Art is a Weapon in the Struggle of Ideas: Interviewing Amiri Baraka
By Sophie Erskine.
3:AM: First, you’re best known as the father of the legendary Black Arts Movement in Harlem in the 1960s. But if you hadn’t done it, would someone else have? To put it unforgivably bluntly, were you its hero or were you its figurehead?
AB: The questions, for the most part, are very superficial. If you had done more actual study of all this your questions would have more substance. You can google the Black Arts Movement and find out more than you seem to know. E.g. here.
3:AM: Oops – I tried! So, have you met golden boy Barack Obama? If so, what did you say to him? If not, what would you say to him?
AB: Why the term “Golden Boy” for the US president? It seems patronizing. I met him a couple years before the election at a political gathering where my son, Ras Baraka, was speaking. Senator Obama was there to support the Senate candidacy of Senator Menendez. I said, “How’re you doing?”
3:AM: Fair enough – I thought the question might be relevant, but I guess it sounded a bit stupid. So, you started off life as Everett LeRoi Jones, before dropping this “slave name”. You then took the name of Imamu (“spiritual leader”) Amiri Baraka, only to abandon Imamu due to its “bourgeois nationalist” implications. Could you talk me through this intriguing process?
AB: The name Amir Barakat was given to me by the Sunni Imam Heesham Jaaber, who buried Malcolm X. I “bantuized” it, making it Swahili instead of Arabic, to Amiri Baraka. The Imamu is a title given me by Ron Karenga when I was in an organization, Congress of African People, that was linked with the organization he chaired, “US”. When we were no longer linked to that organization, I dropped the Imamu (which means spiritual leader).
3:AM: I’m fascinated by the controversy your work has generated, particularly in terms of the parts of your writing many have perceived to be anti-white. For example, in 1965 you wrote: “[m]ost American white men are trained to be fags. For this reason it is no wonder their faces are weak and blank. … The average… [white person] thinks of the black man as potentially raping every white lady in sight. Which is true, in the sense that the black man should want to rob the white man of everything he has. But for most whites the guilt of the robbery is the guilt of rape. That is, they know in their deepest hearts that they should be robbed, and the white woman understands that only in the rape sequence is she likely to get cleanly, viciously popped.” To what extent have people overestimated or misinterpreted your anti-white-ism?
AB: Those quotes are from the essays in Home, a book written almost fifty years ago. The anger was part of the mindset created by, first, the assassination of John Kennedy, followed by the Assassination of Patrice Lumumba, followed by the assassination of Malcolm X amidst the lynching, and national oppression. A few years later, the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. What changed my mind was that I became a Marxist, after recognizing classes within the Black community and the class struggle even after we had worked and struggled to elect the first Black Mayor of Newark, Kenneth Gibson.
3:AM: You said that “poetry is music and nothing but music”. Can you describe the influence of Sun Ra in particular on the evolution of your poetry-music?
AB: On the cover of my latest book, Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music (University of California Press), there is a photograph of the front of the Black Arts Repertory Theater School, with me at the bottom of the steps bringing back some refreshments and at the top of the steps, left, is Sun Ra, who used to come up to Harlem, and hang out with us almost every day. He also played a concert weekly there where he introduced his “space organ” which he had outfitted with lights – dark lights for low sounds, brights for high sounds. This was before Bill Graham hooked up the light show for the rockers in San Francisco.
Sun Ra had great influence on us, not only with his music but his philosophy, but I always thought poetry was heightened and intensified by music, which is the influence of the black church…
3:AM: Last one, I promise. Since 1974, you’ve produced lots of socialist writing; your hope is for the destruction of capitalism and the establishment of a socialist society. You seem to see art as the catalyst for revolution. How exactly would this play out, and what conditions would be needed for such revolution to happen? Might the current turbulent economic climate set the stage for a change in the economic structure of society?
AB: In the 19th century, Marx said that the capitalists would, in their desire for more and more profits, induce the working class to sink into deeper and deeper debt, and this would be one reason that capitalism would begin to sink – because the governments would be forced to nationalize the capitalist institutions, who would move from corporations to corpses (as in “zombie banks”).
Art is a weapon in the struggle of ideas, the class struggle. The bourgeoisie uses the arts to valorize capitalism, whether books, films, drama, music. The most progressive artists can never get the exposure that the artist prostitutes get. Mao said even arts, literary criticism et cetera is part of the class struggle. So that we must utilize works that are artistically powerful and ideologically revolutionary.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Sophie Erskine is part-time research assistant to the novelist Karen Essex. She is the media manager for the poetry group Perdika Press and is in the first stages of writing a film with the neuropsychologist Paul Broks and the theatre director Mick Gordon.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 4th, 2009.