On The Death Of LeRoi Jones
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/11/14
A few days ago, poet Everett LeRoi Jones (aka LeRoi Jones and Amiri Baraka) died, at the age of 79, of as yet undisclosed causes. His death has made major newspapers and publications worldwide, even though the man’s literary legacy is, at best, sub-mediocre. This stands in stark contrast to the death of an actual great poet named James Emanuel, a few months ago, whose own death and vital information can be accessed here.
In contrast to the obsessively attention seeking and barely mediocre Jones/Baraka, Emanuel, by contrast, led a life of quiet and dignified excellence. Hence, his death took several weeks to hit the newswires, and even when it did, the few outlets that picked up the story got much of the man’s personal and biographical information wrong, such as this obituary, in The New York Times. Here was their correction:
article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
October 15, 2013
An obituary on Saturday about the poet, educator and critic James A. Emanuel, using information from his family, misstated the date of his death. It was Sept. 28, not Sept. 27.
Seriously, no one at the Times could even be bothered to get correct information, nor correct this basic fact of the man’s death, until I went out of my way to correct them.
By contrast, Jones/Baraka, and his demise, gets literally a million times many more links, including praise from Maya Angelou (a fact that somehow merits news stories of its own), a doggerelist that Jones/Baraka openly despised, and, in the several times I saw him read in the 1980s, relentlessly mocked when her name was mentioned with his in terms of black American literature.
But, of course, all this is forgotten upon death- the Anti-Semitism, the race-baiting, the lies, the hypocrisy, and most of all, the utter ephebophilic lechery and use/abuse of women of barely legal age (if that) that I saw on display from Jones/Baraka, at all the times I saw him, but most ridiculously at a YMCA poetry reading he was supposed to give, one evening, but deferred down to one of his young white, female acolytes/lovers.
That Jones had been doing this sort of garbage for years prior to my witness of this, a quarter century ago, was well known. Even his own familial relations wanted to keep their distance from him, as did many former Beatnik writers- for that and other unsavory aspects of the man.
Yet, here in death, most of this is forgotten or minimized. I’m not saying Jones/Baraka was an evil man, but he was certainly not a good man, and, after early promise gone unfulfilled, certainly not a good poet, writer, artist, nor thinker. The contrast between the accomplishments and postmortem acknowledgements of two such seemingly similar yet wholly different men and poets as LeRoi Jones and James Emanuel could not be more saddeningly different, yet predictable- further proof that deliteracy not only lives, but thrives, in the 21st Century.
Below is selection from my 2004 memoir, True Life: La Vita Nuova, The Changeling Years, 26-38. It is the first two sections of the memoir, dealing with Jones/Baraka, and my poetic response to the West Side Y debacle aforementioned.
They Cannot Write
‘FORGIVENESS!, Brother, can’t you find it in your heart for forgiveness?’ she wept as I backed slowly away. This massive 40ish black woman was weeping at me to forgive Amiri Baraka, The Negro of the Beatniks- born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, October 7, 1934. He wasn’t a good poet, sometimes a good playwright, a great polemicist- whether you agreed with his loony Left Wing opinions or not. In 1965, after the assassination of Malcolm X, Jones repudiated his ‘decadent’ life, became a Black Muslim, ended his marriage to Jewish Hettie Cohen, embarked on a decades-long path of Anti-Semitism culminating in an absurd incident when, after appointed New Jersey Poet Laureate, he published doggerel hysterically accusing Jews of being behind 9/11. The governor abolished the post & Baraka got what he always sought- media attention.
As the fat, black woman stoops for forgiveness it’s the mid-1990s. I’m standing outside The Front Bar of Ground Zero, in northeast Minneapolis. A band of Nuyorican Poets from New York is on tour promoting the PBS documentary The United States Of Poetry, made by witless Bob Holman. The other ‘name’ on the tour is blind, old party maven Steve Cannon. It’s been years since I knew them in New York- when ‘involved’ with addled Annie Mendes. Annie came that night but seemed not to recognize me when I approached her. Either drugs fried her brains- or she’s a good actress. I was joking how Nuyoricans were derisively called Jewyoricans since the majority were Jews, not Puerto Ricans- not a single full-blooded Puerto Rican on tour. Holman was a Jew, Cannon black, & the others white. Even Annie was only ½ PR. Holman performed his motormouth poetry, Cannon declaimed, while the rest performed with no consequence- Annie too drunk to get onstage, busy flirting with male & female alike. It was open mic time.
A few poetasters read to mild applause. I was summoned to read a single
poem. Holman didn’t recognize me by name nor face. I seared the crowd, put
down Nuyorican crap, then gave the story behind this poem I read:
AMIRI BARAKA AT THE WEST SIDE Y
“....we are souls if we
remember the murmurs of the spirit.”
-Confirmation, LeRoi Jones
I saw him
in a strange bandana, led in
pale minions, he was
a stooped, paler tan.
He was an old man broken
and leering at the young white girls,
rebels from daddy
and all he stood for, part and parcel
of his wan coterie, untouched
by the touch of others,
the hated, the feared, the
he would bed in an instant, go on
and shake that thang-
he strode in
to sit at the head of the room, bathed
in an ethereal glow,
a Muslim god,
no one noticed, not me.
He did not
read, he just sat,
lost, silent, in himself
amid the sea of former enemies,
disciples now, in himself
the others read from, he sat
prune-lipped and chewing-
a slumped, silent old Tom,
his pale verse read by the others,
an essay too,
withered self suspended only
by his acolytes’ praise, so pale
they were, young white college kids
suckered by the lure of the past, the cool
portrait of rebellion from something they could never remove
from themselves, drawn to the dead
of a deader man-
that big, black bad-ass nigger
of decades done.
a little brown man sitting,
gumming his lips,
a sell-out, a shamster,
his sickly bones arching through
tan canvas clothes,
a rainbow fez the only show
of color in his dying world.
the clanky music of his newborn words, read
by others, I drifted.
I first read of him- Dutchman,
the poems that kill, Assassin poems,
that hunt black puritans,
and others white of spirit,
all that anger in a forgotten book,
in a highly malleable state
of youth, once in that book,
I hoped, I longed, I
struck by the photo
of this big, black man:
stoic, angry and vulcan
wrath past the cold
ways of the world, the process
spoken of, forgotten,
do you remember?,
his poems exploded-
he called to a disremembered tribe,
a lowslung headcount
of a people abandoned.
He roamed far,
through the ceilings of self,
life, sky, possibility,
to individuals he reached out, touched,
alive in the brew of his poisonous dictum turned anodyne,
the fever of intensity.
The words killed,
my own urban instincts, alive
in the salt of living, I dabbled
the pages, dripped
of a powerful Negro,
an Apollonian force
of jagged, broken, sharp and destructive intent,
the vague murmurs,
years of protest, the firestorm
of justice as black
as fades to brown as fades to tan,
leather pales to skin against
the man, hollowed inside
as my vision of him,
now he only saw the masses, the plaid
of existence, of everyone,
an act, a front
erected years ago for fame,
the ground loosens,
the soil washes away. The picture,
remember, the photo, the man,
my mind wanted him to be
that way, sifting through ruins of expectation
angered at betrayal,
yet closer than ever
to the man,
soul of the movement,
Unity, X, the king
felled low by cowardice,
came to learn that,
that night at the Y
now just one of many stories, one in the river
of experience that wears
the boulders into rocks into pebbles
smooth, as he sat,
the Good Negro, now, pure in heart,
eyes firm fixed on a young white babe’s ass,
drooling and smacking
his own, forgotten
of the reading as it ended,
shook no hands,
by the light
suck-children of his forgetting
walked in a cold Manhattan,
unseen by any,
the raven life murmuring the hunt,
longing to hunt
purity, bereft of life,
full of ends,
I want to go.
The crowd exploded- ½ the crowd, mostly minorities were booing & hissing. The other ½- rowdy, drunk, older male poets, cheered wildly. I left the stage. Fistfights broke out between the Nuyorican/PC Elitists & WASP male poets. As I left I stopped by the table with Holman & Cannon. Holman dissed me, refused to shake my hand. I don’t know whether he realized it was me- the kid he envied years earlier- or not. Cannon smiled, shook my hand: ‘I’d never forget that voice!’. He found the rabble amusing while Holman was caught in the frenzy. Outside the bar, a punk lunged at me. I caught him with a right uppercut. Bouncers were tossing & beating people.
The fat, black lady pled for forgiveness- ‘You say Brother Baraka was a hero- forgiveness is God’s work!’ I stated it was just a poem, an incendiary 1 which worked. I turned from her. She fell, grabbed my pant leg- ‘Forgive Brother Baraka- please!’ I walked to my car, & drove away.
You’ve read the poem, my reader- what was the real story behind it? In the late 80s I went to readings held at the 92nd Street YMCA in Manhattan. I saw brand name poets John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Bly, Adrienne Rich, & others. This night I went to see Amiri Baraka. I’d heard he was a good entertainer, so was eager to ask why he gave up art for politics. I had visions of him as the tall, powerful, angry black man portrayed on book covers from the 1960s. But, the angry Bad Ass Brother of the 1960s was replaced by a small, frail, shuffling old man who lost a grip on reality- the 9/11 tirade the latest manifestation of a schism between him & reality. He arrived 30 minutes late, entered the reading circled by a harem of a dozen college kids- all white, mostly nubile females, in white togas- as was Baraka. They chanted, then sat in reserved seats.
The head acolyte- a comely brunet- stated the Imam wouldn’t read tonight. She’d read selections from The Master. It’s never a good sign when others refer to people who are present as if not, or somehow not who they are. The crowd muttered. A guy leaned over, ‘I paid to see him read, not his bitch!’ Said I, ‘I know, but this might be funny.’ The coed read Baraka’s poems- 2 of them. The Y promised 40-45 minutes of verse followed by Q&A. Perhaps because late they thought they should ‘keep on schedule’. When Baraka’s priestess finished the 2 poems of less than 10 lines, in less than 3 minutes, the reading was over. The flock, & The Master, slowly shuffled out, chanting.
The Y organizers seemed angry, nonplussed at the bizarre scene. I laughed. Many demanded their money back. Baraka started to believe his own press clippings! I witnessed the complete downfall of a man. A few months before the Front Bar riot I went to see Baraka’s daughter, Lisa Jones, speak at a college promoting her latest work. She was an attractive light-skinned black woman. Afterwards I asked her about her father’s bizarre behavior years earlier. She was taken aback- it seemed a sore spot- not knowing whether I was a reporter, then replied that’s just the wacky way her dad is.
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