Amiri Baraka on Counterpoetics and Oppositional Action

Amiri Baraka at Naropa, Boulder, Colorado, 1985 – photo: Allen Ginsberg, courtesy Stanford University Libraries / Allen Ginsberg Estate

Amiri Baraka, speaking in July 20, 1992,  at Naropa, on a panel with Anne Waldman, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Lamborn Wilson and Joanne Kyger  on the topic,  “Counterpoetics and Oppositional Action”.

AB:  This is in two parts – one is casual and theoretical, the other is a little stiffer. Counterpoetics? – The question is counter to what?  Poetics can be any thing – what is the basis, the content of? It is the content, what’s being opposed, what is opposing, that is the que? factor, que, as in body, que?, as in what?, que? as in who?, the que pasa?  factor. In the main, the last days of imperialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, passing too slowly, killing people in their death, (and these are the things I think we must counter), the deepest poetics is itself a place or a playing, plays, pleas, the motion of the actual. But place is temporal, outside the inside, seen. To link up with life, real life as itself, whoever the we are, is to be as change. That itself, with its cool foreverness. What is the new, the gospel, the good news? We are already in the bad old, ruled by what the Ancient Egyptians called Set, the unmoving dog. The destruction of the Soviet Union, for instance, is the other shoe falling. Forty years ago the big Que? had begun to restore capitalism. It means the world has moved to the right. Second World absorbed into the First World, German-Japanese axis, US samurai. So national wars spring up all over Eastern Europe, thirty thousand Muslims massacred in Bosnia Herzegovena by Serbian fascists, (like Bush massacres thousands of Iraqis, the ancient Mesopotamian culture, to try to stop the living motion, another Set).  Contemporarily we know Set as Class, as White Supremacy, as Gender Oppression, so our art, which means life (art versus art not, life versus death), means we oppose forces of death as the dialectical confirmation that they exist and we know it. But as we must know them (with the que?, the body) in order to know them to end, to ice them. But the essence of the motion, the living, includes the “stop” as a category defining “go” – Cultural Revolution. Cultural revolution is the deepest counterpoetics – to continue the political struggle in the realm of the super-structure, that is, among the ideas and institutions raised over the economic base.

So, first, self-determination, the artist’s self-determination.  Don’t wait for the devil.  Rather you do it in your backyard, in your home, in your basement, in your cellar, than wait to be discovered by people you denounce every day. The areas of the arts, education, criticism,  are key areas of the superstructure (that’s where the cultural revolution has to go.

Well, alright, our criticism. Our opposition is to death, to those forces which kill, stop, murder, cover, lie, torment, distort. It is the stops, however, just like in music, that do help, make rhythm, but used only to define not dominate. Death, finally, is not merely technological backwardness, or undevelopment of true science, or the limitation of pre-humans, it is philosophical, I say. Oppositional action to that, in this sweet code, apparently means to the bad guys – G-U-I-S-E.. (We know about the dis-guise, and we oppose Dis (which is the capital of Hades, or the capital of the “Hads”) –  We know Hell is the future (there’s a contraction in there – “he will”) – it means there’s no future – the “Hads”, the name of the mind-sickness (or of any sickness) – Moses learned from God when the bush burned.  Our oppositional action is to see that the bush bursts into flame again so we can get a righteous civilian high of social development and not be ruled by Bush-men or by bush-leaguers!   Oppositional action is, first, commitment, as poets, of truth, beings of truth, if that is your way, (tho’ action is the world’s poetry). Let the art, that which exists to confirm existence sing of real life struggle.  In Africa, the griot, the crier, hollered history and life, screamed like James Brown. That is why many of us in that tradition still write cries, combining history and life as song, which is the God of energy. We are, literally “criers”, town- and world- criers. Perhaps, after all, what we write is not poetry but griotry, (since we are griots – truth, history, life, beauty)

In terms of concrete kind of activist commitment, which I take as the only.. not the only, but the best opposition

  1. Accept no racist activity (neither word nor deed), Speak out and fight, at whatever level’s called for, until it is eliminated
  2. Confederate flags, Nazi symbols, flags, swastikas must be burned, torn up (taken down) (I don’t care what the Supreme Court says), peeled off cars (cars carrying confederate flags should be noted and where possible the evil symbols confiscated and destroyed. Take license-plate numbers, send them out of the community Observe patterns, caricatures of blacks, racist graffiti should be reported then immediately covered Demand investigations, especially of public institutions, schools, etcetera
  3. Speak out on any racism in the media, for instance newspapers, radio, tv . Write letters, (the right wing knows how to do that), write letters, make phone-calls, demand the immediate elimination, etc,
  4. Urge progressive and black politicians in all cities to pass anti-racist, anti-Klan, legislation at municipal, county, and state, levels. (there’s only one city in the United States that has an Anti-Klan law, that’s Newark, New Jersey)

6 (sic – 5 appears to be missing)  Struggle in the schools for Black and Latino Labor Studies and Multi-Cultural Curriculum. Raise the level of revolutionary presence inside school systems by any means – and elections to PTA, new organizations, parent-teacher groups, etc – Turn back the frontal assault by racism in the schools.   Artists and intellectuals and political activists must invade the schools. Don’t think only about the international and the national, think about local, where you live, take over those schools. People talk about revolution and can’t even elect a representative on the school board. Work with whatever groups you have to. Teach your parent-student groups to transform them. Textbooks movements (as we need new textbooks). Mural movements (that is, we have to decorate, we have to transform these cities, these schools that look like prisons). Your new places to work are the places where there is nothing. You will never be accepted by those people who will never give you anything but entrance into the death house where you can serve them as slaves of death – Don’t wait. Do it yourself, do it now. Do it wherever you have to do it, but don’t stand around just criticizing adversity, change it, work to change it, do something now. We need a textbook movement. We need a mural movement.  You painters, where are our paintings on these walls,  on the fences, on abandoned buildings, on the streets, on the sidewalks? – that’s what we need. You poets, where are your poetry readings? – We need poetry readings every week. We need then in front of supermarkets. We need them where those guys dig up the ground and try to build  something. You need a poetry reading, you need concerts, get your instruments and go out there where people actually live, play your music in front of the supermarket, in front of the church. Ask the churches can you hold poetry readings in the churches? Ask the supermarkets can you have poetry readings in their vacant lots? – but don’t wait for the dead people to start advertising life. That will never happen, they will just involve you in their death march. So that is what we have to do.

We need artists in the schools (all the schools should have artists in residence, every school should have an artist in residence) and, rather than you going off for private enterprise to be discovered, you should be trying to force your way into these schools. You should have an artist in residence in all these schools. Why criticize our youth and you’re not telling them anything?  Why criticize Americans and you’d rather be elite and talk to each other rather than talk to Americans, talk to the people, (talk to these serious imbecilic Americans, that’s who you need to be talking to)  We need speakers programs. We need to establish the audio-visual as the principal means of  teaching assistance. Our youth have been raised up on video, video cassettes (sic – this is 1992), they‘ve been raised up on audio cassettes (sic) and then suddenly you want them to go back and read old dead books that you yourself would never read. I defy any of you all to sit in an English class and stay awake in any college in the United States.

7. We have to begin to monitor to police again. Law students that you know, before they disappear into courtroom death-land America, try to get them to do what Huey Newton and the early Black Panther party used to do. First, they have to escort the police with their law books. They have to begin to see that the police cannot kill people wantonly. Those law students, before they disappear and become part of the force that we’re fighting, try to pull their coats and get them away from that. We have to create civilian police-review boards in these cities. The police cannot govern themselves.

  1. Support reparations for the African-American people – A free education for 244 years.  Why? – We cannot accept money because the dollar won’t be worth anything, you know, the day after tomorrow,  but the period of chattel slavery (1619-1863).  That there should be free education for black people  that period? – because they cannot take education away. But we know also that, after that, it will be universal and free for everybody, like it’s supposed to be, because, certainl,y no other nationality is going to let black people have free education and they don’t get it. So the minute that we get free education, people will insist that free education be universal in this country because it’s supposed to be universal.  Free education and free health care. Those should be fundamental questions.
  2. Support the decriminalization of drugs. As long as you have the money in the drugs then the drugs will be used as an excuse to set-up pre-Civil Rights laws and to make our communities completely open to fascist repression as they were pre 1950’s. You know who makes the money off the drugs? – the First Boston Corporation, David and the Rocks, those people make it.
  3. Finally, help build a united front. Eventually, we need a third party in this country. The Democrats and the Republicans are two wings of the same dying vampire bat. We need a united front to build two things, first, US People’s Democracy, secondly, self-determination for the African-American people. What do I mean by self-determination?  We did not come here through Ellis island, we did not come here because we wanted to. We came here against our will, in the bottom of slave ships. So the question is self-determination. Before there was a 13th, 14th, 15th, Amendment, the question should have been posed, “Black People, what is your relation to the United States of America?”  That’s still.. that’s still a question that must be held, that still is a referendum, a plebiscite, that must be held, until we ourselves determine what our relationship is to the United States of America. Some people might want to be second-class citizens. Some people might want independence, some people might want regional autonomy, some people might want federation, there are thousands of ways to define one’s relationship. And you can see now national struggles are breaking out all over Eastern Europe because of the elimination of even the façade of Socialism. So these are questions that we have to address, and if we don’t address them then, certainly, our children will have to address them.  We have to have a party that speaks for US People’s Democracy, black self-determination (by US People’s Democracy). I mean, to challenge local politicians, county, state, eventually national, and focus community on resistance and struggle. People’s Democracy to remove the absolute control of private capital over the public sector, to have a constitutional convention and begin to redefine what we mean by elections.  How can you vote for the President and you still have electoral colleges?  How can you have two Senators in Utah and two in New York and talk about “one person, one vote”.  We have to get into the real world and begin with political forums, cultural programs, youth programs, study circles, regular discussions. This is a program of common action based on partial understanding leading to a program of common and broader understanding. And we’re practical.  We should send in our reports on what we’re doing,  find some kind of network to send-in reports (I can certainly give you my address and I know that you can have the address here (Naropa)) so that we can have some network of reports of particular projects that we are actually involved in, things that we are actually doing, not just our ideas, but what we are doing.    Thank you.

Audio for the above may be heard here (beginning at approximately twenty-six-and-three-quarter minutes in and concluding at approximately fifty-five minutes in 

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