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But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America—this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.
- Langston Hughes, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain (1926)

#nowthinking: What’s the point of telling a Black story if it doesn’t have an element of protest?


'Black Art,' Amiri Baraka

Poems are bullshit unless they are
teeth or trees or lemons piled
on a step. Or black ladies dying
of men leaving nickel hearts
beating them down. Fuck poems
and they are useful, wd they shoot
come at you, love what you are,
breathe like wrestlers, or shudder
strangely after pissing. We want live
words of the hip world live flesh &
coursing blood. Hearts Brains
Souls splintering fire. We want poems
like fists beating niggers out of Jocks
or dagger poems in the slimy bellies
of the owner-jews. Black poems to
smear on girdlemamma mulatto bitches
whose brains are red jelly stuck
between ‘lizabeth Taylor’s toes. Stinking
Whores! We want “poems that kill.”
Assassin poems, poems that shoot
guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys
and take their weapons leaving them dead
with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland. Knockoff
poems for dope selling wops or slick halfwhite
politicians. Airplane poems, rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr …tuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuh
…rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr … Setting fire and death to
whities ass. Look at the Liberal
Spokesman for the jews clutch his throat
& puke himself into eternity … rrrrrrrr
There’s a negroleader pinned to
a bar stool in Sardi’s eyeballs melting
in hot flame. Another negroleader
on the steps of the white house one
kneeling between the sheriff’s thighs
negotiating coolly for his people.
Aggh … stumbles across the room …
Put it on him, poem. Strip him naked
to the world! Another bad poem cracking
steel knuckles in a jewlady’s mouth
Poem scream poison gas on beasts in green berets
Clean out the world for virtue and love,
Let there be no love poems written
until love can exist freely and
cleanly. Let Black people understand
that they are the lovers and the sons
of lovers and warriors and sons
of warriors. Are poems & poets &
all the loveliness here in the world
We want a black poem. And a 
Black World.
Let the world be a Black Poem
And Let All Black People Speak This Poem

Amiri Baraka (1934—2014) was an American writer of poetry, plays, fiction and essays. He was an immensely important figure in the Black Arts Movement as well as the poetry scene of the 1950’s and 60’s, founding with his then-wife Hettie Totem Press, which published the early works of many Beat poets. He was also the editor of various poetry magazines throughout his life. Controversial for his aggressive and sometimes offensive poetry, Baraka helped define much of the Black radical poetry which appeared in the latter half of the 20th Century. 

'Black Art' is as much a declaration and thesis as it is a poem, a constitution for the Black Arts Movement and the position of poetry within the Black Power movement. Baraka was deeply critical of 'assimilationist' blacks (and Jews), and much of the early African-American literature such as that produced by the Harlem Renaissance writers. He felt that those writers—like Langston Hughes and W. E. B. DuBois—were too eager to imitate white writers, and please white audiences, writing 'middle-class poems' instead of ‘“poems that kill” / Assassin poems, poems that shoot / guns.'

For Baraka it was the duty of the radical black writer to produce work that was fully integrated within the struggle against racism. Like William Carlos Williams or Ezra Pound he wrote as an objectivist, focusing on real concrete images to make his black audiences see themselves in the poem, and here writes about his wish to have ‘poems that wrestle cops into alleys / and take their weapons leaving them dead.’ Black poetry, he felt, should imagine a revolutionary world where African-Americans had the agency to reverse the dynamics of power between white and black people. The deliberately shocking and surreal movements this poem takes are all part of that, using slang of the black community as if daring white audiences to try to understand it. 

Written in 1966, after the assassination of Malcolm X radicalised Baraka and he left the Beats in New York to live in Harlem, it is a reflection of the frustration and anger Baraka felt at the time and his then belief that the entire American system had to be overthrown for any real liberation of the black community to occur. Only then could they ‘ understand / that they are the lovers and the sons / of lovers and warriors and sons / of warriors. Are poems & poets & / all the loveliness here in the world.’

Later in life Baraka would recant much of his Nationalist stance after reading Marx and becoming an advocate for Third World Socialism, but his taste for controversy and wish for radical change never wavered, with his template for ‘Black Art’ inspiring the work of a generation.

It’s not death that I fear, it’s being comfortable in a cloud where nothing ever happens.

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