In the Tradition: Amiri Baraka, Black Liberation, and Avant-Garde Praxis in the U.S

Article excerpt

The native intellectual who takes up arms to defend his nation's legitimacy and who wants to bring proofs to bear out that legitimacy, who is willing to strip himself naked to study the history of his body, is obliged to dissect the heart of his people. (Frantz Fanon)

My thoughts here will follow three lines implied in a phrase from one of Baraka's titles: "raze/race/raise." What and who is to be razed and how? What and who is to be raised and how? At center are historic contradictions of the black liberation movement and the tension in avant-garde aesthetics between negation (Dada) and affirmation (Constructivism), between demolition and the work of building:

1/ raze: Dada. For Dada, the Adornian negation (blast) of bourgeois Western rationality. For Baraka, the Western demolition mission.

2/ raze: jazz: raise. Baraka once noted that one way to make white institutions "crumble and its apologizers break and run even faster than they are now would be to turn crazy, to bring out a little American Dada, Ornette Coleman style" ("Philistinism" 53). Like Coltrane shattering, splintering dead Western forms (e.g., Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes) into sheets of sound. But in later Baraka, jazz becomes a method for raising the race. In a jazz poetics, he finds an anti-Adornian, anti-bohemian affirmative--an avant-garde praxis connected to the culture of the black masses.

3/ raise: race: idiom. African American vernacular--its traditions are crucial to Baraka's most advanced poetics. The long tradition of battling in words--signifyin(g)--has been fused with a jazz poetics.

1/ raze: Dada

If I cry out: Ideal, ideal, ideal Knowledge, knowledge, knowledge Boomboom, boomboom, boomboom, I have given a pretty faithful version of progress, law, morality and all other fine qualities that various highly intelligent men have discussed in so many books, only to conclude that after all everyone dances to his own personal boomboom, and that the writer is entitled to his boomboom (Tristan Tzara, "Dada Manifesto 1918")

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 (Amiri Baraka, "Wise 1")

The boomboom that is vital in the two Dadaist passages above is a human vitality each poet sees under threat. In the first, it is the vitality of the Dada subject threatened by deadening bourgeois subjectivity and society. In the second it is the Afrikan subject threatened with enslavement into gray Western subjectivity. Comparison of these two poetics under the rubric of Dada is not new. Baraka criticism has consistently noted the continuities between Baraka's poetics and those of the historical avant-gardes, Surrealism and Dadaism (see especially Benston and Sollors). Dada's relentless word play and disruption--radical punctuation & spacing, parataxis, non sequitur, idiosyncratic spellings, punning--was aimed at destroying the degraded language logic of bourgeois Western rationality. In Baraka's work, Dada's linguistic method is appropriated into black nationalist aesthetics and deployed against the deathliness of all Western/white language and culture. Similarly, Surrealism's destabilization of bourgeois reality is redirected by Baraka to attack not only bourgeois lived reality (dead, reified) but the living death--a constant theme--in all White/Western society.

Baraka's most self-conscious use of Dada poetics occurs in Black Dada Nihilismus." (1) One of Baraka's most anthologized poems, "Black Dada Nihilismus" has a pivotal place in Baraka criticism. Much in the way Negritude was important to the Surrealists, white avant-gardists value the poem for its legitimizing linkage (homage) to white avant-gardism. (2) Scholars of the Black Arts Movement read the poem as the first definitive sign of Baraka's emerging black nationalist aesthetic. …