An Interview with Amiri Baraka
This interview with poet and playwright Amiri Baraka took place at the Forest Park Hotel in Saint Louis, Mo. on November 12, 1990.It appeared in #34 of River Styx magazine.
Gounis: In response to eight years of Reagan and now the Bush administration, do you see that possibly there could be a focused coming together,culturally and socially, similar to the ’60’s?
Baraka: Well, yeah, I think that that’s going to be one feature of it.I feel that, you know…I see development not in any straight line but actually being…tortured,circuitous in a way you know,jagged.Particularly in the case of African Americans there’s the Sisyphus syndrome.You roll the rock up the hill,it rolls back down.that’s what development is generally like; you have a period of sustained growth,positivity as the dominating factor.then there will be reversals.There will be a period when negativity is the dominating factor for awhile.Obviously for the last fifteen years we’ve been in a negative period.
This threat of war makes it finally clear how negative it has been.The economy is so backward that they have to resort to their usually boom tactic to make a boom economy.But I think that if we can survive we are at the beginning of, I think, a positive cycle.I can see resistance to this war.I can see resistance to the way life in this country is going for working people generally.Certainly I think that the Black Movement’s politicized consciousness is beginning to assert itself again as it did in the ’60’s.I can see young kids for instance, you see a lot of them that are really beginning to become very aware,very thirsty for information about their history,their own history and the history of this country,beginning to commit themselves seriously,you know,teenagers,commit themselves seriously to doing something about it.
Gounis: A lot of what you talked about last night at your reading was concerned with corporate America and the way that corporate America is co-opting some of the different movements and traditions of the ’60’s and so forth.Do you think that this whole censorship issue is part of a way to suppress what could be the avant-garde in art?
Baraka: Well, you see, the censorship thing is constant.It changes forms.That is how they censor.But historically censorship has always been rife in this country.I don’t mean just in this country,I mean in societies.In this country, I know I was locked up in the early ’60’s about pornography.That’s very interesting.For sending stories…we used to have this little publication and there were a couple of things:a William Burroughs piece of prose,what else?…A piece of mine from somewhere,and a guy named (Herbert) Hunke…anyway, they came and locked me up.I had to defend myself by using the decision that was rendered on Ulysses. I read it to the court.
What’s interesting is that if you look at that publication, something called The Floating Bear, by today’s standards it’s nothing at all.I mean, you know, for instance, my own play Dutchman, when it opened in Hollywood,Hearst would not permit us to take an ad in the L.A. Times because the play was supposed to be too foul.You look at Dutchman and see the couple of little four letter words in there now compared what you see on television and it’s almost like Mother Goose.
The standards of society change constantly.We know that.There’s more a kind of openness in all the media now.But the problem is this; they always use that “openness” to get through a lot of very negative,very foul kinds of things that the normal American dose not go for.But the problem is that if you try to say anything about that,they’ll use it also to chop out any other kind of politically important things that you want. Because there’s always things that they can use that censorship brush to blot out that they know that have socially redeemable qualities.Do you understand what I’m saying? Then you have all the other garbage. You have so much real foul,funky stuff coming out that they can just conveniently shuffle away altogether say all this stuff is negative.All this stuff needs to be “obscene”, is obscene, you know held away from the sight of the public.
But I think that there’s more censorship going on quietly all the time than the censorship like 2 Live Crew or Mapplethorpe.There’s more quiet censorship.that censorship is the dollar.It’s economic repression censorship.You can’t get plays on Broadway even unless you got some kind of grant.For off-Broadway you need the corporates’ television.You can’t get scripts on television.
Even publishing.As many books as I have published,and I should have published many more,they won’t publish my books the way,say, they did when I was still a black nationalist.It was easier, ironically, for me to get published when I was saying”Hate Whitey” than when you say “Hate Capitalism.” You can get “Hate Whitey” published easily.It’s “Hate Capitalism” that you can’t get published.
Gounis: Do you think that’s because they felt that they could then categorize you and keep you away from the white mainstream?
Baraka: Oh yeah.Of course.That’s what it is.What does it matter? That’s interesting the way that they try to do that.As long as they categorize you as someone that is extremely off the wall;and they can always do that one way or another.They can make very reasonable things that you say sound bizarre.But what I’m saying is that they do not want you criticizing this social economic system in any kind of detailed,scientific way,you understand? They don’t want you utilizing the powers of art – that is being able to add an emotional appeal to those kinds of scientific facts.
Because that’s what art does. Art can make you mouth even very negative ideas that are negative to you personally. I’ve heard people many times walking down the street singing songs that are negative about who they personally are. They don’t realize it because it’s a nice song.They think.It’s rhythmically interesting, you know.The rhythm makes their heart pick up that beat. Right away they walk down and they’re,”I ain’t no good.I ain’t shit.” Art has that quality of being able to insist in a way even more intensely than say a purely like logical presentation.Even though I think that art is scientific,it can make an emotional…it can gain emotional access to a person.That makes it dangerous.The most dangerous artists are the artists who are completely backward but who have a high level of technical expertise.Suppose that you are technically very competent but philosophically very backward.That means that you have the power to impress people with a very backward, philosophically backwards message simply because you are technically advanced with these kinds of skills.America is full of people like that.
Gounis: You mentioned lumping together political statements with some of the more raunchy things and suppressing it all under the name of censorship. Do you think that they same kind of thing is happening in the so called war on drugs? That they are lumping together what could be research on psychedelics;they’re lumping together marijuana…they’re throwing it all in the same category as vials of crack that are sold on the corner and it’s all used as means of suppression?
Baraka: Yes. Sure it is.Actually it’s used as a means of suppression and as a means of profit.Suppression and profits.”Drugs”, it should be widely known now,is just another name for post-civil rights era repression of black and Latino communities.They can assume the same sort of relationship with our communities now as they did in the ’50’s.Now it’s about drugs.They can have the same kind of surveillance,the same massive arrests.And where it used to be that they just did because you’re black,or you were an unruly person,after the civil rights movement the that doesn’t wash anymore.So then you have to come up with some kind of justifiable,”legitimate” reason.That’s what it is.Drugs on one hand are the reason for this repressive and undemocratic presence in our community.
On the other hand the people making the most money from drugs are not black or Puerto Rican street hustlers and teenagers.Anyone should know that.The people who are bringing it in? I don’t know any black kids on the corner who got airplanes and boats.The people who are laundering money?I don’t know any black or Puerto Rican kids who are laundering money.If you can find out about the Boston Corporation that is laundering money and somebody gets a fine,some corporate fine that doesn’t even register in anybody’s pocket.You know, corporations…I read a book and the man said the the limited corporation was the most dangerous acquisition of American business.This came about at the same time as the 14th amendment due process.Corporations lent themselves the persona of a person,you understand.The corporation became an entity with all the rights of a person but none of the responsibilities,you understand.I believe that’s most dangerous.
That’s what’s going on right now.You have these corporations and these people linked with these corporations who are in direct contact with the Medelin cartel and all that shit.The money is passing the way that it usually passes between a narrow little group of people who are making money internationally and the majority of other people just remain exploited as they usually are.that’s all.And I don’t believe that anything is going to happen about the drug business until they decriminalize it,until they actually take the profit out of it in the same way that they took the profit out of prohibition of liquor.By the way during the time of Prohibition, a lot of the immigrant ethnic forces,Jews,Italians, the Irish during that period were personally able to enhance their political power based on some primary accumulation of wealth from alcohol.It’s dawning on some people that it can happen with drugs.
It’s dawning on people like William F. Buckley.I don’t know if you heard his recent statement about drugs,where he’s lamenting that all this money is going to the “criminal class”. Well. I don’t know if I think that all the people that are laundering that money, are the “criminal class.” They are criminals.There’s no doubt about that.We have to find out what they in fact are.They are a bourgeoisie but they might not be the ones that we normally associate with it,but they’re certainly are ones. There are many people that hold right now that the decriminalization of drugs is the only way to deal with it.It is. As long you have a completely unregulated capitalist game going on where it has no regulation at all, which is what that is,then you have something that’s operating outside society.They say,”We’re trying to stamp it out.We’re trying to stamp it out.We can’t stamp it out.”Bullshit.If they wanted to stamp it out it would be gone,you understand.So the problem is that it’s operating completely outside any kind of legal restraint or even moral restraint.And the same people who are making money inside society are the ones who are profiting ultimately from it outside.
Gounis: I see exactly what you are saying.And with those huge profits, will decriminalization ever come? They can put it off a long time.They have a huge carrot dangling.
Baraka: I know. The only way it’s happening is the way it happened in Prohibition.The way it happened in Prohibition is because the shit got so disrupted, society got so disrupted,you understand, based on this on-going violence and people blowing up each other.Gang wars. And it’s bizarre , now in our society,to think that all that was happening because of alcohol.Speakeasies and all that kind of shit.People going to jail.You know,you still have..not in Missouri,but in some states you still have state stores.In Pennsylvania and other parts of New England there are still state stores.That’s still state controlled.
And I think that’s what they’re going to have to do.Decriminalize it.Take the money out of it.Put some kind of regulatory bodies in control of it.change the emphasis to a medical one rather than a legal one.I mean, over half the people in jail right now are there because of drug offenses.They’re starting to let people out of those jails because they know.I mean, they’ve got an electronic program now where they put a little thing around a person’s arm and make them check in and all that.But they know now that it’s bullshit.Most of those people are in there because of economic crimes more than anything else.They weren’t addicted to anything.They were making money.And why? Well, we don’t have any jobs.And the level of their lives in this society is so low.
They’re talking about building more jails.These new repressive bastards come in and the only thing that they can think of is we need more money for cops and jails.They completely dismiss any talk about employment,housing,health…you know,the real problems that people must have changed.All they want to talk about is jail,police and building more jails.And that’s directly due to the failure to put this drug thing in perspective.
Gounis: So my question was regarding the younger generation to hand them particular clues or guidelines.I understand completely what you’re saying about the kid on the corner in tennis shoes isn’t bringing cocaine into the country.Is there a particular message that we should be giving to younger kids?
Baraka: I think that fundamentally first there’s the question of trying to find out and analyze just where and who they are.The revelations that come from any kind of real attention to not only their personal history but the history of their family,the city,the people,whatever history they can give.That’s the most important thing,the question of self- analysis which is as old as…as old as Africa anyway.Know thyself.That is always what that means: self -analysis and not just personal self- analysis;but the self in terms of where you live and who you are,your family,the history,everything.That’s very,very important.And the second thing is that nothing comes without struggle.There is no progress without struggle.That’s essentially it.
Gounis: In a way that’s a very hard lesson to teach kids when they’re handed instant gratification through television and through flipping a switch to get whatever kind of music or whatever they want.So it’s a tough lesson but a valuable one.
Baraka: Well you see it’s still particularly with black kids and, I guess with working class kids in another way generally,that whatever they see through the instant gratification machine TV and so forth,is not seconded by what they experience on the outside.They’re delivered a bill of goods through television of an America that that does not exist outside of that TV.What’s on there doesn’t exist anytime that they walk out of their homes.
I live in Newark.Amina and I raised five children,got one in jail,three in college,and one just got shot in the head and is recovering.That’s a pretty good average.We hope that the fourth one is going to recover and go to college too.It might be four out of five;who knows?The kid in jail might go back to college.He was in college in the first place.He came out and couldn’t make any money,so he did what they do in Newark.And he got flagged,naturally.
But the point is this,all of them know that they came from essentially a middle class background.They have a father,a mother.They have a home.They have access to education.They have access to books.They have self-consciousness that is available to them just by being there.Like my children when they found out…for instance when the whole Black consciousness thing returned.They said,”Jesus Christ,we’ve got all this stuff right here.We never even knew this!”
Still, when they go outside on the street they’re dealing with ground level zero.They dealing with a highly disrupted social organization in terms of what exists out there.They’re dealing with a lot of frustrations,they’re dealing with a lot of people that will never have what they have.And at the same time they have to provide a conduit.And that’s the kind of sense of responsibility,to understand that the majority of their people will never have the kinds of things that they have.But they also have to understand that this will bond them more closely,because they understand that it’s only through the people themselves,the struggles of the people themselves,that they received the consciousness that they have.You understand? They have to see that their own consciousness is a function of the raising of the consciousness of their own people.That’s the things that they are learning.
Some of my kids…my son Ras,I think that they all know to a certain extent…I mean they took over Howard University’s administration building a couple of years ago.They ran Lee Atwater ( George H. Bush press spokesman) out of there.Jesus,I never did that when I was in college.I took me awhile to get up a head of steam.But this kid did it when he was a junior in college.So they have that consciousness that they need to excel but at the same time the commitment to be part of the community’s consciousness rather that some individual kind of disconnected consciousness.And that’s really the legacy that you try to leave,to make them part of that community,it’s consciousness,a whole,because it will be a bigger consciousness.Individual consciousness can only expand to a certain extent because it’s limited by its own limitations.But a collective consciousness,that is you benefit by the collective strength,the collective rise,and the collective perception.And that’s what I want for them.
Gounis: Before I get into a couple literary questions,I saw in your autobiography that you were very concerned with and involved with the Fair Play For Cuba Committee and I also saw that you were concerned about the JFK assassination.What did you think when you saw how Fair Play For Cuba was used as a front for Lee Oswald? I know that’s a pretty involved question…
Baraka: Well I’ll tell you,I was president of the Fair Play For Cuba New York chapter.I went to Cuba in July 1959.I was down there early.
I thought that it was a set up.It was a trick.I know the guy who had ran Fair Play,Richard Gibson.I know that he had to get out.He left the country because the FBI started looking for him after the assassination based on that fact …and I thought that’s what it was intended to do.I thought that once they had hooked Oswald up to this-who we all must know by now that there’s one thing for sure -it wasn’t him.He wasn’t the one.
Gounis: The one time prior to the assassination that he’s on film, he’s seen handing out leaflets in favor of Fair Play For Cuba…
Baraka: And he gets killed on television,that was a first,you know, a live assassination of a guy so that they couldn’t say anything to him…I thought that it was a set up but there was still a rapid kind of progressive movement going on even in that period of the Oswald killing.There was still overall a forward positive movement.So I think that a lot of people were not really as disturbed or perturbed by that as they might have been if it had been a less positive kind of period.We’re talking about when? 1963.So we’re talking about a lot of positive things.But on the other hand -bang,bang,bang! Things keep happening and they keep happening every year or so. Malcolm X gets it next,and then all those other people.The Panther Party got locked up.People like Fred Hampton and Medgar Evers start getting killed.
Then you go to Bobby (Kennedy) and (Martin Luther) King.In that short period of time they had wiped out the leadership of every aspect of the popular movement;whether it was the bourgeoisie themselves,you know, the progressive side of them was the Kennedys,the black middle class,King, or the black working class – Malcolm.They had wiped us clean from pillar to post.So by the time that people started realizing how beset they were with COINTELPRO and Operation Chaos and all the rest of that shit that they have,you’re really getting into another kind of stage where they actually tried to de-fang the whole movement.
And the law enforcement in this country is notoriously racist.Historically, I couldn’t see how there wouldn’t be that same kind of conspiracy existing within the FBI.Why, the FBI is getting sued within its own ranks by its own agents for being racist.That usual American racism persists in every aspect of everyday life,no matter where it is.I think that it’s just a matter of people who have power,racists,who are offended by the fact that there are too many of color in power. I know it’s not true,but that perception,that they’re getting too much power,or they’re getting to be too outspoken,or they’re a betrayer kind of class to American development…I can see how racism would certainly provide a backbone for that kind of attention above and beyond the norm.
I mean for somebody to come in and spend that much money…you see the only thing about the Marion Barry case you have to remember is that part of that has to do with the Democrats too.That conspiracy has definitely got to do with racism, but also party politics.When somebody’s in there turning the spigots on and off- Barry obviously had to go.And the black caucus was very closely involved in that.
That woman Sharon Pratt Dixon,who’s now the mayor? She’s the former treasurer of the Democratic Party.I saw her in Atlanta in 1988 at the democratic Convention and there was talk then that they were coming for Barry.Democrats.Whether it was going to be Walter Fauntroy or Jesse Jackson, who toyed with it. They wanted Jesse to go for it,but he just managed to back away from it.But they wanted that for him and it was a means of taking him (Barry) out of the way.
Democrats are involved in the whole corpus of power.Democrats and Republicans are interchangeable.So when they want to do something,for whatever reason,they have any number of ways that they can add a particular spin to what’s happening.Do you understand what I’m saying? For instance,if you look at that Democratic Convention you can see a whole lot of things coming out of that that had to be people promising things,certain things,you know.You have to look at Jesse Jackson,since I was doing a story on that for Essence and know he could have gotten the vice-presidential nomination and know that the constitution points out how that can be done. I mean the constitution is not based on party politics.And you can run as a vice-presidential candidate,no matter who the Democrats put up as their team.You can independently…Jackson explained this to me why ,which is no explanation,only there’s people on the floor who were supposed to do it and they didn’t do anything.So then what happens? People want to know what did Jesse get and so forth?Well, he didn’t get, a group got -which is always the case.What did they get out of that? Well, they get to fool around in Atlanta.They pass the mayor thing back and forth
They got not only any number of…you know,Atlanta’s been become advertised as the biggest city in the United States,not only in terms of investment.Not to mention the Olympics.Even goddamn Athens went up in smoke .How does Atlanta rate over Athens? Next they got the Democratic Convention coming to New York City.David Dinkins is Jesse Jackson’s banker,you know what I mean? You can see this stuff coming down the pike.So what was that for? It was for what happened in Atlanta.The Democrats and the Republicans are part of this old system and they’re both shaping it the way that they want to.The fact of racism’s historical development and that at no time can you find this country without racism;that means that racism is utilized by those parties like anybody else.
Gounis: You mentioned in your autobiography also what an inspiration Charles Olson was as far as the technique of writing poetry and as far as the spirit of poetry you mentioned Allen Ginsberg.Do you still point to those two poets when you teach classes and when you work with young poets?
Baraka: I point to them for the specific uses that I’ve made of them,sure.But you know, there are obviously a lot of people that I have coming into that and going out of that…at that particular period.What was that,middle ’50’s late ’50’s? You know,they were useful,personally,their texts as far as American poetry.Both were very,very erudite.Allen,of course was a personal friend and I learned a lot.But in terms my own wanting to try to ultimately find my own voice,that required other stuff.I think that the heaviest influence on me has always been black music from the beginning.But that’s prior to being “wanting to write.” I mean, that’s the kind of reservoir that you carry,I guess that’s responsible for your voice,the rhythms of your speech and things like that.But certainly I think that Allen Ginsberg and Charles Olson were important to my own literary development.
Gounis: In writing about music,you’ve also drawn the correlation between the old blues dirty dozens and rap music.
Baraka: It’s the same thing.It’s just another example of what has been a part of black culture for a long time now being popularized and then commercialized.