The Overlooked Spirit Reach of
Amiri Baraka’s Terribleness
Kalamu ya Salaam
[This is the un-edited essay. A significantly shorter version is printed in Some Other Blues.]
The ’70s were our out years. Way out. When we was deep in our feelings. Feeling ourselves. What we wanted to be. Quickly become. Different from the was that we had been for so long. Too long. Our rage against injustice and super-exploitation contained, constrained, covered up for long time so. But long sought change was not, in the immortal words of Sam Cooke, “going to come.” Because, in fact, in the streets, change had already arrived. Like our dear brother Mayfield said, we now were moving on up. Trying to get over. Headed forward toward all the beauty we were aiming to create and be. The hoped-for black and proud, future us-es. All that we dared dream we could become. The ’70s was that time.
In the ’60s, we had been killed. And beat. Down. Lynched too (make no mistake, then was when routine police arrests, beatings, and cops shooting us replaced the rope). It’s just that once we got past Malcolm (1965) and Martin (1968) being gunned down, the real nature of America was not difficult to see: The gun was aimed not just at black leaders but also at anyone seeking to create fundamental change. Thus, the rise of the Boston brothers, Jack and Bobby of the Kennedy clan, was aborted. As reality made clear, even though some thought the Kennedys could and would be righteous presidents, that was not to be. As history demonstrated, their opponents would rather shoot them (Jack in 1963 and Bobby in 1968) than let them serve. Thus, a major mark of the mid-twentieth century was the domestic murder of both Black and white political leaders.
Moreover, in the ’60s none of us believed in the always quoted description of the American legal system—that is, we were governed based on the rule of law. What laws? Certainly not the laws of freedom, justice, and equality? Those laws that were allegedly on our side, the side of those who are discriminated against, whether by race, class, or gender. After the ’50s, in a self-serving turn of illegal, extralegal, and even some of the legal jurisprudence, reductively, what happened is simply that Jim Crow transformed into John Law. Self-righteously, the system came down in force not just on us, but also on colonial subjects worldwide, most conspicuously and ignobly in Vietnam. Thus, Lyndon Johnson’s failure to keep a cap on anti-colonial and anti-capitalist commotions. Johnson led the country deeper into war while counterintuitively signing the 1964 civil rights legislation and the 1965 voting rights legislation, not to mention publicly singing (some say “croaking”) the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
Check the timeline: In Birmingham (we called it “Bombingham”), Alabama, four little girls killed in a church bombing, September 15, 1963. Large and small conflagrations resulted. With limited resources and limited armaments, people nonetheless fought back during the ensuing “long, hot summers.” Some point out that the 1964 and 1965 congressional actions were an insufficient response to deeply entrenched social problems of systemic poverty, overt and covert racism, and outright police repression. The ’60s rebellions therefore were the years of our discontent openly expressed.
From August 11 to 16, 1965, what the establishment called the “Watts Riots” exploded. From the perspective of many of the participants, the battle was better described as the “Watts Rebellion.” After the conflagrations in Los Angeles’s inner city of Watts, as well as in cities large and small across the country, wherever significant populations of poor black people were located, the fires were burning full up. Neighborhoods, as well as businesses that served (and some add “exploited”) the inner-city enclaves, burst into flames, culminating, but not ending, in what was unofficially dubbed the “long, hot summer” of 1967. Most infamously, Newark and Detroit erupted, which were just two of over 150 so-called race riots that raged in 1967, as documented by the Kenner Commission (officially, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders), which released their full report in March 1968.
The Newark uprising was a precursor to Detroit by one week. Newark was the home of poet and activist Amiri Baraka. In 1967, three of Baraka’s most incendiary poems appeared in TheEvergreen Review, a radical, literary, and political journal of that era. These inspired rants were effective in terms of contributing to insurrection by inflaming feelings and attitudes of and for black sufferers, and openly against white oppressors. Far beyond the page, Baraka’s urbane and often vulgar lyrics were used in court as evidence against the defendant, Everett LeRoy Jones (Baraka’s birth name). The radical poet was initially convicted, but the rulings were ultimately overturned.
Read in the glare of ghetto fires and Molotov cocktails, Baraka’s Evergreen literary compositions are more inspirational racial rants than were the usual literary calls for romanticized equality and fraternity. The poem “leroy” (Black Magic) concludes with a stirring counter-establishment observation:
When I die, the consciousness I carry I will to
black people. May they pick me apart and take
the useful parts, the sweet meet of my feelings. And leave
the bitter bullshit rotten white parts
Moreover, those sentiments are actually a mild autopsy compared to lines such as these from the poem “Black People!”:
All the stores will open if you
will say the magic words. The magic words are: Up against the wall mother
fucker this is a stick up! Or: Smash the window at night (these are magic
actions) smash the windows daytime, anytime, together, let’s smash the
window drag the shit from in there. No money down. No time to pay. Just
take what you want. The magic dance in the street. Run up and down Broad
Street niggers, take the shit you want. Take their lives if need be, but
get what you want what you need. Dance up and down the streets, turn all
the music up, run through the streets with music.
Few of the poets in the English tradition of Shakespeare or Donne, or the more recent American texts of Dickinson and Whitman, sounded anything like this. But these were words of social struggle that identified capitalism and racism as twin evils.
A retaliatory venom dripped from these poems, making it difficult to assume Baraka had any good intentions toward whites in general, regardless of who may have been his immediately past associates and, yes, lovers. The third poem, “The Black Man Is Making New Gods”, ends with a chilling indictment and sentence:
These robots drag a robot
in the image of themselves, to be
ourselves, serving their dirty
image. Selling fried potatoes
and people, the little arty bastards
talking arithmetic they sucked from the arab’s
Suck you pricks. The best is yet to come. On how
we beat you
and killed you
and tied you up.
And marked this specimen
Culture.” And put you back
in a cold box.
Immediately following Newark, the fires burned even higher, hotter. The Detroit uprising started as a conflict between police and residents on Detroit’s west side following a Sunday, July 23, early morning police raid on what was commonly known as a “blind pig” (i.e., an after-hours bar, often unlicensed). Over the course of the day, the conflict with the police escalated into pitched battles. Ironically, the police raid was conducted on a party honoring, among others, two soldiers who had returned home from the Vietnam War. By Sunday night, five people had been killed and disturbances and fire-bombings were out of police control. Then-governor George Romney ordered the Michigan National Guard into the city in an attempt to “restore” order, but the situation continued to worsen, and President Lyndon Johnson had to send in the US Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to quell the rebellion. During the course of the conflict, forty-three people were killed, over 7,000 people were arrested, and well over 1,300 buildings were burned. There was no longer any denying or covering up the fact that America had a serious problem with racial inequality and conflict.
During the tumultuous ’70s, Baraka moved from an advocate of Black Nationalism to a staunch communist ideology grounded in Marxism, with an emphasis on the teachings of Mao Tse Tung replacing the Kawaida brand of black nationalism articulated by Maulana Karenga. Kawaida was summed up in the Nguzo Saba (the seven principles), which Baraka spelled out in a 1970 pamphlet titled “A Black Value System.” Shortly thereafter, Baraka repudiated his black nationalist positions and formally turned to Marxism; 1973 seems to be the pivotal year of Baraka’s political pirouettes.
In the ’70s, we had been pontificating about Africa and motherships. What a dangerous combination: an ancient homeland and a not-too-distant, almost-here, futuristic existence. You could certainly hear these proclamations in the music of the Sugarhill Gang and their surprising hit, which is often identified as the inauguration of an entirely new and original direction for popular music: 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight.” Moreover, by then P-Funk’s legendary mothership had landed with an otherworldly stage show that absolutely astounded and delighted fans and critics alike. For those who did not get to see one of the mythical mothership landings, there was a joyous live album, “Live: P-Funk Earth Tour,” and eventually a video.
Sun Ra had made the suggestion: Suppose we came not just from Africa; suppose we also came to Africa. Which of course, raises the question, where were we coming from to get to the Africa in us? And, if you think about it, the real answer was not just Garvey’s UNIA and the Black Star Liners. That was a good idea, but a bit premature, given the physical, psychological, economic, and political ravages of colonialism. We, the wretched ones, had some liberation struggles to win first, primarily in the motherland, Africa, as well as up and down the western hemisphere. Not surprisingly, the ’70s were when we celebrated ALD (African Liberation Day—May 25, sponsored by the African Liberation Support Committee, which offered financial, material, and ideological support for movements that ranged from democracy-advocating political formations to armed guerilla struggle).
“A Luta Continua” (the struggle continues) became our watchword. A bunch of us in the US actively agitated for and organized around an updated notion of Africa for Africans, at home and abroad. In 1974, we were a large and strong delegation led by Jim Turner in attending the Sixth Pan African Congress in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Although in the new millennium we do not often think about fiction providing a timeline of political struggles, the ’70s was also when Toni Morrison, an eventual Nobel laureate, jumped off with a triplet of devastatingly insightful, psychological novels: The Bluest Eye(1970), Sula(1973), and Song of Solomon(1977). These books were an unmatched examination of the interior complexes (and conflicts) of a black identity within a white supremacist society.
Oh, back then we had all kinds of ideas jumping out of our wooly heads. Rufus might even become the president, and Eartha be the first lady. Check the context: America was literally on fire. Black, brown, red, and even a significant contingent of white, post–Cold War youth were in open rebellion against an older political and cultural establishment. Black civil rights and liberation activists were ascendant. That upful movement inspired all other peoples and conditions, from bottom to top, in this society and, indeed, worldwide.
The spirit of resistance and self-determination was particularly important in fighting misogyny. Remember, if you can, and learn about the massive militancy of that era if you are too young to know about and, of course, were never taught in high school or college about major women’s liberation moments. For example, Shirley (“Unbought and Unbossed”) Chisholm ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1972. Although she did not win the votes, she did significantly elevate the consciousness of women, as well as that of some men. Like I said, the ’70s were the ish. Everybody was thinking and feeling that anything/everything was possible.
So that’s the historical context of three major works from Amiri Baraka: (1) In Our Terribleness(1970), a hardback book of lyrics by Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) with photographs by Fundi (Billy Abernathy); (2) It’s Nation Time(1972), an on-fire LP of revolutionary music on the Motown Black Forum label; and (3) Spirit Reach(1972), a short collection of Baraka’s poetry from Jihad Publications, out of New Ark, New Jersey. Unfortunately, this trio of literary and musical undertakings has been largely ignored, despite representing the zenith of Baraka’s Black nationalist creative work.
In the larger context of African American literary developments, Terribleness is creatively a follow-up to The Sweet Flypaper of Life, which featured words by Langston Hughes and photographs by Roy DeCarava. Flypaper is critically considered a literary and artistic classic. Significantly, the book’s contents are presented as a monologue by Sister Mary Bradley, a grandmother observing and meditating on her people and their conditions in the ’40s and early ’50s in Harlem. Published in 1955, the poignant lyricism and sharp-eyed images reveal a deep love of the culture and lives of working-class black people. The vernacular social assessments articulated by the elderly woman are a masterpiece of both tenderly, as well as firmly, situating women at the center of Black life.
Even though articulated by the words of a male writer and the vision of a male photographer, Flypaper champions the feminine voice and viewpoint. In contradistinction, Terribleness, perhaps unintentionally, silences Black women, or at best presents women as the silent objects of the male gaze. On the other hand, in an important way, Terribleness parallels Flypaper, which concluded with a photo portrait of grandmother Bradley. The final two images in Terribleness are elderly women. Although both women are looked at and not heard from, it is nonetheless significant, even extremely so, that Flypaper portrays a woman as the witnessing narrator, while in contrast Terribleness privileges the male voice. The most salient aspect is Flypaper’s existence provides an important example not only that men can be feminists but also that, well before the ’60s, there were Black male artists who were thinking and articulating womanist attitudes.
Baraka is, of course, a poet, and is most comfortable literally speaking in the male first person. But beyond the eliding of the feminine, not to mention feminist voice in Terribleness, there is an important element that is often extreme in its articulation. Terribleness is written in a vernacular that mirrors how Black people spoke on the street in the ’60s and ’70s.
By contrast, the first published African American poet, Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784), rather than in the vernacular, wrote in the literary style of her time period. Moreover, one of the most popular African American poets of any and all time is Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906).
Many of Dunbar’s poems are written in what became known as dialect, or Negro dialect, which eventually was looked down upon by readers in general and lovers of more formal poetry in particular. Also, while not denouncing dialect poetry, Dunbar expressed frustration that he was more celebrated as a dialect poet than for his standard English language creations. After all, he gave us two of the most famous African American literary images: “the caged bird” and “we wear the mask.”
Leapfrogging ahead by two millennia, from Wheatley and Dunbar, we find that Black poetry has bifurcated into spoken word and written word. Spoken word privileges the vernacular, in direct contrast to written word, which is generally presented in a much more formally structured, standard literary manner. Terribleness in the late ’60s is a long, long way from poetry written in standard English, whether compared and contrasted to that of Phillis Wheatley, whose 1773 offerings marked the beginnings of African American poetry, or to the work of Tracy K. Smith, who became poet laureate of the United States in 2017. Both the clashing and the distancing between the spoken word and the written word are glaringly apparent in Baraka’s work in “IMAGE,” a selection in the unpaged book Terribleness:
Our terribleness is our survival as beautiful beings, any where. Who can dig that? Any where, even flying through space like we all doing, even faced with the iceman, the abominable snowman, the beast for whom there is no answer, but change in fire light and heat for the world
To be bad is one level
But to be terrible, is to be
badder dan nat.
Baraka’s 1972 Nation Time recording significantly ups the ante and widens the chasm between spoken word and written word. Perhaps because Baraka is reciting with wide-ranging musical accompaniment and not just solo reading the poems off the page, Nation Time is more dramatic and, often, more accessible, especially to an audience not steeped in formal poetry. The music includes a drum chorus, a female vocal chorus, an R&B band, and a modern jazz ensemble. Although long out of print, we are fortunate that the whole work is available online at YouTube.
One poem that is in Terribleness and also recited on Nation Time is “Answers In Progress,” which we taught the pupils at our school, Ahidiana Work/Study Center (K through third grade), to recite from memory. “Answers” encouraged our young people to
Walk through life
beautiful more than anything
stand in the sunlight
walk through life
love all the things
that make you strong. be lovers. be anything
for all the people of
You have brothers
you love each other, change up
and look at the world
ours, take it slow
we’ve a long time, a long way
each other, and the
dont be sorry
walk on out through sunlight life, and know
we’re on the go
tastin the sunshine
Inevitably, sound carries much more emotion than does silently reading. Added to that truism is the fact that Black culture has traditionally emphasized sound over sight, and emotional expressiveness over intellectual acuity. A major reason for the dominance of sounding over seeing is that from 1619 up through the Civil War, self-determined black vision and visual projections, such as paintings and sculpture, were outlawed in much of the southern US, where the overwhelming majority of our people lived. But Black talk and music could not easily be circumscribed nor restricted by legislation or by establishment customs. Nevertheless, inevitably there was a major status quo response and attempt to demean black cultural expressions.
“ALL IN THE STREET” is text in the Terribleness book but also sound (narration with music) on the Nation Time recording. The poem appeals to us to use our imagination to go beyond the reality of time and space:
Can you imagine something other
than what you
Big Big & Black
Red & green (but Big, Big & Black)
Something look like a city
like a Sun Island gold-noon
Flame emptied out of heaven
grown swollen in the center
of the earth
Can you imagine who would live
with gold streets
striped circled inlaid
with pageants of the rulers
victories . . . Imagine these streets
along which walk some people
some evolved humans
look like you
maybe walk, stroll
rap like you
but maybe a lil difference
maybe different clothes
hip mighta changed
a lil, but they shoes still glow
black and brown mirrors for things
in the street
to dig themselves
mounds of round sounds bubblin and bumpin
right out the ground
can dig it . . . uh?
can see it . . . uh?
can feel it . . . uh?
can be it . . . huh?
This is now-past what you touch today
can change black man behaving under
your touch the way you want it to.
Can you digit . . . uh?
See, feel, touch, be
The challenge is to move from the reality that exists in the early ’70s toward a projected future state of black self-determination, which is far, far from the caricature of Black life that the establishment proffered prior to the ’60s and that was massively contradicted by the movement of Black people in the streets and in self-developed institutions following the mid-60s rebellions. Where the establishment championed ’60s- and ’70s-era minstrelsy, particularly as televised comedies and caricatures, in contradistinction, as Baraka exemplified in Nation Time, there was a distinctly different musical wave happening in the black community.
Significantly, minstrel shows were a popular form of American antebellum entertainment and after the Reconstruction period (1865 to 1877), minstrel shows were replaced by vaudeville (generally dated from the 1890s to the mid-1930s), which itself also included a lampooning of Black people. Although minstrelsy in particular, as well as subsequent forms of popular entertainment, mimicked Black performance styles, it is notable that these stage, and later on, screen productions were performed by whites. Indeed, the first “Hollywood talkie” was The Jazz Singerin 1927, featuring Al Jolson (who ironically was Eizer Asa Yoelson, a Yiddish-named, Russian-born Jew) performing in blackface. In the case of the minstrel show on stage and The Jazz Singeron the silver screen, this is specifically when “blackface” entered American consciousness in a popular form.
Most people were oblivious, or at least uncaring, about the obvious contradiction of the broad acceptance of whites in blackface happening at the same time as the legal, and extralegal, repression of Black people was rampant in this society. Most of the audience was also oblivious to the fact that this approach contained a negative reaction to the political and economic gains of the aforementioned Reconstruction period.
However, it was not only whites in blackface who low-rated and disparaged Black people. Baraka’s early creative work is especially critical of the “tomfoolery” of Black actors such as Stepin Fetchit and Mantan Moreland. From Dutchman(1964) to Slave Ship(1970), Baraka’s drama is suffused with both racial and gender conflicts.
As a poet, Baraka the Black nationalist peaks with Spirit Reach(1972), a twenty-eight-page booklet published by Baraka’s own Newark-based Jihad Publications. Five of the twelve poems in Spirit Reach are recited on the Nation Time recording. Baraka was aware that much of his poetry had to be heard, and not just read on the page, in order to be fully appreciated. The sound/sight dichotomy embodied in Baraka’s poetic voice contrasted against his written text.
Spirit Reach is not only lyrical; the book is the last time we see Baraka advocating religion and identifying himself as a religious leader. The third poem in the book, “STUDY PEACE”, opens with the declaration:
Out of the shadow, I am come in to you whole a black holy man
whole of heaven in my hand in head look out two yeas to ice
what does not belong in the universe of humanity and love. I am
the black magician you have heard of, you knew was on you in you now
my whole self, which is the star beneath the knower’s arc, when the star it
self rose and its light illuminated the first prophet, the five pointed being
Five of the thirteen poems in Spirit Reach are included on the Nation Time recording. The last poem in the book is “SNAPSHOTS OF EVERYTHING” (Black Magic) and concludes (both the poem and the book) with the ecstatic proclamation “dont put us / down / as merely singers, we are the song”.
It is noteworthy that Baraka was also a nationally recognized organizer and political figure who achieved the acme of his political career as one of the organizers of the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. In Black nationalist circles, Baraka was credited with saving the National Black Assembly (NBA) from self-destruction when he gave a stirring speech, informally known as his “Nation Time” talk, that was an emotional call for unity and an exhortation to action. Although it was not apparent at the time, that was the beginning of the end of Baraka as a national political force. In 1974, at the Sixth Pan African Congress held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Baraka, on an international stage, broke from the popularity of his Black nationalist phase and, as mentioned before, formally announced he had adopted Marxism as his political philosophy.
Also significant is that shortly thereafter, Baraka dropped “Imamu” (“spiritual leader”), and from then on would be known simply as Amiri Baraka. Here is where Baraka’s contact with Black nationalism is broken and irreparably severed. The Baraka of this period also rejects religion as a progressive, not to mention, revolutionary force. Philosophically, and ironically, wasn’t it Stalin who pointed out that when anything reaches its zenith, that is precisely the moment it begins to diminish, specifically because its upward force is spent and gravity begins to pull it back down? This principle is not just relevant to physical conditions; “the zenith is the beginning of the end” is also a social principle.
While many, many followers and observers were expecting more and Blacker statements and leadership from Amiri Baraka during the latter half of the ’70s, what happened instead is Baraka confounded the nation he had encouraged and, to a lesser degree, of which he had been a principal assembler. By 1974, Amiri became a full-out Marxist and permanently renounced Black nationalism.
Thus were the ’70s when Baraka’s fires of Black nationalism were extinguished. His diminishment of nationalism was not just an analytical flame-out. As was his wont over the twisting years of his long career, in his attire as well as in his attitude and associations, Baraka did not merely turn his back on his past; he felt it necessary to renounce old ways while he waved the flag of future directions. Surely, he had phoenix in his blood. Out of the ashes of self-immolation a new, or rather, “another” Baraka rose up in awe-filling flight. While such turns are apparent over the course of his long career, 1970 to 1973 was a pivotal period and, in many ways, marked the last major turning of LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka.
When we study In Our Terribleness, Nation Time, and Spirit Reach, we not only find a poet and creative writer at his height, but we also encounter a person about to make fundamental professional and personal changes. Understanding Baraka’s social context and his personal response to political realities in the ’60s and ’70s is absolutely essential to grasping the fullness of one of America’s most profound poets.
Here is the kicker: Some people are trying to erase, or ignore, the Black Baraka. The evidence is written down. In 2014, Grove Press published SOS POEMS 1961–2013, selected by Paul Vangelisti. Note that the title is misleading because poems from Terribleness, Nation Time, and Spirit Reach are nowhere to be found in the 530-some-page book. You read right: Over five hundred pages of poetry culled from over five decades of work, and yet we get no “Answers in Progress,” no “ALL IN THE STREET,” no bunch of verse from Black Power–oriented Baraka. And worse yet, the preface of SOS does not even make mention or acknowledgment that selections from three important works are not included. They are not obscure, or even previously unpublished work. Instead they are poems Baraka published himself on Jihad Publications (Spirit Reach), and which he recorded on Motown (Nation Time), not to mention in a hardback with Bobbs-Merrill Company, a major publishing company of the time period (In Our Terribleness). What gives?
I will not even attempt to suggest why the exclusion, why the seemingly knowledgeable editor overlooked or did not include work that originates in an important period of Baraka’s poetic career, especially given how dynamic Baraka was as a reader and reciter of his poetic creations. Here we have a whole album on one of the major recording labels of all time, Motown, and none of the poems from that recording are anthologized.
You know a couple of generations from now, those who study Baraka may entirely miss this Baraka who delighted thousands in his stirring presentations all across the country and even internationally. I understand the reality that when you don’t have an audience of black people, especially when you perform overseas, there is a tendency to lean on poems that foreigners can easily understand or relate to. This proclivity is especially sharp when you are reaching out to people whom you want to embrace or respect, and among whom you want and hope those feelings are reciprocal.
I understand that Baraka often found himself among South Americans, among Europeans, and among other people for whom being black was foreign, but as human beings, they could understand and feel you when you talked in nonracial terms, which is what, we understand, a serious international stance requires. Especially when you moved beyond being a victim of American racism. You do not want nobody pitying you, feeling sorry for you. What we really want is respect and human acceptance.
I understand that there was a deep disappointment in the ways that Black political movements turned out in the US. The appalling absence of a Black nation. The seemingly enduring reality of the ghetto. And worse yet, the god-awful betrayals by black boogie politicians who cared less for Black workers than did their so-called devil colleagues.
I understand how fiendishly difficult it is to negotiate survival and development when you get support from others and rejection from peers.
I understand that you can get a “goddamn academy award” (that’s a quote from Black & Beautiful—Soul & Madness, a 1968 Baraka recording) or a Pulitzer Prize for what might be called militant integration, but hey, let’s not pretend there was not a time when Black Baraka advocated, wrote, and recited some really deep poems about he and his people being them own selves, in a space and a place of their own. Their own control. Their own community.
I understand, at a certain level, Black independence is a pipe dream. We are part of the world. And more importantly, part of this nation. Been so since Crispus Attucks, a Black man in 1770, was the first to die fighting in the American Revolution. It’s a tough contradiction being here while not feeling completely of here. Wanting to be closer to yourself, while wanting to be away from all that surrounds and, yes, all that majorly contributes to you being the you who you are. Indeed, your whole identity is bound up, surrounded, and dominated by people and positions who are not you.
The dilemma of being African American is that to be fully one element of your historic being negates being fully the other. Yet, somehow, we must find a way to be both/and rather than either/or. Social syncretism is a bitch. We be something completely different from either of the two major parts of our bloody birth. And so, yes, I understand the liquidation of a Baraka whose circle is difficult to square with the social realities of what it means to be American, to be Black in America, and ultimately, just to be here, and be Black without having to be anything else.
I understand that not everyone saw each of Baraka’s three phases as mutually exclusive. Rather than embrace the pretzel-like twists and turns with an element of salty separations that are descriptive of Baraka’s career, those who remain a partisan of the artist Amiri Baraka focus on his intellectual acumen and aesthetic insights and innovations.
I understand. But there was a time, and we should never forget or negate that even though Baraka left his earlier positions, his love of Black culture and Black people remains at the heart of all his concerns.
Specifically, there was a time when in our race toward a mythical, unreachable, but not undreamed-about Nation Time we was Spirit Reach-ing In Our Terribleness. Our NationTime was a Spirit Reach in all our Terribleness. Had to be in spirit because our oppressors and exploiters were never going to allow us in physical reality to be ourselves, not without serious opposition and consequences clouding, confusing, containing, condemning, and/or criminalizing our being, our Blackness. (And when we capitalize the “B” in Black it means we are talking about not just complexion, we are also talking necessarily and more importantly about both culture and consciousness.) We was terrible in a terrible time. Our spirit was steady reaching, a brilliant, black, terrible Spirit Reach for us, ourselves, in a space and a place of our own-ness. Where we could be we, in all our terribleness!
Without denying the relevance of what came after, the terrible spirit reach of a nation time Baraka, that is the Amiri I celebrate: an eloquent, and yes, when necessary, militant, Amiri, who, at our best, we all are and aspire to always be.
Editor’s note: References to poems are taken from Black Magic: Poetry 1961–1967,unless otherwise noted.
A version of the mothership is now exposed in the National Museum of African American History, precisely on the fourth floor’s exhibit on “Cultural Expression.”