A ‘Revolutionary Optimist’ Keeps Fighting for His Cause
Amiri Baraka sees the future and it works. He is in the middle of another bitter controversy, another knockdown brawl with the agents of authority, another furious debate over the condition of blacks in America--and his own condition as well. But still there is the feeling that maybe, just maybe, better days are ahead.
No, Baraka hasn’t been co-opted. Nor has the angry young writer--who, as LeRoi Jones, stung society a generation ago with plays like “The Toilet” and “Dutchman"--simply lost steam as he gained gray hair.
“I am a communist, make no mistake about that, a Marxist, a Leninist,” says Baraka, 55, nixing the look-who’s-gone-mellow approach.
Nor, certainly, does Baraka believe that the elements of repression--neo-Fascism, Ku Klux Klanism and what, in his current employment dispute with Rutgers University, he reviled as “Europhilic” elitism--have suddenly been purged from the American psyche. For sure, Baraka is not saying that.
What is he saying? That American culture is in a tailspin, that leaders grow more arrogant and inept (is it possible?), that politics are corrupt, educators have forgotten how to educate, and millions suffer from neglect.
“But,” says Amiri Baraka, “I’m optimistic. I’d say I’m a revolutionary optimist. I believe that the good guys--the people--are going to win.”
Specifically, Baraka envisions a new political apparatus, a “broad united front” that might include communists and socialists and the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and elements of the Democratic Party and, in general, everyone who is sick of being duped, deprived or done dirty--altogether, one gets the idea, a fraternity that President George Bush, Vice President Dan Quayle and developer Donald Trump would not be asked to join.
We are talking democracy as it was meant to be, Baraka says. Sooner or later, he is sure, Americans will realize that their heritage is being swiped by foreign investors and that corporate greed and government duplicity have reached intolerable levels. Then, then, the scoundrels will be scattered and citizens will prevail.
“The American people are going to be faced more and more with the realization of how they have been had,” he declares, making it clear that he believes the American people are going to be mighty angry when finally their epiphany arrives.
Tempting as it might be to sit and ponder this future, Baraka hasn’t time these days. Two years ago, Baraka, a full professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and director of the school’s Africana Program, went on leave to teach in the English department at Rutgers in New Brunswick, N.J.
Instead of commuting two hours, he drove less than a half-hour to New Brunswick. He said he enjoyed the decade spent at Stony Brook but wanted to work closer to home. Accordingly, he applied to Rutgers for a permanent post as full professor.
In his view, and that of many others, his resume was ideal. He was a prolific, influential writer whose plays, essays and fictional works were widely anthologized. He was revered as a pivotal figure in the development of modern African-American literature and cited by many critics as an artist of import--black, white or otherwise.
“He had a particular voice that lent urgency to concerns that previously had been expressed more politely,” says Werner Sollors, professor of English and Afro-American studies at Harvard. To top it all, Baraka says, his writing was being taught at Rutgers.
Perhaps most important, he argues, the English department at Rutgers has only one tenured black professor among what the university says is a full-time faculty of 75. Like many schools, Rutgers says it is committed to increasing the number of minority teachers but that qualified prospects are heavily recruited and often difficult to bring aboard.
So, says Baraka, what’s the problem? Here he was, willing and able, and ready to be plucked.
Although the English faculty initially voted to consider his application, senior professors rejected his bid and, in another vote, denied a compromise to allow Baraka to split his time between English and African studies. English department chairman Barry Qualls says that the vote was based not on racism or Baraka’s political beliefs, but on “principled” academic concerns about his “sloganeering” classroom style.
“People were not denying his significance as an author or cultural figure but felt his particular political modes are not best suited to teaching students to be self-critical of their ideas and the ideas of others,” Qualls said.
Not the sort to take rejection lightly, Baraka put the university on notice that he intends to fight the decision. As anyone who has followed his career is aware, when it comes to a battle, Amiri Baraka is one tough customer. Words are his artillery, and for three decades he has seldom run short of ammunition.
His poetry was first published in 1958 and in six years, off-Broadway theatergoers were lining up to see “Dutchman,” a superheated drama about the betrayal of a black man by a white woman.
Baraka’s success made him a celebrity in New York’s Greenwich Village, but a year later, he left his wife, white poet Hettie Cohen, and the couple’s two daughters and moved first to Harlem, then Newark. He changed his name from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka--"blessed prince” in Swahili--and married a black woman, Amina, with whom he had five children. Baraka embraced black nationalism. Ultimately, he abandoned the notion of separatism, but never his pride and determination.
Baraka’s associates accurately report that he is unusually accommodating in private conversation--soft-spoken, generous, as eager to listen as he is to make himself known.
But as Stony Brook President John Marburger said the other day, the mood changes when Baraka goes public: “He becomes a somewhat different person.”
No one should have been surprised that when the author addressed supporters at Rutgers last month, he chose to read a sizzling manifesto called “Apartheid at Rutgers,” executed in vintage Baraka style. He likened his opponents to the Bruderbund, a secret Afrikaner society in South Africa. He called them “doddering male chauvinists,” “Ivy League Goebbels” and “academic Boers” and said an “invisible empire” operated inside the English department.
By the time he reached the second side of his manifesto, the author was really smoking. “We must unmask these powerful Klansmen. . . . These enemies of academic freedom, peoples’ democracy and Pan-American culture must not be allowed to prevail. Their ‘intellectual’ presence makes a stink across the campus like the corpses of rotten Nazis.”
Powerful Klansmen? Rotten Nazis?
“This is crazy,” said Qualls. Richard McCormick, acting dean of the arts and sciences faculty at Rutgers, also thought Baraka’s fusillade was misguided: “His not getting the job he wants is not the same as sending people to the gas (chamber) or burning people at a Klan rally.” The Baraka episode was particularly frustrating, McCormick said, because Rutgers has a strong commitment to affirmative action and searches for minority teaching talent.
(At Stony Brook, the same concerns prevail. The university reports that of the 40 black teachers among its faculty of 1,129, only four have the rank of full professor.)
At the moment, Baraka was sitting in the front room of his handsome three-story stucco home--tan with a red roof and black bars on first-floor windows. To his right were photographs of himself with jazzman John Coltrane--one of Baraka’s most important books, the 1965 “Blues People,” surveyed the black experience through music--and, just over his left shoulder, a striking black-and-white photograph of African children.
Much on his mind these days is what he considers the “Eurocentric” focus of American education. He’s not talking about too many white writers, but too few Americans.
“This has never been Europe,” he says. “We fought a war in the 18th Century to prove that. George Washington won by all accounts.”
Baraka spoke about events in Eastern Europe, about the betrayal of the people by dictatorial leaders in the Soviet Union and East Bloc nations, and what to him seemed the daunting prospects of a reunified Germany. “That doesn’t thrill me,” he says.
Baraka complained about U.S. involvement in Nicaragua and Washington’s choice of allies--"fascists, or neo-fascists, or would-be fascists"--and the decision of President Bush to storm Panama in an effort to oust strongman Manuel Noriega.
He turned, of course, to the Rutgers situation and said that he was striving to rid the publicly supported university of its Ivy League pretensions--he calls it a “vest-pocket Princeton"--and to push for a more relevant curriculum and a policy of open admissions.
As for returning to Stony Brook, Baraka could not say for sure but left the impression he was finished with that long ride east. “Dutchman” has been revived on the West Coast and another production is scheduled for New York this year. Baraka has written two plays recently and is working on a book. He is collaborating on a “bopera"--a jazz opera to be staged off-off-Broadway this fall--and says he has four books of poetry ready for publication.
In other words, whether or not he triumphs at Rutgers, Baraka has an ample supply of alternatives.