LeRoi Jones / Amiri Baraka

Blues People, the title of Skip Norman’s notorious 1968 short that features the naked bodies and voices of a white woman and a Black man, quotes the title of LeRoi Jones’ book of 1963, Blues People: Negro Music in White America. Born Everett LeRoy Jones in 1934, the future poet, dramatist, essayist, and critic started to spell his first name in “frenchified form”—LeRoi—in 1952, the same year in which he entered Howard University in Washington, DC. After a bohemian “Beat period” in New York’s Greenwich Village and Lower East Side, publishing small-run magazines such as Yugen and Floating Bear and his first book of poems titled Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, Blues People was a nonfiction venture into criticism, a comprehensive study of Black music, locating it “in its social and historical context, tracing it from slave times to the avant-garde scene of the early 1960s” (William J. Harris). For Jones, music, and “Negro music” in particular, was an essentially epistemological endeavor, “the result of thought perfected at its most empirical, i.e., as attitude, or stance.” According to Jones, the “basic hypothesis” of Blues People is the need to understand blues and jazz, and their autonomy, in contradistinction to white, Western notions of art and aesthetics, as the “result of … certain specific ways of thinking about the world.” In the year after publishing Blues People, Jones released the poetry collection The Dead Lecturer (including, among others, the poems Rhythm & Blues, Black Dada Nihilismus and An Agony. As Now), utilizing the structures of jazz and blues and leaving behind the Beat idiom. The same year, the play Dutchman became a surprise Off-Broadway success. Four years later, in a letter recently retrieved from the DFFB archive by Madeleine Bernstorff, Skip Norman explains to Jones’ New York literary agent (The Sterling Lord Agency) the “method” by which he planned to “incorporate portions of the text from Dutchman into [his] film Essay” Blues People. For the entire voice over dialogue of the 1968 film is derived from Dutchman, which in itself draws on Jones’ Blues People. “I have not dramatized the Dutchman. I have simply used dialogue portions to strengthen (point or counterpoint) a pictorial statement.” Norman maintains that he conceived the film by departing from music, that he tried “to convey (in film language) a feeling similar to the feeling Charlie Parker conveys when he is blowing some of his most beautiful stuff or the feeling LeRoi Jones conveys in the DEAD LECTURER (in context and style).” Norman also summarized what he considered quintessential about Jones’ Blues People: “As Mr. Jones has stated so aptly and beautifully in his book BLUES PEOPLE the music of the black man in america has always been a thermometer of the black man’s psychological, sociological, cultural and political relationship to the american society. My concern was to show that the black man (me and all the other me’s) must take pride in his artistic heritage and use it as an unlimited source of strength and beauty.” By 1968, however, Jones had changed his name to the Bantuized Muslim name Imamu Baraka, later changed again to Amiri Baraka (“blessed Prince”), years after having declared himself a Black cultural nationalist in the wake of a visit to Cuba in 1960 and the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965. In 1965, Baraka founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BART/S) in Harlem and thus inaugurated the influential Black Arts Movement, advocating a revolutionary art that is political, didactic, and polemic, and aiming at informing politics and culture. In 1967, he published Black Music, a collection of his 1960s music criticism and a follow-up to Blues People. The leader of the Committee for Unified Newark (CFUN), a branch of the Congress of African People (CAP), committed to a Marxist (and, from 1974, increasingly Maoist) Third World politics, Baraka co-organized important events such as the summit meeting in Atlanta in 1970, where CAP was founded, and the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, in 1972. Remaining highly productive on all fronts until the end of his life, Baraka died in 2014.


LeRoi Jones, Blues People, quoted from Harris, ed., The Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, p. 40.

Walter Dyson, Howard University—The Capstone of Negro Education. A History 1867–1940, Washington, 1941.

Amiri Baraka, The Autobiography of Leroi Jones, New York, 1984.

William J. Harris, [introductory note to excerpts from Blues People], in Harris, ed., The Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, New York, 1991, p. 21.

Amiri Baraka, Black Music: Essays by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), New York, 1967.


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December 2021 — Rosa Mercedes / 03 / Contexts

A  word on “post-truth” by postcolonial and photography scholar Zahid R. Chauhary (from his 2020 essay “The Politics of Exposure: Truth after Post-Facts”):So perhaps it is not simply that truth acts (such as whistleblowing) expose what we already know, but that the place of knowledge in an atmosphere of fetishistic disavowal lends such disavowal a libidinal frisson. In cynical reasoning, truth actually matters a great deal because acting in spite of it is what endows the action with its distinctive fetishistic pleasure.”

October 26th, 2021

Lauren Berlant, the brilliant theorist of “cruel optimism” and related issues, died of a rare form of cancer on June 28. The following, devastatingly optimistic quote is from a 2016 essay on the commons as “infrastructures for troubling times,” part of a book that they worked on with the typically double-edged title On the Inconvenience of Other People: “What remains for our pedagogy of unlearning is to build affective infrastructures that admit the work of desire as the work of an aspirational ambivalence. What remains is the potential we have to common infrastructures that absorb the blows of our aggressive need for the world to accommodate us and our resistance to adaptation and that, at the same time, hold out the prospect of a world worth attaching to that’s something other than an old hope’s bitter echo. A failed episode is not evidence that the project was in error. By definition, the common forms of life are always going through a phase, as infrastructures will.”


Some basics from the Strike MoMA site: “Campaigns, actions, and letters chip away at the regime’s facade from the outside. Inside, every time workers organize, defy the boss, care for a coworker, disrespect secrecy, or enact other forms of subversion, cracks are created in the core. Cracking and chipping, chipping and cracking. As the walls that artificially separate the museum from the world collapse, we reorient away from the institution and come together to make plans. Let us strike in all the ways possible to exit from the terms of the museum so we can set our own.”


via Hyperallergic on the environmental impact of blockchain referring to recent NFT (non-fungible token) art sales: “This is not the first time the art world has come under scrutiny for being on the wrong side of the climate conversation. Artists and activists have protested everything from the carbon footprint of physical art fairs to the fossil fuel money funding major museums. But some say the energy consumption of cryptocurrencies is particularly egregious, and research shows it’s relatively easily quantifiable. A study by Cambridge University, for instance, estimates that bitcoin uses more electricity per year than the entire nation of Argentina. (Ethereum mining consumes a quarter to half of what Bitcoin mining does, but one transaction uses more power than an average US household in a day, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.)”


Nicholas Mirzoeff on “Artificial vision, white space and racial surveillance capitalism”: “Based as it is on ‘epidermalization’ (the assertion of absolute difference based on relative differences in skin color), AI’s racial surveillance deploys an all-too-familiar racialized way of seeing operating at plan-etary scale. It is the plantation future we are now living in. All such operations take place in and via the new imagined white space of technology known as the cloud. In reality, a very material arrangement of servers and cables, the cloud is both an engine of high-return low-employment capitalism and one of the prime drivers of carbon emissions.”


Sara Ahmed on the performativity of disgust (from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2004): “To name something as disgusting is to transfer the stickiness of the word ‘disgust’ to an object, which henceforth becomes generated as the very thing that is spoken. The relationship between the stickiness of the sign and the stickiness of the object is crucial to the performativity of disgust as well as the apparent resistance of disgust reactions to ‘newness’ in terms of the generation of different kinds of objects. The object that is generated as a disgusting (bad) object through the speech act comes to stick. It becomes sticky and acquires a fetish quality, which then engenders its own effects.”

November 7th, 2020
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