegfried Sassoon found he could only write poetry about one thing: World War I.

For too many of Baraka's generation, the 60's were their "Great War".

Brian said...

Once a man has abandoned his family to take up an exciting new life in racism, there is no more disgrace left in him.

Clyde said...

"Badder than ol' King Kong,
And meaner than a junkyard dog."

See ya in the next life, bucko.

DanTheMan said...

>>In much more interesting news, Turkmenistan's 2010 cotton harvest was 1% higher than expected.

You do have a citation to back up such a wild claim, yes?

Or perhaps a quote from America's leading public intellectual?

lemondog said...

A man in constant identity struggle.

William said...

I know it's not possible, but just as a thought exercise can you imagine a black nationalist saying something so outrageously hateful towards whites that the left holds him in lower regard than Clarence Thomas.

jacksonjay said...


Well. You see, the problem with Affirmative Action is .........

YoungHegelian said...

After the murder of Malcolm X, he left his white wife and two daughters to live by radical black nationalist ideals.

Have you ever noticed how often the murder of Malcolm X is left there, hanging, unexplained? It's almost as if the untutored reader (or perhaps the reader well tutored in the secret teachings) is supposed to understand that white people had something to do with that murder. In point of fact, no white person was even tangentially involved.

Clyde said...

@ DanTheMan

"America's Foremost Public Intellectual" would tell you that cotton supply is up, prices for tampons and earrings are down. Market forces at work. Thanks, Turkmenistan!

EMD said...

After the murder of Malcolm X, he left his white wife and two daughters to live by radical black nationalist ideals..

Selfish, natch.

YoungHegelian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
YoungHegelian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
YoungHegelian said...

"The people's struggle influences art, and the most sensitive artists pick that up and reflect that," he said.

'Cause we all now how well that Socialist Realism & "All Art in Service of the Revolution!" stuff turned out for the USSR & the PRC! I mean, for a while there in the 50's, the Soviets had a factory at Magnitogorsk that was cranking out fifty Pushkins a week!

virgil xenophon said...

YH/

Of course the best evidence is that adherents of Elijah Muhammad killed good 'ole Malcolm, but we's white people izzen't supposed to go there, does we..?

Roughcoat said...

"Grace"? Seriously? In what sense does grace feature in the "story" of Amiri Baraka? I'm curious to read your answer, I really am.

Anthony said...

"Fedoras" is a nice little mood piece, but it's not a poem, it's prose. There's no rhyme or meter to it. He has to call it a poem to get it published, because there isn't really a market for very short prose mood pieces.

"Somebody Blew Up America" is a terrible poem - Mr. Jones sold his birthright for a pot of message. There's something resembling rhyme and meter, but he's trying so hard to make a political statement that he hasn't even tried to make a good poem.

Ann Althouse said...

""Grace"? Seriously? In what sense does grace feature in the "story" of Amiri Baraka? I'm curious to read your answer, I really am."

He got to hang out with Kerouac and Ginsburg. Wrote a book about jazz that was well regarded. Got his plays produced and won an Obie. Enjoyed life in a tenured position for many years. Got to be the poet laureate of NJ. He worked and earned many honors and lived many years with many people admiring him. All that was the opposite of disgrace. He was a lucky man who received many gifts in his long life in America.

Writ Small said...

Imagine if we were all judged by the dumbest thing we ever wrote.

Michael said...

I read and enjoyed his writing all those years ago. He was a talented writer. Rest in peace.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Imagine if we were all judged by the dumbest thing we ever wrote.

Imagine if we were all judged by the dumbest thing we ever wrote in a public capacity. Especially if that public capacity involved, you know, writing.

Roughcoat said...

Is “grace” the opposite of “disgrace”?

“Grace,” the noun, has several definitions. Among them, as follows:

From the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language:
- Seemingly effortless beauty or charm of movement, form, or proportion.
- A characteristic or quality pleasing for its charm or refinement.
- A sense of fitness or propriety.
- A disposition to be generous or helpful; goodwill.

From Merriam Webster:
- unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification
- a virtue coming from God
- a state of sanctification enjoyed through divine grace

There are definitions not included here that can be applied to Baraka. The definitions above do not.

jacksonjay said...


Imagine being a little more thoughtful and a little less emotional in a public capacity.

Sigivald said...

What a complete piece of trash poem.

Both as a poem itself and as political "commentary".

It reflects poorly on the author both as a poet and a thinker, and on New Jersey for making him Poet Laureate.

DanTheMan said...

Writ,
The end of your sentence fell off. Here, let me put it back for you:

"Imagine if we were all judged by the dumbest thing we ever wrote about a terrorist slaughter of thousands of men, women, and children."

I stand ready to be judged.

YoungHegelian said...

He got to hang out with Kerouac and Ginsburg. Wrote a book about jazz that was well regarded. Got his plays produced and won an Obie. Enjoyed life in a tenured position for many years. Got to be the poet laureate of NJ. He worked and earned many honors and lived many years with many people admiring him. All that was the opposite of disgrace. He was a lucky man who received many gifts in his long life in America.

As you wrote that, didn't you think that these facts say something terribly sad about the state of the arts in America?

Was this man talented or was he just one of many to follow blessed with the correct politics & a skin color that white lefties wanted to pose next to? I'm happy to wait for history to judge, but I doubt it will be kind.

jeff said...

And now imagine the exact same life doing the exact same things, but becoming libertarian and a tea partier the last 5-6 years of his life. If you want to abandon your wife and children and write poems with sketchy references to black people you politically disagree with and Jews, best to remain a socialist and black nationalist.

Roughcoat said...

I don't judge Baraka by that one poem alone. I judge him by what he wrote, said, and did over the whole course of his adult life. Which is far more damning than that one wretched poem.

Sam L. said...

I wouldna appreciated his "poem" then, but I never heard of it. I don't now, either.

William said...

I was pleasantly surprised to read in the NPR comments that most people disapproved of him. Still there are some there who make a case for him. He was homophobic and anti Semitic. He abandoned his wife and children. Not many men with such a cv can get tenure and honors.......He made a petty good living biting the hand that fed him. He was a black nationalist, a Muslim, and a Communist. I don't think he would get tenure or honors in any country where such ideologies have come to fruition......Home is where when you go there, they have to take you in. America was his home. Mabe in some ways we deserve such a native son.

Doug said...

Rhyming ... that's not a thing with poets anymore, is it? That's why poetry eats it.

DanTheMan said...

Doug,
Skeeza rhymes with Condoleeza, no?
I do agree with your main point, though.
If he had a better rhyme for the "doo doo" coming out of Colin Powell's mouth, it would have been a masterpiece.

cubanbob said...

Who do Tom Ass Clarence Work for
Who doo doo come out the Colon's mouth
Who know what kind of Skeeza is a Condoleeza
Who pay Connelly to be a wooden negro
Who give Genius Awards to Homo Locus
Subsidere....

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?


What can one expect from New Jersey. I suppose this is a sublime example of bullshit artistry. Very New Jersey.

mccullough said...

"Poem for Half-White College Students" is pretty enjoyable.

Ann Althouse said...

Here's the etymology of disgrace (from OED): "Etymology: < French disgrâce ‘a disgrace, an ill-fortune, defeature, mishap; also vncomelinesse, deformitie, etc.’ (Cotgrave), < Italian disgrazia ‘a disgrace, a mishap, a misfortune’ (Florio), < dis- prefix 1d + grazia grace n.; compare Spanish desgracia ‘disgrace, misfortune, unpleasantness’, medieval Latin disgrātia (15th cent. in Du Cange)."

Here's grace: "Anglo-Norman grase, graze, Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French grace, Anglo-Norman and Middle French grasse (Middle French, French grâce ) favour, benevolence, an instance or manifestation of favour, (specifically) the benevolent influence and favour shown by God to mankind (all end of the 11th cent.), (chiefly in plural) thanks (1135), talent, virtue (second half of the 12th cent.), (in plural) prayer of thanksgiving after a meal (c1160), pardon, mercy, forgiveness (last quarter of the 12th cent.), pleasing quality, agreeableness, attractiveness (c1276), favour shown by granting a delay in the performance of an action, or the discharge of an obligation, or immunity from penalty during a specified period (late 13th cent. or earlier in Anglo-Norman, apparently originally in jur de grace day of grace; not paralleled in continental French until considerably later: 1710), dispensation, permission, privilege (end of the 13th cent.), (with premodifying possessive pronoun, e.g. vostre ‘your’) as a form of address (late 14th cent. or earlier) < classical Latin grātia favour, goodwill, partiality, gratitude, thanks, popularity, esteem, pleasing quality, agreeableness, attractiveness, in post-classical Latin also divine grace (early 3rd cent. in Tertullian), state of grace, favour received, benefit, gift of God, talent (Vulgate), pardon (5th cent. in Augustine), prayer of thanksgiving before or after a meal (from 8th cent. in British sources), (with vestra ‘your’, etc.) as a form of address (from 12th cent. in British sources), permission (frequently from 12th cent. in British sources), privilege, license, postponement (13th cent. in British sources), papal dispensation (frequently from 13th cent. in British sources), academic dispensation (from 13th cent. in British sources) < grātus pleasing, grateful (see grate adj.) + -ia -ia suffix1. Compare Old Occitan gracia , Catalan gràcia (c1200), Spanish gracia (12th cent.), Portuguese graça (13th cent.), Italian grazia (first half of the 13th cent.); also Middle Dutch grācie (Dutch gratie ), Middle Low German grātie , and (now only in senses of branch III.) German Grazie (second half of the 14th cent. as grācie , grātie )."

mccullough said...

I think the only disgrace is that he walked out on his daughters when they were kids.

pst314 said...

Roughcoat "Grace, the noun, has several definitions. Among them, as follows...There are definitions not included here that can be applied to Baraka. The definitions above do not."

I strongly agree with you.

The meanings and connotations you cite are why I would never use the word in the context that Althouse did. Entirely inappropriate if one values precision of meaning. Pairing 'grace' with 'disgrace' is clever but in the context seems at best careless and deceptive.

pst314 said...

So how did someone as vile as Amiri Baraka manage to accumulate so many honors?
What does that tell us about just how degraded and depraved our political and intellectual elites have become?

Dr Weevil said...

Surprised no one's linked Ron Radosh's "The Race-Baiting Antisemite Amiri Baraka's Death, and How the Obits Treat Him". Ouch!

Roughcoat said...

The information you provided on the word "grace" was interesting and confirms what I said when I wrote that there "there are definitions not included here that can be applied to Baraka." I stand by what I said when I wrote that the definitions I provided could not be applied to Baraka.

pst314, thanks for your comment.

Tarrou said...

The fact that this two-bit hack made laureate of anything at all rather than being given a sharp slap and a one way ticket to Mexico would be an indictment of the American arts, were there anything there to indict. Advice to anyone who wants to be an artist. Just be a violent, racist homophobe, but target whites and jews. They will eat you up with a spoon.

Anthony said...

An obituary for Mr. Jones, riffing off the work of a gay Parsi poet:

Another Vogon, another Vogon, another one bites the dust.

Gary Rosen said...

Have Cedarford and Baraka/Jones ever been seen in the same place at the same time?

Mr. D said...

Anyone remember this article?

jaed said...

I don't think anyone's mentioned it yet, but the name Baraka means "grace". Perhaps this accounts for Althouse's delphic pronouncements....