"I think about a time when I will be relaxed.
When flames and non-specific passion wear themselves away. And my eyes and hands and mind can turn and soften, and my songs will be softer and lightly weight the air." From "The Modes of History and Culture."
Newark - When he was known as LeRoi Jones in the 1960s, Amriri Baraka was the toast of the New York avant-gradeliterary world.
His plays shocked audiences and won awards. His poetry and prose jarred readers and sent college students scurrying to examine his sources.
But today, 15 years later, Baraka says he can't get published.
"I started publishing peotry in 1958," he says. "My first book came out in 1961. So I've been publishing books for 17 years. Then for someone to tell me that I suddenly can't write - suddenly literary critic. What is it?"
For 20 years, Amiri Bakara wrestled in his writings with the big question of social - and personal - justice. His search has led him to many unpopular, and sometimes linely positions. Baraka's intellectual odyssey has also been lived out in his personal life. In the last 15 years he's been at the vanguard of various social and literary changes.
In 1964, Baraka watched long lines of people queueing up nightly at an off-Broadway theater to see his play "Dutchman," which won an obie award that year.
In 1965, Baraka left his white wife and two daughters and moved to Harlem to establish the Black Arts Repertory Theater.
In 1970, the writer, back home in Newark, made speeches and canvassed wards in successful effort to elect Kenneth Gibson as the city's first black mayor.
In 1972, Baraka chaired committee meetings late into the night at the National Black Political Convention hammering out position papers to be presented to the Democratic and Republican parties.
In 1977, he directed his first off-Broadway production since the 1960s - "The Motion of History," a four-hour play about the black liberation struggling from a Socialist perspective. The play was put on by the Anti-Imperialist Cultural Union. Baraka now calls himself a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist.
The mixture of the art and politics in Baraka's work has sparked widely divergent critical views. In his study, "Baraka: The Renegade and the Mask," Kimberly Bentson writes: "His work is a brilliant and manifestation of both the despair of the modern West and the raw exultation of emerging civilizations."
While praising Baraka's "remarkable verbal sense," J Saunders Redding has critized the writer for advocating a black esthetic and black politics while writing for white audiences. "LeRoi Jones has sense enough to know that there's damn little that's going to change without the informed cooperation of white folks except for the worse," he said.
"I am lost in hot fits of myself trying to get out. Lost because I am kinder to myself than I need Softer w/others than is good for them."
From Baraka's "Air"
Baraka answers his door holding a martini in one hand. His 13-room, three-story house, built in thr 1930s, sits in the heat of the once-proud middle-class section, now decaying from age and inattention.
Photographs of Mao Tse-tung and paintings by black American artists hangs on the walls of the downstairs rooms. African sculpture rest in several corners.
The house reverbeats with the squeals and shouts of most of the seven children he and his wife, Amina, have (two from her previous marriage).
Baraka looks mellower than usual. He's now 43, no longer the enfant terrible . His hair and beard are sprinkled with gray. Since discarding vegetarianism about four years ago, he's gone from 125 to 155 pounds on his compact 5 foot 7 frame.
"We thought diet was going to make revolution," he smiles. "Now I eat everything, but not so much pork. I guess that's a throwback to my nationalist days."
He still carries on his forehead a scar of a wound inflicted by police during the Newark civil disturbance of 1967.
Although he's deeply involved in interracial radical political and cultural organizations, Baraka has also recently returned to teaching.
This year he's at Yale teaching two courses, one on Langston Hughes and Richard Wright and the other in contemporary black drama.
In the fall Baraka will be the Jenny McKean Moore Fellow at George Washington University, where he'll teach two writing classes and probably a course focused on the revolutionary tradition in Afro-American literature.
(Baraka will read from his works today at 5:30 p.m. at the Marvin Center Theater, 21st and H Streets NW.)
"Teaching literature courses is interesting because I can do some readings of some thing I haven't read, which is good," he says. "And usually I write essays on those people rather than just making notes. And if people are publishing my work, I could publish it."
"The Motion of History" and two other Baraka plays, "S-1% and "Slave Ship" were published by Morrow last month.
"I badgered them into that," he scowls. "Harrased them. I wrote letters and sent carbon copies to people.
"I've got all kinds of books upstairs that could be published. Morrow, which is supposed to be my publisher, turned down a poetry book of mine, with the comment that it's too political to be poetry and too poetic to be politcs."
"Publishing has been completely commercial, so that people have even shed the facade of literature," he says, pulling at an ear lobe. "At the same time they are turning me down at Macmillan, man, they were publishing a history of wallpaper.
"I think because of the political content, they say it's not going to sell, which is bull. . . All my books, 'Blues People,' 'Dutchman' and those books way back then, are still selling. No matter what they think about that ideology, some people will buy it because I've written it.
"And then the whole national oppression thing about black literature has played out. Nobody's interested in it, as if the question was black people could play out. They're a fad."
Lawrence Hughes, president of Morrow says, "I don't understand this. We are very supportive of him. We admire his writing. I don't want to get into a controversy with our author. A publisher is free to publish what he thinks should be published and can publish successfully."
"A renegade behind the mask. And even the mask, a renegade disguise. Black skin and hanging lip . . ."
From "A Poem for Willie Best"
Baraka gets up to fetch anothe Lowenbrau.
His wife, Amina, is in the kitchen, preparing lunchSerene and cheerful, she's softly singing "Old Folks" when a neighborhood boy rings the doorbell and say somebody should see about 5-year-old Amiri.
One of the four Baraka boys, he's cut his hand trying to climb over a barbed wire fence. There's a flurry discussion. Who's going to take him to the hospital? Baraka says he will, but his wife insists she will. She hurriedly - but calmly - drives away.
It's the second recent Friday afternoon accident to hit the family. Two weeks before, Amina had cut her arm when she fell into an attic closet onto some army cots. That same Baraka spent most of the afternoon at the dentist's office with an aching tooth.
"They're going to name a wing for us at the hospital," he says drily, looking out his living room window.
Baraka is already well known in Newark, either for his political organizing to help elect Gibson (who still holds office) or because he grew up here.
People up and down the street still call him LeRoi. No Amiri (Prince) Baraka (Blessedness) for them.
He has dropped Imamu (spiritual leader), a title cultural nationalist Ron Karenga gave him several years ago.
His parents, both retired, also still live here. His father was a postal worker, his mother a social worker.
Baraka was born Oct. 7, 1934. He showed an early interest in reading and storytelling. According to Theodore Hudson, author of "From LoRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka," his stories were so realistic that several gradeschool teachers trekked to the Jones home to "see the snakes."
Later, he produced a comic strip and wrote short stories, mainly science fiction, in high school.
After graduation, he attended Rutgers for a year but dropped out partly because he found people "who thoughts grits were meant to be eaten with milk and sugar, instead of gravy and pork sausage . . ." He transferred to Howard, where he said, "they teach you to be white."
But Baraka had his own impact on Howard. An account of him eating watermelon in front of the Douglass Hall is a campus legend.
The writer says he and a friend bought a watermelon and sat on a bench eating it. However, the friend had to go to class.
So Baraka was eating alone when the dean of men came by and wanted to know what was going on. The dean, according to Baraka, reminded him that he was a the "capstone of Negro education" and that he was compromising blacks. Whites might see him.
The dean asked him to throw away the watermelon. But Baraka replied that he could throw only half of it away as the other half belonged to his friend.
Versions of the watermelon episode, some outrageous, have followed Baraka all these years.
Baraka dropped out of Howard after his junior year and joined the Air Force, serving three years, mostly at a base in Puerto Rico.
Following his discharge in 1956, he headed for the Village, where he married Hettie Cohen, white and also an aspiring writer at that time. They had two daughters.
His poetry from this period (late '50s, early '60s) was intensely personal.
"For all these wan roads
I am pushed to follow, are
my own conceit. A simple muttering
elegance, slipped in my head
pressed on my soul, is my heart's worth ."
From "I Substitute for the Dead Lecturer"
Baraka hung out with "beat" poet Allen Ginsburg and was acclaimed as the black writer who would pick up the literary banner from Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin.
But his eyes turned uptown and political action become more important than literary pursuits.
"That (personal poetry) become a very limited world," he says. "By the mid-'60s, I had wanted to go beyond that. The middle volume of 'The Dead Lecturer' is the transition for me from more personal to a more open and direct style, more hortatory urging people to commit themselves."
"We are unfair, and unfair.
We are black magicians, black arts we make in black labs of the heart.
The fair are fair, and deathly white.
The day will not save them and we own the night."
In 1965, he left his wife and children, moved to Harlem and established the Black Arts Repertory Theater.
He says his move was not dramatic. Baraka told Hudson: "It wasn't any sudden thing. It was a developing thing . . .My work kept changing steadily . . . It was based on growing, change - like everything else - until one day the whole thing just became unbearable in a physical sense. I just cut it out."
It was a time of civil rights protest in the South and civil disturbances in northern cities. The first U.S. troops were being sent to Vietnam.
At the same time, blacks were experiencing a burgeoning literary movement, particularly in poetry and drama. Poets read their works in bars and on street corners. Dramas, written by the skilled and bungling, was presented in theaters and alleyways.
and much of this activity centered around Baraka, the literary father of many young black writers.
"I love you black people because I love my Self.
And you are the self, thrown big against the heavens."
From "In Our Terribleness"
Larry Neal, executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, remembers Baraka writing in a steamy office in Harlem in the summer of 1965, while directing the administrative and artistic functions of the Black Arts Repertory Theater.
"People are running up and down the stairs, asking him questions, looking to him for decision," recalls Neal, a poet-essayist and friend of Baraka. "He's always writing in the thick of action. He's a literary man of action. His writing is an assertion of who he is, no matter what his political changes are."
Later, Baraka moved back to Newark and became involved in the Gibson mayoral campaign. This led to national political activity - the Congress of African Peoples and the Black Political Convention in Gary in 1972.
"We are for the revolutionary outburst by Black People
The Liberation of the Black Nation
We are for the revolutionary outburst by all the People
The freeing of America from bourgeo is rule
Not just an out burst, but the steel burning fire of
The People's War
The violent birth process of Socialism!"
- From "For the Revolutionary Outburst by Black People"
But further change was to come. In 1975 he became a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist.
He recalls: "By 1974, it had become clear to some of us that the whole nationalist, Pan-Africanist line was incorrect, that there were flaws in it and that it could not answer a lot of the questions being asked just by the people struggling everyday.
"First of all, the stuff we were doing here in Newark - we began to see the hopelessness' of skin analysis. When Gibson and them got in there - and we put them in there and we knew what was happening totally in this town, what could be done and what couldn't be done - he began to create this little bureaucratic, petty bourgeoisie elite. Some paper shufflers down there.
"It began to dawn us that there ain't nothing happening for these people out here in the street. We got some black folks in the office and they can front that off in a really elegant way."
He draws himself up in his chair and says in a deep ghetto inflection: "'Ahmm de may-er and this and that.' But there was no change for the body of this town. That had a great effect on me personally."
Baraka also visited several African countries and the West Indies during this period. Everywhere he went, he says, there was the same rule of imperialism.
"A lot of these nationalists will tell you it feels better to be exploited by a black," he laughs. "That's absurd. That's like a black cop hitting you with a stick and it don't hurt."
He changes his soft voice to a grating wave: "'Remember I'm a brother.' Pow! It don't register, you know, Jack. 'That felt good.'"
He recalls: "When I went to Trinidad, I took my wife and kids."
"I tried to disguie myself as a tourist. But somebody put a 'Judas Kiss' on me right after I got off the plane. He said he was a journalist. So they knew who I was."
Does it bother him that he's taken so many different intellectual and political positions?
"Nobody comes fully shaped out of the womb," he counters. "I think that although we had opportunities to become clearer than we did, still that's a process of development, and it develops in the main in struggle. I think the reason we changed our particular ideology was that we were not pontificating this ideology from an ivory tower. We were in the community daily - working, struggling."
Communism, contends Baraka, is the answer for all countries. "This country with its long and varied history is not outside the normal method of development of society," he adds.
So he's a member of the Revolutionary Communist League, an outgrowth of the Congress of African Peoples. The league, he says, works on the premise that there is no Communist Party, U.S.A.
Most of the league's members are in factories in different parts of the country, he said. He declined to name any officials.
The Anti-Imperialist Cultural Union, he says, is made up mostly of unknown painters, writers and graphic artists, largely from New York. The union has a drama workshop and is preparing to do "Images of Struggle and Revolution," a melange of 20th-century revolutionary poetry.
On a hot summer day in 1960 in Cuba, shortly after Castro had engineered the revolution, Baraka was taking a train ride when a female youth congress delegate accused him of being politically naive. She insisted that everyone had to be Communist or anti-communist.
Reaching for a defense, he retorted: "Look, why jump on me? I understand what you're saying. I'm in complete agreement with you. I'm a peet . . . what can I do? I write, that's all. I'm not even interested in politics!"
Later, he was to write: "The rebels among us have become merely people like myself who grow beards and will not participate in politics . . . We are an old people already. Even the vitality of our art is like bright flowers growing up through a rotting carcass."
That experience proved to be the beginning of his political awakening, says Hudson.
"I know I've always tried to be in revolutionary," he told Tish Dace in the Village Voice.
His experiences in Cuba, Harlem, Newark, Africa, the West Indies have all opened him up to other views of the world.
"I've never made any secret of trying to find a more thorough understanding of reality," he says, leaning forward and squinting in the sunlight, "and also at the same time a transformation ofreality."