Amiri Baraka has always played with the language and, by default, our minds. His poetry and his prose often reads and sounds like a jazz improvisation that Sun Ra and Coltrane could have created. Words become sounds and the sounds of the words take on meanings never before conceived. In terms of politics, Baraka’s tales are about men and women who fought in the streets and about a politics that begins where every one else’s end. Like Sun Ra, he understands the place of dark-hued people in the west to be akin to that of a brother from another planet. It’s not because the brothers and sisters who don’t have pink skin aren’t human. It’s because the pink-skinned ones treat them as if they weren’t. Don’t believe it? Look at the history, say Baraka. Then tell me it ain’t true!
He began as one of the only Blacks lumped in with the Beat movement in American writing. Still running with his Christian name of Leroi Jones, his poetry stung and each sting acknowledged the poison of racism. Two of his 1960s theater pieces, The Dutchman and The Slave, threw the misconceptions of white racism in the audience’s faces–liberal or not. Like his then-named compatriots H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael, Baraka threw the racist aspects of integration back in the liberal sociologist’s face. Your education is better because it takes place in suburbia? Bullshit! Your god is better than mine now that you got him all blue-eyed and pink? Bullshit! It wasn’t pretty, but it made the point better than and in spite of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP.
The recently released collection of writings from Mr. Baraka titled Tales of the Out and the Gone (Akashic 2006)proves all of the above points and more. While it is always somewhat difficult to review a collection as a whole–and this book is no exception–there are some things here that are consistent. Most importantly is the language. Playful and pointed, Baraka takes the language of the beats into the language of the streets and back again, reminding us all that the original source of hip culture is the black culture of America’s streets. Bird and Monk Black Nationalism, Muslims and Marxists. Stories about GIs and hookers in Puerto Rico and one about a butler who takes a revenge worthy of Nat Turner. Lilting bebop exercises in poetical prose that bounce around the inside of your skull in a manner befitting John Coltrane’s groupings on the Ascension recordings. Multiple dimensions on a two dimensional surface. Sun Ra, too, would understand.
Baraka divides the book into two sections. One he titles “War Stories” and the other contains the “Tales of the Out & Gone.” Somewhat more linear in their telling, the war stories are of the times long ago. Protests and politics. Women and jazz clubs. Dudes who did it right and dudes who did it wrong. Women who loved and women who made love. Good stuff that’s not always fun. The out and gone are exactly that. Words get shrtened like the one you just read. Poetry that appears as prose and little fables about our lives in postindustrial capitalist America. Baraka writes in a way that makes you read some things twice and still hear something new the third time around. He carries a tune with his words much better than the average writer–poetry or prose.
It is this that makes this book so enjoyable to read. The subject matter is overwhelmingly dark like Raskalnikov is dark. The writing is overwhelmingly fun, even hilarious at times. There are moments herein when skin color and the accompanying racism are everything and there are other times when they are not. This is good stuff for today’s world–a world that we are told is beyond racism and discrimination based on skin tone. A world where this lie is merely the correct way of saying whiteness is back on top. Racism isn’t gone, no matter what Condoleeza Rice, Bill Cosby, or Barack Obama might say. And no matter what the leftists say, it ain’t just about class in the US of A. It’s about skin tone, too. Centuries of enslaving black people, killing red-skinned ones, and treating brown-toned folks like vassals or cattle doesn’t go away just because some laws were passed (or not). The discrimination and oppression becomes more sophisticated and , yes, class becomes a more obvious part of the mix, but anybody who thinks that WEB DuBois color line is a thing of the past is fooling themselves, no matter what part of town they hail from. The recent outbursts by various US comedians are but one more proof of this actuality. Then again, so are the recent figures regarding US residents in prison or on parole and probation.
Racism is not gone. It is, however, better disguised. Someone needs to remind us of this fact. Thankfully, Mr. Baraka does exactly that. Quite cleverly, I might add.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org