Hilton Als on Amiri Baraka and James Baldwin

Tribute to James Baldwin at Lincoln Center

The poet and black activist Amiri Baraka (born LeRoi Jones) died this week, age 79, and left behind an unsettled legacy of both courage and outrage.  Hilton Als at the New Yorker has a moving piece about Baraka when he was still Jones and married to Hettie, but as I read it I kept thinking about the James Baldwin tribute I produced and directed at Lincoln Center in 2001 for the writers group PEN.  Both Amiri Baraka and Hilton Als were on the program and both, in their own way, were challenges to work with, unwilling to cooperate in making their contributions part of the larger whole.  With Baraka, you knew that came with the territory and just hoped the inevitable fireworks on stage would be headed in the right general direction.  Als, though, had not yet established that reputation so I didn’t know what was coming.  Als seemed distracted backstage, almost uninterested, and at first seemed to be struggling to find his way under the lights; then, quietly, in his meandering conversational style, he brought the house down with a story, told by Baldwin, of two black men encountering each other in Europe and circling each other warily:

To try and unravel the various contradictions in Baldwin’s work is to risk seeming foolish. Ideology denied in one book is confirmed as gospel in another. In his earliest essays he insisted he did not want to be the things he eventually became, merely a Negro, merely a Negro writer, merely a homosexual, merely a spokesperson for his race. And yet these contradictions are one of the most valuable features of his work. Without a large edition of work about his culture, his history, his politics on which to base himself, he had to make himself up, which is still the curse for others not unlike him who feel they only have James Baldwin to work against. Baldwin understood this particular kind of ambivalence, having written the following at thirty-six: “One of my dearest friends, a Negro writer now living in Spain, circled around me, and I around him, for months before we spoke. One Negro meeting another at an all-white cocktail party cannot but wonder how the other got there. The question is: Is he for real, or is he kissing ass? Negroes know about each other what can be here called family secrets, and this means that one Negro, if he wishes, can mock the other’s hustle. Therefore one exceptional Negro watches another exceptional Negro in order to find out if he knows how vastly successful and bitterly funny the hoax has been.”

It wasn’t until I reached the end of Als’s piece about Baraka, however, that I learned that the night of the Baldwin tribute was the only time he ever met Amiri Baraka:

Who could forget [Baraka] at James Baldwin’s memorial service at St. John the Divine, where he said Baldwin was “God’s black revolutionary mouth,” and who could forget him in Warren Beatty’s underrated 1998 film, “Bulworth,” as an oracle who sees the truth through his own black revolutionary mouth? One got the sense though, over the years, that Baraka’s ego was at odds with his writing; that the early success of his poetry and plays irked him because he wanted the audience to see him, to connect with what he had to say on a more visceral level than mere paper and pencil could convey. I only met the grand elder statesman once, or almost met him. It was at Lincoln Center, at an event honoring James Baldwin. I had reviewed his “Autobiography,” none too favorably, some time before. But it was a young man’s review—a settling of old scores I wasn’t aware I had to settle. And there he was: small, intense, an athlete unsure of where to put all his energy, but it had to go somewhere. That night it went into defending Baldwin’s legacy, and as I listened I couldn’t help but remember his first family, the women who had made his life and ours completely different.

A written transcript of Hilton Als’s speech at the Baldwin tribute is available on the PEN website; they used to have the audio of it too (which was more captivating than the words) but they appear to have removed that from their website.

This is how Amiri Baraka opened his presentation on James Baldwin that night — the full transcript is here:

In these days of American Weimar, with a counterfeit president for a fake democracy, it is a deeply inspiring and absolutely necessary weapon and shield of true self-consciousness against an oppressor nation, its lieutenants, deranged pets, hired killers, artists, academic courtesans, and the dangerously uninformed, to reflect on the obvious grandeur, wisdom, and strength of that tradition of the Afro-American intellectual, artist, teacher—and know that it is revolutionary and democratic. Jimmy B. is high up in that tradition. Certain Skip Gateskeepers try to make trouble by whispering, Holy Doo-Doo, if not for Baraka and those other over-the-top colored types, Jimmy might have passed blazing into the Britannica pantheon of white right. But alas, there are neither colored mens nor womens in that cave of virtual significance. They said DuBois would have made it but he always be talkin about real shit.

In the fifties I did criticize Jimmy in some review, complaining in my infantile leftist mode that while Jimmy was playing the distressed aesthete in Europe, and moaning that instead of confronting the racial animal we should all try to love each other, my rejoinder was that we should get back to our real work: cutting throats. Actually, given the recent seizure of the presidency, which super-whitened the already amazingly Caucasian crib, this is an idea whose time has apparently never split.

That catches something of the spirit of Amiri Baraka, in fact, though not of James Baldwin…


Click here to read more about the James Baldwin tribute I directed and produced at Lincoln Center, or here for other events I did in that series at Lincoln Center and Town Hall.


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