Thursday, January 16, 2014


[By William J. Harris]

"If my letter re your poem sounded crusader and contentious I’m sorry. But I have gone deep, and gotten caught with images of the world, that exists, or that will be here after we go. I have not the exquisite objectivity of circumstance. The calm precise mind of Luxury. . . . I can’t sleep. And I do not believe in all this relative shit. There is a right and a wrong. A good and a bad. And it’s up to me, you, all of the so called minds, to find out. It is only knowledge of things that will bring this ‘moral earnestness’.”

--Amiri Baraka to Edward Dorn, 1961


He shits
And doesn’t
Even notice

He has
His mind
On the stars

Let him
On your head

--William J. Harris

It is hard to believe but the great poet, Amiri Baraka’s funeral will be on this Saturday, January 18 in Newark. It is hard to believe he has left us so soon. Each time I saw him he was so alive and vital, especially in performance. He was a fighter and an artist to the end.
Since the mainstream never understood Baraka, it surprises me that there has been such a mainstream response to Amiri’s death, including the front page of “The New York Times.” It seems like they realized something important had happened whether they understood it or not. But what really heartens me is the insightful comments by such people as Ishmael Reed, Questlove, Greg Tate and Richard Brody and in such strange places as “Ebony,” “The New Yorker,” and “The Wall Street Journal.”  And Ish Reed is right, the mainstream has ignored all the great work after the Sixties. In spite of the narrow-minded dumbness that has been floating around about Baraka, he has made his mark on the minds of our time.

Baraka has been a great artist in many areas, including poetry, music criticism, the novel and nonfiction. But I want to talk about him as an anti-colonial writer, a man who wanted to see the world from his point of view and not the master’s.  Perhaps this is on my mind because I am just back from India. But what I have always loved about Amiri was his superiority (we were supposed to be the inferior ones, not them) to the white power structure or any power structure. In short, he was doing the judging, not them.

To fully understand Baraka’s project, we need to revisit W. B. Du Bois’s famous concept of the double consciousness. Du Bois: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” This is a profound insight into the minority mind—or perhaps any mind which does not control the world. Amiri’s art has tried to destroy the double-consciousness, has tried to see the world through his own eyes—eyes placed in a particular body and place (culture).

There is much of Baraka’s work which is not well known and I would like to make a few suggestions. See his recent, “Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music” where he continues to both write about music and use his words like music, and “Tales of the Out & Gone,” also recent, where he continues to write “gone” stories, relatives to free jazz, Also on the internet check out Baraka in performance on Penn Sound. A real treat.

Ah, after thinking about Amiri I feel he is right here in the room with me.

Always, William J. Harris 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for these words! Let's bring him back as often as possible in just this way: thinking about (and acting on) all that he has left us to think about (and act upon).