Amiri Baraka @ UC Berkeley 10/31/2007

X-posted here.

The thing about this Bay Area rapper who came up in the 90's, who went by the name of Paris (I always loved that he graduated with a degree in economics): I noted that (at least on his first two albums; I am not too well-acquainted with his later work) when he was addressing his community, his timbre and tone were relatively gentle, if not pointed, and filled with messages of being proactive, constructive, historically conscious, politically, socially, economically, and intellectually empowered. Now, when Paris addressed an American mainstream, his tone and timbre hardened, his anger amplified, pushing incisively in your face the same historical political consciousness he encouraged black folk to cultivate. Amiri Baraka's various UC Berkeley presentations over the last couple of days reminded me of Paris' general approach.

For the Holloway Series in Poetry, curated by Lyn Hejinian, sponsored by the Berkeley English Department, Amiri opened with his Africa poem series, banged his fist repeatedly into the podium, affecting drum tempo, heart beat, and terror, Africa Africa Africa reverberating as in the hulls and hold of a slave ship, affecting the sounds of transit, reverberating ghosts of the Middle Passage. "At the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, there's a railroad made out of human bones. / Black ivory. At the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, there's a railroad made out of human bones. / Black ivory. Black ivory." This knowledge that must be imparted upon folks outside of his community, as he quotes WEB DuBois: "Many have suffered as much as we, but none of them was real estate."

He performed his low-ku, which does not rely upon syllable or word count; no time to count syllables. In his performance of these, he affects his own music, his own jazz with his body and voice, lively, spirited, enabling his language play, underscoring the irony and humor, of his low-ku statements. "If Elvis is king, then what is James Brown? God?" And immediately we are made to understand that black folk made the blues, that black folk are the blues, that white mainstream America has appropriated this for its own consumption and profit, stripped of history, stripped of its political importance.

Amiri Baraka"Somebody Blew Up America," which Robert Hass later tells us, "goes right at American wounded narcissism." I was psyched to hear him perform this, and I have to say, the poem is slick in its lines of questioning. That's it right there. Questions with which he bombards us. I know that when the poem was first released into e-world, one of my writer list serves expressed almost unanimous aversion to it, for what list serve members called didactic and ranting. But you know what? The poem is a series of questions he doesn't answer. Pointed, perhaps leading questions with what we may call self-evident answers. Self-evident to whom? Why? But grammatically and narratively, literally, he isn't telling us what to think or conclude. This is why I say the poem is slick. If we are filling in the blanks with "anti-semitic," "hateful," etc., it's because we readers are filling in the blanks with our own assumptions — what we assume we know about Amiri Baraka and his politics, what we think he'd say if he were to answer those questions. In the meantime, speculating, and being pointed about any Israeli (read: the State, not the people) foreknowledge of 9/11 is not the same thing as "anti-semitism." He ends this poem with his more and more urgent, "WHO? Who?" Until it no longer sounds like the question word whose answer is both obvious and difficult, but rather much like a siren, an alarm indicating a very real state of emergency.

So I am thrilled that the audience's lines of questioning were mostly centered around his work as a writer and editor. He tells us simple and plain, indisputably, that the role of the poet is to raise consciousness, to step on people's toes. And in discussing his work as an editor, he tells us that he began his work as an editor because he wanted to be published. He wasn't waiting around to be discovered.

And to young writers he tells us: "Don't let anybody constipate you! Don't wait to be discovered." Being proactive then, a strong proponent and practitioner of DIY. As a poet, his work (and by extension, our work) belongs in the world, and so that's that. As well, he wanted to create networks and communities of writers, forward thinking, political, progressive, and radical. This work's importance is in balancing what mass media offers us, this "garbage" which holds so much influence over us all. Very straight forward.

Next up: Amiri Baraka at Robert Hass' Lunch Poems Series and then later on that day at the Cave Canem/Poetry for the People reading.


Jamba Dunn said...

Every semester I begin the political criticism portion of my lit course with a video of Amiri performing "Somebody Blew Up America". Typically, I'll have a student or two grumble about the content, but students can generally gauge and respect the truth of Amiri's language and the balance of the course material.

This semester, however, as we watched Amiri reading (& pounding his hand on the Naropa University podium while howling "WHO?") I could feel something amiss in the mood of the classroom. Next session 50-percent of my students failed to show. Almost all of those dropped the course later that week!

That said, I'm happy to read both your glowing account of the reading and the comment by Hass.

Baraka truly is an American treasure we can all learn from.

barbara jane said...

aha, i hear you on the general distaste response from students. teaching undergrads reminds me that their distaste comes from a general disconnect, as some of them being quite young when 9/11 happened. some of them were 12! can you imagine?