Monday, September 26, 2016



We came with the sun. 

It seemed appropriate to me that we streamed between these two moorings on the National Mall, as if signposts of American history, the sufferings and triumphs, the oppressions and the liberations, channeled our march -- but it was the flowing of American humanity that channeled history. You couldn't look anywhere without seeing this history on the Mall. There was the White House, built, as Michelle Obama had reminded us, in large part with slave labor. There was the nearby corner where slaves had been sold even as the founding fathers indited those words of democracy since chiseled into memorial stones. Where this new museum now stands, thousands upon thousands had once marched across the lawn, for Civil Rights in 1963, to end a war in 1970. This ground had been fought over and died for. The line a third of the way up the Washington Monument shows where construction had been halted for a time, a seeming reminder of our halting steps towards the promise of our Constitution. Douglass had walked here, and Whitman. And how many times have we walked here?

Today was a time of remembrance, and of revelation. And in the end, of revels. In the words of Ed Roberson, we have entered the new wing of the labyrinth.

There been times that I thought I couldn't last for long
But now I think I'm able to carry on

It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon' come, oh yes it will

--Sam Cooke

Ring them bells Sweet Martha for the poor man's son
Ring them bells so the world will know that God is one
Oh the shepherd is asleep
Where the willows weep
And the mountains are filled with lost sheep
Ring them bells for the blind and the deaf
Ring them bells for all of us who are left
Ring them bells for the chosen few
Who will judge the many when the game is through
Ring them bells for the time that flies
For the child that cries
When innocence dies.

--Bob Dylan

Tuesday, September 13, 2016


I was off to New Orleans (second visit since Katrina) this past weekend for the second Black Arts Movement conference organized by the never-resting Kim McMillon. The last one, hosted at University of California, Merced, brought much needed attention to Black Arts West. This time our host institution was Dillard University, and, "because the world needs to change," a long overdue focus was aimed at the South.

Things started off with a plenary session offering an overview from Askia Muhammad Toure and Jerry Ward, now retired from Dillard.  I hadn't seen Jerry for quite a while, and it was wonderful to see him on the case.

There were friends too numerous to list, and poets galore. My kind of place.  I was there for an Umbra panel with my long time running buddy scholars Keith Leonard and Jean-Philippe Marcoux. We were assigned a gigantic auditorium for our small panel, but the fellow managing the web streaming for the conference alerted us to the fact that there were 400 people watching online.

Since the conference only lasted a day and a half, and there were many overlapping sessions, I was not able to attend and document as many presentations as I generally attempt, but the conference organizers had taken care of that too.  There will be photos and video available soon enough.

Yes, you could play chess with a bicycle-riding accordion player.

Sunday morning while many were in church and even more were heading to the Raiders / Saints game (Raiders won by one in the final minutes), Jean-Philippe and I joined the heroic remnant (Jerry Ward was there) to hear what the youngest folk had to say about taking up the legacies of the Black Arts activists. I had been heartened early in the conference by the self-possessed Spellman women PSU PhD Sara Rudewalker brought with her from Atlanta. They may not know the history, but they will. And they will make their own.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

E. Ethelbert Miller - The Aldon Nielsen Project No. 23 - Late Baraka

Q.  It seems few critics examine Baraka's collection of essays Daggers and Javelins; why is this?  Isn't the period between 1974-1979 key to the last stage of his intellectual development?

Few critics have given more than cursory examination to any of Baraka’s work after about 1972, a remarkable thing - pretty much blanking out four decades of an artist’s work. In the general curriculum, Baraka has been represented by a few anthology selections for decades now, occasionally including “In the Tradition” as sole survivor of the works dating from his Marxist turn. Among those who read at all more broadly, it’s usually restricted to those poems, along with Dutchman and Blues People. The second version of Harris’s Baraka Reader thankfully remains in print, but that dates to 1999, and now we have the deeply flawed SOS: Poems 1961-2013. The Reader and SOS at least give a broad overview of what Baraka accomplished in those decades, and yet, even now, neither critics nor teachers seem to spend much time with the late Baraka. In too many circles, the cliche has taken hold that the post Black Arts Baraka was a sadly diminished trafficer in agit prop. (Though there are other critics who mark the decline as dating to the Black Arts era itself. There isn’t a whole lot of attention given to the essay collection Raise, Race, Rays, Raze either.) 

Yes, there is agit prop to be found, particularly among the plays, but what this attitude does is provide cover for people who can’t be bothered to read deeply in the work, and the shame of that is that our discussions tend to overlook the lyric intensity of work such as the very late poem “Hole Notes”:

A below a sideways
An alley clings to the garden
Owning your alternatives
Why do you want to
Be here broke
Spring won’t appear
Afraid of winter here
Everybody refuses to
Acknowledge their everyness

Anybody who was not closely following developments in the Congress of African Peoples (and how many were following that closely?) might have been confounded by Baraka’s emerging as a committed Marxist in the early seventies. Where just a few years before, as we see in the essays in Raise, he had shown little patience with those who would urge the study of Marx on Black Americans, here he was announcing himself as a student of scientific socialism, as an adherent of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse Tung Thought. There was a deep split in the ranks of CAP as a result of this change in direction, and many, including Haki Madhabuti, were openly repelled by the development. Baraka’s 1972 poetry collection, Hard Facts, carried Marxist iconography on its red cover, signed the t “M-L-M,” and contained poems with titles like “Das Kapital” and spoke of the people “demanding the / new socialist reality.”  It also included denunciations of “a colorless shadow for / black militants in residence, to / bloat the pockets and consolidate / the power of an international / bourgeoisie.” There were signs of that same lyric intensity I spoke of, something that never went away even when militant-in-residence readers might have. There were other signs. The book was labeled excerpts, an indication that there was something much larger out there waiting to appear in print. And where even Black Magic with its white voodoo doll stuck full of pins on the cover and its scattered acts of antisemitism had been published in both hardback and paper by a major commercial house, this little red book appeared under the imprint of The Revolutionary Communist League and was a stapled affair.

From the outset, Baraka had been a DIY kind of guy. Recognizing early on that the poetry he cared to write was a poetry the New Yorker and Harpers would not care to print, he invented his own venues, started magazines for his own work and that of his radical compatriots. In an introduction to Poems for the Advanced, Baraka has claimed that it was easier to get into print with “hate whitey” than with “hate capitalism.”  Was he right? The cultural nationalist Raise was published by Random House even at a time when he was bringing out many of his works with his own Jihad Press, and now he was publishing as the Revolutionary Communist League. No matter what else may be said of Baraka, it has to be said that he was unafraid in taking his positions and putting his work before whatever public could be assembled. The move to the Black Arts left behind integrationists of an ameliorist bent. Baraka was not sad to see them go. The shift to Marxism dismayed cultural nationalists, including cultural nationalists who had come to that ideology under Baraka’s influence. But Baraka had seen “something in the way of things,” and he would call it out no matter the cost to his own prospects as a publishing author.

And the prospects were heavy. There’s a sub-theme in Daggers and Javelins that comes into view when you read the acknowledgments and publication notes. This was the era of solicitation followed by rejection. I witnessed this at first hand during Baraka’s residency at George Washington University.  Somebody (perhaps somebody who had never read Baraka’s work?) thought it a good idea to solicit an essay from the university’s famous visiting author for publication in GW Magazine, which the university describes as its “flagship” alumni and university periodical, with a circulation today of 200,000. Let’s just say they weren’t happy with what they got. That same somebody sent a student go-between to try to negotiate something less inflammatory from Baraka, but that was not going to happen. The same sort of thing happened when Columbia Records asked Amiri Baraka, noted music critic and frequent author of liner notes, do provide the notes for the album Woody III. Woody Shaw and Baraka had known each other for decades and shared a Newark background, as you can see in the title of the album’s lead piece, “On the New Ark.” Columbia was horrified by the Marxist inflected essay Baraka submitted, and sent an agent to try to talk him down. Problem was, as Baraka reported to me rather gleefully, the album sleeves had already been printed up with a note indicating that there was a Baraka essay inside. So the liner notes did appear, but were dropped from subsequent pressings. My understanding is that something similar happened with Baraka’s still unpublished Coltrane book. What I have heard over the years is that Howard University Press had contracted for the book with Baraka, but recoiled when they saw the manuscript in progress. Selections from that work have appeared as essays over the years.

Much of the initial reaction to Daggers and Javelins was hostile. When Kirkus Reviews weighed in they said, “More like dull kitchen knives and wet noodles than daggers and javelins: as those who've followed the Baraka (LeRoi Jones) career might expect, these essays and speeches are repetitious, monotonic, shrill--and painfully clotted with Marxist-Leninist jargon.“ Of course, Baraka was used to hostility by then, had been, since his earliest days as a poet, and one person’s “Marxist-Leninist jargon” may be another’s sharp description. There are moments in the essays when they read as if Baraka were simply running various cultural and political phenomena through the class analysis meat grinder. But one thing that becomes apparent when you read all of Baraka is that class had been at the heart of his thinking from the outset. It runs all through Blues People and is foregrounded in much of the early book reviewing. Just reread Home and you’ll see. But the sort of dismissiveness we see in that Kirkus review is something to which we’d already grown accustomed. Much the same sort of thing had been said about the work of the Black Arts era. Much the same strategy had been used in dismissing Baraka as merely a Beat poet, one of the bearded barbarians. What a review like that is meant to do is keep readers away from a text, and if you don’t read Daggers and Javelins you won’t understand what had happened to Baraka in the course of his ideological evolution, and you will miss his insightful commentaries on jazz, film, the revolutionary tradition in Afro-American literature, C├ęsaire, or Ngugi wa Thiong’o. (Driving Baraka to Union Station one day, with C.L.R. James in the car, I mentioned that I had just read Ngugi’s Petals of Blood, just out in paperback. I remember Baraka asking eagerly from the back seat how it was.) 

Along with his readings in Marxist theory, Baraka had been reading the fiction and criticism of the writer we know variously as Lu Xun or Lu Hsun, real name, in Pinyin, Zhou Shuren. (I’ve found on my trips to China that there is always a problem talking about the Chinese artists we read in English.  I will make several stabs at the name as we know it in America, and eventually somebody will suddenly smile and say joyfully, “Oh, you mean ______________,” with all the Chinese readers expressing delight that we know this author, if not this name.) The title of this book derives from Lu Hsun’s commentary. The critic throws the javelin against distant enemies; wields the dagger for close enemies. Baraka saw in this a good description of his essays.

There is much from which readers can benefit in Daggers and Javelins, but scholars need to attend to this book too if we are ever to have any accurate understanding of Baraka’s becoming a Marxist critic. At present, the best sources for comprehending Baraka’s move from cultural nationalism to Marxism are his own autobiography, Komosi Woodard’s A Nation within a Nation: Amiri Baraka and Black Power Politics, and Michael Simanga’s recent Amiri Baraka and the Congress of African People: History and Memory. It’s not hard for those of us who lived through the period to see how Baraka could have lost faith in his politics of the late 1960s. In D.C., we had experiences with Marion Barry that closely paralleled Baraka’s disillusion with Newark’s Gibson. It surely was important to elect Black leadership to cities that had for so long been dominated by White politicians. But . . . there were limits to the cultural revolution. When Barry first ran for mayor of the nation’s capitol, he was often seen about town in dashikis. (To give him credit, he was one of the first local political figures to recognize the needs of the gay community, he was fiercely dedicated to jobs for youth, and his stated politics were vastly preferable to the Democratic machine politics that would have been empowered by the election of Walter Fauntroy.) But once Barry was in office, the dashikis more often remained in the closet, the Armani suits showed up more often, and the city became the plaything of real estate developers. (When Barry emerged from his jail sentence years later and re-entered local politics, the Kente cloth was much in evidence.) Baraka never abandoned the commitment to changing consciousness, but he came to understand something Fanon had described years before about the national  bourgeoisie. Political power doesn’t grow out of the sleeve of a dashiki, which is to say that changing the color of the figures in power in a political structure may ameliorate, but if the structure itself is not changed the oppression and immiseration will continue.

Baraka learned from his experiences, and he came increasingly to recognize the material basis for consciousness and ideology. It was that experience that prepared the way for his shift to Marxism. We need a much clearer study of how Baraka and his CAP colleagues made that shift, though. Baraka, we have to admit, generally lurched toward the more authoritarian end of whatever ideological spectrum he joined, and the move to Marxism was no different. He had sympathized with the Karenga version of nationalism for a time in the sixties,   and his Marixsm was similarly doctrinaire. At the time I met him, he had a row of framed photos on his desk. There were Marx, Lenin, Mao . . . and Stalin . . . and Enver Hoxha,  First Secretary of the Party of Labour of Albania, saints preserve us. If the poetry and drama of the period was somewhat less sectarian, the pages of the newsletters Baraka participated in at the time swirled with details of splinterings and denunciations within the Revolutionary Left. As part of my research into the life and work of C.L.R. James, I have been required at times to immerse myself in the arcana of Trotskyist reconfigurings, a dispiriting exercise I have to admit. Left historians may one day provide a full history of Baraka’s groups and their movements from the Congress of Afrikan Peoples to the Revolutionary Communist League (M-L-M) to the League of Revolutionary Struggle (M-L). For now, those who are interested may peruse the outline provided by the activists themselves in their “Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line,” where one may read of the period when “The situation was also complicated by the fact that the anti-revisionist communist movement itself was still very inexperienced and going through struggle to define a correct orientation and line for the U.S. revolution. There were various opportunist forces which had not yet been exposed or defeated. These would have an impact on CAP/RCL, with the organization coming under the influence of the ultra-left line of the so-called “Revolutionary Wing” for a period of time.”

I’m guessing not a lot of poetry critics are going down that rabbit hole.  Still, if we are to be fair to Baraka, as fair as we routinely are to Eliot and Pound, I think we need to do the work of untangling these histories and taking the evolution of Baraka’s ideology seriously.

Doing that, though, I believe we will also find, as I have argued over the years, that the “through line” is of greater importance than local political disputes. The poet who wrote “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” was still the poet who wrote:

I thought there were things
I didn’t understand
that wd make the world

The essayist who looked at the movement from jazz’s origins to Swing and Bop and Free Jazz and beyond through the lens of class was the same essayist who wrote of Coltrane in a way Howard University Press couldn’t quite abide. The same man who wrote Tales wrote Tales of the Out and Gone. And this is why Daggers and Javelins desires, requires, the same close attention as Home then or Razor now. We are not trying to become members of Baraka’s Marxist denomination, even if we are Marxists or post-Marxists. We don’t have to sign off on his political line at every one of its turnings to love him and his work, any more than being a post-Eliot poet requires signing off on Eliot’s racism. There is much of real value to us in Daggers and Javelins, not simply to those of us working as poets and scholars, but to those of us grappling with the politics of our day. “We Live in a Political World,” sings Bob Dylan:

Wisdom is thrown in jail
It rots in a cell
Is misguided as hell
Leaving no one to pick up a trail.

That would be the same Dylan who went with his girlfriend to see Dutchman when it was playing in the village. (Pound was at a performance in Italy a few years down the road!) Baraka may have preached to choirs, but he also said you never want poetry that is simply a checklist of opinions for you to give your assent. You don’t have to go to church with Baraka to learn deep lessons from his writing. His daggers and javelins could be right useful in our trumped up political world.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016


A couple weeks back I was having my usual commuting troubles, this time at Dulles airport. We had boarded the flight for Denver, gotten settled and comfortable, when the pilot came on the intercom to advise us that there was a maintenance problem. After some time had passed, we were asked to leave the plane and stand by. I was still in the middle of making a rebooking when the announcement came that the problem had been resolved, and we were reboarding. Somehow in the process I got upgraded to a seat in first class, where I found myself sitting next to this gentleman, who was already sipping at a drink.

In the way of commuters in this situation, we began talking about our chances of making connections and our business on the other end of the flights. My seat mate was on his way to Aspen, which sounded lovely. He was afraid he might have to drive the rest of the way from Denver in the dark if he missed his connecting flight. He had a meeting with a client in the morning, after which he hoped to spend some time on the white water rapids. As we do, I asked what business he was in. Turned out he is a political strategist, with his own company, Advancing Strategies LLC. As we do, I asked after his client, who turns out to be Gov. McCrory of North Carolina.

Oh dear . . . 

A friendly and effusive fellow, my seatmate, one Chris LaCivita, let me know that in the past he had worked for George Allen, Jack Ryan and others. I secretly sent up a prayer that his current client might be as unsuccessful as those two, but in fact Mr. LaCivita's clients have done quite well over the years.

Back in the day, he was the media consultant for the Swift Boat people.

There were several breath catching moments in our conversation, but one that almost made me lose my own drink came when he announced, "the Democrats are going to cause the end of women's sports."

Huh?  Was this some twisted complaint about Title 9?

No, LaCivita's theory was that "the Democrats" were going to allow "men who think they're women" to play women's sports.

This sounded extremely unlikely to me, so I made an uncharacteristic wager:  $50 says that ten years from now we will still have women's sports. I gave him my business card so that he would be able to locate me a decade on and pay up. He provided me with one of his cards in return, a considerably stiffer piece of cardboard, I have to say, than the one Penn State supplies me.

But there was more astonishment to come.  LaCivita told me that in the time before Jack Ryan had had to drop out of his Senate race against Barack Obama, LaCivita had paid over $140,000 for Oppo research on the young Obama. One tidbit he turned up proved one of the claims in Obama's first book to be untrue. Which claim? Obama, it seems, had claimed to have witnessed a murder while visiting a barber shop. LaCivita's investigators (at this point I can't help thinking they're the same guys Trump sent to Hawaii to look into the birth records) found that there had never been any such crime anywhere near that location around the relevant dates.

"I hate it when Democrats make race an issue," he injected a bit later. I observed that in my experience, when somebody is accused of making race an issue it's because somebody else is making an issue of race. "The Democrats shouldn't make ads telling Black people that Republicans want to chain them up and drive them back into slavery," he told me. I agreed that they shouldn't, but added that I had no knowledge of any such ad ever having been made. He described to me an ad that showed a black man being dragged behind a truck in chains and said the ad told Black people George Bush wanted to make them slaves again. I said I had never seen the ad, but that it sounded to me like it had something to do with the horrible murder of James Byrd, Jr., in Jasper, Texas, and that the ad most likely was a response to that outrage. "That's what I like about you professors," he said. "You can make things mean anything you want."

I pointed out that I was simply expressing doubts, and promised first thing to look up that ad.

As we were getting off the plane in Denver, and I was rushing like mad to make my connection. Chris said to me, "be sure to email."

I'm a man of my word. The next day I sent him this email:


I made the flight and, miraculously, so did my baggage.

Hope you managed at least a nap before the white water -- 

Two quick things:

1) As promised, I looked up the ad that showed a black person being dragged by a chain, and have it on the screen in front of me now. I see why I had not known of it; it was not a national ad. More to the point, I see that nowhere in the ad is there any suggestion that Republicans (generally) will put black people in chains or return to slavery. As I gathered from your description, the ad makes a specific invocation of the horrible Byrd case. It was an issue ad about hate-crime legislation. We may differ on the matter of hate-crime legislation (in the past I have supported hate-crime legislation while opposing hate-speech rules), but there's no doubting that is what the ad addresses. This is not a matter of my interpretation. The ad says "call Governor George W. Bush and tell him to support hate-crime legislation."

2) I think you're due a refund from the people you hired to do that Obama research you told me about. Don't know if they had access to searchable text when they did their work, but we certainly have that technology today. Nowhere in Dreams from My Father does Barack Obama claim to have witnessed a murder while visiting a barber shop. I suspect your researchers were thinking of the following passage (unless they were really thinking of Ben Carson) the book narrates as Obama visits Smitty's Barbershop in Hyde Park:

"Somebody had just finished telling a story about his neighbor -- the man had been caught in bed with his wife's cousin and chased at the point of a kitchen knife, buck naked, out into the street -- when the talk turned to politics."

If somebody told you they researched this, they weren't being straight with you. In the first place, it wasn't Obama's story. In the second place, it would be impossible to research this as no time or place was given by the teller of the tale. (BTW, nearly every city has versions of this story in circulation. I first heard one, in a barbershop as it happens, when I was 13. There' a great book titled I Heard It Through the Grapevine about rumor and urban legend you might enjoy.)

Next time hire some English grad students. They're really good at this sort of work.


That was August 15. Haven't heard a word from him in reply. I'm beginning to think he won't be good for the $50!