An Epitaph for Banal Obituaries: Remembering Amiri Baraka and Juan Gelman

By Aidah Gil

A este oficio me obligan los dolores ajenos,
las lágrimas, los pañuelos saludadores,
las promesas en medio del otoño o del fuego,
los besos del encuentro, los besos del adiós,
todo me obliga a trabajar con las palabras,
con la sangre
-Juan Gelman, Arte Poética (1961)

My first three years of high-school at an elite private school in Manhattan had been relatively effortless: I had played basketball and participated in my school’s dance club, laughed my way into genuine friendships during free periods in the student lounge, proved a capacity to grasp nineteenth-century western philosophy, and risen to a leadership position in a club that advocated for cultural diversity. As my last year of high school approached however, I realized that my relationships with upperclassmen had sheltered me from the unsavory realities of privilege. As older students graduated on to college, relationships that had once emphasized and fostered my ability to dribble, dance, tell a joke, lead a group discussion, or critique Nietzsche withered into antagonisms that focused on race and class as I embodied them. Brown and poor, I had entered the ivory tower but despite the pleasures of the experience, had not been fully accepted. Institutional support was scant if not nonexistent and I was accosted with this reminder on a daily basis. The details of how aren’t necessary. It is a story we all know too well.

In the throes of perdition a mentor offered me help through an anthology of black American poetry. I  leaved through the pages, encountering many authors I knew, such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, until this:

“Poems are bullshit unless they are
teeth or trees or lemons piled
on a step. Or black ladies dying
of men leaving nickel hearts
beating them down. Fuck poems”

And this:

“Souls splintering fire. We want poems
like fists beating niggers out of Jocks
or dagger poems in the slimy bellies
of the owner-jews. Black poems to
smear on girdlemamma mulatto bitches”

And especially this:

“Whores! we want ‘poems that kill.’
Assassin poems, Poems that shoot
guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys
and take their weapons leaving them dead”[1]

By the time I had finished Amiri Baraka’s “Black Art,” tracked down and read more works that he had authored, I decided that whatever muted misery I had accepted as an appropriate response to my experience had to be eliminated.  Now, in its place, I had Assassin poems, Poems that shoot and a mind to take my adversaries’ weapons, leaving them for dead. The substitution must have worked because an antagonistic literature teacher turned tomato red when I read aloud an essay on what I explained as the tragic connections between King Lear and his status at an all girl’s school. Another teacher responded similarly to my interpretation of the school as an operant conditioning chamber for impressionable minds à la B. F. Skinner. And then there was the student who physically attacked me when she realized her verbal bullying was no match for my outspoken honesty. By early spring of my senior year, the carnage was so high that the administration deemed me a “threat” and suspended me from high school. I was not to come within a 5-block radius of the school and was prohibited from attending my own graduation. In June my diploma would arrive in the mail, just like my acceptance to Dartmouth College had a few months earlier. A dean of the college had expressed particular interest in my writing portfolio where I attempted to make the sonic fire I found so compelling in “Black Art.” In effect, my experience with Amiri Baraka, whose words had moved me to think and feel even more critically, had helped me find my way out of one situation and into something better.

Now, a little over ten years later, I am not only reading Baraka’s work but his obituaries since he died on January 9, 2014. The absence of a discussion of the transformative intimacy that his work can produce pains me most about them. Instead what abounds is a numbing reminder that his writing and activism could so quickly be interpreted as callous, hostile, polarizing, racially exclusive, homophobic, anti-Semitic and misogynist. What abounds is a sensationalist approach to Baraka’s politics that describes his confrontational use of particular social categories and inflammatory nomenclatures, as well as his persistent valuation of black American culture, but without contextualizing them as part of the deep reflection that is quintessential to so much of his work.  To the point, for who I was at 17, Baraka’s charge to—

“first, feel, then feel, then
read, or read, then feel, then
fall, or stand, where you
already are. Think
of your self, and the other
selves…think”[2]

encouraged me to critically evaluate the structures and interpersonal relationships that had brought me to “An Agony, As Now”. Then, at that institution, I was,

“inside someone
who hates me. I look
out from his eyes. Smell
what fouled tunes come in
to his breath. Love his
wretched women.”[3]

Amiri Baraka’s words, however, encouraged me to think and feel my way through a confusing fog to ultimately discover my capacity to forge pathways towards healthy self-affirmation. So what many of the obituaries and post mortem commentaries on Baraka have missed is precisely this: how the process of reflection abounding in the canon of his work exposes that “ bony skeleton you recognize as words or simple feeling” whose sharpness and sting are nonetheless “a human love, [we] live inside,” and with critical awareness, can also survive.[4] In his collection of social essays, Baraka suggests that such an awareness propelled anti-slavery movements in the United States: “Very soon after the first generations of Afro-Americans mastered this language, they invented white people called Abolitionists.”[5]

But I would also be remiss to deny how much of what Baraka critiques was also inside of me. Put another way, Baraka’s equal-opportunity honesty did not allow me to ignore my role and investment in my own demise. I remember one time I crawled down on my knees and rummaged through my school’s lost and found box, taking a blue cashmere sweater that wasn’t mine. I stole that sweater. I stole that sweater because I could not afford the sweater- it would have been a week’s pay for my father. I stole that sweater so that I could look like the people that taunted and humiliated me. I sat in classrooms wearing that blue sweater which represented their contempt for my presence and everything they believe me to be, a degenerate who did not belong at their school, a fraud and a thief. In other words, precisely what I became when I stole that sweater.  And to think I wore it without a grimace.

It disgusts me.

It disgusts me even now, because I still cannot feign innocence. Love his wretched women. I cannot say that I deserved to be absolved from my aspirations to a kind of life built of my own exclusion. I cannot say that I did not deserve to be called a girdlemamma mulatto bitch, a faggot, a dead man, a nigger and any other of the pejoratives or symbols of degradation that are often found in Baraka’s works. I did not deserve niceties or an escape route as I had in fact willed away so much of myself by placing the terms of my self-esteem in the hands of those for whom it had no value. And Baraka’s work does not allow for such an escape, for such niceties. He so often uses scatological images to describe the implications of human interactions. In other words, if you’re reading Baraka, his essays, poems and plays, you’re going to deal with shit and some of it is your own. Like it or not. And dealing with it is in fact at the heart of finding a way out and into something better. In fact if assassin poems are what you shoot, reflection is how you aim.

But this sort of intimacy, this call to accountability is not the focus of most obituaries, though it should be,  Neither is Baraka’s connection to a broader range of other poet-intellectuals of his generation, many of whom were not of African descent or from the United States. I’m thinking especially of Juan Gelman, an Argentine poet and political activist of Jewish descent, who also died this January. Between Gelman’s Velorio del Solo (1961) and Baraka’s The Dead Lecturer (1963), for example, there are unremarked bridges of feeling and experience such as reflections on every-day life in the city, conversations about poetry’s role and responsibility to historically disenfranchised peoples, and critical inquiry into the ideological tyrannies that have distressed and immolated communities in the Americas and throughout the world. Greater More important than the fact that they died in the same month, is that they lived in different regions of a shared era and history. Their mutual concerns with history and traditions can teach us so much about the possible worlds ceded to the ones we actually live in, and our recurring difficulty in finding path-changing resolutions:

“If you ever find
yourself, some where
lost and surrounded
by enemies
who won’t let you
speak in your own language
who destroy your statues
& instruments, who ban
your omm bomm ba boom
then you are in trouble
deep trouble
they ban your
own boom ba boom
you in deep deep
trouble

humph!

probably take you several hundred years
to get
out!”[6]

Rest in Peace, Amiri Baraka and Juan Gelman.

Thank you for being unafraid to live Powerfully.


[1] All excerpts in this sequence are from Amiri Baraka, “Black Art,” in The Black Poets, edited  by Dudley Randall (New York: Bantam Books, 1985), 223-224.

[2] Baraka, “Young Soul,” in The Black Poets, edited by Dudley Randall (New York: Bantam Books, 1985), 222.

[3] Ibid, The Dead Lecturer (New York: Grove Press, 1964),15.

[4] Ibid, The Dead Lecturer, 16.

[5] Ibid, Home: Social Essays (New York: AkashiClassics, 2009), 193.

[6] Ibid, Wise, Why’s , Y’s (New York: Third World Press, 1995) 7.

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