Amiri Baraka keeps it real about America in the Obama era
By D. Scot Miller
LIT/MUSIC With influences ranging from the Cuban Revolution and Malcolm X to musical orishas such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, and Sun Ra, Amiri Baraka is renowned as the founder of the Black Arts Movement in Harlem in the 1960s that became, though short-lived, the virtual blueprint for a new American theater aesthetic. The movement and his published work — such as 1963's signature study on African American music Blues People and the same year's play Dutchman — practically seeded "the cultural corollary to black nationalism" of that revolutionary American milieu.
Baraka lives in Newark, N.J., with his wife and author Amina Baraka; they have five children and head the word-music ensemble Blue Ark: The Word Ship and co-direct Kimako's Blues People, an art space housed in their theater basement for some 15 years. I spoke with him on the eve of an upcoming visit.
SFBG You coined the term "Afrosurreal Expressionism." Can you share your definition?
AB If you know the African tales or even African writers and African cultures, then you know they understand the concept of having relationships reversed, which exposes new concepts and dimensions. They understood the power of the conscious and unconscious mind to change the dimensions of the world. The various forces of nature that people developed, that people saw as gods, these elemental forces: the wind, the water, the sun, the moon. They understood how human beings interrelate to those forces. Henry Dumas' work dealt with these changing dimensions, and people who do strange things in realistic situations. It was Surrealism that changed the relationship to things. Dumas influenced Toni Morrison, who was his editor at Random House. He was a strong writer and he went out of here in a tragic way, being murdered by the police. His stories and poems are Afrosurreal, with African psychology imposing these dimensions on reality.
SFBG What brings you to the Bay Area this time around?
AMIRI BARAKA We're doing two sets at Yoshi's with Howard Wiley. Those are the kinds of musical things we have a nice time doing. I hope to bring the poetry and music to Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. And I'm giving a talk at the library.
SFBG What will you be discussing?
AB Obama and his first 10 months, based on an essay I wrote a few months ago called "We're Already in the Future." I support Obama and I think that the people who supported him initially should keep supporting him because they are forgetting the huge difficulty he faces. This society, they don't want any kind of change. They do not want him, first of all. Only 43 percent of the white people even voted for him, and a lot those people resent the fact that white America is now mulatto. That election proved that it's not white America, it's multinational America, so they've set up this roadblock to almost anything he does.
Anytime you can, you see how doofus Americans are, to oppose their own quality of life improvement, their own health care. They'd rather mope along with little health care or none simply because the corporations have convinced them it's bad for them — it shows you that we have a real education gap in America. Not to mention the racism, which is behind a lot of it, big time.
The people who support Obama need to stand together to fight the right wing. It's the right wing that is the enemy. Those huge corporations including those mouthpieces they have. The media is just absurd, with [Sean] Hannity, [Bill] O'Reilly, [Glenn] Beck, Rush Limbaugh. These guys are just too much. If they're not racist, there is no such thing as racism.
SFBG I know that you spent some time in SF. What are your impressions of our city?
AB I was a visiting professor at San Francisco State for about three or four months, that was the extent of my residency. I like San Francisco. I'm drawn to the vibe there. The last time I was in San Francisco, I was reading at Ferlinghetti's bookstore [City Lights]. Most of my stuff is in Oakland, but whenever I'm in Oakland, I stop by San Francisco.
Seems to me that San Francisco is very expensive, like New York. I live in Newark, N.J., which is 12 miles outside of New York City — it's got that Oakland-San Francisco relationship. When you're dealing with New York, you have that high-rent district all the way around. San Francisco is a beautiful city, but going there and being there are two different things.
SFBG Happy birthday. I know you just turned 75. Any wisdom to impart from three-quarters of a century?
AB I've been 75 for about five days. I can say that you really need to take care of yourself. That's the cliché: "If I knew I was going be this old, I would have taken better care of myself," but it's some better wisdom than what you hear generally.SFBG What is the role of the artist in the current climate, and what are the tools we can use to bring about social change?
AB The way things work: cause and effect, action and reaction. The '60s and the '70s were a period of intense struggle. The Black Arts Movement and the antiimperialist movement laid the foundation to get Obama elected. But then you get a reaction, and it has been quite evident. Imperialist commerce has taken over the arts. Once we were struggling to get black movies made — now we see what kinds of movies are being made by black people, and they are very backward. Act, react. We have to struggle anew to do something about these backwards elements.
Black people have 27 cities: we need 27 theaters, 27 galleries, 27 periodicals. We need to have poets, rappers, painters, actors struggling to raise the consciousness of the people. That is the role of the artist. Black people still live in these ghettos and these 'hoods. There may be more of a black middle-class, but they often are the ones helping to keep us duped and bamboozled. This is a struggle that has to be. This is reality — like they say, "Keep it real." This is a struggle that has to be.