ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
when the New Jersey judge cited a line from Jones poetry (Up against the wall, motherfucker!)
when sentencing him to prison, few liberals did not experience mixed feelings over the matter
Books by Amiri Baraka
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LeRoi Jones: Pursued by the Furies
A Review of Home on the Range
By Paul Velde
The blacks may not be the only ones who want to chuck the whole of Western civilization and start over again, but they seem to be the only ones the majority of whites are willing to believe, or at least to make a good pretense at it. LeRoi Jones, for instance, is taken literally when he calls for the death of all white devils, or whatever. The question with Jones is just how one should take him. To take him seriously as a racist, but not as a poet, is the usual reaction, but that is too easy, and perhaps dangerous as well.
The most recent Jones sally against the devils was his piece for voices and music which played in an East Village theater to a mixed audience of blacks and whites attending a benefit for the jailed leaders of Californias Black Panther Party. The piece was both a proto-liturgy for black raciality and, more interestingly, an attempt to get back to the origins of blackness. Rather, one should say that Jones tried to evoke those beginnings, or any beginnings that promised to work. On the most obvious level, the effect of the performance was to raise the tension between the blacks and whites to a point that at times seemed close to combat.
Jones calls his piece Home on the Range, which apparently drops with sarcasm on the right ears. It begins with a long stretch of electronic mix, soul sounds rather effectively blended with what seemed to be African and Arabic influences, Black, says a male voice, repeating the word at intervals, then alternating it with blackness. As the intervals become shorter, the voice takes on a chanting quality: black, blackness, blackness, black. At this, one settles back on the seat, hopefully for the duration. Gradually other elements are introduced. One line, older than time, seemed particularly suggestive, and gives a fair idea of the direction and tone of the earlier parts of Jones Range.
Other lines had to do with truth and sex, all asserting in one way or another the mystique and mystery of blackness. Up to this point, however, the reference is only to color. The chanting is followed by a litany of attributes, black is beautiful on through ultimates of being, time, creation, godhead, arriving, presumably, at an ontological wonder of blackness. The color is no longer an attribute, but being itself. Despite the blatant hocus pocus of the manipulation, and the language which was nothing special, the overall result was a quite moving recitation that curiously did seem to touch the chords of racial history.
Unfortunately for Jones purpose, he is trapped by his reliance on English. In the end, it is the racial drama of the West, not of Africa that he traverses with his thesaurus categories. Perhaps this accounts for the certain pathetic quality of all superlatives. For if national and cultural histories have to do with exploits, defeats and accomplishments, racial histories with their primordial expansions and contractions carry the weight of the sheer misery of existence. They are creations, too, for race is one of the excuses for necessity in life, whether told in the woe of the Jews or the Manichaean luminations of Jones.
To have sat through an an hour or so of Home on the Range is truly to be home again, with the terrorized voices of Masters Spoon River when the grave is closing in. Finally, the piece gets to dealing with whites specifically and in terms hardly recommended for sensitive souls. Jones had made the same points in a talk earlier in the evening, that blacks are more natural, more creative than whites, who are imitative and who basically want to be like blacks. Blacks are naturally superior; the whites will submit, was the message.
Jones shares the poverty of the West, its dreadful absolutes, and its hysterical drive to cut the Gordian knot. Whether this inheritance will be sufficient to liberate him and his black brothers from racial servitude is uncertain. It all depends on what is meant by liberation. But at this stage of Jones investigations into blackness, the result appears to be a militant form of black racism. Inasmuch as he is a poet laboring in English and a product of a literary tradition that prides itself on its essential humanism and its moral stance as critic of society, this has been more disconcerting to whites, educated or not, than the rhetoric of Malcolm X, or the earlier Marcus Garvey.
Indeed, when the New Jersey judge cited a line from Jones poetry (Up against the wall, motherfucker!) when sentencing him to prison, few liberals did not experience mixed feelings over the matter. Under normal circumstances Jones would have been a cultural hero, on principle if not out of personal preference. He is a cultural hero to blacks, and to some whites for reasons that are not necessarily masochistic. (His up-against-the-wall line was what Columbia students shouted at police over the barricades, some quite non-violent types have been known to sense the poetry of the line.)
But for most liberals the New Jersey scene was a sorry business best forgotten. Judge Learned Hand, whose eloquent defense of the Smith Act was once set up as a model of responsible liberalism, but which few remember now, would undoubtedly have known better than to hold Jones poetry against him. But it is still a sorry business to see a poet go to jail. Some argue, however, that Jones is not a very good poet. Maybe a national poetry commission could be established to do to Jones what the boxing commission did to Muhammad Ali.
But if Jones is still to be regarded as a poet, then it only makes sense that he be allowed the same complexity of position and statement that his fellow poets are. That implies in part the recognition that he cannot safely skip over the difficult parts of his development, or that the final outcome of his investigations into his human condition should be anymore known to him than ours is to us.
If Jones commanded black legions marching on the country with guns, this might be a different story. But as it happens, the only legions Jones commands are in his imagination and in ours. There is an imaginary battle going on between blacks and whites in this country, not unlike the chess battles fought by Chinese generals in lieu of a real slaughter. Nobody seems to want to get killed, though clearly a lot of people want to do some killing.
The black community so far has managed to confine their slaughter to a mental action. The same cannot be said of the whites with their gun-wielding police. However, if the fullness of the actual event is not necessary to resolve the racial conflict in America, then the liberal celebrators of the American experience can for once say that this country has matured.
At this point the outcome is very much in doubt. Jones and the whole problem of racism in the country calls upon whites to truly use their imaginations. Jones is performing the minimum Western ritual to bring this about, possibly because he is in no position to do otherwise. But it is an indication of the fear and immaturity he faces that a New Jersey judge mistook a line of poetry for a gun in hand. The same literal-minded approach fills the communications media everyday.
This is not to say that Jones is not perfectly capable of using a gun. But then neither side has yet been compelled to go the full route of race war. If racists do their work with fire and steel, then perhaps it is not very useful to see Jones as a racist. Because Jones works on the head. There is a difference, even though some fail to see it. Poetry has its uses.
Paul Velde, a former assistant editor of Commonweal, wrote on the new media for The Nation, The Village Voice and others.
Source: Commonweal · 28 June 1968
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#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane
#10 – Covenant: A Thriller by Brandon Massey
#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva by Ashley and JaQuavis
#12 – Don’t Ever Tell by Brandon Massey
#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide by Ntozake Shange
#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree
#15 – Homemade Loves by J. California Cooper
#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper
#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber
#18 – Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare
#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King
#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey
#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe
#22 Thug Matrimony by Wahida Clark
#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark
#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber
#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter
#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson
#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History by Ahati N. N. Toure
#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley
#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell
#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit by RM Johnson
#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins
#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell
#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard
#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris
#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice
#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields
#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class by Lisa B. Thompson
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By Glenn C. Loury
In this pithy discussion, renowned scholars debate the American penal system through the lensand as a legacyof an ugly and violent racial past. Economist Loury argues that incarceration rises even as crime rates fall because we have become increasingly punitive. According to Loury, the disproportionately black and brown prison populations are the victims of civil rights opponents who successfully moved the country’s race dialogue to a seemingly race-neutral concern over crime. Loury’s claims are well-supported with genuinely shocking statistics, and his argument is compelling that even if the racial argument about causes is inconclusive, the racial consequences are clear.
Three shorter essays respond: Stanford law professor Karlan examines prisoners as an inert ballast in redistricting and voting practices; French sociologist Wacquant argues that the focus on race has ignored the fact that inmates are first and foremost poor people; and Harvard philosophy professor
Shelby urges citizens to break with Washington’s political outlook on race. The group’s respectful sparring results in an insightful look at the conflicting theories of race and incarceration, and the slim volume keeps up the pace of the argument without being overwhelming.Publishers Weekly
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By Elaine Brown
Brown here relates the dramatic story of her youth, her political awakening and her role in the Black Panther Party when she succeeded her lover Huey Newton to become the group’s first female leader. Though smoothly written, the book contains much reconstructed dialogue that may daunt readers. Brown’s memoir takes her from a Philadelphia ghetto to California, from college to cocktail waitressing, from wanting to be white to joining the black power movement. She meets Eldridge Cleaver, George Jackson and Bobby Seale, goes to jail, visits North Korea and North Vietnam, debates Marxism and gets involved in Oakland, Calif., politics. When other Black Panthers seemed to lose sight of the revolution and seek power for its own sake, Brown, with a growing feminist consciousness, left the group.
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By Gerald Horne
Dr. Gerald Horne, professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston, said, the American revolt of 1776 against British rule was basically a successful revolt of racist settlers. It was akin to Rhodesia, in 1965, assuming that Ian Smith and his cabal had triumphed. It was akin to the revolt of the French settlers in Algeria, in the 1950s and 1960s, assuming those French settlers had triumphed. Dr. Horne explores the racist roots on the American Revolution in his new book, Negroes of the Crown. It was very difficult to construct a progressive republic in North America after what was basically a racist revolt, said Horne. The revolt was motivated in no small part by the fact that abolitionism was growing in London . This is one of the many reasons more Africans by an order of magnitude fought against the rebels in 1776, than fought alongside them.In this path-breaking book, Horne rewrites the history of slave resistance by placing it for the first time in the context of military and diplomatic wrangling between Britain and the United States.
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By Peter Edelman
If the nations gross national incomeover $14 trillionwere divided evenly across the entire U.S. population, every household could call itself middle class. Yet the income-level disparity in this country is now wider than at any point since the Great Depression. In 2010 the average salary for CEOs on the S&P 500 was over $1 millionclimbing to over $11 million when all forms of compensation are accounted forwhile the current median household income for African Americans is just over $32,000. How can some be so rich, while others are so poor? In this provocative book, Peter Edelman, a former top aide to Senator Robert F. Kennedy and a lifelong antipoverty advocate, offers an informed analysis of how this country can be so wealthy yet have a steadily growing number of unemployed and working poor. According to Edelman, we have taken important positive steps without which 25 to 30 million more people would be poor, but poverty fluctuates with the business cycle.
The structure of todays economy has stultified wage growth for half of Americas workerswith even worse results at the bottom and for people of colorwhile bestowing billions on those at the top. So Rich, So Poor delves into what is happening to the people behind the statistics and takes a particular look at the continuing crisis of young people of color, whose possibility of a productive life too often is lost on their way to adulthood.
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A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family thats about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrinas inexorable winds is the voice of Wards narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her familys raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brothers blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt. Her fathers hands are like gravel, while her own hand slides through his grip like a wet fish, and a handsome boys muscles jabbered like chickens. Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isnt usually just metaphor for metaphors sake.
She conveys something fundamental about Eschs fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, whats salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 17 January 2012