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Black Radical Enigma

Cedric Johnson teaches political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Rochester’s Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African American Studies. His writings have appeared in New Political Science, The Progressive Media Project, and In These Times.

Amiri Baraka, The Essence of Reparations (Philipsburg, St. Martin: House of Nehesi Publishers, 2003), 44 pages, paper $15.00.
Amiri Baraka, Somebody Blew Up America and Other Poems (Philipsburg, St. Martin: House of Nehesi Publishers, 2003), 57 pages, paper $15.00.
Jerry Gafio Watts, Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual (New York: New York University, 2001), 604 pages, cloth $50.00.
Harry T. Elam, Taking It to the Streets: The Social Protest Theater of Luis Valdez and Amiri Baraka (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2001), 208 pages, cloth $55.00, paper $20.95.
Komozi Woodard, A Nation within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1999), 352 pages, $49.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.

At seventy years of age, Amiri Baraka is no stranger to controversy. From his pioneering stage plays to his legendary journalistic assaults on mainstream black politicians and former allies alike, Baraka has often inhabited the space between trenchant critique, radical honesty, and venomous rhetoric. His 2002 appointment as poet laureate of New Jersey and the subsequent demands for his resignation by everyone from then-Governor James McGreevy to Elie Wiesel again placed Baraka in the limelight. This latest firestorm stemmed from his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” which reminds us of America’s history of domestic anti-black terrorism but also alludes to the cyberspace conspiracy theory alleging Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon possessed prior knowledge of the September 11 terrorist attacks and forewarned Jewish employees at the World Trade Center.

I found it ironic and ultimately tragic seeing Baraka on a CNN news program defending his art against Connie Chung and an Anti-Defamation League spokesperson. From behind his graying, scruffy appearance rang the same haughty, irreverent Newark brogue that has become so familiar over the years. Yet whatever antiwar content his poem possessed was quickly discredited as the public debate centered on charges of anti-Semitism, free speech, and censorship. Though he was as witty and defiant as ever, Baraka’s latest publicity lacked the popular resonance and critical edge of his historical work. Unlike his black power activism which was intimately linked to mass mobilizations that sought to challenge domination and transform public institutions into more democratic and responsive bodies, this latest fiasco was more media circus than movement.

Baraka’s poor choice of conspiracy over reason and the equally impoverished mainstream media “debates” which followed merely rehearse caricatures of the left which have become all too familiar in post-Rush Limbaugh America. As framed by corporate media, Baraka, and for that matter left opposition, are relics of a bygone era—frail, wedded to anachronistic ideas and out of touch with contemporary political realities. This latest turn of events is truly depressing because Baraka’s substantive contributions to late twentieth century black politics and American radicalism are significant. Commenting on the younger generation of sixties radicals, Harold Cruse in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual concludes, “One of the most outstanding of them, LeRoi Jones, learned in such a personal way to epitomize within himself all the other things his generation learned either empirically or vicariously.” Perhaps more than any other figure of the age, Amiri Baraka’s activist and artistic career embodies many of the contradictions and broader political challenges of developing popular democratic politics that activist-intellectuals continue to face.

Harry T. Elam’s Taking It to the Streets, Komozi Woodard’s A Nation within A Nation, and Jerry Gafio Watts’s Amiri Baraka each attempt to situate this enigmatic artist within an historical context and assess his political legacy. These works are part of a small but growing literature that revisits the black radical politics of the sixties and seventies.

Popular recollections of the black power movement are often shrouded in romanticism and reactionary politics. From its introduction into the popular lexicon during the 1966 Meredith March Against Fear, the black power slogan has maintained a peculiar place in the American political imagination. While the phrase lent itself to multiple interpretations, its advocates generally demanded control of the institutions and resources within black communities. More radical takes called for the rejection of Western aesthetic standards, solidarity with anti-imperialist struggles, and the fundamental democratization of the U.S. political economy. Although black power radicalism received heavy media attention during the sixties and seventies, it remains one of the least understood currents in post-Second World War American political thought.

These latest works advance a conversation on black power which is long overdue. Likewise, because they address Baraka as a political artist and creative activist, these works are pioneering. While a number of studies examine his literary prowess, until now few considered Baraka’s extensive involvement in electoral politics, protests, and community development initiatives.

Woodard surveys the New Nationalist and Pan-Africanist movements of the late sixties and early seventies. This study places Amiri Baraka’s leadership at the heart of those developments. Woodard’s contribution to American historiography rests in his efforts to broaden our discussion of black power beyond the Black Panther Party whose telegenic imagery and rhetoric often eclipses the wider dimensions of black power radicalism. Woodard examines other equally significant political projects such as the Congress of African People (CAP), the African Liberation Support Committee (ALSC), the National Black Women’s United Front (NBWUF), and the National Black Political Assembly (NBPA).

Baraka’s radicalization follows a trajectory similar to other baby-boomer radicals whose political maturation was framed by Cold War domestic conformity, black urbanization, the civil rights movement, and third world decolonization. He was born Everett Leroy Jones to a lower middle-class family in 1934. The disappointments of Jones’s young adult years pushed him off the beaten paths to American bourgeois attainment. Jones dropped out of Howard University in 1954. After a brief stint in the U.S. Air Force, he was “undesirably discharged” in 1957 under charges of communist sympathy. Jones recovered from these setbacks and settled into the Beat counterculture milieu of Greenwich Village. During his bohemian phase, Jones coedited the literary journal, Yugen, with his first wife, Hettie Cohen. Jones produced his most captivating, enduring contributions to American letters during the early sixties—namely, his first volume of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note and his plays Baptism, The Toilet, and Dutchman. Unfortunately, Woodard dedicates precious little attention to this fertile artistic period in Jones’s life. Instead, A Nation within a Nation focuses on Jones/Baraka as “the people’s hero” and a “rebellious outlaw.”

Woodard notes the immense impact of Jones’s 1960 trip to Cuba with a Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC) delegation that included other black activists and writers, such as Cruse, Robert F. Williams, Julian Mayfield, and John Henrik Clarke. During his travels, Jones was impressed by the socialist realist perspectives of young Cuban artists who asserted both the political instrumentality of art and the revolutionary obligations of intellectuals. In “Cuba Libre”—his Evergreen Review essay on the FPCC trip, Jones conveys his frustration with bohemianism and his longing for a more political radicalism. Woodard details Jones’s initial forays into political activism—namely his participation in the 1961 protest at the United Nations headquarters following the assassination of Congolese premier, Patrice Lumumba.

Between his Cuba excursion and the political assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Jones increasingly embraced black cultural nationalism. He took on the Arabic name, Ameer Barakat or “blessed prince” (later adopting the Kiswahili variation) and slowly converted to Kawaida—the brand of cultural nationalism authored by Maulana Karenga, founder of the Los Angeles-based Us Organization.

With the formation of the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School (BART) in 1965, Baraka sought to politicize his cultural work and develop popular modes of transmission. Elam compares Baraka’s efforts to develop a “black revolutionary theater” with the work of Chicano playwright, Luiz Valdez and the El Teatro Campesino. Elam contends that “the social protest performance not only reaffirmed the values, heritage, and solidarity of marginalized blacks and Chicanos but also presented new models for change in the U.S. social order. The cultural affirmation of the performance supported the transformative action and new revolutionary symbols within performance text.” In a similar vein, Woodard underscores the importance of Baraka’s artistic production to the development of wider identity-based political struggles.

A Nation within a Nation captures Baraka’s penchant for grassroots mobilization and his momentary influence within national black politics. Between the 1967 Newark Black Power Conference and his formation of the Congress of African Peoples (CAP) in 1970, Baraka emerged from relative obscurity to exercise considerable influence within black radical circles. He was central to efforts to develop a national black political vehicle. As such, he and CAP activists engineered the planning sessions that birthed the historic 1972 National Black Political Convention at Gary, Indiana which drew together over 10,000 activists. Likewise, North Carolina-based activist, Owusu Sadaukai enlisted the help of Baraka and CAP cadre in the 1972 African Liberation Day mobilization in Washington, D.C. where more than 30,000 people marched against Portuguese colonialism and white settler rule in Southern Africa.

Woodard’s strongest contribution rests in his coverage of local black power politics. Newark is exemplary of black nationalist influence within African American political culture during the sixties and seventies. Woodard narrates the development of the Committee for the Unified Newark (CFUN) and the historic Black and Puerto Rican Political Convention which facilitated the election of Newark’s first black mayor, Kenneth Gibson in 1970. To win the election, Baraka skillfully integrated conventional campaign tactics with an assertive racial identity politics promoted through local cultural institutions like Spirit House. Woodard contends that Baraka and CFUN devised “an expressive strategy for the campaign that would arouse a collective black and Puerto Rican identity, stress progressive platform principles and even controversial issues, register and mobilize blacks and Puerto Rican voters.” Woodard’s most remarkable chapter details the eventual showdown between Gibson and black power activists over the Kawaida Towers housing complex.

The Kawaida Towers project epitomized the practical, progressive edge of black power politics. CAP organizers assembled a talented, multiracial team of architects, attorneys, and contractors to address immediate housing shortages and to carve out more meaningful, livable space in postindustrial Newark. Baraka and CAP activists secured funding from both the Department of Housing and Urban Development and New Jersey’s Housing Finance Agency to build a sixteen story, low-to-moderate income housing complex in Newark’s predominantly Italian North Ward. A political crisis quickly unfolded over whether the city should grant tax abatement to the project. As pressure from reactionary local whites mounted, support from local black politicians unraveled. Gibson’s initial endorsement wavered while city councilman Earl Harris’s opposition to the project was unequivocal. The Newark city council’s eventual rejection of Baraka’s abatement proposal derailed the project and signaled the breakdown of radical influence over local black politicians.

Woodard experienced Newark’s black power experiment first hand. Yet his closeness to the subject bears some problems. The vindicationist tone of A Nation within a Nation bridles critical interpretation of Baraka and black power radicalism. His analysis falters in identifying the sources of radical failure. Woodard focuses disproportionately on external factors at the cost of fully probing internal movement contradictions. He casts a critical eye on both state policing of radical activists and the avuncular brokerage politics of the emergent black political regime. However, Woodard does not venture beyond these customary narratives of co-optation and repression.

This focus on external pressures, neglects full interrogation of the limits of black power politics. Radicals’ insistence on race unity and indigenous control helped to mobilize black citizens and transform the face of local and national government. However, black power promoted the specious notion that racial loyalty—and not conservative ideology, party discipline, corporate power or countervailing electoral pressures—would determine the agenda priorities of the new black political elite.

In a similar vein, Woodard makes little effort to explain the sources of Baraka’s intellectual restlessness and his often misdirected ad hominem attacks. Also, he does not rebut well-known criticisms of Baraka’s autocratic tendencies—advanced during the movement by fellow intellectuals such as Harold Cruse and more recently, by Robert C. Smith in We Have No Leaders: African Americans in the Post Civil Rights Era (1996). Such actions were consequential, and it could easily be argued that these leadership flaws deeply undermined Baraka’s stature in black public life.

Woodard barely mentions CAP’s ideological conversion to “Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse Tung Thought” during the mid-seventies and the ensuing Marxist-nationalist debate which inflamed the pages of major black power organs like Black Scholar and Black World. The Marxist-nationalist debate marked an unfortunate retreat from the powerful, issue-driven alliances personified by the early African Liberation Day mobilizations.

The turn to “scientific socialism” was constructive to the extent that it encouraged more critical perspectives regarding late American capitalism and the limits of black ethnic politics. However, inasmuch as black power activists fetishized Marxism they departed from the intellectual and political spirit of materialist critique. Some radicals’ growing conviction that doctrinaire ideology—and not historically specific, germane public issues—should serve as the principal basis of political work was essentially flawed and counterproductive. The mid-seventies Marxist-nationalist fracas discouraged reflexive political theory and constructive engagement, degraded the character of black public debate, and deeply undermined radical politics. Woodard misses an opportunity to weigh the significance of these developments for post-segregation black radicalism. Watts’s Amiri Baraka offers a more critical reading of this subject matter.

Watts declares that Baraka’s most influential years—from the 1967 Newark riot to the 1974 Kawaida Towers meltdown—were characterized by “a quality of political engagement that has rarely been rivaled in the twentieth century by traditional American intellectuals.” Watts identifies a fundamental tension within Baraka’s political work—his quest for meaningful political engagement and appetite for invective. In scope and critical intensity, Watts’s Amiri Baraka outpaces all previous work.

Shunning nostalgia and hagiography, Watts tackles the sundry problems of cultural nationalist politics head on. He illuminates the sexism and homophobia which informed the rhetorical style, leadership practices, subcultural norms, and division of labor within many black power organizations, including CFUN and CAP. Watts argues that “Baraka’s formulations of gender relations unequivocally called for the black realization of idealized, traditional American, patriarchal family relationships. Like other black cultural nationalists, Baraka was able to delude himself into thinking that there was something oppositional in the black patriarchal family.” Watts does recognize Baraka’s personal growth noting his post-black power advocacy of a pro-feminist politics. Nonetheless, Watts’s analysis of the gendered dimensions of black power remains especially relevant to our neoconservative times given the vulgar reassertions of male authority reflected in black manhood summits and ascendant social policy discourses which link crime and poverty to the loss of “traditional” family values.

Watts addresses state subsidization of black identity politics during the 1960s, namely BART’s funding through Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU), an antipoverty program created via Lyndon B. Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity. This relationship contradicts the well-known, anti-coalition sentiments of many black power radicals. Moreover, such state accomodations to sixties radicalism are indicative of the emerging dynamic of race management that congealed during the post-segregation era.

Watts’s discussion of the political dead end created by doctrinaire ideology is also insightful. For Watts, Baraka’s embrace of autocratic politics were the primary cause of his removal as secretary-general of the National Black Political Assembly in 1975. Baraka’s leadership style did generate opposition within the assembly ranks—Oklahoma politician and assembly secretary, Hannah Atkins Diggs publicly accused Baraka and CAP cadre of coercive tactics. Yet Watts’s explanation of Baraka’s fall from grace might underestimate the presence of late Cold War red-baiting within black middle-class leadership circles.

Watts’s Amiri Baraka suffers from other problems of evidence and interpretation. His generally perceptive analysis often dissolves into trite dismissals and vituperation rivaled only by those of Baraka himself. At times, Watts’s discussion is more opinionated than soundly argued. His promising political critique of Baraka’s artistic corpus and activism is unfortunately eclipsed by dubious accounts of Baraka’s private motivations. Unlike Woodard whose work was grounded in dozens of interviews with key movement figures, Watts relies exclusively on archival materials. Perhaps, oral interviews might have added the historical nuance this work lacks and provided more convincing evidence for his most speculative claims. Such methodological problems are not merely academic for they have the cumulative effect of weakening this work’s analytical power.

For instance, in his discussion of the 1972 National Black Political Convention, Watts attributes authorship of the National Black Agenda’s preamble to Congressman Walter Fauntroy and Illinois State Senator Richard Newhouse. However, William Strickland and Vincent Harding of the left-leaning think tank, the Institute of the Black World, authored “The Gary Declaration,” which garnered the support of many radicals and the outrage of mainstream leaders, such as the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins. Other interpretive problems flow from similar historical inaccuracies.

Elsewhere, Watts mischaracterizes the fundamental causes and dynamics of this historic convention. He claims that the meeting “was supposed to set in motion the creation of a permanent black political infrastructure, the National Black Political Assembly.” This interpretation misreads the convention’s prehistory and impetus. To the contrary, the assembly was the product of compromise between radical forces who desired an independent black party and mainstream politicos who sought to exploit the highly-publicized convention as political capital without making long-term institutional commitments. The assembly model was proposed by Baraka in a pre-Gary convention position paper, “The Nationalist Overview,” and was openly criticized by left-leaning nationalists affiliated with the Greensboro, North Carolina-based, Malcolm X Liberation University (MXLU) and Student Organization for Black Unity (SOBU). Having been at the center of the diplomatic work which drew together mainstream politicians and radical activists for the convention, Baraka sensed that a black party would alienate moderate elements while MXLU and SOBU activists argued that Baraka’s proposal was too pro-establishment. Watts’s bold brush strokes do not create a satisfying portrait of the internal contingency, backstage dynamics, and wider political complexities that characterized the 1972 Gary convention and other political activities which Baraka helped facilitate.

Serious reconsideration of sixties radicalism has never been more urgent. Although there are certain noteworthy exceptions, contemporary black politics is often characterized by a mix of social conservatism and quixotic pursuits—from Bill Cosby’s self-serving attacks on the black urban poor to more progressive activists’ preoccupation with an impotent reparations campaign as panacea to American racial inequalities. In light of the current state of affairs, serious analysis of the black power movement and its legacies is warranted.

Baraka’s extraverted life reminds us of the challenges and possibilities which accompany radical praxis. His bouts with sectarianism are a cautionary tale to contemporary activists who seek to craft a radical left politics that resonates with the wider public. At his most creative moments, Baraka’s charismatic presence, organizational skills, and artistry spurred thousands into meaningful political engagement and transformed African-American politics and American public discourse generally. The purposive political actions undertaken by Baraka and other black power activists are both moving and instructional.

Although the ideas and tactics of bygone eras can never be slavishly applied to contemporary times, the prospects for developing viable opposition partially hinges on how well or poorly activists understand the historical processes that created our current political conditions. In their efforts to illuminate the suppressed history of late twentieth century black radicalism, Elam’s Taking It to the Streets, Woodard’s A Nation within a Nation and Watts’s Amiri Baraka might nourish renewed dialogues around building and sustaining political alternatives.