Far From Backing Down

By James A. Miller,
professor of English and American studies and chair of the American Studies Department at the George Washington University
Wednesday, March 14, 2007


Short Stories

By Amiri Baraka

Akashic. 221 pp. $14.95

For more than four decades of public life, writer-activist Amiri Baraka has distinguished himself not only by his dazzling literary talent but also by his penchant for lobbing verbal hand grenades -- most recently in his poem "Somebody Blew Up America," which, among other things, echoed the rumor that Israeli workers at the twin towers had been warned to stay at home the day of the 9/11 attacks. The ensuing uproar led then-New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey to eliminate the post of state poet laureate rather than allow Baraka to continue to occupy it. In the introduction to "Tales of the Out & the Gone" Baraka signs off as "The Last Poet Laureate of New Jersey."

Now in his early 70s, somewhat grizzled, somewhat stooped but unbowed, Baraka is still feisty and irrepressible -- to judge from the publication of his most recent collection of short stories. In the introduction, Baraka places himself within a line of literary descent that springs from "Pushkin, de Maupassant, Poe, Dumas, Kafka, Sembène, Bradbury, &c.," but these stories, composed from the 1970s to now, many of them unpublished, bear the hallmarks of his distinctive voice and politics.

Roughly the first half of the collection, gathered under the rubric "War Stories," consists of stories thematically connected because they are, in Baraka's words, "taken from a life lived and experienced, from one kind of war or another. It could be the USAF in Puerto Rico, it could be the later Greenwich Village skirmishes, the Black Liberation Movement, or the Anti-Revisionist Communist Movement (we used to call it). Or what became post- all that."

Readers familiar with Baraka's earlier work, such as his first collection, "Tales," or the innovative and fragmentary prose of "The System of Dante's Hell," will be struck immediately by the thematic range and coherence of the stories he tells in this section. Often an intensely autobiographical writer, Baraka steps outside of himself here to create more or less linear narratives that skillfully evoke specific times, places, moods, characters. His home town of Newark has always occupied a central place in his political activities and in his literary imagination, and several of these stories track the trajectory of black nationalist/revolutionary politics during the peak years of the 1970s.

"New & Old" succinctly captures the internecine struggles among various factions of black activists, while "Neo-American" and "From War Stories" skillfully convey the disillusionment that set in among black radicals in the aftermath of the euphoria that accompanied the historic elections of black mayors in Newark and other cities. The narrator of "From War Stories" sardonically sums up the mood of his contemporaries: "A few of us believed that democracy for the assorted groups of colored, Negroes, and blacks could be won by refraining from eating meat and jogging, plus karate. An even smaller group of us thought that it might take more than that -- maybe a little Malcolm, a little Che, a little Mao, some Ron Karenga, Carmichael, and pinches of some other folk, living and dead."

But the radical transformation did not occur. Set in the 1970s, "Neo-American" follows a day in the life of Tim Goodson, the black mayor of Finland Station, N.J. (an ironic reference; the Finland Station is where Lenin arrived in 1917 to assume the leadership of the Russian Revolution), as he prepares for a visit to his city by President Gerald Ford. Through his fictional alter ego, Ray Sloane, Baraka castigates the rise of a black elite, spawned by the momentum of the civil rights movement and the Black Power era. They're more preoccupied with the trappings of political power and the symbols of upward social mobility than with addressing pressing social and economic conditions: "And what we got here in this town? . . . black faces in high places, but the same rats and roaches, the same slums and garbage, the same police whippin' your heads, the same unemployment and junkies in the hallways muggin' your old lady. What is it? What is it? We strained to elect this nigger mayor, and what we got to show for it? Nothing but a burpin' black bastard slippin' his way around the city, sleepin' with fat ladies."

The second section of the collection, "Tales of the Out & the Gone," has its roots in what the literary critic Werner Sollors calls Baraka's "populist modernism," particularly his abiding interest in science fiction. Baraka describes his preoccupations in these stories this way: "In specific contexts, anything can be Out! Out of the ordinary. . . . The 'Out' is out, even if in plain sight. . . . The 'Gone' could be seen or unseen or obscene."

And so they are. Baraka abandons any pretense of linear fiction as these short sketches often careen toward the surreal, the hallucinatory, the apocalyptic. Their organization is apparently random; this is a fictional world that reveals itself in fragments, a world populated by ghosts, spirits, weird occurrences and "out" technology -- such as sneakers that run on thought waves: "Yeh, yeh! You just focus on rising up, and zip, you rise. You focus on splitting -- you split!" Or Rhythm Travel: "You can disappear & reappear wherever and whenever that music played."

At their best, these are playful sketches that stretch language and imagination in unexpected ways but still maintain some connection to existing social reality. Other pieces in this section, however, are so "out" and convoluted that they leave readers dangling. But that's Baraka for you: He either takes you along with him or leaves you far behind, but he seldom looks back.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company