Tag Archives: Amiri Baraka

My Kind of Town or A Stranger in A Strange Land

21 Oct
Johnny Guitar directed by Nichola Ray

Johnny Guitar directed by Nichola Ray

I am a stranger here myself – Johnny Guitar

Events of recent days and the recent 162 game MLB season should make clear why an expatriated Chicagoan might feel pangs of nostalgia for the the city of big shoulders*, the Friendly Confines, Leon Depres, Wolfy’s hot dogs, Nelson Algren,Mike Royko and Studs Terkel, da Bears and Ditka, Small Fabulous Jews,Karl Shapiro and Joseph Epstein, Dick Gregory and Fred Hampton, the Playboy Mansion and the unforgettable Democratic convention of 1968.

Studs Terkel [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

Studs Terkel [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

Actually, for this expatriate, the stirrings of a rare adult onset homesickness go further and deeper. For one thing I have discovered a mesmerizing recording by bassist William Parker, which interprets the songs of the mighty, mighty Chicago musical giant Curtis Mayfield who may at the very least ring familiar as the composer of the Civil Rights anthem, People Get Ready**. In fact if you were paying attention, at the 2004 Democratic Convention, it was Curtis Mayfield’s Move On Up playing as Sen.Barack Obama sauntered up to the podium to give the keynote speech***

Actually Parker has two recordings of I Plan to Stay a Believer The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield,the second one being a live version done in Rome. These renditions offer a full palette of music from Ornette Colemanish free jazz moments to quotes of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and aided and abetted by the trenchant verse of poet Amiri Baraka.

The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield/Live in Rome by William Parker

The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield/Live in Rome by William Parker

Here’s a powerful version of We People Who are Darker Than Blue

Chicago is also the home of writer(forget that carpet bagger Saul Bellow), Joseph Epstein**** whose story collection Small Fabulous Jews is one of my favorite 50th Ward/Golden Ghetto touchstones.

Joseph Epstein [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Joseph Epstein [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

And who doesn’t know about the Monsters of The Midway—da Bears

The Chicago Tribune Book of the Chicago Bears: A Decade-By-Decade History H
by Chicago Tribune Staff

Uh huh, my kind of town…

* http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/2043

*Hospital Karl Shapiro

This is the Oxford of all sicknesses.
Kings have lain here and fabulous small Jews
And actresses whose legs were always news.
In this black room the painter lost his sight,
The cripples dancer here put down her shoes,
And the scholar’s memory broke, like an old clock.

** People Get Ready

*** Move On Up

**** Joseph Epstein

Black is Black-Racism Fatigue

31 Jul

Police response to demonstrations in Ferguson  MO.

Police response to demonstrations in Ferguson MO.

People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned — James Baldwin

Last year, during the heat of the Ferguson Missouri debacle, I became aware that my teen-aged son was lacking in any historical context for the civil rights movement and racial conflict that was filling the news cycle to overflowing. A lack I sought to begin repairing by watching with him, a PBS documentary on the murder of Emmett Till. Till, a black Chicago teenager, was brutally murdered in 1955, while spending the summer with relatives in Mississippi— a crime that went unpunished (the perpetrators were acquitted and though later confessing their guilt, they could not be tried again because of double jeopardy) and became a cause celebre for a nascent civil rights movement.

Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan

Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan

Among efforts to acknowledge this tragedy was a well wrought novel by Lewis Nordan, Wolf Whistle. And now, reportedly millionaires Jay-Z and Will Smith are proposing a six part mini series for HBO, based on the Till murder. Also as reported, there are two other groups looking to resurrect this story. What these efforts will add to the unglamorized body of work already existing is anyone’s guess…

As witnessed in my lifetime, I believe that there are three intractable problems that regularly make headlines— USA’s race problem (or as one commentator opines it the “U.S. war on its domestic black population”),USA’s drug problem, otherwise known as the War on Drugs and the Israeli-Palestine discord (or, if you wish,the Greek Turkey enmity, the Serb Bosnian vendetta, the India-Pakistan feud etc…)In the recent term, the US race problem has boiled over with a series of horrendous police killings of black folk, sparking both outrage and the usual mumbo jumbo punditry, notably by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Though greeted with choral approval, there is at least one nay-sayer(not including the ever smarmy convolutions of David Brooks):

What everyone says about the literary merit of “Between the World and Me” is correct. But if you refuse to simply stare at the book in wonder, you will realize that it is profoundly silly at times, and morally blinkered throughout. It is a masterly little memoir wrapped in a toxic little philippic.

Forgive my reluctance to take seriously Mr Coates’s sincere effort* to expiate on race but I as a witness to the endless race problem and a serious reader of James Baldwin (whose comments and insights have not been improved upon)I am exhausted by the flood of verbiage that reduces to the Shakespearean trope of ‘sound and fury’. If you are bent upon reading about USA’s ‘race’ problem you need to look beyond the approved commentary of Coates commentators or the internecine hissy fits of Cornel West and Michael Edward Dyson and have a look at:

Writing on the Wall by Mumia Abu Jamal

Writing on the Wall by Mumia Abu Jamal

Former Black Panther and radio journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, a veteran of death row has just published Writing on the Wall, a comprehensive anthology of Mumia’s short prison commentaries from 1982 to the present, which among other things tracks the ignominious history of police sponsored terror from Haitian immigrant Amadou Diallo (whose body NYPD riddled with of 40 bullets) to 92 year old elderly Kathryn Johnston, shot to death in her Atlanta home by narcotics officers to 12 year old Tammir Rice to Eric Garner to Freddie Gray and and on and on…

Editor of Writing on the Wall,History professor Johanna Fernández,introduces the collection:

…today, in this moment of renewed upsurge against racist state violence, [Mumia’s] voice is more dangerous than ever.” The danger he poses is not merely local. In exposing the structures of violence that underpin the globe, he covers topics ranging from corporate plunder to the neoliberal assault on workers’ rights to Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians to the enduring lessons of the slave revolt that brought independence to Haiti in 1804: “Masses make and sustain revolutions—often against ‘leaders’ whose every instinct is to betray them…

James Baldwin The Last Interview

James Baldwin The Last Interview

This collection brings together four previously published interviews with Baldwin. An in-depth interview conducted by Studs Terkel, shortly after the publication of Nobody Knows My Name, “Go the Way Your Blood Beats,” in Baldwin’s 1984 interview with then editor-in-chief of the Village Voice, Richard Goldstein and “The Last Interview,” which has been published abridged elsewhere but is now presented in full, is with the writer and poet Quincy Troupe’s who sat with Baldwin just days before he died at his home in St. Paul-de-Vence in the south of France in 1987.

A lengthening skein of films from Malcolm X, The Help, The Butler, 12 Years a Slave,Django Unchained to Selmapresume to elucidate for their presumptive audiences various aspects and nuances and yes horrors attached to the history of Africans dragged to the shores of the New World. Have their collective insights moved the needle from the festering, roiling infection that is race in the USA to toward some semblance of accommodation?

I fear that I have no comfortable answer…

One more item —through out my life one Leroi Jones later known as Amiri Baraka was a burning glowing presence. Thus


S O S by Amiri Baraka

S O S by Amiri Baraka

Black Dada Nihilismus https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wa8T2V8_-kg

* Coates makes have some profoundly incisive and eloquent observations

I had heard such predictions all my life from Malcolm and all his posthumous followers who hollered that the Dreamers must reap what they sow. I saw the same prediction in the words of Marcus Garvey who promised to return in a whirlwind of vengeful ancestors, an army of Middle Passage undead. No. I left The Mecca knowing that this was all too pat, knowing that should the Dreamers reap what they had sown, we would reap it right with them. Plunder has matured into habit and addiction; the people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more. This is not a belief in prophecy but in the seductiveness of cheap gasoline.

Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself. The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky. Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas. The two phenomena are known to each other. It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods. And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately, the Dreamers themselves.

Cool, Ya Dig.

16 Sep
The Cool School by Glenn O 'Brien

The Cool School by Glenn O’ Brien

As attribution is a fetish (or a strong habit)of mine I feel compelled to credit Martin Amis with the astute observation that one of the few bits of vernacular that resists obsolescence is the word/notion “cool” It was operative 50 or 60 years ago when the Prince of Coolness, Miles Davis, began making music and remains functional to this day. There are,I suppose, some deep philological explorations to be made to unpack this happenstance —the more riveting focus, though is on the nature of the things, people and concepts that fall under the rubric, cool.

Now comes a Library of America volume, edited by a man of many seasons, the inestimable Glenn O’Brien,The Cool School Writings from America’s Hip Underground(LOA) which anthologizes a wide array of texts from hipsters the likes of Miles Davis, Henry Miller, Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, Lester Young, Norman Mailer, Frank O’Hara, Amiri Baraka, Lenny Bruce, Rudolph Wurlizter, Nick Tosches, George Carlin and,oh yeah, Glenn O’Brien.(see the complete list here).

Here’s O’Brien’s view:

In a away this volume is a compendium of orphans.

Its not really an anthology as a much as a sampler. A few tasty morsels from the bebop scene, some ancient history of the pre-wiggers, the Beats both beatific and and some downtrodden. some gonzo and gonzoesque journalism, even a bit of punk picaresque. Its really a louche amuse bouche and a possible textbook for Outlier Lit 101

My guiding principle in selecting was filtered randomness> My only agenda was to provide a primer and inspiration for future thought crime and written rebellion.This volume is by no means definitive in terms of the writers selected or example chosen.It could have been entirely composed of different authors except for a few prime mover usual suspects…What is collected here is just a little taste to whet cool appetites

This disclaimer aside, as cultural surveys go, Glenn O’Brien has assembled a vivid picture of what was happening in America on the fringes the main stream and beneath the surfaces of normalcy.Academics might quibble about various omissions or inclusions but O’Brien has that intangible grasp of the cool to have collected snapshots of roiling cultural climate of the 20th century.

Of course being cool , you will already sense that.

Currently reading The Tilted World by Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin (Wm Morrow)