Friday, April 18, 2014

Baldwin - Baraka

The two names are inextricably linked by time and culture and their relationship is all the more evident now that both, as they say in some communities, have passed.  The passing of Baldwin in 1987 marked by the encomiums of Baraka were what led me to the core of my play, Waiting for Giovanni.  It seems right to revisit that moment now that Baraka, too, has joined the ancestors.

While Baldwin was memorialized at a service in Manhattan's Cathedral of St John Divine, I stood outside with many public mourners watching the family and famous arrive; all of us waiting to let go of him although we didn't want to.  Even though Baldwin resided on the other side of the world most of the time we still thought of him as always near—in Harlem or on the Upper West Side or in the West Village.  The streets reflected his words and his spirit back to us always; whether we were writers or nurses, or shoe shine men.  He was under our skin like that polish the brothers can never seem to get off their hands.

But years later when I watched a documentary that showed the service I was incensed that people like Baraka were given the privilege of praising him in death when in life Baldwin had been so despised publicly by people like him.  Baldwin's success in white literary circles, his open homosexuality, and his international appeal all condemned him to the dreaded categories: effete and Negro.  The young Turks like Baraka, Eldridge Cleaver, later Ishmael Reed and others seemed to thrive on their disdain for women and for gay people both in print and in public.

Maybe it was just a generational thing--each new wave of writer/activists feeling more progressive and cutting edge than the previous so the old must make way for the new.  I understand that feeling from both the perspectives of the new and of the old.  However with Baraka it's more difficult to not be angry with him for several reasons.

He was a wonderful organizer who tried to save Newark, New Jersey by sheer force of will.  He brought hope to a small, economically and spiritually decimated city that had been betrayed by everyone--Black and white.  His dogged determination to turn the city around was heroic.  I wanted his commitment to social justice to be more universal.

His writing, when not marred by dogmatism, sexism and anti-Semitism (that latter he clumsily tried to recant later in life), could be brilliant.  His poem, 'Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,' remains one of the most powerful in the English language. His book, “Blues People,” changed the way African Americans looked at music and each other.  I don't like to use accusatory 'ism' and 'phobia' words because I understand these political perspectives often exist within otherwise socially conscious people, especially of certain generations.  I too will undoubtedly be accused of an 'ism' or 'phobia' at some point as I grow older no matter how hard I try to keep up.

However with Baraka it was especially painful to see him pass up his teachable moments.  He ignored the power he had to reconcile Blackness and sexuality for the youth that followed him even when he knew personally how important it was.  The tragic murder of Baraka's lesbian daughter and her lover by a wife batterer in 2003 was preceded 20 years earlier by the murder of his sister Kimako, also a lover of women.

Kimako owned a shop in Harlem; it was the first place I bought a piece of African clothing.  She was beautiful, sensual, and astute; a woman who knew her artifacts, her fabric and her business.  I never went to the shop without encountering another writer or other artists who weren't beguiled by her.  Her murder, by an acquaintance she'd been trying to help get on his feet, sent an entire community of women into mourning.  And so too her brother.

But that connection never seemed to lead Baraka to the next step in understanding the underlying connection between all of our struggles for dignity.  It never led him, as far as I know, to stepping up to embrace that dignity publicly so that the next generation of young Turks might shed their reflexive macho sexism and homophobia.

Many times I saw Baraka fail to do a right thing; be arrested for hitting his wife; not pay attention at public readings to younger female writers; or worse dis them for departing from his gospel. So it will always be a complicated mourning for his passing. His genius will stand in the writing he leaves behind, but so too must his flaws.

His wife, Amina Baraka, did something he never could.  She attended the Hunter College (NYC) symposium that honored the life of Black, lesbian poet, Audre Lorde on the anniversary of her passing.  There Amina read a tribute to her murdered daughter, retelling the painful story to the audience and making the connections that her husband did not.  She understood Audre's proclamation: "Your silence will not save you" as a personal call to testify.  Her tears were the spiritual river that flowed between us, her daughter and Audre creating the possibility of healing.

Baldwin and Baraka came to some nominal rapprochement later in life.  Maybe as the young Turks age they can see themselves more clearly in the ones who've gone before.  In “Waiting for Giovanni” my character Jimmy asks about the young, Black militants who dismiss him:

 “…have their senses been perverted by the way their manhood was
brutalized:  Slavery, Jim Crow, night shift jobs.  But haven’t I too been
beside them?”

The answer, of course, is yes.  Jimmy had been there, in the struggle.  But it’s sometimes difficult to embrace a brother that the culture has insisted is ‘the other.’  It can even be difficult for the brother to embrace himself. 

Still it was the disapproval of people like Baraka which might have intimidated Baldwin into not publishing "Giovanni's Room."  That would have been a literary and a personal tragedy.
Fortunately Baldwin was not the weak piece of fluff Baraka and the others may have thought a homosexual to be.


  1. yes I too have major and emotional reservations of the deification of Baraka. Here in the Twin Cities, the community of African American artists created an event celebrating his achievements and historic teachings/writings/inspirings. I however, could not attend, did not attend would not attend. Something about forgiveness is one arc, ANd something about forgetting is another. As there was no reconciling the vitriol leveled toward our wonderful JIMMY, i applaud Ms. Gomez for continuing to speak out humanely on the topic.

  2. Reading this in the #MeToo world of 2018 where we are forced to have conversations such as is it possible to separate the person (when they are shunned for their actions) from the art, I’m curious to know your thoughts on applying the current climate posthumously to someone like Amiri Baraka. Today, it would seem he is as lauded as he has ever been, when I’ve heard him mentioned as an icon to be emulated and idolized. I’ve even heard him get shout-outs in popular culture, like on the show Blackish.

    1. Hi, Thanks for reading the back blogs! I believe it's important for us to not let poor behaviour (to put it mildly) be ignored and many women protested Baraka's actions and that of other iconic Black lit figures at the time of the infractions before there was #MeToo. His contributions to the culture are enormous at the same time hence 'blackish' recognition. But any deep study of him or others has to include the person he was known to be. It's hard holding two visions but sometimes we have too.