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The Greg Tate Reader
By Greg Tate
Duke University PressCopyright © 2016 Greg Tate
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The Black Male Show
I think about a time when I will be relaxed. When flames and non-specific passions wear themselves away. And my eyes and hands and mind can turn and soften and my songs will be softer and lightly weight the air. — AMIRI BARAKA
Nabokov told us that all a writer has to leave behind is his or her style. Amiri Baraka made the reading populace deal with a rowdy, robust gang of style. Miles Davis (whose powers of concentration, condensation, and cool Baraka emulated in his poetics) once said he only had use for musicians who could play a style — stone-cold-bold originals. Originality, like style, is generally what's left after artists eliminate all excess from their repertoire — all the corny stuff that seems better suited for somebody else.
Born October 7, 1934, in Newark, New Jersey, Everett Leroi Jones shed hosts of styles, skins, friends, foes, and belief systems on the way to becoming Amiri Baraka, the iconic legend of literary and political lore. Like Miles, he got beaten bloody upside the head by upsouth redneck cops for being a model of uppity nigra defiance. Like Miles, Baraka walked away with brains, cojones, and swagger intact ... intensified, even.
I'm Everett LeRoi Jones thirty years old. A Black nigger in the universe. A longer breath singer, would-be dancer, strong from years of fantasy and study.
LeRoi Jones is the byline the world first came to know him by (simultaneously) as a poet, jazz critic, playwright, essayist, and fiction writer. As Langston Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad notes, Baraka and Hughes are the only writers in the Black American canon to distinguish themselves in four genres of writing: poetry, fiction, drama, and the essay. (Ntozake Shange belongs on that list too in our humble — more fodder for diatribes to come.)
Every writer can tell you about the one book that changed their life, changed their mind, made becoming a writer a fait accompli. For this writer here, that book was Baraka's Black Music. His Blues People is standard reading for anyone wanting to know the history and socio-cultural-political significance of The Music to The Struggle, but Black Music is The One by freedom-swing musicologist Baraka that turned your boyee out. Made him leap overnight from being a fourteen-year-old Marvel Comics / sci-fi nerd to a precocious warrior nerd for the cause of freakishly-rad jazz improv.
Black Music introduced superheroic otherworldly entities calling themselves Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, and Pharoah Sanders. And did so deploying a style that was as incandescent, indelible, and whiplash smarting as the music itself. Laid down like grammatical law in Black Music is the mandate that music journalism seem as possessed by furies as The Music. Count this reporter among those writers who owe their adult vocation to being swept up by Baraka's elegant prose juju at a tender, volatile age.
The fledgling career of LeRoi Jones became noteworthy in 1959 with publication of his chapbook, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, which contains the poem of the same name now known as a much-anthologized classic. In a scant eighteen lines, a gothic young Jones parses dissonant melody from his sorrows and hallucinations, confesses alienated harmony with everyday chaos, then achieves spiritual renewal observing the mysteries of infant curiosity.
At that moment, Euro-American poetry and fiction was being resuscitated by the bebop-inspired artistic offspring of the so-called Black Mountain and Beat Generations; Jones, then ensconced in Gotham's East Village, swiftly bonded with the inner circle (Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs, Frank O'Hara, Willem de Kooning, Larry Rivers, et al.) via books or bars. Jumped onboard their drunken boat like 'twas lifesaver, barnacled onto their methods and milieu until they became his own.
Jones arrived in the East Village as a refugee of the U.S. Air Force and of Howard University — where he served time with homecoming queen Toni Morrison, studied the blues with Sterling Brown, sociology with E. Franklin Frazier, and Dante's Inferno with the great Afro-Classicist Nathan Scott. (Bombardier training was his metier in the Air Force, or the "Error Farce" in Jonesology.) Soon after arriving on the Lower East Side he became betrothed to the former Hettie Cohen, also a poet, and within scant years also became the father of two darling daughters, Kellie and Lisa — who rolling stonishly gained stepsister Dominique DiPrima in this period.
By the time Preface was published, Jones had become a promising fixture of the Village's modern art–damaged bohemia. Hardly content simply hobnobbing with the Beats' pale male star chamber, the energetic and ambitious Jones read, wrote, and edited like a fiend, thought very deeply upon all things poetical, personal, and darkly sonorous, and while sipping cocktails, dashed off his own jazz and come-what-may-tales accordingly.
This proto-fly-brother in the ointment also devoted as much time as humanly possible going out to hear music of the great Black modernists who further ignited his literary passions — John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor. These giants, among others, would provoke him to conjure his two aforementioned seminal classics of Black musicology, Blues People and Black Music.
By 1965, a barely thirty-years-old Jones had published the five now-canonical works that would forevermore ensure his presence on Africana syllabi across the land and guarantee his dramatic works would become mainstays of off-Broadway and regional theater well into the twenty-first century: Blues People (once again, church sez Amen); The System of Dante's Hell (a broken-beat fictive odyssey through his childhood, adolescence, and young manhood); The Dead Lecturer, his rapturously mordant second volume of death-obsessed née death-defying poems; Home, a book of cultural essays and belles lettres; and that first bevy of earth-scorching plays — Dutchman, The Toilet, and The Slave.
In 1959, the year twenty-five-year-old Jones published his Suicide Note, a thirty-three-year-old Fidel Castro and a thirty-one-year-old Che Guevara took over Havana with a rebel army that overturned the U.S.-supported and Mafia-friendly Batista regime. In 1961, Jones accepts an invitation to join a delegation of upstart American artists for a visit to postrevolutionary Cuba. In Havana he gets to rap with Castro and Guevara. The Cuba voyage, essayed on in Home, documents Jones's slow turn away from poetic disengagement with tings politique. This gradual 180 will later be propelled into r/evolutionary overdrive by the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965.
That catastrophic event will provoke Jones's 1966 exodus from the East Village (and his young family) up to Harlem for race-man/race-manic repurposing and action. Treating the denouement of Ellison's Invisible Man like personal prologue, Jones, having made the Village his underground asylum, tunnels his way out of existentialism, emerges more upright than a Pithecanthropus erectus atop the manholes of Lenox Ave, declares himself learned in the ways of Western men and his own 'groidal Self, and thereupon screams his right to be Blacker Than Thou like a postgraduate King Kong.
MLK and the civil rights movement had never moved Jones the way Malcolm X had. But that movement, or at least a young firebrand faction led by Stokely Carmichael, also began moving X-ward around '66 — demanding civil rights now get down with some Black Power. In the years between 1965 and 1972, Jones will come under the sway of Kwanzaa creator Maulana Karenga, who'll compel an epochal name change: Imamu Amiri Baraka (rough translation: the Wise Beloved Prince).
He shall also wed the woman who'll become his forty-five-year life partner, Amina Baraka, with whom he'll embark on parenting six additions to the Baraka line — Ras, Shani (Rest In Power), Obalaji, Amiri Jr., Ahi, and Jones. He shall also transmogrify from heady Beat ingénue to the Father of the Black Arts Movement. Other milestone works of poetry, drama, fiction, and music criticism quickly follow — Black Magic Poetry, Black Fire, Tales of the Out and the Gone, Black Music, A Black Mass, Slave Ship. He'll take to the stage and read poems or direct plays with the same jazz vanguard peers he'd written so exquisitely about earlier: Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Sunny Murray, Milford Graves.
In 1966 Harlem, he'll obtain government funding (made available to stave off an eastward migration of L.A.'s 1965 Watts uprising) to produce street concerts featuring Ayler, Graves, and Sun Ra's Cosmo-Drama Intergalactic Myth-Science Arkestra. Returning to Newark in 1967, he'll form a performance group commune, Spirit House Movers; during Newark's riotous uprising of that year, he'll be held captive by a giddy gaggle of cops intent on killing him under the jail before Jean-Paul Sartre intervenes from Paris. (Another French, Marxist cultural icon, filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, will later show up at Spirit House more in pursuit of irony than comradery.) Later in court, a Newark judge and DA will attempt to convict Baraka of inciting a riot with a poem.
By 1968, Baraka had become a resolute Kawaida-principles-following, Black cultural nationalist. The demands of all this newness meant rallying, conferencing, speechifying, etc. became as central to Baraka's existence as the more lyrical aspects of his production. His writing didn't go cold unattended (quite the opposite), but his writing career, as such, became enmeshed if not subordinate to his political fervor.
Since some of the fervor was expended in verbally assaulting pink-skinned people in general, and occasionally Jews in particular, those in the commercial American publishing industry who fit those descriptions, or were empathetic to same, saw fit not to publish any new books by Baraka for another three decades. (Trust that Baraka's literary executors will soon discover piles of manuscripts, as the man never stopped writing as prolifically as you or I exhale.)
The Black Arts Movement that Baraka godfathered (in ways alleged by some former da cap enforcers to be as Corleonean, and even Caligulan, as Conceptual) transformed the relationship between Black American society and its poets, painters, dancers, novelists, and serious musicians. It challenged Black artists to be more accessible and engaged with grassroots folk; it raised esthetic, political, and historical consciousness within Black America, bourgeoisie and working class alike.
The Movement also fostered radioactive waves of self-love, ethnic pride, tribal bonds, and identity. Some commentators (like this reporter) believe Baraka's rhetorically excessive brand of hypernationalism, while not faultless re charges of Jew baiting and whitey-hating, was a necessary countersupremacist corrective: the centuries of self-loathing that legal forms of American racism had imposed on folk of African descent required extreme countermeasures.
Say this for Baraka — he gave back to redneck racism as good and as bad as he got. Mama Tate, who maintained a friendship with the Barakas for decades, always liked to say, "Ooh, that man has a wicked tongue. Glad he never put that tongue on me!" A now dearly departed DC coworker, Harlee Little, described Baraka as a "word magician" capable of casting linguistic spells on his enemies liable to hurt them bad. To Baraka, once a rabid fan of Mandrake the Magician, Black Arts had a meaning and purpose beyond the obvious — that of deposing pale-skinned demonic forces with poetic conjuration.
Some Baraka admirers, colleagues, cronies, and debunkers (like the Black Panthers) found the cultural aspects of his nationalism a tad too cultish and indulgent in pseudo-African pageantry for their taste. The Movement's near-blind idolatry of all things Black as more beautiful than anything produced by the pink man got parodied by genius Black comic minds like Richard Pryor and George Clinton as soon as they felt safe.
Yet without the precedent and rage of the Black Arts Movement, it's doubtful that various Ivy League schools, and even many HBCU's, would've gotten pressured by students to either create African American studies programs or die. Many currently employed Black professors/celebrity-intellectuals at upper-echelon schools wouldn't have jobs today, nor would such cultural touchstones as Soul Train, BET, Essence, the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Program, or the Alvin Ailey Company have found the funding or the audience to exist.
Black Arts branded blackness in ways market-savvy, capitalist America could understand. Baraka's own poetic dynamism also gave rise to the generation of Black Arts poets who would ultimately lend hip-hop its tongue-lashing voice — David Henderson, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Amus Mor, Jayne Cortez, the Last Poets, Carolyn Rodgers, Mari Evans, Gil Scott-Heron. The equation is simple: no Black Arts Movement, no lyrical precedents for Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Mos Def, Kanye, or Jay Z. Without Baraka's Black Arts Movement there'd have been no radicalizing or modernizing lyrical precedents for hip-hop's streetwise poesy to build upon.
As the sixties became the seventies, those on the front lines of that ongoing Power Move we euphemistically call the Struggle (notably Baraka's Congress for African People, the Black Panthers, Young Lords, etc.) raised the stakes by guiding their radical vision and agenda more concertedly toward seizing electoral power in urban America — rallying hard to see that Black faces got voted into high urban mayoral places. The former goal led to the first National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, circa 1972, which Baraka was instrumental in organizing and rousing with a speech (one Mama Tate, who was there, still remembers with passion).
Within two years, the grassroots folk of Newark, Gary, Oakland, Detroit, and DC had their first Black mayors and congress people. That moment's political vanguard also aligned themselves with national liberation movements in Cuba, Vietnam, Algeria, Palestine, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola, and South Africa. The turn toward identifying with the revolutions being waged by other peoples of color around the globe resurrected the inclinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. in this regard.
In 1974, though, Baraka made a swift left turn away from being Mr. Super Pro-Black to becoming an avowed Communist. (Under Baraka's fast-moving, ideology-switching hand, the Congress of African People eventually became the Revolutionary Communist League [Marxist-Leninist-Mao Tse-tung Thought], which later merged with some Pan-Asian, Chicano-Latino socialists to become the League of Revolutionary Struggle.)
The suddenness of Baraka's move struck some devotees like an ambush in the night; other less invested Black radicals considered these exotic switcheroos hilariously routine for the mercurial Baraka. Many position papers and sloganeering poems soon followed, as did epiphanic apologies for early acts of anti-Semitism by Baraka's younger, class-struggle-clueless self. Our man also declared himself to be an anti-Zionist. In 2003 this distinction didn't dissuade New Jersey governor Jim Greever from attempting to snatch back Baraka's Poet Laureate of New Jersey title after he dropped his incendiary take on 9/11, "Somebody Blew Up America." This bromide insinuates that various and sundry forces — George Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Ariel Sharon, the CIA, state of Israel — all knew the attack on the Towers was imminent, and took pains to ensure that all of Israel's WTC-employed folk avoided the workplace that horrific day. From the meshuggenah, our takeaway was that anyone who thought Amiri Baraka couldn't still Set It Off didn't know who they were dealing with.
By 1980, Baraka had merged forces with the multicultural League of Revolutionary Struggle, while back in the post–civil rights money jungle, the radical wing of Black American intellects had begun to come in from the cold at spots like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Brown, and Columbia. Other old cells, like surviving members of the Black Liberation Army and Weather Underground who'd held tight to paramilitary dreams of plotting the Fall of America, got either killed or captured and sentenced to supermax federal prisons for forever and a day. For his part, Baraka would spend the next twenty-five years teaching literature at SUNY Stony Brook, with short stints at SUNY Buffalo, Rutgers, and his alma mater, Columbia University, along the way.
Baraka's changes in political philosophy never took him far from The People or The Music he loved or from prolific writing. He returned to music writing, a vital gumbo published as Digging a few years back contains definitive, up close and personal writing on the only two figures, musical or otherwise, who Baraka ever insinuated intimidated him in print: Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln.
The Barakas' family home in Newark became legendary in the eighties and nineties among younger artists and intellectuals of the funk and hip-hop generations for the generous, open verbal jam sessions convened there. At these, one might walk in (as my drummer friend J. T. Lewis did) and find yourself irrevocably immersed in hours-long conversations with "Nikki Giovanni, Ishmael Reed, Sundiata (RIP), and Harry Belafonte all under one roof."
Excerpted from Flyboy 2 by Greg Tate. Copyright © 2016 Greg Tate. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments vii
Introduction. From Outer Space to Outer Place 1
1. Narrating Mars in Utah's Desert 25
2. Mapping Mars in Silicon Valley 71
3. Visualizing Alien Worlds 111
4. Inhabiting Other Earths 149
Conclusion. Navigating the Infinite Cosmos 189
What People are Saying About This
"There is something almost quixotic in scientists' work to make remote-sensed data into not only signals but places. It is lovely; and at the same time problematic. Lisa Messeri poignantly renders all of this palpable at once. Rich with ethnographic detail, Placing Outer Space makes a decided contribution to discussions in anthropology and science studies on outer space and alien worlds and to classic discussions of the significance of 'fieldwork,' 'immersion,' and the dialectic between the strange and familiar in knowledge production."
"Part cosmic travelogue, part scholarly analysis, in Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds, Lisa Messeri refreshingly interprets the planetary scientist's methods and tools and orbs-of-interest through the lens of a curious anthropologist. From there we gain insight into who we really are as explorers, and what motivates our endless search for worlds beyond."
"Placing Outer Space traces the scientific contours of interstellar dreams, where hints of distant planets open up the magical possibilities of other worlds. Lisa Messeri is an outstanding guide to this outer terrain of human ingenuity, and her terrestrial adventures through research sites demonstrate how the universe becomes all the more interesting as it grows familiar. In searching for exoplanets, humans rediscover their own world, learning to see both earth and sky in newly intimate ways."