Hey, it’s der schwarze Bohemien!
Looks like a man. Smells like a man. Gives off little sighs of pleasure when he does things.
Does anyone remember what ideology was? Ideology was Heidegger’s um welt and changing one’s name from Everett Leroy Jones to LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka (tr: Prince Blessed) and doing all sorts of things that are supposed to give off little sighs of pleasure. So touching, his giving off little sighs of pleasure when he can, when he isn’t involved in ideology and all that. So tiring, ideology. But it’s the only discipline to adopt if one can’t be involved in the discipline necessary to be a writer, especially if one’s interests are centered on production, wherein writing becomes just another form of boy discharge, shot first into the larger cavern of white culture and then Negro culture and then a Marxism that borders on Stalinism, the only ideology ole LeRoi-chile (as he was referred to by Owen Dodson, director of an early Dutchman) hasn’t supported.
Where does der schwarze Bohemien come from? From a nice middle-class home in New Jersey, where Dad carried the post and Mom (very beautiful) did things. Der schwarze Bohemien had nothing but time to discover himself and hang the folks in the process, as only nice middle-class boys are wont to do. “About my sister…/ She doesn’t like to teach in Newark because there are too many colored in her classes…/ My sister’s boyfriend is a faggot music teacher who digs Tchaikovsky.” That nice middle-class home replete with Mom’s tears: LeRoi-chile discovered himself by moving away from it toward the places where other young men were making similar nondiscoveries. First at Howard University, then in promiscuity, in one job after another, in the Air Force.
Picking his nose and reading William Carlos Williams, der schwarze Bohemien was eventually discharged from the Air Force and made his way to the East Village, where that “generation of fictitious Ofays” was more likely to revere him and his proclivity for Bohemia, white women and homosexual poets. In this underground world of difference, LeRoi-chile’s complete visual otherness cleared the stage for his megalomania, a megalomania based, in part, on the fictions those Ofays built around him. They were neither willing nor allowed to draw close to him; his look and the content of his writing were grim reminders of their Ofayness, the other side of cool. In the process of discovering himself (or at least that public East Village self) and The Word, according to other fictitious Ofays (Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Charles Olson, Williams), he began to adopt the Beat school’s reverence for considering the undiscoverable life not only worth living (see O’Hara’s “Personism”) but writing about it again and again. And why not? This was the age of advertisements for the self. In appropriating the Beat school’s language and lax schematic structure—writing poems to be printed sideways, in the margins, off the page—he was filling in his personal style. Slouching toward the Beats was just dressing down, hanging a funky beret on his nice middle-class virtue and privilege in order to be more…well, like exotic, scraggly, wild.
In the cavern of white culture that was East Village Bohemia in the late ’50s and early ’60s, der schwarze Bohemien‘s ideology was about ridding himself of as much boy privilege as possible—at least on the page. He was not concerned with whether or not his work was “written” or permeated anyone else’s consciousness. For what der schwarze Bohemien understood was the power inherent in the tantrum. Most people read his droppings as representative of a “conflicted” soul. “MY POETRY is whatever I think I am,” he wrote in 1959’s “How You Sound?!”, “I CAN BE ANYTHING I CAN… And all that means is that I must be completely free to do just what I want.”
Does one perceive the delicious contradiction in playing by white-boy rules and getting to be ole nappy-headed LeRoi-chile, too? Does one glean the chill of pleasure ole LeRoi-chile must have elicited when he played bad nigger—so bad, so grand, it was difficult to separate irony from sentiment: “Oh generation of fictitious/ Ofays/ I revere you…You are all so beautiful…”
Der schwarze Bohemien in New York: Tap, tap, tap on the typewriter keys. One could read The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader forever. His “tap tap tap” is not language created for posterity’s sake. It acts as cinderblocks upon which der schwarze Bohemien‘s mighty reputation needs to take a rest. I believe he grew weary permanently during his Black Nationalist period (1960-65), when he began building the shell of a Black Self who was horny and bad, the sexy Messiah of an oppressed race long deprived of language. Rather than exploring this role and its conceivable meaning and terror—for himself and the world—he propagated it in a language that made no bourgeois pretense of creating a world outside of his ego. Language as a tool for examining nothing but the self.
In the ’60s ole LeRoi-chile was made famous in the theatre, the only forum available to the shaman. But after the success of his best-known plays, Dutchman, The Toilet and The Slave, LeRoi-chile’s words always came flat out and in a rush, spirited along by the hot wind of his didacticism: His poem “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat” is representative: “The dictatorship / of the proletariat / you need to say that / need to hear that / not be scared of that / cause that’s gonna save your life / gonna make your life change from suffering.”
How did der schwarze Bohemien find his didacticism of soul? How did he become a self-appointed and maddening prophet of economic collapse, white subterfuge and black doom? The culture needed der schwarze careerist yipping and yelping at its pink heels in order to be able to experience the delicious pleasure of being European-derived and somehow guilty. With Martin’s death, and Malcolm’s, the time was ripe for another of der schwarze Bohemien‘s conversions—into the Imamu of Black Language. der schwarze Imamu finds an audience he can condescend to: black, poor, working class, whose roots are less privileged than Imamu’s own. The less educated ones are less aware of history—least of all that of their Prince of Black Language. Was his move back into Newark (Imamu-chile’s ole home town) a career move? It was one way of skipping over his traces: The Ofays he may or may not have revered were not going to take that particular “A” train. This movement was his. One that he did not have to share with Frank or Charles or John or any of the other poets he followed. Black power was a treehouse of his very own.
From where Baraka sits, and the reader reads (two very separate spaces with no thought in between), privilege seeps through every line of the work. In nearly every word produced during the Black Nationalist period and after, there is the tone of a chillingly condescending adult speaking—breaking things up for a child, like food that’s not easily digestible. Imamu began to project his fear of language into the simple-minded addresses, poems and plays before M&M’s assassinations; certainly before he began assassinating language. The last trace of his having some relationship to the rigor inherent in producing “true” language and speech is in Dutchman: Lula and Clay—the protagonists—are duelling pianos of sound thump-thump-thumping into the consciousness of the eternally mythologized Negro. Interesting to note that the truth Lula speaks—she’s white—about the ultimate failure of Clay’s character is a fine dramatic conceit: LeRoi-chile would not have spoken it at all without this distance. Which is what the author eventually does: speaks of a self through another mouth not necessarily reminiscent of one’s own. With Dutchman, der schwarze Bohemien frightened himself away from writing. The self-exposure was too much.
As Lula says of Clay and his author: “You look like you been trying to grow a beard. That’s exactly what you look like. You look like you live in New Jersey with your parents and are trying to grow a beard. That’s what. You look like you’ve been reading Chinese poetry and drinking lukewarm sugarless tea. You look like death eating a soda cracker.”
Hey, it’s der schwarze Bohemien! Looks like a writer but became frightened. So frightened, in fact, he’s been hiding in the glass cage of narcissism for a long time now with no writing to interfere with him at all, getting big and bigger and bigger…
Hilton Als is a staff writer for the Village Voice.
Behind the Masks
From the introduction to the book, by editor William J. Harris:
Amiri Baraka is not only a major author but he is also an exceedingly controversial one. He is one of those mavericks, who, like Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer, have produced large bodies of work that are extremely critical of American civilization. Perhaps even more so than Ginsberg and Mailer, Baraka continues to be an irritant to the American literary establishment. In fact, Baraka may be the most difficult American author to evaluate dispassionately since the modernist poet Ezra Pound, another writer whose work still evokes volatile critical response. Like Pound, Baraka has dared to bring radical politics into the world of literature and to deliver his explosive ideas in an inflammatory style.
It is not surprising, then, that critical opinion about Baraka is highly divided. For example, Kimberly Benston asserts in Baraka: The Renegade and the Mask: “Imamu Amiri Baraka is one of the foremost American artists of our century.” On the other hand, Stanley Kauffmann says in Dissent that Baraka is “the luckiest man of our times, a writer who…would be less than lightly held if he did not happen to be a Negro at this moment in American history.” The centrality of race to Baraka’s art seems to be problematic for some critics. Furthermore, he is an avant-garde writer whose variety of forms—including poetry, drama, music criticism, fiction, literary criticism, autobiography, and political and personal essays—makes him difficult to categorize, while his stormy history clouds critical objectivity. No armchair artist, he has gone through a series of dramatic stages, from wild Beatnik ranting against the square world in the late 1950s through the early 1960s, to black cultural nationalist renouncing the white world from the mid-’60s through early ’70s, to Marxist-Leninist rejecting monopoly capitalism since the mid-’70s.
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