Amiri Baraka (1934–2014)

Amiri Baraka at SUNY Buffalo, New York, on March 10, 1988. (Photo: Allen Ginsberg Estate)

IN DEATH, Amiri Baraka is read through one of the two lenses under which Black American Culture is legible: realism and expressionism. Everything must figure, one way or another. This is significant, because it means that there is no commonly understood way of taking Baraka seriously without also taking him literally, more or less. He is denied the frame of abstraction and of the concept.

To the extent that Baraka’s writing coincides with an expression of Black Experience, or a depiction, a reflection, of Black Life, he can be praised or damned accordingly. And so he is.

What of Gertrude Stein or Tristan Tzara would have survived the harsh light of realism, of expression?

Tzara called his sounds Poemes Negres and said they were translations of poetry from Oceania and Africa. The opening of Baraka’s play Slave Ship reads like something similar: not an abstract sound but the sound of the body undergoing abstraction, the noise of it. The belly of the ship is a place of traumatic misrecognition, the stage on which humanity is continually and violently miscast as abstract objects of exchange, as commodities. The sound of the slave ship is the overture of this process, its initial, epic aggregate. For the African in America, abstraction is the orienting fact of her existence, something to be overcome, either by refusing it, or by deploying it herself.

The same year (1964) that Baraka delivered his poem “Black Dada Nihilismus” with the New York Art Quintet, he also premiered Dutchman, a play about how a young redheaded woman kills a middle-class black man on a subway train. It won an Obie. “Black Dada Nihilismus,” by contrast, has only ever been read as advocating the rape and murder of white people. Dutchman is difficult, “Black Dada” is bad. And in many ways “Black Dada” is bad. But it’s bad like poetry is bad, not like murder, or its advocacy, is. Or rather, it’s bad like Dada is bad. Bad Black Dada. Dada has limits, don’t you know?

If abstraction remains illegible in the work of the black artist, this is because black individuals remain abstract. Thus black artists stand out for their humanity not because they are inherently more human, visceral, emotive, or sexual than anyone else, but because the appearance of Black Humanity remains a revelation, an exception beyond which we seem unable to move. By reaching past expression, and past the real, to the concept, Baraka was insisting on his right as an artist to be otherwise than black, insisting, that is, on the right to see blackness from all sides at once, or not at all, as it suited him. Like the dynamite parting stone for the smooth driving highway, Baraka moved the earth that we might follow more easily and with less noise. His language was the architecture of my freedom.

Adam Pendleton is an artist based in New York.