The obits for Amiri Baraka are coming thick and fast—at The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, NPR, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere.
I don’t think this is surprising or shocking. Baraka edited and published the poetry of the Beats (in Yugen and Evergreen) and was an important figure in the Black Arts Movement. His regularly hateful statements and actions got him the sort of attention he seemed to need, and he is a relatively well-known public figure, especially among the college-educated on the coasts—just the sort of person, in other words, who gets a mention in national newspapers when he dies.
Many of the obits mention his poetry, but don’t provide many examples of it. This is because it was either minor or second-rate. In The Weekly Standard, Sohrab Ahmari writes Baraka’s “rise to prominence is a lesson in the ways radical political commitment can disfigure talent—and mask its absence.” This is mostly right, except it wasn’t so much “political commitment” that disfigured his talent as hatred.
Some of his poems are witty or touchingly reflective. In “Monday in B-Flat,” he writes:
I can pray
But if I call
in a minute!
And in “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,” he writes:
And now, each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.
Nobody sings anymore.
And then last night I tiptoed up
To my daughter’s room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there…
Only she on her knees, peeking into
Her own clasped hands
But too many of Baraka’s plays or poems start with an element of truth and push it to a farcically erroneous extreme. Take his play The Dutchman, for example, and his poem “Babylon Revisited.” Both of these works take on the elite, white liberal fascination with African-American artists in the 1960s (skewered so effectively by Tom Wolfe in Radical Chic) that was sometimes no less objectifying than straightforward racism.
In Baraka’s work, however, these attitudes are often applied to any white person (usually a woman) who shows any interest in a black man. In The Dutchman, a white woman who initially comes on to a black man in the subway, stabs him in the heart. In “Babylon Revisited,” a poem for his friend, the painter Bob Thompson, who died of a heroin overdose in Rome, Baraka blames his “gutless” wife for his death and imagines burning not only her flesh but the flesh of all white women in revenge:
she will be the great witch of euro-american legend
who sucked the life
from some unknown nigger
whose name will be known
but whose substance will not ever
not even by him
who is dead in a pile of dopeskin
This bitch killed a friend of mine named Bob Thompson
a black painter, a giant, once, she reduced
to a pitiful imitation faggot
full of American holes and a monkey on his back
from the empire state building
In “Black Dada Nihilismus,” Baraka writes: “Rape the white girls. Rape / their fathers. Cut the mothers’ throats.” And, of course, in his long rant on September 11, “Somebody Blew Up America,” Baraka suggests that the attacks were justified because white people owned slaves and killed Native Americans.
On the whole, his poems are too often repetitive and show a man with a narrow imagination except when it came to hate—in which case, all too often he let his imagination go.