The year was 2011. Amiri Baraka, Juan Gonzalez, and Amy Goodman sat in a studio. An interview began in earnest. “Amiri Baraka,” Amy Goodman, of Democracy Now, began, adding: “On this day Malcolm X would have been eighty-six-years old. What do you think we should understand about him?”
“What we should understand about the impact Malcolm had on the whole of American society…I think the one problem I had with Marable’s book is that Marable never understands that the Black Liberation Movement had the most impact on American society,” replied Amiri Baraka, continuing: “Not the CP; not the DSA, not any of these social democratic groups, but the Black Liberation Movement had. And if it wasn’t for the Black Liberation Movement which produced people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, there won’t be an Obama. That’s the fruit of that struggle…Saying that Malcolm loved history when he was not a historian….these are the things that show you that there is a class bias that Marable had. I am not opposed to Marable; he’s a friend. I was in his office the day before he died…”
DSA stands for “Democratic Socialists of America,” of which Dr. Manning Marable was a member prior to his passing. Dr. Cornel West is still a member of the DSA. That said, Amiri Baraka’s position on the central role which the Black Liberation Movement played in the ‘60s, the Civil Rights era, specifically, at this interview, offered him an opportunity to respond to Manning Marable’s revisionist biography of Malcolm X, otherwise titled “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning book. In fact, we had critically read this voluminous biography ourselves and even communicated our strong-worded reservations to Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, who, at the time, it turned out, had embarked on an educational tour with students in Egypt.
However, unbeknownst to us, Dr. Asante, it turned out, again, had read the book, too, and, like the proactive scholar-activist he was, quickly authored a scathing critique, “An Afrocentric Take On Manning Marable’s ‘Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,’” a piece later published in a monumental anthology “By Any Means Necessary Malcolm X: Real, Not Reinvented.” This volume is edited by President Obama’s friend Herb Boyd, whom we had met at a conference organized in New York to address Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s controversial claims about Africa’s role in the so-called Transatlantic Slave Trade, an American Book Award winner and a well-respected columnist for the “New York Amsterdam News,” as we as by Maulana Karenga, Ron Daniels, president of the Institute of the Black World, and Haki Madhubuti. More on this later.
Actually, we had met Amiri Barak during Kwame Nkrumah’s centennial anniversary, held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Harlem, New York. The panel on which he sat had also included Ama Mazama, Molefi Kete Asante, Leonard Jeffries, and others. This was at a critical moment in the contemporary history of the African world when the Schomburg Center was vigorously looking for a new replacement for Dr. Howard Dodson, Jr., then the Center’s outgoing Director. However, the new replacement will appear in the person of Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, grandson of Elijah Muhammad, former national leader of the Nation of Islam.
Moreover, prior to Dr. Muhammad’s selection as the new Director of the Center, a serious debate ensued in Black America as to who was most qualified to assume the directorship of the Center, with most observers, lay and scholarly, rooting for Dr. Molefi Kete Asante since they acknowledged him as one of America’s most accomplished and well-respected activists-scholars. But that was not be! Later, rumors and allegations circulated that Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a board member of the New York Public Library, of which the Center was and still is an affiliate, had undermined him. But Dr. Asante did not pay attention to these allegations because he had the Molefi Kete Asante Institute for Afrocentric Studies, the first international African think tank of its kind, and Afrocentricty International to manage.
In fact, he would not have considered running for the directorship in the first place had it not been the popular support he received from New York and private urgings from his close activist-scholar friends. Yet, Amiri Baraka and those others passionately concerned about the progress of the African world would watch from afar, with keen interest, evidently, while the puppeteering silhouette of political dickering waltzed behind the secret door of selection deliberation as regards who to fill the vacant directorship post. That aside, those who took part in the public deliberation included Ruby Dee, a formidable actress, screenwriter, journalist, activist, playwright, and poet, as well as Denzel Washington’s mother in “American Gangster”; Terry McMillan, host of the occasion and best-selling author of “Waiting To Exhale”; the Afro-Puerto Rican Felipe Luciano, co-founder of the first chapter of the Young Lords in New York; and other dignitaries.
Meanwhile, Dr. Josef Ben-Jochannan, a lone child of “Beta Israel Jews,” formerly “Falasha Jews,” holder of two doctorate degrees, just like Maulana Karenga, and one of Black America’s most influential and distinguished scholars, sat quietly in the audience, only receiving standing ovation after Terry McMillan had formerly introduced him to the crowd. We attended both occasions. Interestingly, Dr. Asante would dedicate his speech, which he titled “Nkrumah Celebration,” to the greatness and political creativity of Kwame Nkrumah, while simultaneously acknowledging his shortcomings against the backdrop of his cautious characterization of him as one of the most eminent and influential leaders of the 20th century.
Similarly, Ama Mazama would also deliver a powerful eulogium to a thunderous applause, drawing audience attention to our shared history, that of the African Diaspora and continental Africa, of collective victimization at the hands of slavery and colonialism and, among other moral promptings, asking us, the African world, that is, to reconsider the moral and political resistance Nkrumah had to put up to invalidate the physical and psychological onslaught which the West, in its deliberate attempt to dominate our humanity, land, economies, and natural resources, unleashed on the African world, unprovoked.
In theory, Mazama’s eulogium captured the nuances and cadences of the moral yearnings of Nkrumah’s own “Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for Decolonization,” a presentation, which, we believe, the great Nkrumah would have loved and been honored to hear. In other words, Mazama was more concerned about us submitting the collective mentality of the still-colonized African world to the moral instruments and intellectual thermometer of psychological decolonization. Yet, slowly, one after the other, Amiri Baraka, one of America’s greatest writers, would, as if jaded or in some form of feigned stupor, approach the lectern and deliver one of the best poetic eulogium we had heard up until that solemn moment. Incidentally, no wonder Asante acknowledged him “as one of America’s greatest writers” prior to his own presentation, for, indeed, as we all came to realize, he truly embodied Asante’s titular accolade!
Then again, among other critical observations, Amiri Baraka’s carefully-worded eulogium, which, in our opinion, harbored broader historical signification in terms of its implicit acknowledgment of a little-known relationship between Kwame Nkrumah, his activist politics, and America’s Civil Rights politics, came as a surprise to some of us. Indeed, Baraka wanted to inform us, the audience, if indirectly, that the electrified social momentum generated by Ghana’s political independence had sent strong waves of political solidarity to the Black leadership of the Civil Rights Movement that crushing American racism under the moral boots of social equality was possible. Conversely, the fearlessness of men like Malcolm X, Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael), and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Frankenstein face of state-sponsored brutality had emboldened Nkrumah.
Hopefully, this historical connection came to be exemplified by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s and Richard Nixon’s presence at Ghana’s independence celebration, in 1957. Thankfully, as we said before, the poetic archeology of Amiri Baraka unveiled this esoteric knowledge! In fact, King wept when Ghana’s flag, the Black Star, replaced the Union Jack flag! “I want you to come visit us in Alabama where we are seeking the same kind of freedom Ghana is celebrating,” King told Nixon, then US Vice President, at the independence celebration (See Jonathan Rosenber’s “How Far the Promised Land? World Affairs and the African American Civil Rights Movement”). That is, Ghana’s independence brought two ideological enemies, King and Nixon, together just as Rolihlahla Mandela’s death brought Barack Obama and Raul Castro together.
Nkrumah, on the other hand, reminded King at a private luncheon: “I would never be able to accept the American ideology of freedom until America settles its own internal racial strife” (See Kevin Gaines’ “African Americans in Ghana”; see also G. Pascal Zachary’s essay “Freedom for Black Rang First in Ghana―1957 Independence Inspired Americans”). An influential African American, A. Phillip Randolph, a labor leader in attendance with King at the independence celebration, also told an euphoric crowd at Old Polo Grounds how the black sisters and brothers of Ghanaians are treated in America (see references above). Yet again, Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first US Black Supreme Court Judge and Nkrumah’s Lincoln University mate, would contribute to Ghana’s first constitution.
In reality, those were the unacknowledged historical relationship, a secret one, which Amiri Baraka seemed to have alluded to. Zachary continues: “In the days and weeks after returning home from Ghana, King invoked Ghana’s experience as seminal, emphasizing how, through nonviolent protest and ‘continual agitation, continual resistance,’ Britain’s politicians had been convinced to accept Ghanaian independence. Other African Americans also were energized….Yet by recalling the synergy between liberation movement abroad and at home, Americans are reminded anew of their debt to Africa.” That is, however we look at it, Kwame Nkrumah was central, directly or indirectly, to some of these epochal sociopolitical transformations in the American polity. Perhaps one such useful instance of Nkrumah’s indirect, probably direct, influence on America materialized around the presidency of President Dwight Eisenhower.
That break came when a Maryland restaurant discriminated against one of Nkrumah’s ministers, Mr. Howard Johnson, thus opening an opportunity for the ideological enemies of America to advertize their anti-Americanism. The incident in fact became an international sensation, a public relations debacle for the Eisenhower administration, because the Soviets soon jumped on it and fanned it across the globe. Moreover, somehow cornered, President Eisenhower quickly made a move to reverse the situation by hosting Mr. Johnson, possibly breakfasted together, after which it’s believed the Eisenhower administration tended a formal apology. James Campbell, author of “Middle Passage,” writes: “The incident was the perfect illustration of the potential synergy between African and African-American freedom movements.”
Shortly thereafter, President Eisenhower intervened in a public impasse bordering on desegregation, thereby setting the precedent for federalized interventionism in cases where social or political causation accounted for racial brutalization of African Americans, this, according to Zachary. Likewise, Frantz Fanon’s, like Nkrumah’s, lasting impact on American Civil Rights politics is public knowledge. The other individual whom Nkrumah may probably have influenced in many significant ways was Malcolm X. More controversially, though, Manning Marable would contend in “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” that Nkrumah had ignored Malcolm X as he paid a courtesy call on him during one of his visits to Ghana, a historical situation akin to the present political and intellectual brouhaha about Nkrumah’s ignoring Nelson Mandela.
On a different extraterrestrial planet of revisionist literariness, Marable also contended that Malcolm was a philanderer in addition to being gay, this, despite a notable absence of substantial, if any, at all, evidential affirmation of the claims or deductive reasoning. Yet Nkrumah would be among those conscientious African leaders who baited Malcolm X with ministerial appointments should he and his family leave America to settle in Africa as assassination threats on his life intensified. This was similar to Walter Rodney’s case. African American leaders and intellectuals lured him with professorships should he leave his native Guyana for America as assassination threats on his life intensified. Admittedly, both had militantly insisted they could not fight social and racial injustice from the frigid periphery of cowardice.
As a result, they both died inside the uterine beast of racism and in the social conflagration of political intolerance, respectively, the very social evils they spent their entire lives and careers trying to subdue. Contextually, a closer examination of Amiri Baraka as well as of his legacy gives him away as a formidable intellectual, philosophical, and sociopolitical avatar of these men, Rodney and Malcolm X, specifically, and more. Indeed, he was intellectually, politically, poetically, and socially fearless, of the kind we may ascribe to Cheikh Anta Diop, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, or Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela. That is, on the one hand, he carried the cranial genius of Molefi Kete Asante as well as the social and political hardihood of Rodney and Malcolm, while, on the other hand, he harbored the poetic aorta of Maya Angelou and Dennis Brutus, combined, and the literary juggernaut of Toni Morrison, as well.
Meanwhile, Charis Conn, for one, editor of “Harper’s Magazine,” ranks Amiri Baraka as “one of the most influential and prolific writers of the 20th century.” This is neither a pundic hyperbole nor penile stretch of literary history. His large corpus of works affirmatively confirms this. Conn also continues elsewhere: “as one of the most prominent and controversial African-American voices in the world of American letters” (See “Amiri Baraka ‘The Revolutionary Theatre’”). Pointedly, Amiri Baraka’s 1965 essay “The Revolutionary Theatre” is as aggressively controversial as his acclaimed play “Dutchman” is beautifully poignant and notoriously trenchant. Literary parallels are not difficult to find. In fact, much like Ama Ata Aidoo’s play “Anowa” dramatizes the domestic tension between Kofi Ako, an impotent husband, and Anowa, his wife, against the crushing backdrop of colonialism and of white Machiavellian politics, Amiri Baraka’s essay and play dramatize the domestic tension between Black America and White America against the crushing backdrop of fiery racism and of white brutalization of African Americans.
Further, Anowa morally objects to the use of slaves while Amiri Baraka’s “The Revolutionary Theatre” politically objects to white mistreatment of African Americans, descendants of enslaved Africans. Explicitly, in “Dutchman,” an award-winning play, Lula, a white woman, and Clay, Lula’s African-American male co-passenger on a New York train, engage in a flirtatious dialogue against the social curtain of racial segregation, with Lula particularly employing what seems like psychoanalysis to plumb the emotional depth of Clay’s intimate knowledge about harboring incestuous thoughts toward his ten-year-old sister, after which she kills him. Actually, Clay has suggested to her that American racism will end if blacks managed to muster up courage to kill White Americans. Implicitly, this blatant revelation must have driven her over the edge causing her to lose total control over emotional decency.
Similarly, in “Anowa” Kofi Ako commits suicide as knowledge of his impotence surfaces after Anowa confronts him. Clearly, the confluence of thematic resemblances does not end there. The concept “impotence,” a striking motif, speaks to the social and political “helplessness” of already drowned or drowning Africans in the oceanic depths of racism and colonialism. That aside, we should also take note of the fact Clay, a man, appears “impotent” in the face of Lula’s deadly onslaught. Yet, it will also appear that this conceptual framework of “impotence” is not very far, we mean, definitionally, socially, and politically, removed from Anowa’s “bareness.” However, both implicitly bear on Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” if we can arguably stretch our interpretation that far, as well. Theoretically, the word “man” in terms of Ellisonian invisibility connotes a social state of pluralized degenderization of blackness, male and female, trapped on the psychosocial periphery of active white consciousness.
Alternatively, we may want to hint that Amiri Baraka’s “The Revolutionary Theatre” and the domestic confrontation between Anowa and Kofi Ako over his impotence are proactive attempts to bring the “man,” the dehumanized African, out of the cowardly shadows of Ellisonian invisibility into the limelight of activism. Symbolically, Anowa wants Kofi Ako to fight the evils of colonialism, racism, and slavery; Amiri Baraka’s “The Revolutionary Theatre” inspires Black America to confront White America, racism, and black dehumanization by any means necessary. In other words, Amiri Baraka’s intellectual approach to radicalizing African Americans in America’s racial Armageddon assumes the ideological contours of Malcolm X’s powerful “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, yet at the same time far removed from the compromising temperament of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
Then again, both “impotence” and “bareness,” appearing as either thematic symbols or biological actualities, are spiritually, psychologically, and materially enervating in the face of racism and colonialism. Finally, we also have to acknowledge that Lula and Clay argues over racial injustice while Anowa and Kofi Ako argues over the use of slaves in their profitably expanding concerns. Therefore, we presume, in a way, Anowa assumes the role of Lula, though in a less confrontational disposition, perhaps, but, of course, with both contributing to the tragic ends of Clay and Kofi Ako, men who should have been fighting racism and colonialism. Let’s recall here that Clay’s claim to the effect that Black America should kill White Americans in order to end racism, once and for all, is closely similar to Tony Brown’s. In fact, Brown, author of “Black Lies, White Lies,” once opined sarcastically that the best way for African Americans to get rid of racism was to drive White America deep into the oceans. But since that was not possible they should better learn to live with White Americans.
Instead, Amiri Baraka chose to drive White America deep into the ocean of collective white guilt by forcing it to pursue a moral path of radical driftage from the senseless brutalization of Black America. However, Anowa’s ultimate descension into a psychological pit of madness after her husband’s passing underscores Lula’s own implicit madness given the absence of moral cause for murdering Clay. This, ultimately, leads to the antagonistic mutualness, or internecine strife, which Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi ascribed to victims, both black and white, of racism and colonialism. In the main, we can now understand why “The New York Times,” which commissioned “The Revolutionary Theatre,” and “The Village Voice,” two of America’s most liberal newspapers, both rejected it for publication! There is a palpable connection here as well. Amiri Baraka’s “The Revolutionary Theatre” is essentially Nkrumah’s “Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for Decolonization.”
The progressive ideas expressed in this book and those of his other books factored into some of the radical decisions which the West, chiefly America, made to withhold foreign assistance to Nkrumah’s government. Indeed, Amiri Baraka also truly epitomizes Askar, the folk character of Nuruddin Farah’s powerful novel “Maps,” in which Farah cleverly manipulates one of the characters to ask or imply who had the right or who authorized the artificialized political demarcation of Africa. In reality, the novelistic development of Askar as a central character, a psycho-vehicular model driven through a labyrinthine matrix of shifting identities, namely personal, national, and familial, was typical of Amiri Baraka, as well. Here, too, as elsewhere, we clearly see an anachronistic link between Farah’s “Maps” and Nkrumah’s proactive attempts to invalidate “Maps” via unified continentalization of Africa. Having said that, Amiri Baraka stood at the activist crossroads of Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” and Edward D. Morel’s “The Black Man’s Burden.”
In fact, Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, a close friend of Baraka’s, shares his fond reminiscences of him in the following words: “Amiri Baraka, a brilliant light that shined brightest when in the middle of battling for his people’s rights, has taken the eternal sleep. His manifest destiny was to make racial criminals and political thugs angry and uncomfortable. This is why the poems he wrote agitated the establishment and made him a righteous defender of human freedom. He was a free man and in that freedom he was free to be bold, to be wrong, to be strong and to be adventurous, and to be right. Always capable of self-correction, Baraka’s ability to take the dagger of his words and strike the blow for truth as he saw it was uncanny and a part of his genius. We will miss him and his poems and plays that provoked a generation. Nothing anti-African passed him without him without a comment and nothing was so close to him as his battle with his own intellect” (See Asante’s “Our Most Electrifying Poet Has Gone To Sleep”).
“They say it’s some terrorist, some barbaric Arab in Afghanistan. Who the biggest terrorist? Who change the Bible? Who killed the most people? Who do the most evil? Who don’t worry about survival? Who have the colonies? Who stole the most land? Who rule the world? Who say they good but only do evil?”
“Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed? Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to Stay Home at the Twin Towers? Why did Sharon stay away? Who? Who? Who?”
Ariel Sharon’s name in the poem? Well, Ariel Sharon and Amiri Baraka shared a very fascinating, if ironic, history. Sharon haunted Palestinians, the Black South Africa and Black America of the so-called Middle East. Symbolically, we may want to hazard a guess, that Amiri Baraka’s poem essentially sees Sharon as White America and Sept. 11 as American slavery, racism, and Jim-Crowism. Let’s leave it at that! But what was Amiri Baraka’s general impressions about America? “Americanism is a little worse because it beat the Nazis…It’s stronger. American dedication to its stated ideals are…a lie…as most of the people on the earth can tell you,” Charis Conn recalls of him. How ironic that Ariel Sharon and Amiri Baraka both bore Semitic names, that Amiri Baraka roughly means “blessed prince” and Ariel Sharon “fertile plain’s Lion of God, that both passed on two days of each other? Is it possible that a Jew and Gentile can both die and be buried in the ground?
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