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Baraka's Newark: Performing the Black Arts

This paper considers Amiri Baraka's writing from the 1970s.  The central tension I explore is that between his de- and re-contextualizing intervention in hate speech (in which he re-codes terms directed at African Americans) and his attempts, on the other hand, to lock speech acts into secure, enabling and institutionally supported contexts that would ensure their effects.  The paper situates this problem of the context of a performative speech act not just in the perhaps obvious debate about performatives from Austin to Butler, but also in the contemporary speeches of Fidel Castro that had an enormous effect on Baraka.   The paper traces a trajectory from the more familiar stance in Baraka's "Black People!" of forcing white business owners up against anonymous urban walls, to his later emphasis, once he began work on a proposed housing project, Kawaida Towers, on building Afro-centric walls that might both insulate black businesses and ensure the transmission of African culture.  My larger frame for this paper is the shifting terms of site specific poetic practice in the 1960s in which poets like Baraka sought to live, and not merely theorize, models of site-specificity.  In this context I explore the ways that, under this new social and rhetorical pressure of enactment, the concept of site oscillated between empirical locations and charismatic bodies that framed and made legible these locations. 

Baraka's Newark:
Performing the Black Arts

The talk that I'm about to read is a shorter version of a chapter from a book in progress called Field Authorities, which looks at transformations within the poetics of place from Williams and Olson to the poets of the 60s and 70s: if the category of place has often allowed poets to establish themselves as experimental historians and ethnographers, digging into neglected American pasts as a way to open up alternate social formations, still there's a significant shift between the Williams and Olson models, in which lone researchers offers their results to futurity, and various attempts in the 1960s and 70s to enact or live alternate social formations.  The middle chapters of the book—on Snyder in Kitkitdizze, on Creeley, Kyger and others in Bolinas, and on Baraka in Newark explores what counted in these different instances as a mode of enactment.

I wanted to make a series of syllables " that would be identical " with a historical event " the end of the war " and so I prepared " the declaration " by saying I hereby " declare the end of the war! and set up a force field of language " so solid " and absolute ". that it will ultimately overwhelm " the force field of language, pronounced out of the State Department and out of Johnson's mouth.
—Allen Ginsberg, Improvised Poetics

All the stores will open up if you will say the magic words.  The magic words are: Up against the wall mother fucker this is a stick up!
—Amiri Baraka, "Black People!"

Rather than seeking to end the Vietnam War remotely through an unstoppable "force field of language" that might be unleashed from anywhere, Baraka tries to extend the war concretely to a second front by digging in to his hometown—Newark, New Jersey, whose famous riots of July 1967 were still in the future. Galvanized by role-reversing "magic words" that put white proprietors on the defensive, African Americans become, in A. B. Spellman's amazing phrase, the "williecong."  If these were some of the more provocative new roles conceived for poetry in the 1960s, and if they both imagine new powers for the performative, they also imply vastly different ideas of context, of the conditions necessary for the speech act to perform its function, so that it does not go awry or become "unhappy," as J. L. Austin says of those misfired performatives severed from their enabling contexts and conditions.   

Critics have often noted that Baraka's moves from Greenwich Village to Harlem and then Newark over the course of the 1960s were designed to situate his writing in relation to African American communities that could find themselves both reflected and revolutionized in his practice.   And yet, there has been surprisingly little attention to precisely how this would-be grounding might work—to how immersion in these new contexts might realize the performative powers of revolutionary speech acts.   A preliminary if paradoxical sense of grounding might be located in the attempt to drag poetry into unexpected contact with other discourses: "Black People!" for instance asks us to rethink distinctions between taped-up fliers and chapbooks, between poems and tracts, between aesthetic objects and political instruments.  If the poem is part of Baraka's attempt to plant his practice as a writer in the particular place of Newark, our reading of the poem, too, seems to turn on the context in which we imagine it: the more specific the more incendiary.

And yet, no context will simply ensure the poem's literary or social effect.   Wherever we imagine it, though—with its implied link between this scene of riot and anti-colonial struggles around the globe, with its threatened judgment by children on their passive fathers, with its defamilliarizing image of money as a racially based means of social control ("money dont grow on trees no way, only whitey's got it, makes it with a machine, to control you"), and its incendiary claim that it's impossible to steal anything from white people since they already owe "you" everything they have, including their lives—with all of these features the poem undeniably exhorts as much as it "reflects." 

In his early work Baraka himself had been more skeptical about such mergings of poetic subject and would-be constituency; by the early 1970s, he would grow unsatisfied, in turn, by the model of political agency proposed by "Black People!" too.   As he develops his own objections, he reconceptualizes the role of writing: no longer primarily designed to provide the "magical" rush of understanding that would call an individual subject into action, writing now seeks to lay an institutional framework that would secure and sustain such rushes of understanding.  But where, exactly, does one locate such institutions:  in smaller-scale sociolects or shared linguistic practices, or in more macro-scale positions articulated, for instance, in political speech?  In radicalized, self-conscious bodies of political actors, or in expressive architectural structures that might secure the pleasure and relative autonomy of those bodies?

A beachhead not an archive, Newark, in the wake of Baraka frustration in organizing the Black Arts Movement in Harlem, is at once, like Harlem, outside the lower Manhattan of his bohemian past, and yet still intensely urban.  Largely black, economically and socially marginalized (that is, not cosmopolitan), controlled by white landlords, and thus, after Watts, increasingly mobilized to riot,  Newark epitomized the urban conditions from which white bohemians fled in the 1960s.

The reoccupation and attempted radicalization of the blighted hometown then parallels Baraka's remotivation of the array of concepts and subject positions from blackness or negritude, to "magic"  (as the derisively identified African other to western rationalism), to badness and even "terribleness" (again, judgments recast as badges of alterity), to the word "nigger" (as the identity term that, unlike "negro," does not imagine itself as finding adequate representation within the United States' political system for the group it identifies): "nigger is a definition of the wholly detached from material / consideration a nigger don't have no gold / not even a negro got gold but a negro think like he would if he / had gold"  
Each of these terms might originate as a hateful speech act directed at an African American; their revaluation, though, seems to hold out liberatory possibilities.  Judith Butler, for instance, sees the citational quality of hate speech (and by extension its recodings) not as absolving its speaker from its consequences, but rather as situating him or her in relation both the speech act's problematic past and possibly alterable future.  What emerges, then, in recodings of such speech "is a ritual chain of resignifications whose origin and end remain unfixed and unfixable" (ES, 14). That is, if groups can intervene in these histories, rerouting terms and plugging them into new values, they cannot, according to Butler, permanently ensure these values by insisting that certain speech acts always be understood in specific contexts.  And yet it is possible—as Baraka's practice of the 1960s and 1970s suggested—to build contexts that can affect (if not simply contain) these questions of reception. 

"Poetry is a concrete function, an action, no more abstractions," writes Larry Neal as he imagines how Baraka's poems might come to serve a constituency:  "Poems are physical entities: fists, daggers, airplane poems, and poems that shoot guns.  Poems are transformed from physical objects into personal forces."   One sense of how poetry could become such a force emerged from the specific effects of 1960s political speeches.  Take for instance Castro's famous "Address to the General Assembly of the United Nations 9/26/60" which offered a closely argued account of American imperialism both in Cuba and in the "developing" world more generally.  Challenging that the type of discourse even possible within the UN upholds first world and especially American interests—"I understand very well that it is somewhat difficult and invidious for anyone here to speak in any but stereotyped terms" (171)—Castro goes on to produce a string of public speech acts whose total implausibility and seeming "inappropriateness" prove his point quite eloquently: "we proclaim the nationalization of the natural resources of and foreign investment in the under-developed countries.  And if the industrial countries wish to do likewise, we shall not oppose them" (170).  Outgoing Ike can breathe easier.  But since America has already interfered in Cuba's process of nationalization, Castro can ask: "Does this mean that the Cuban Government, then, has the right also to promote subversion in the United States.... to violate the air and radio frequencies of the United States of America?" (166).  Ultimately, what the speech did was anatomize the forum in which it occurred: Castro's self-consciously ineffectual, his "unhappy," performative statements called attention to his own marginal status, as a representative of a third world country, in what was ostensibly an egalitarian international forum.

Similar moments could be found in other speeches.  My point is not that this is anything like the singular origin for Baraka's interest in performatives, but that looking at the way that speeches perform can bring us to a more concrete understanding of how Baraka imagined revolutionary language as having effects.  As Austin said, there are conditions of appropriateness necessary for speeches to have their effects; that such conditions aren't in place is what allows Castro's performative to analyze the inequalities of the United Nations.  And yet when Baraka moves toward an exploration of the performative as a kind of revolutionary speech act—and there is often a very clear threshold at which the performative dimension enters his poems—we see him increasingly moving toward actually imagining these conditions of possibility.

At first this involves a socially situated addressee, a "you," whose spatial location, race and class are all crucial.  "Black People!" for instance begins on the main shopping streets of Newark's African American slums, with the question "What about that bad short you saw last week / on Frelinghuysen[.]"  The imagined "you" here addressed—poor, black, disenfranchised—has walked by widow displays with stoves, refrigerators and record players thousands of times.  These items are as much inside the addressee's imagination, fixtures of an ungratified world of desire, as outside in literal space; the voice need only gently remind the addressee of them to begin the poem's chain of carefully calibrated escalations that are to culminate in the poem's magic act.  

However, for this transformation to occur a condition of possibility is required not so much in the external context—the site—as inside the subjects who will effect the change—the addressee.  Magic thus names the shift in consciousness, the instantaneous charge, by which acts that seem to the pre-revolutionary subject simply impossible suddenly become possible; magic explodes the common sense of liberalism, allowing the unthinkable to be thought.

This sudden rush also extends poetry beyond its familiar domain.  Increasingly in the late 1960s through the 1970s, Baraka puts pressure on the category of "the poem" as a discrete entity—this by reimagining both its ontology and its context so that poetry might appear here as a cool style manual assuredly embodied in an elegant codex (In Our Terribleness); there as an incendiary pamphlet, easier to imagine taped to a public wall as a flier than printed in a poetry book ("Black People!"); here breaking into onomatopoeia as the actual soundtrack of a revolution ("Black Art") there breaking into an imagined sermon as an unstoppable heckler from the pews ("When We'll Worship Jesus").

Baraka, however, began to have doubts about the kind of magic performative acts explored in "Black People!"  Suspecting that revolutionary sentences in themselves could not, effect "immediate change," Baraka turned his attention, now in different ways, toward building an effective institutional frame for these sentences—culturally in Spirit House; politically in Newark's mayoral race.  Though Baraka dug in to this specific site, he always presented his results as case studies for possible export to other locations. 
And yet in the process Baraka also shifted his sense of how poetry might play a role in claiming and transforming a particular location: If "Black People!" goes about situating the incendiary utterance in just the right social situation, considering possible actors in relation to linguistic prompts, Baraka's focus moves in his 1970 book In Our Terribleness toward a wider view of these actors' situation.  Recoding sociology, planning, and urbanism—the array of disciplines used, in fact, to analyze "the slums"—In Our Terribleness, subtitled (Some elements and meaning in black style), is a work of experimental urbanism that combines ethnography, political writing, fashion theory, photography by Fundi (Billy Abernathy) and poetry into a kind of political style manual for working class urban African Americans, reclaiming their bodily postures and clothing styles as modes of radicality.  The book's half title page is made of a hard reflective silver covering with the title embossed centrally.  To enter the world of the book, then, is to see one's own face, one's skin color reflected on this silver sheet—to be conscripted into (or banished from) its articulation of "our" terribleness, transforming that term from an insult into a strength, from a marginalizing judgment to a marker of potentiality and cultural unity. A book about the social meaning of bodies, postures, clothing styles and gestures, it forces the reader to register his own before reading commences.  Structured in a circuit that goes "from black to black," as Baraka puts it, the book is designed to "show the significance of how the black man looks and sounds" (C, 90-91).  In fact this is a book that, more than any other of Baraka's, finds ways to literalize the rejection of universal liberal audience standards that coincided with his move to Black Nationalism.

Though attentive to the elements of corporal expression, the larger site that organizes and gives force to these individual bodies, however, is the urban location where they are concentrated, Newark—though Newark is also figured as an exemplary, generalizable urban location.  Negating the external, manipulative language of urban renewal (more on that in a moment), the book proposes instead a renewal that begins with the individual urban subject ("Who inhabits the cities possesses the thrust of life to power") moves to the family and culminates in the nation: "Man woman and child in a house is a nation.  More than them we become large cities that shd have, domes, spires, spirals, pyramids, you need somthin flashy man." 

But to articulate the passage from self-present body to realized family to conscious nation, the book highlights a series of strategic and generative negations that begin with the individual.

    Since there is a "good" we know is bullshit, corny as Lawrence
    Welk On Venus, we will not be that hominy shit.  We will be,
    definitely, bad, bad, as a mother-fucker.
        "That's a bad vine that dude got on."
        "Its a bad dude."

How, then, to secure this badness?  Over the course of the 1970s Baraka's answers involve terms other than those proposed in "Black People!": "We should not make any statements we cannot back up, in ways that our community can see and understand.  Words are not immediate change.  Crackers killed in revolutionary sentences are walking around killing us in the real streets."   This statement is from a pamphlet called "Strategy and Tactics of a Pan-African Nationalist Party" (Newark: CFUN, 1971).  It continues:

We must learn to build houses, and how to acquire the land necessary to build houses.  We can write revolutionary slogans in the lobbies of those buildings if we like, as part of our educational programs, or paint pictures of revolutionary heroes on the fronts of those buildings and in the hallways if we want to, but we must learn to build those buildings and get hold of the political power necessary to effect this dynamic, now.  (NN, 188)

This project was taken up very concretely beginning in 1972 in Baraka's collaboration with the architect Majenzi Kuumba (Earl Coombs) on a large public housing project, Kawaida Towers.   (Fig. 4.4: Kawaida Towers)  Like Spirit House, Kawaida Towers was conceived not just as an embodiment of a Black Nationalist community, but rather as an example that might be studied and reproduced in the future—now on a much larger scale.  As Komozi Woodard tells us (and I'm drawing throughout this on his excellent A Nation within A Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics: "Kawaida Towers apartment building was designed with a basement and first-floor plan providing for a 300-seat theater with lighting, projection, and dressing rooms; a lounge, woodshop, hobby shop, day care center, and public kitchen; and rooms for art display, reading, and arts and craft" (NN, 228).  The infrastructure for cultural life was thus integrated within what is usually the bare-bones instrumentality of the housing unit.  Characteristically, too, cultural life was both expanded to include diet and healthcare, and physically combined within the daily life setting—rather than, say, associated with a district in a city where one goes for entertainment. 

If In Our Terribleness represented a new attempt to collaborate with African American artists to produce a genre-blurring manual for daily life, Baraka's Kawaida Towers collaboration seeks to frame and institutionalize that daily life within a built environment—to expand the claims of In Our Terribleness into a literal space or ground in which the newly conscious bodies could exercise the freedom and stylistic power claimed and theorized in the previous book. 

The story of this project's unhappy ending has been narrated well by Woodard; it is straight from the Sopranos.  Woodard rightly links the failure of the project to a shift in direction—both by Baraka specifically and by the Black Power movement more generally.   Kawaida Towers was for Baraka the kind of period-ending experience enforced for others by May 1968 in France, the Siege of Chicago in 1969, Altamont or the Manson murders.   And yet while those experiences often led left activists to see political subjects as fatally conspiring in their own oppression (as Woodard claims many African American activists, too, did), for Baraka the failures of this event instead shook his faith in Black Nationalism, and led him into his Third World Marxist period, where we will not be following him now.  We will note only that Baraka's shift in analytical frame did not in any way negate his attempt to ground himself in Newark, to live the poetics of place; rather, his shift toward Marxism caused him to reconceive place's relation to audience, and to articulate the local now in relation to a global not conceived solely in terms of race.

During his Black Nationalist period Baraka's concept of "history making" transformed from instigating revolutionary events (whose outcomes, he came to decide, would amount to "voluntary suicide") to building an institutional environment that might sustain them, and thus itself become a historical event at a larger scale (C, 78).  Rather than forcing white business owners up against anonymous urban walls, emphasis now turned toward building Afro-centric walls that might, so the proposal went, both insulate black businesses and ensure the transmission of African culture.  Many, including Baraka himself, have commented critically on both the metaphysical and the bourgeois elements of Black Nationalism.   Separated, insulated, culturally assured, the utopia of Black Nationalist space would nonetheless reproduce the capitalism outside its walls—now in the guise of Dickinson's "cooler host" within.

But if this economic narrative is familiar, what is perhaps less so are the relations among space, language and social effects encoded in Baraka's place-based writing of the late 60s through the 1970s: here, an array of terms from hate speech and racist discourse are retrofitted and recoded—selected precisely because of their history of marginality.  These become not ironic designations, but markers of social space that announce at once their symptomatic histories and their recoded presents.  Throughout I've been locating a tension between the new meaning that Baraka has wrested performatively from symptomatic speech and his desire to secure this meaning in stable institutional casing.  It is certainly true that semantic fixity would freeze the very condition by which Baraka effected change. But rather than see his idea of fabricating institutions as but another instance of that would-be totalitarian impulse lurking under all desires for linguistic fixity, we might instead place our emphasis on Baraka's articulation of constructive and mobile tools that resist any, including his own occasional, desire for containment.  While the premium on action never disappears, Baraka nonetheless moves—in his exploration of how to authorize or enable performative change—from revolutionary actions that might emerge from utterances alone, if correctly situated, to a more revolutionary culture sustained not by isolated violent actions, but by a recognition of the complex corporeal status of its terrible actors; and yet to secure these bodies in their resistance he finds himself then forced to confront the social, architectural framework that might, in turn, enable the negations on which terribleness relies.  At each stage, the project of pronouncing change entails an expansion of the frame, an unarrestable movement from working word, to signifying body, to encasing building.