Monday, January 13, 2014

Amiri Baraka, 1984

Amiri Baraka’s New York Times obituary acknowledged the public’s ambivalence toward the poet earlier known as LeRoi Jones. He was, the reporter Margalit Fox wrote in her lead paragraph, “a poet and playwright of pulsating rage, whose long illumination of the black experience in America was called incandescent in some quarters and incendiary in others.”

Amiri Baraka
His death last Thursday reminded me of an afternoon nearly 30 years ago when I heard him speak at Harvard. Bombast, prejudice and anger fueled his talk, but it was neither incandescent nor incendiary. More like tired and pathetic.

I’m going to share some of this diatribe, which I wrote up in my journal that day, but first a little context is in order. Baraka’s appearance came on Oct. 19, 1984, toward the end of the campaign between President Ronald Reagan and former vice president Walter Mondale. Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition had made a minor burst earlier that year during the presidential primaries.

I was a 38-year-old Nieman Fellow at Harvard. A student publication had asked me to write a piece comparing college students in 1984 with those of my college days. I went to see Baraka in part to observe the students’ reaction to him.

I had already done some reporting for this piece, speaking with veteran professors about the changes they had seen among their students. One involved how current students read and regarded Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.

Like many early boomers, I had made a pilgrimage to Walden in the early ’70s. Although I was a little disappointed to find the pond itself a suburban recreation area rather than a remote spot in the woods, this didn’t detract from my interest in Thoreau. For me, he was someone who had plumbed the meaning of life, the foibles of humanity and the particulars of nature, all in an American context. He still had something to say.

The site of Thoreau's cabin at Walden, 1972. The plaque stood just above the chimney foundation. The legend on
the plaque, from Thoreau's poem "Smoke," read: "Go thou my incense upward from this hearth." 
When I asked how the students of 1984 read Walden, the English professor I interviewed said they had a different reaction: They wondered how Thoreau got away with it. How was a guy like that ever going to get a good-paying job?

The first thing you noticed when you entered the upstairs classroom in Sever Hall where Baraka spoke was a table full of trinkets and pamphlets for sale. It reminded me of the shilling that used to go on at Elvis Presley concerts.

Not too many students came, and the ones who did seemed to expect to be amused.

Baraka warmed to this task. He saw himself, in his art and in his politics, as a black revolutionary. He professed to believe that on the day black people ceased to think equality was coming, America would burst into flames. Ever since its peak in the 1960s, he said, the black movement had been marching lockstep backward. What was missing was “a fist of popular organization to smash monopoly capitalism.” Instead, too many young people were embracing the Know-Nothing conservative right and the “raucous jingoism” of Ronald Reagan.

Despite reservations about Jesse Jackson, Baraka said Jackson had provided “a spark of life where none existed.” At least he had moved the campaign to the left. He was certainly preferable to “Ben Vereen dancing for Ronald Reagan” and Me Generation television viewers seeing blacks as “middle-class folk,” butlers, pimps and “the little black kid with white parents.”

Reagan and Mondale debate in 1984. Baraka professed to see them as "two murderers coming at you in the night. "
As for the mainstream presidential candidates, Baraka saw little difference between them. Mondale he pronounced “an arrogant racist sucker,” someone whose only potential worth was to stop Reagan. But Mondale was so close to Reagan ideologically that he couldn’t “grab him by the throat and dash him to the floor.”

The candidates were “two murderers coming at you in the night,” Baraka said. The difference was that Reagan was slicing your jugular vein with a razor before you knew it while Mondale knocked on the door and talked to you “like some kind of magazine salesman or something.” You turned your back and he took out his razor, but by this time you had your crowbar in your hand.

1984 Democratic candidates (from left): Gary Hart, Walter Mondale, John Glenn. George McGovern, Jesse Jackson.
In closing Baraka turned on the Rainbow Coalition, wondering why it was playing no role in the campaign now that Jackson was out of the race. He worried that it was just another middle-class venture in the end, a movement of middle-class blacks struggling to be near whites because they wanted to be like whites.

My journal captures a too simple reaction on my part to Baraka’s appearance. I had been in Augusta during the 1970 race riots and the ensuing days of martial law there, and I understood the anger that caused the uprising. But my own reading of recent history was that non-violence had achieved far more for civil rights than fire in the streets. As for Baraka, he had just turned 50 when I saw him but seemed like a relic. He clung to a distorted view of the past, spoke out of bitterness and made stark metaphors to shock and provoke.

He also misread his audience or, possibly, didn’t care what the students thought. They cheered and applauded certain turns of phrase, but the idea of any of them taking to the streets “to smash monopoly capitalism” was ludicrous. Their anxieties were about finding their places in the system, not changing it.

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