The first thing to say is that Amiri Baraka loved “the music,” which was jazz in the first place but also almost all forms of black music. Unlike Stuart Hall, who famously claimed that he “doesn’t give a damn” about popular music except as a site or arena for political contestation, a place “where socialism might be constituted” (a claim that I do not really believe, given Hall’s early fondness for jazz, especially the work of Miles Davis), Baraka would not have advanced such an argument.1 I can recall going to interview Baraka at his house in Newark and waking him up late one morning. After he invited me in and before he began his other morning rituals, he immediately turned on the Newark, New Jersey, public jazz station WBGO. Certainly he was concerned with music and popular culture as spaces of struggle for black liberation and socialism. That concern is an important facet of this book, that is, examining Baraka’s notion that “the music” was a fundamental instrument, so to speak, in the creation and tracking of a radical black working-class consciousness. It was this consciousness, he believed, that would propel black workers, in alliance with other sectors of the world population, to transform society, carrying out a socialist revolution. Still, Baraka’s sheer pleasure in music (and much popular culture generally) has to be recalled.
However, the focus of this project is not primarily Baraka’s aesthetic assessments of black music nor is it, as most scholarly considerations of Baraka’s engagement with and writings on black music have been, the impact of black music, particularly the blues and jazz, on the aesthetics, the formal arrangements, sound, and performance of his own work, particularly his poetry, plays, and short fiction. Such scholars and poets as William J. Harris, Aldon Nielsen, Meta Du Ewa Jones, Fred Moten, Carter Mathes, Nathaniel Mackey, Kathy Lou Schultz, Tony Bolden, Werner Sollors, Kimberly Benston, Jean-Phillipe Marcoux, and Lorenzo Thomas, to name a relative few, have already done this quite adeptly—though there is obviously room for more work in this vein. A number, from Kimberly Benston’s groundbreaking Baraka: The Renegade and the Mask (1976) to Kathy Lou Schultz’s excellent The Afro-Modernist Epic and Literary History: Tolson, Hughes, Baraka (2013), have taken up the interrelation between music and black history. Such an interrelation is a natural concern given Baraka’s own work in this vein from Blues People (1963) forward—and a subject important to this study. The focus here, which obviously builds on that earlier scholarship, is considering how Baraka’s writing on and actual performance with music proposes an influential model of the creation of an African American people or nation, and the growth and consolidation of a black working class within that nation with important ties with other working-class sectors outside the black nation. I am also concerned with the ways that Baraka used music to figure the encounter of the African American people and the black working class with what many have called neoliberalism—though that is not a term for which Baraka ever showed much affection—as well as a vision of a liberated black future.
One might say that this vision is all about the relationship among black modernity, modernism, postmodernism, and futurism—though again, Baraka’s take on things might vary considerably, though not inevitably, from the way these terms tend to be used in the academy. One of the most important ideas at stake here is taking Baraka seriously as a U.S. Marxist and Marxist thinker more than generally has been the case in critical assessments of him and his work. “U.S. Marxist” is used here because, contrary to some still common claims about the nature and practice of Marxism in the United States, Marxism here, at least the varieties that evolved from the Third or Communist International, has long seen class and race (or nation) as important, interrelated analytics rather than competing lenses for seeing society and the struggle for social liberation.
Baraka was long a major Marxist figure in U.S. thought and culture as well as an important progenitor of cultural studies in this country, albeit an activist iteration of cultural studies that was perhaps more akin to, but predating, that which arose out of the British New Left at the University of Birmingham than the generally less-politicized way it became institutionalized in the United States. In fact, it is extremely difficult to think of another major U.S. author who grappled with Marxism so intensely over such a long time as Baraka. For him, Marxism was not simply an oppositional badge or a general ideological stance. His Third World Marxist work over forty years displays a deep engagement with the writing of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Georgi Plekhanov, Mao Zedong, Amilcar Cabral, A. M. Babu, and, yes, Joseph Stalin, among many other Marxist thinkers. Another argument that underlies this project is that while Baraka’s political and aesthetic stances changed, or evolved if one prefers, considerably over the course of his career, there is much continuity in the different periods of his work and thinking. Central to this continuity is the meaning of black music and its role in helping shape an African American people and a black working class that became the heart of the black nation, as well as music as a sort of index or history of the material, psychic, and ideological development of black people. And, of course, as a Marxist activist artist, critic, and scholar for the majority of his career, he wanted to change the world, not merely study it.
The genesis of this project is in large part the result of my thinking about the meaning of Baraka’s 2014 wake and funeral in Newark. For a variety of reasons, I am not normally inclined toward personal anecdotes in my scholarly writings, though I have no a priori problem with people who do have that inclination. Perhaps, in part, I am mindful here of Baraka’s story about Albert Ayler chastising him for thinking that “it is about you” in Baraka’s music criticism—though I suppose that all of our scholarly and critical work is about us, albeit often through a glass darkly (pun in all its seriousness intended).2 But the spark for this project, though it was a long time coming, was my experience sitting in the balcony of Symphony Hall (formerly the Mosque Theater) in Newark (a city with which my father’s family has had a lengthy and deep connection, basically one as long as the Smethursts have been in the United States), at Baraka’s funeral. The stage featured nationally famous musicians, poets, scholars, rappers, theater workers, activists, and politicians, as well as locally important Newark politicians, community activists, scholars, and so on. The Newark police worked smoothly with the Nation of Islam, people from local community organizations, and other segments of organized black Newark to guide the crowd to their seats. One of the most surprising and moving moments to me and people around me (and I would guess the vast majority of the audience) was when the Newark Fire Department pipe band (all white as far as I could see and, I suspect, mostly Irish American) rose to play a musical elegy to the passing of a native son. This was a group and demographic that had frequently been in conflict with Baraka over hiring practices but which nevertheless gave a final recognition to a man (and a family) that had remained devoted to the city and that had championed the labor rights of public workers.
However, what made the deepest impression on me was the audience, the thousands of people who packed the theater, of whom I would guess at least three-quarters were local people, which is to say, black Newarkers. I had been similarly impressed the day before when I attended Baraka’s wake at a Baptist church in the Central Ward, the historic heart of black Newark, and stood on a long line that snaked around the block. Again, as far as I could tell, the thousands inside and outside the church who came to pay a last tribute to Baraka and console his family were overwhelmingly black Newarkers. To some considerable degree this had to do with the political efforts of the Barakas: Amiri; his wife, Amina; and their children, especially his son Ras, an educator, former high school principal, city councilperson, and soon to be elected mayor of the city. It seemed to me that I stood on line with every black teacher in Newark, judging from some of the conversations around me at the wake. No doubt, Ras Baraka had some influence on this due to his work in the schools.
Still, it struck me then, and now, that there had probably never been a wake and funeral for a poet in the United States like those for Baraka. At least, I had never heard of one where community people in a depressed midsized deindustrialized U.S. city that was not known nationally as an arts hub (outside of those people who study the Black Arts Movement through professional and/or personal interest) turned out in such numbers for a local writer, especially one who was such a public radical, a communist in fact. Even the funerals of James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, both beloved in the broader black community, were much more celebrity affairs—and, of course, their funerals were in New York (Baldwin’s actual hometown and Hughes’s adopted hometown), not Newark. In other words, there was something special about Baraka, about Newark, and about Baraka’s relation to his native city, which he had left to become a writer and to which he returned and remained for almost fifty years. One (or at least I) could not help but wonder about “all these blues people,” as Baraka called them in his play Dutchman. Who were they? And why were they in Symphony Hall and the Metropolitan Baptist Church? Somehow the audience, the music in the hall (from a rendition of Paul Robeson’s version of “Ol’ Man River” with its altered line of “must keep fighting until I’m dying” to jazz by Craig Harris, David Murray, Oliver Lake, the late Hamiet Bluiett, and other leading musicians, to the Fire Department Pipe Band), Baraka lying on the stage in an open casket, the various verbal tributes (some by local politicians who had ambivalent relationships to the Baraka family), and the city of Newark itself combined to make me think about Baraka, music, the city, and what it was about Baraka, Newark, and its black community that could produce such amazing events. This, in turn, made me think about Baraka’s longstanding and deep interest in (and writing on) Newark’s black musical history—an interest greatly influenced, I argue, by his wife, Amina Baraka. This interest revolved around the city as a landscape for black music and its evolution, and how the city allowed him to articulate the larger meanings of black music in more concrete, grassroots ways than he had before.3
Basically, what I want to talk about is how Baraka came to understand, track, and theorize the creation of a black nation and a black working class through his writings about and performances with black music. Another key argument is that while Baraka’s efforts in this regard only fully matured with his move to Marxism, this vision of black music both as an index of and tool in producing a black nation and class was present in embryonic form in his work from almost the very beginning. He wrote in the 1963 pre–Black Arts “Jazz and the White Critic”:
The notes of a jazz solo exist in a notation strictly for musical reasons. The notes of a jazz solo, as they are coming into existence, exist as they do for reasons that are only concomitantly musical. Coltrane’s cries are not “musical,” but they are music and quite moving music. Ornette Coleman’s screams and rants are only musical once one understands the music his emotional attitude seeks to create. This attitude is real, and perhaps the most singularly important aspect of his music. Mississippi Joe Williams, Snooks Eaglin, Lightnin’ Hopkins have different emotional attitudes than Ornette Coleman, but all of these attitudes are continuous parts of the historical and cultural biography of the Negro as it has existed and developed since there was a Negro in America, and a music that could be associated with him that did not exist anywhere else in the world. The notes means something; and the something is, regardless of its stylistic considerations, part of the black psyche as it dictates the various forms of Negro culture.4
In many respects, this is a project about Baraka’s understanding of black modernity and what comes after modernity, whether “black postmodernism,” “deindustrialization” and the “urban crisis,” the “end of the world as we know it,” and/or “black futurity.” However, again, taking Baraka’s Marxism seriously, this was an understanding that was predicated on the need to not merely study the world but change it into a socialist society with, in the words of the Staple Singers, “no economical exploitation and no political domination.”5 Or, to put it another way, Baraka pressed us to always ask the question posed by the title of a 1975 Sonia Sanchez play, “Uh, Uh; But How Do It Free Us?” in our analysis.6 Of course, one does not necessarily ask that question in the middle of the aesthetic experience itself, but at some point, one always needs to reflect on the political and ideological work that art does. One might disagree with Baraka’s particular variant of Third World Marxism or question the manner of his pursuit of it, but it is hard for me at least not to honor this faith in these difficult and depressing political times. One ancillary argument of this study with respect to Baraka’s move to Marxism is that it was with this move that Baraka reached his fully developed mature style as one of the most powerful literary performers, poets, and prose writers of the late twentieth and the early twenty-first centuries, instead of seeing that shift as a marker of a decline in his work.
This work is in some senses akin to Alexander G. Weheliye’s excellent Phonographies in which Weheliye proposes to “trace the rhizomatic vibrations of sonic Afro-Modernity through a variety of historiocultural patterns.” However, Weheliye, oddly, barely mentions Baraka (only once in the introduction) despite the fact that Baraka was probably more directly involved in the chronicling of black music and its recording, indeed more deeply a part of the music industry through his writing of liner notes, than any major black writer since James Weldon Johnson with the possible exception of Langston Hughes. Then again, perhaps it is not so odd since Weheliye’s book is deeply concerned with the interface of technology and “sonic Afro-Modernity,” and Baraka, unlike the audiophile Ralph Ellison, was not so directly interested in the audio technology of the music industry except in how it was related to modes and means of industrial production and of transmission to mass black audiences. Also, Weheliye resolutely refuses to go down the path of considering black music as resistance and as an indicator of black struggle. While he does not derogate such a path, that is simply not his project. Rather, he is interested in thinking about black music, technology, and mass culture and their role in the production of “Afro-Modernity,” which he argues is not particular to black people but a major constituent part of anything one might think of as “modernity” generally, especially in the United States.7 While the Marxist Baraka (and the Marxist me, I suppose) certainly was concerned with the ways that black music contributed to a U.S. modernity, both in terms of what black people were owed for their willing and unwilling contributions to the United States and of understanding the multinational and multiracial U.S. working class, he was all about struggle and liberation, and any account of his writing on and with black music must reflect that.
In the manner of a radical who wants to understand the world in order to change it, Fred Moten is probably the scholar whose critical work is most closely related to this study in terms of unpacking the social meaning and political effects that Baraka intended in his histories and interpretations of black music. However, Moten’s writing to this point has been directly concerned with a much more limited subset of Baraka’s writing on music than is this book.8 One thing that Moten’s writing on Baraka’s essay “The Burton Greene Affair,” along with the scholarship on U.S. popular music by Rachel Lee Rubin, provoked in me was a new appreciation for Baraka’s take on the production of music by black artists as skilled labor, the sort of labor that is frequently ignored, undervalued, or labeled as somehow instinctual or natural by white commentators. Yet, as Baraka recognized, this was something that was sounded, thematized, and contextualized by the music and the musicians themselves. James Brown (frequently referenced in Baraka’s criticism and poetry), after all, billed himself as, among many other things, “the hardest working man in show business.” However, the key, as I discuss most explicitly in chapter 4, is not simply the intensity of the labor but also the skill.9
One aspect of this skill, as in many lines of work, is that after an apprenticeship, it becomes a sort of second nature, seemingly instinctive. Again, music provides a way of looking at this question of instinct, or to use another key term of Baraka’s, “spirit.” “Spirit” meant different, if sometimes overlapping, things for Baraka at different times in his career. There is the Hegelian notion of “spirit” as the tenor or guiding principle of an age that, like dialectics, is an idealist concept that Marx famously turned on its head so that it became the material base of productive and class relations that determines the spirit of the age and its motion. Another sense of “spirit” in Baraka’s work is the sacred sense, especially of a connection to a higher, divine world, whether actual or metaphorical. Present too is the idea of “spirit” as a collective consciousness of class, of nation, of tradition that binds people together and provides linkages to the past, as in the tie of black people everywhere to Africa in the first place. During the second half of his life as a Marxist, it was the first and last senses of “spirit” that predominated, though a materialist version of the sacred, of a connection to something larger, to a better, purer self remained, with some tensions and contradictions. The last notion of “spirit” is often contrasted to the figure (and condition) of the “ghost,” which remains tied to death and a deathly whiteness (figuratively and literally), insatiable hunger for the living, and being trapped in past structures of oppression and exploitation, not unlike the captain of the Flying Dutchman referenced in Baraka’s Dutchman.10 One question that is raised in the fifth chapter, when discussing Baraka’s gloss of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” in a performance with William Parker and his band on the recording I Plan to Stay a Believer: The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield, is Baraka’s/the speaker’s comment about seeing the dead Freddie sometimes and wondering whether he’s now free or still a “slave,” which is to say, wondering if he is a “spirit” or a “ghost.”
Similarly, Brent Edwards’s Epistrophies greatly aided me in my thinking about Baraka and music, particularly in thinking about what some consider ephemeral or ancillary forms of literature, especially long-playing album liner notes, the subject of chapter 3.11 However, interestingly, Baraka is more of a presence than a direct subject of inquiry and interpretation in Edwards’s book. Another helpful concept here is Margo Crawford’s notion of a “Black Post-Blackness,” which she sees as an update of Baraka’s “changing same” for the twenty-first century. Crawford’s positing of Black Arts as imparting a sense of what is left and what is left behind, of, as Crawford uses a phrase of Nathaniel Mackey, “lingering while moving on,” is a very useful lens to look at how Baraka deployed black music to sound and break down what is always left of blackness, the black nation, and the black working class, as well as what is left behind in the motion of history.12 And, as noted elsewhere in this introduction, though “post-blackness” is a term that Baraka himself would probably not have ever used as a mature artist, except as an epithet to attack an ideological and aesthetic opponent, the idea of “post,” of “postness,” of futurity was very much on his mind, especially in his engagement with black music.
Despite the usefulness of these works, and the scholarship of Harris, Nielsen, Jones, Mackey, Schultz, Mathes, Sollors, Bolden, Thomas, and others, the thinker who helped me parse Baraka’s work in this regard the most was Baraka himself, in both his writings and in interviews. Whatever Baraka’s blind spots, quirks, and shortcomings, he had a capacity for self-criticism, often talking about himself almost as if he were another person, to a degree that I have not encountered in any other artist. As Aldon Nielsen observes about Baraka’s autobiographical novel, Six Lives, “The narrator is particularly hard on the earlier versions of himself.”13 That is to say, Baraka thought a lot about his past ideological and aesthetic stances and was willing, almost obsessively willing, to offer sharp comments about their strengths and weaknesses.
This self-reflection had its limits though, particularly with respect to gender. One of the interesting things about Baraka is that he had strong women partners in so many of his major projects: Hettie Jones as a coeditor of the journal Yugen, Diane di Prima as a coeditor of the journal Floating Bear, and Amina Baraka as a partner in almost everything he did after his return to Newark in 1966, to name the major examples.14 These women were partners in practically every other way too. While he was willing to criticize himself for his male supremacy in different moments of his career, when one reads Baraka’s autobiography and interviews, one does not get anything like a full sense of the intellectual and artistic contributions of women to the political and cultural projects with which he was most associated, and to his thinking, aesthetics, and literary and political activities. This gap in Baraka’s self-awareness and the articulation of that self-awareness is particularly addressed in the first chapter on the importance of the landscape and soundscape of Newark in his conception of the genesis of an industrial black working class and what that means for the character and destiny of a black nation. That chapter argues, among other things, that Amina Baraka was practically and ideologically a key (really the key) shaper of Amiri Baraka’s understanding of the music and culture of his hometown, even if, interestingly, she came to differ with him considerably in her understanding of Marxism, the “national question,” and how one approaches coalition-building and practical political activity. (Basically, Amiri Baraka remained a “Third World Marxist” heavily influenced by Maoism while Amina Baraka became closely connected to the Communist Party of the United States of America [CPUSA], an organization most Maoists and post-Maoists saw as “revisionist” and reformist.)
The organization of this book is roughly chronological but often with some considerable temporal overlaps, moving ahead and behind the beat, to invoke Ralph Ellison’s famous prologue to Invisible Man. The first chapter, “That’s Where Sarah Vaughan Lives’: Amiri Baraka, Newark, and the Landscape and Soundscape of Black Modernity,” obviously encompasses the time period of Baraka’s entire life, from his earliest days to his death. There is a partial time-out for the portions of his life at Howard University, in the U.S. Air Force in Puerto Rico, and as a black bohemian artist and early Black Arts initiator in New York—though, as we will see, the landscape and soundscape of the Newark of his youth were not insignificant to the development of his writing during his time in New York, even if they did not have the centrality they would assume in his later literary efforts. For Baraka, Newark and its sound epitomized the black modern. Baraka’s vision of black modernity entailed the creation of a black industrial working class and a black working-class experience and culture in the wake of the Great Migration from the South to Newark and other northern industrial cities, a migration that continued for most of the twentieth century, constantly renewing the connection of black workers with the culture, traditions, and sensibilities of the black South—itself increasingly urbanizing as the century wore on.15 This was a class forged by industrial and urban organization, exploitation, racism, and struggle against class and racial exploitation.
Baraka framed what came after modernism not so much as “postmodernism,” as it is normally used in the academy, but as historian Thomas Sugrue, among others, has called the “urban crisis” of deindustrialization vividly seen practically everywhere in Newark and the assaults of what many would term the “neoliberal” regime.16 The focus here is on how the cultural geography and history of Newark informed Baraka’s positing of a popular avant-garde continuum of black culture and politics. It also takes up the vastly underestimated influence of Amina Baraka on Amiri Baraka’s knowledge and understanding of Newark and the meaning of its music, which is to say, on virtually the entire body of Amiri Baraka’s artistic output after his return to his hometown. When Amiri Baraka came back to Newark in 1966 after a considerable hiatus, Amina Baraka, who had never left the city and played an important part in the radical black cultural and political world of Newark, was Amiri Baraka’s guide, intercessor, and interpreter to early Black Arts Newark, especially its local music scene. Even later, many of the important cultural initiatives in Newark associated with Amiri Baraka, such as Kimako’s Workshop and the Newark Music Project, were significantly the brainchildren of Amina Baraka.
Chapter 2, “‘Formal Renditions’: Revisiting the Baraka-Ellison Debate,” focuses on the key text of Baraka’s music writing in the run-up to the Black Arts in the early 1960s, Blues People, and the debate that arose after Ralph Ellison, whose Invisible Man Baraka much admired and drew on in Blues People, savaged Baraka’s book in the New York Review of Books. This conflict between Baraka and Ellison foreshadowed larger debates over the relationship (or nonrelationship) of African Americans to the United States in the Black Power and Black Arts period. This debate used models of black music, particularly what Baraka termed a “blues continuum” rooted in the South and continually transformed in urban industrial centers while retaining a blues core (the “changing same” as Baraka would famously term it later), as guides for black artists in other genres and media, whether to enmesh themselves further in the fabric of “America” or to draw away to some other notion of polity or nation. This debate, particularly the Ellison review, was also about Ellison’s reinterpreting or recontextualizing Invisible Man in terms of a liberal vision of U.S. democracy and culture, a reading that was not apparent to readers and reviewers previously despite the novel’s obvious anticommunism in its final published form. One claim here is that Ellison’s review and the ensuing debate not only provided a new frame for reading Invisible Man but also, for better and worse, cemented the reputation of Blues People as the epitome of criticism that brings history, politics, anthropology, and sociology to bear on popular music in order to understand the social meaning and work of that music, making Blues People a landmark of cultural studies before the Birmingham School—and long before British cultural studies circulated in the United States.
Chapter 3, “‘A Marching Song for Some Strange Uncharted Country’: The Black Future and Amiri Baraka’s Liner Notes,” looks at the album liner notes Baraka wrote between 1959 and the flowering of Black Arts in the mid-1960s. The concern here is not simply how his liner notes and other music marginalia became a sort of literary subgenre and of a piece with his more obviously “literary” work, albeit more obviously bound up with mass culture and commercial production than much of his other work. It is also about how his liner notes evolved to express Baraka’s sense of radical black nationhood (including the emergence of a black working class), internationalism, and black modernity in a way that anticipated his later calls for social (and socialist) transformation seen through the lens of black self-determination.
Chapter 4, “‘Soul and Madness’: Baraka’s Recorded Music and Poetry from Bohemia to Black Arts,” covers roughly the same period as the preceding chapter. As William Harris points out, not only did Amiri Baraka’s politics change over the first half of his career but so did his voice on the page and on the stage.17 This chapter tracks the changes in Baraka’s poetic voice and the role his understanding of black music played in those transformations, particularly in his combinations of poetry and music (and other forms of black expressive art). Another related topic is the significance of the process of transformation itself, of the transformation of language into poetry, of sound (including language) into music, of motion into dance, of “Negro” into “Black,” of farmer into worker. As others have noted, the notion of poetry (and music) as a process of transformation rather than a finished product have a foreground in the New American Poetry of the 1950s and 1960s (a concept that Baraka had a major part in conceiving), notably in the theoretical work and poetry of Charles Olson and the Black Mountain School. Nevertheless, Baraka used black music (and other black writers who drew on black music to inform and contextualize their work, especially Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown) as a way of thinking about black process, black transformation, and black revolution (and ultimately social transformation and revolution generally—though with the black working class in the lead).
The fifth chapter, “‘I See Him Sometimes’: William Parker Reimagines and Amiri Baraka Glosses Curtis Mayfield,” takes up Baraka’s work with William Parker and a band that Parker led on the musical project The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield in roughly the first decade of the twenty-first century. During this time, Baraka toured and performed frequently with Parker and his band, performances that have produced two live recordings to date. The heart of this chapter is readings of Baraka’s performance with Parker’s band captured by the recording I Plan to Stay a Believer: The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield (2010). What is intended by “reimaginings” here is not any deep critical term that will be deployed in other contexts beyond this study but simply that The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield was not a tribute project (or only a tribute project) or some sort of repertory set of performances but a recasting of the songs in which their interpretation, or the measurement of what Baraka called the psychic “weight” in Blues People, of that music is pushed to the fore.
The conclusion of this study says something about what I see as the larger takeaways from Baraka’s writing on and with music. In brief, these are the pioneering of an activist form of cultural studies. I make the argument that Baraka is the author of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, body of Marxist thinking about U.S. culture, particularly music, in the history of the United States, and that, contrary to some critical accounts, his move to Third World Marxism grew organically out of his earlier work and thinking, with some obvious breaks and leaps. This Marxist engagement with and explication of black music enabled him to produce some of his best work, both in published form and in performance, practically until his death in 2014, reaching an audience that was perhaps not entirely appreciated until one saw the crowds at Symphony Hall and the Metropolitan Baptist Church.
A few comments on terminology might be helpful here. When I use the upper-case “Communist,” I refer to the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and its political and cultural circles—or one of the CPUSA’s sister Communist parties. The lower-case term “communist” denotes Marxists in the Leninist stream who are not affiliated with the Communist Party USA. According to this accounting, Amiri Baraka was a “communist” but not a “Communist” for the second half of his life.
While “cultural nationalist” can have a variety of meanings, in this study it is used to identify those groups, institutions, and individuals that subscribed to the neo-African Kawaida ideology of Maulana Karenga and his US organization to one degree or another. As is discussed in this study, the issue of the influence of Karenga and Kawaidaism can be murky because, unlike the CPUSA or the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, US did not have official branches outside of Los Angeles and San Diego; rather, various groups, institutions, and activists declared their general acceptance of Karenga’s principles without having formal ties to US or embracing any sort of what the CPUSA or the Black Panthers might think of as “party discipline” and national structures to enforce that discipline. In other words, Karenga could not expel people from the Newark chapter of US in the manner that people were periodically thrown out of the Panthers and the CPUSA since there was no official Newark chapter of US, no matter how Kawaidaist the Committee for a Unified Newark and the Congress of African People might have been for most of their existences. Consequently, Kawaidaists outside of Los Angeles felt relatively free to reject elements of Karenga’s thought. For the purposes of this study, the most important result of this comparative freedom on the local level was Baraka’s rejection of Karenga’s condemnation of the blues and other related forms of black popular music during the Black Arts/Black Power era.18
Finally, the term “nation” is generally used in the Marxist sense of “a people” descended from the Third International on the “National Question,” a line that exerted tremendous influence on the “Third World Marxism” of Amiri Baraka—indeed, also on the positions of non-Marxist “territorial nationalists,” such as the Republic of New Africa.19 This sort of Marxist “nation” is distinguished from the nation-state, though a central tenet of such Marxism is that nations have (or should have) the right to self-determination, including the ability to form a nation-state, without ruling out the possibility of a multinational state. The term can get a little murky when trying to parse the distinction between a “nation” and a “national minority” in this school of Marxist thought. (Basically, a nation occupies a more or less contiguous territory while a “national minority” does not, hence the Comintern and CPUSA notion that African Americans in the “Black Belt” of the South constituted a nation while those in the urban ghettoes of the North and West did not.) Also, while this Marxist notion of a nation with a common language, economic life, territory, psychology, and so on intersects with older black nationalist ideas, it also conflicts with the common black nationalist sense of Africans and African descendants everywhere as being “a” people—or, as Maulana Karenga and Kawaidaists would say, Africans (or “Afrikans”) on the continent and in the diaspora. Both the Third International/Third World Marxist sense of a black nation or people and the black nationalist/pan-African vision of nation and people coexist in Baraka’s work, even at times in his Marxist period. It might be worth noting that though such nations may be, after Benedict Anderson, imagined communities, those imaginings had and have tremendous power and material consequences, as seen in the situation of the Kurds in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran as I write these words in late 2019.20
1. Stuart Hall, Familiar Stranger: A Life between Two Islands (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 127–29.
2. Amiri Baraka, The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 1997), 286.
3. Amina Baraka has received some, but not enough, scholarly attention as a political activist and organizer from Ashley Farmer (Remaking Black Power), Zenzele Isoke (Urban Black Women and the Politics of Resistance), Michael Simanga (Amiri Baraka and the Congress of African People), and Komozi Woodard (Nation within a Nation). However, she has been almost completely ignored as an artist. Kim McMillon’s Ph.D. dissertation on women in the Black Arts Movement, “Hidden Voices: The Women of the Black Arts Movement and the Rise of the Ancestors” (Ph.D. diss., University of California at Merced, 2019), with a chapter on Amina Baraka, is a great step forward.
4. Amiri Baraka, Black Music (New York: Morrow, 1967), 15.
5. Staple Singers, “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me),” Stax, 1973.
6. Sonia Sanchez, I’m Black When I’m Singing, I’m Blue When I Ain’t and Other Plays (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 59–98.
7. Alexander G. Weheliye, Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 205–8.
8. Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 122–49.
9. For Rubin’s treatment of the work of Merle Haggard on labor and as labor, see Rachel Lee Rubin, Merle Haggard’s Okie from Muskogee (New York: Bloomsbury, 2018), 107–22.
10. The most widely circulated of Baraka’s dichotomy of “spirit” and “ghost” no doubt takes place in Warren Beatty’s 1998 film Bulworth, where Baraka plays a sort of street madman/wiseman (“Rastaman”) and tells Beatty’s character (Jay Bulworth), “Can’t be no ghost, but you’ve got to be a spirit, Bulworth! You’ve got to be a spirit! And the spirit will not descend without song.” Whatever one thinks about the film and the dubious, if not actually racist, notion of a slick, cynical white politician becoming honest through an embrace of a stylized, not to say stereotypical, hip hop blackness (and a black girlfriend), it seems pretty certain that Baraka scripted his own lines here.
11. Brent Edwards, Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).
12. Margo Crawford, Black Post-Blackness: The Black Arts Movement and Twentieth-First Century Aesthetics (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 2, 225.
13. Aldon Nielsen, Integral Music: Language of African American Innovation (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004), 103.
14. Diane di Prima reports that the initial concept of Floating Bear as a sort of mimeographed broadsheet that would present what was cutting edge in poetry as she and Baraka saw it to a circle of interested writers and artists in a more immediate way than Yugen or other poetry journals of the time was Baraka’s. However, she fully shared reading, selecting, and arranging the work presented in Floating Bear as well as performing the vast majority of the physical work on the journal. She also suspects that Hettie Jones did much the same with Yugen and Totem Books, despite receiving far less credit for it than Baraka. Di Prima, Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years (New York: Penguin, 2002), 244, 251–54. Hettie Jones’s account suggests that she was less involved editorially in Yugen than di Prima was in Floating Bear but nevertheless confirms di Prima’s suspicion that Jones did almost all the physical tasks of layout and production. Jones, How I Became Hettie Jones (New York: Grove Press, 1996), 53–55.
15. Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich, “Interview with Amiri Baraka,” Jacket 2, January 9, 2014, http://jacket2.org.
16. Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 6. As in Sugrue’s study of Detroit, Baraka’s sense of the “urban crisis” of deindustrialization was one that had a long foreground rather than beginning in the 1970s, when the abandoned factories of Youngstown, Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago, Newark, and so on gained widespread attention in the media.
17. William J. Harris, “‘How You Sound??’: Amiri Baraka Writes Free Jazz,” in Uptown Conversations: The New Jazz Studies, ed. Robert G. O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, and Farah Jasmine Griffin (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 315.
18. The most detailed account of Karenga and US is Scot Brown, Fighting for US: Maulana Karenga, the US Organization, and Black Cultural Nationalism (New York: New York University Press, 2003). For a study of Amiri Baraka and the rise and evolution of CFUN and CAP, see Komozi Woodard, A Nation within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999). For an organizational history and memoir of CAP, see Michael Simanga, Amiri Baraka and the Congress of African People: History and Memory (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
19. The Communist view of the “National Question” had its antecedents in the thinking of Lenin, Stalin, and the Bolsheviks as they theorized about how to build a successful revolution (and, after the October Revolution of 1917, successfully construct socialism) in the notoriously polyglot Russian Empire (the “prison house of nations”). The classic Bolshevik statement on what constituted a “nation,” which had much influence on the Comintern’s formulation of nationalism, is contained in Stalin’s 1913 Marxism and the National Question: “A nation is a historically-constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological life manifested in a common culture.” Stalin, Marxism and the National Question (Tirana, Albania: 8 Nentori Publishing House, 1979), 16. Although Stalin came to be rejected by large sections of the left, including the CPUSA, after Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956 in which he denounced Stalin’s regime, the stream of Marxism that comes out of Maoism, including that to which Baraka subscribed, did not renounce Stalin and his thinking in the same manner. However, the CPUSA after 1956 and even much of the “anti-Stalinist” left remained marked by the notion of African Americans as a people or nation, even if they did not support the idea of a “Black Belt Republic.” This definition could be (and often was) applied quite mechanically as a sort of checklist where if all the items were not checked off, the population in question was not a “nation.” However, black Marxists (including Baraka), especially from the Black Power/Black Arts era on, often did not follow the checklist and were extremely reluctant to separate black people in the ghettoes from those in the Black Belt, even if they did not share a contiguous territory.
20. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 1983).