December 15, 2017

Amiri Baraka, Broadway to 9/11

On this day in 1964 Amiri Baraka's one-act play, Dutchman, opened off-Broadway, launching its author into 40 years of racial controversy. Baraka, then still known as LeRoi Jones, voiced expressions and attitudes in Dutchman which resonated with black radicals and white iconoclasts of the civil rights era. Most explosively, the play suggested that racial killing might be a last-resort path to healing for oppressed and repressed African-Americans:
    A whole people of neurotics, struggling to keep from being sane. And the only thing that would cure the neurosis would be your murder. Simple as that. I mean if I murdered you, then other white people would begin to understand me.
Norman Mailer, never shy to controversy, is reported to have called Dutchman "the best play in America" at the time. Fifteen years later reviewer Darryl Pinckney wrote in The New York Times: "Much of the black protest literature of the 60s now seems diminished in power, even sentimental. But Dutchman immediately seizes the imagination. It is radically economical in structure, striking in the vivacity of its language and rapid shifts of mood."

The central character, a 20-year-old African-American named Clay, contends with Lula, a scornful, white 30-year-old, in a New York City subway car on a hot summer day. Clay and his apple-toting temptress provoke each other until he explodes with a fiery speech, pouring out generations of pent-up anger and a final warning:
    And you tell this to your father, who's probably the kind of man who needs to know at once. So he can plan ahead. Tell him not to preach so much rationalism and cold logic to these niggers. Let them alone. Let them sing curses at you in code and see your filth as simple lack of style. Don't make the mistake, through some irresponsible surge of Christian charity, of talking too much about the advantages of Western rationalism, or the great intellectual legacy of the white man, or maybe they'll begin to listen. And then, maybe one day, you'll find they actually do understand exactly what you are talking about, all these fantasy people. All these blues people...the great missionary heart will have triumphed; all of those ex-coons will be stand-up Western men, with eyes for clean hard useful lives, sober, pious and sane, and they'll murder you. They'll murder you, and have very rational explanations. Very much like your own. They'll cut your throats, and drag you out to the edge of your cities so the flesh can fall away from your bones, in sanitary isolation.
The play's climax brings tragedy, and closes with a scene that leaves almost no group unscathed.

LeRoi Jones changed his name to Amiri Baraka (Arabic words for "prince" and "blessing") in the late 60s, at about the same time Dutchman was establishing his central place in the Black Arts movement. The play ran for 232 performances, won the Obie Award of The Village Voice and was adapted for a 1966 film. In the eyes of some critics 40 years later, the play would be the literary high point of Baraka's career, with work of succeeding decades growing "increasingly polemical and programmatic," as one writer commented. That would be an understatement. "Somebody Blew Up America," Baraka's notorious poem on the Twin Towers attack, accused the U.S. government and its allies of exploiting 9/11 as a cover for their own terrorizing of U.S. minorities, Palestinians and others. When lawmakers wanted to (and eventually did) remove Baraka as Poet Laureate for New Jersey, he refused to go, though the raised fist he held up to yet another "attempt to repress and stigmatize independent thinkers everywhere" held a pen rather than a gun:
    ... this state and indeed this nation and this world is desperately in need of the deepest and most profound human values that poetry can teach. That is what Keats and Du Bois called for the poet to do, to bring Truth and Beauty. To be like the most ancient paradigmythic image of the poet. To be like Osiris and Orpheus, whose job it was to raise the Sun each morning with song and story. To illuminate the human mind, and bring light into the world. POET ON!

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