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.

References

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 23rd, 2021 — Rosa Mercedes / 03 / Contexts
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Olena Lyubchenko on Whiteness, Expropriation, War, and Social Reproduction in Ukraine (via LeftEast): “[…] when we hear on the news that ‘Ukraine is fighting a European war’ and ‘Ukraine is defending Europe’, amid images of fleeing ‘poor white’ women with children prioritized over racialized ‘Others’, ‘Ukraine’ is being made ‘white’ in the global imaginary. That is, “the injunction to ‘return to Europe’ by way of Europeanization is enabled and conditioned on the mythologies of Western civilization, and that Europeanization at once marks (promulgates) and unmarks (naturalizes) racial whiteness” [Nadezhda Husakouskaya and Randi Gressgård]. The paradox is that Europe’s existence as such has only been possible precisely because of the exploitation of global working peoples through expropriation of resources and today neoliberal economic reforms and reproduced by feminized labour.”

Vasyl Cherepanyn about the “inertness, hiding behind the European Wall” (via L’Internationale): “Many Western institutions that have been claiming ‘radical political engagement’ for years, have simply resorted to a white cube radicalism and self-satisfying humanitarianism, too afraid of acting politically beyond their comfort zone and unsettling their publics and authorities by attempting to affect the decision-making process regarding the Ukrainian cause.”

May 28th, 2022

Tatsiana Shchurko on the War in Ukraine, Entangled Imperialisms, and Transnational Feminist Solidarity, via LeftEast (May 2, 2022): “[An] uneven knowledge production and the many implications of the war against Ukraine reveal the dire need to develop a feminist anti-capitalist critique of multiple imperialisms. This language should grow from within the occupied and suppressed communities of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. An anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist feminist positionality grasps that the local is part of a global in an effort to build transnational connections of mutual aid and support against state and corporate violence. For example, statements of solidarity with Ukraine expressed by the International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia and Native American communities along with the anti-war feminist march in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) on March 8, 2022, pointing out that the war in Ukraine should be of concern for a broad transnational community, may serve as instrumental examples of alternative anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist solidarities that stretch beyond state regulations and macro-politics and foreground decolonial perspectives, necessary in addressing entanglements of multiple imperialisms. Such solidarities also bring to light hidden interconnections of the past that allowed for distant communities to survive and support each other against the violence of imperialist intervention and its attendant capitalist exploitation. Thus, the march in Bishkek reminds of the socialist roots of the International Women’s Day to call for internationalist, intersectional, class solidarity against imperialism and militarism.”

Vasyl Cherepanyn on that “It’ll take more than tanks to ease Germany’s guilt” (via Politico): “Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Germany has been imposing neocolonial optics on its Eastern European ‘peripheries,’ and on the post-Soviet space in particular, where Ukraine was long considered a gray buffer zone about which the EU was ‘deeply concerned.’ Germany didn’t bother itself much with differentiating between former Soviet countries’ pasts. Even until recently, any Ukrainian agenda in Germany was often ‘balanced’ with a Russian perspective, so as to not exclude the latter by any means.”

An unnamed anarchist and art scholar, who joined the Territorial Defense Forces, quoted by Olexii Kuchanskyi in an essay on “Digital Leviathan and His Nuclear Tail” (via Your Art and e-flux notes): “At dawn, Dima and I talked about cinema. Dima believes that cinema is inferior to literature as a means of expression because you spend much more time with a book than a film. It’s a really interesting point, something to dig into. I studied at the department of art theory & history and I never thought of it. Dima served in the military after school and worked at the factory all his life. He listens to rap, smokes pot, and tries to have fun. He is thirty-eight, his child was born last year. He likes Wong Kar-wai and is a fan of Asian cinema in general. Dima communicates by quoting Omar Khayyam, Confucius, and other awesome guys.”

April 20th, 2022

Vasyl Cherepanyn (Visual Culture Research Centre, Kyiv) on Putin’s “World War Z” and the West’s deadly “foot-dragging”, via Project Syndicate: “The main feature of this Western condition is constant belatedness. The West has always been too late, incapable of acting ahead and instead just reacting to what has already happened. As a Ukrainian joke went at the time, ‘While the European Union was taking a decision, Russia took Crimea.’ Then as now, Ukrainians wondered, ‘What is the West’s red line? What will compel the West to act instead of waiting and discussing when to intervene?’”

Barbara Wurm on Lithuanian director Mantas Kvedaravičius, killed in Mariupol, via Die Welt: “Kvedaravičius unfolded a whole spectrum of visual anthropology over a decade with only three films [Barzakh, Mariupolis, Parthenon]. It now awaits evaluation and exploration. The time will come. The films themselves make possible an infinite immersion in the matter of the world, between dream and reality, horror and everyday life, facts and phenomenal imagology.”

April 5th, 2022
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