Thursday, April 27, 2017

Amiri Baraka, editorial cartoons, and poetic insults


The other day, I was mentioning to William J. Harris, Tony Bolden, Micky New, Valerie Sweeney Prince, and James Smethurst that we might think of Amiri Baraka as an editorial cartoonist, among his many other roles. I meant that literally and figuratively. In the literal sense, Baraka sometimes drew caricatures of political figures. In the figurative sense, Baraka was frequently writing about ridiculing presidents and other politicians and chiming in on major news events.

[Related: Amiri Baraka's searing critiques of U.S. Presidents]

I just recalled a reading Baraka gave in Salt Lake City, Utah, in October 2000. He was one of the keynote presenters for a conference on African American literature that I attended.

When Baraka was introduced for his reading, he opened by noting that he was glad to see everyone in attendance. Then he revised, saying he was glad to see "some" people in attendance. Then, he revised again, and said, he was glad to see everyone, "except one of you." There was some uncomfortable laughter. Later, I heard people talking and surmising that Baraka was referring to a prominent corporate executive who was in the audience.  But then, who knows?

Baraka read a few different poems, but the one I remember most was his poem about then New York City mayor, Rudy Giuliani. The piece was entitled, "A Modest Proposal for Giuliani's Disposal  / in forty one verses which are also curses."  The 41 was a reference to the shooting death of Amadou Diallo. Police shot at the unarmed Diallo a total of 41 times, striking him with 19 bullets.

Like so many of poems directed at politicians, Baraka's poem was brutal. The piece offers numerous suggestions for how people might assault Giuliani. For instance:
Have Rikers inmates beat him with
hammers
For forty one minutes
or forty one hammers in the hands of
forty
One innocents

Let them each Beat him
on his two faces,
Forty one whacks in forty one
places.
Prior to the reading, Baraka said that he believed that the "curses" he placed on politicians worked, which was why he decided to read this poem again at the event.

After the reading, he sold copies of the poem, and I purchased one. Baraka autographed it "Unity and Struggle."  What I noticed when he gave me the piece was that he had drawn an image of a grimacing Giuliani on the cover. The image was beneath a list of aliases for Giuliani, which included:
Ugly wound saber tooh
shaitan's underwear
the bad breath of Iblis
The Devil's Gas
Criminal G
white death black death
Rudy the Ripper
Baraka's rundown of artful and deliberately comical, offensive insults was a crucial element of his work. In retrospect, the illustration on the cover represented a glance of the poet's forays into editorial cartooning.    

Related:
Amiri Baraka

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Another free book fair for black boys


In my former life perhaps, I ran a bookstore. So now nearly every chance I get, I pull together some kind of book fair. The culminating event for our "Language Arts and Leadership" conference provided me with yet another opportunity to showcase and distribute books.

The high school students at the event got an opportunity to peruse and select books of their choice.  The main books at this year's event were:
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Olio by Tyehimba Jess
The Big Smoke by Adrian Matejka
Soulcatcher: And other stories by Charles Johnson
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley
The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 edited by Amy Stewart
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes
Vintage Hughes
I also included a few photograph books and comic books:
12 Million Black Voices by Richard Wright
The Rap Year Book by Shea Serrano and Arturo Torres
Hawkeye, Vol. 2: Little Hits by Matt Fraction, David Aja, et al.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales Vol. by Brian Micheal Bendis and Sara Pichelli
A Right to Hostile: The Boondocks Treasury by Aaron McGruder
Related:
The Language Arts and Leadership Conference, 2017
A free book fair for African American boys (2016)
A free book fair (2015)
A Notebook on bookstores, book collections & book fairs 

Amiri Baraka's searing critiques of U.S. Presidents


I was reading an article about poets becoming politicized in efforts to oppose President Donald Trump in their poems. Well, let's hope some of them study the poetry of Amiri Baraka, who perhaps had the longest running critiques of U.S. presidents. Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all ended up on the receiving ends of some of Baraka's poetic assaults.

In "When we'll worship Jesus," Baraka writes,
We'll worship Jesus
When Jesus do
Somethin
When Jesus blow up
the white house
or blast nixon down

Baraka's poem "Real Life" presents a scene with Nixon and his wife Pat doing drugs. In Baraka's poem, "Nixon slobbers on the phone, wetting the cocaine on the desk he and pat have been snoring since early morning."  The poem also references Gerald Ford and Ted Kennedy.

Mel Watkins wrote an article in The New York Times on Baraka in 1971 and noted that "for many, Baraka is viewed simply as a wild eyed radical who is incidentally a writer." Watkins noted that the poet's reputation as a militant was linked in part to "his well known quips." As an example, he presented a then popular statement from Baraka: "I can lean something from anything, I can learn something from a pile of Nixon under the stoop."

Imagine that: a poet, in the paper of record, alluding to a sitting U.S. president as trash. Baraka was just getting warmed up.

In his poem "Dope," Baraka repeatedly states that "jimmy carter wdnt lie," with the joke being, of course, that the president would. After all, Baraka reminds us that "nixon lied, haldeman lied, dean lied," references to corruption by Nixon and his aides H.R.  Haldeman and John Wesley Dean.

In an unpublished poem "The Mind of the President," Baraka takes a title from The New York Times article of the same name abou Reagan. Baraka takes listeners through the first instances of Reagan as an infant learning to speak. Baraka takes on the persona of baby Reagan crying and attempting to speak until eventually arriving at his first word: "Kill."

During the Bush years, Baraka was especially active with biting critiques. In "Lowcoup Linguistic," Baraka announces that "in Mandarin, the word 'Bush' mean DUMB MOTHERFUCKER." In "Memo for Bush 2," Baraka says to the president, "The main thing wrong with you is you ain't in Jail."  In "Somebody Blew Up America," Baraka suggest that other sinister forces put Bush in power:
Who own the suburbs
Who suck the cities
Who make the laws

Who made Bush president
Who believe the confederate flag need to be flying

Finally, Baraka chides Obama in his poem "The New Invasion Of Africa." Baraka finds it troubling that the president would authorize the bombing of African nations. "So it wd be this way,” Baraka notes, "That they wd get a negro / To bomb his own home / To join with the actual colonial / Powers."

Few, if any, major poets were as relentless and audacious in their opposition of U.S. presidents within the actual poems. You might catch Baraka at an anti-war protest march, denouncing the actions of governmental figures. But you could also depend on him to make his opposition known in print. Needless to say, Baraka would have had a field day with Trump.  

Related:
Amiri Baraka

Monday, April 24, 2017

Baraka, black boys & poetic curiosity

Attendees listening to lyrics and poems on audio devices and responding to questions.

At our "Language Arts and Leadership" conference, I organized an activity where the high school boys listened to rap lyrics by Kendrick Lamar and Jay Z and a poem by Amiri Baraka.

After listening to Baraka's poem "Rhythm Blues," the task was to pose a question concerning something about the poem that stimulated curiosity. Baraka's poem includes double entendres, playful rhymes, black folk culture references, and repetitions of the word "blue," as in: "Blue slick / Blue slow / Blue quick / Blue cool / Blue hot." The poem closes with the lines:
Slave boy, leroy, from Newark Hill
If capitalism dont kill me, racism will!
Several of the boys raised a common question about the poem: "how can capitalism kill you?" The exercise was a pass-through exhibit where participants wrote and posted their questions on a board. So we didn't get a chance to discuss our queries about the poem.

I'm fascinated, though, that their curiosity about the potential lethal results of capitalism might linger with them for a while. They apparently had a sense of the dangers of racism, but they were unsure about the problems of an economic system.

Moving forward, I'll prompt more students I work with to identify aspects of poem that make them curious. I'll see what kinds of questions we might formulate based on reading poetry.

 Related:
The Language Arts and Leadership Conference, 2017

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Jetpacks, East St. Louis, and science fiction


Image sources: jetpack and Spivey Building

A couple of years back, my colleague Geoff Schmidt, a creative writer, composed the beginning of a short story that included the Spivey Building, which I was researching as part of a project on East St. Louis. Yesterday, I shared Geoff's opening with high school students who attended our "Language Arts and Leadership" conference.

In addition to presenting the text of the story, I shared an audio, recorded version, which included deliberate distortions of recording as well as various sound effects. The idea was to present the students with a science fiction story, or in fact, the beginnings of a science fiction story set in East St. Louis.

For our activity at the conference yesterday, we read and listened to the story and viewed images that served as reference points in the story, like jetpacks, the Spivey, and three bridges in the region: the Poplar Street Bridge, the MLK Bridge, and the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge.

In the story that Geoff presents, a group of "brave-crazy young" people soar over the Mississippi River using their jetpacks. They fly up into the night sky until all you can see is "the sleek glowpaint of their packs and the blue tails of flame that plumed out behind them."

Based on the feedback of students in discussions at the conference, one of the most fascinating aspects of Geoff's story is his focus on jetpacks. In fact, the fascination is with the jetpacks presented in the context of a story about a historic, abandoned building in East St. Louis.

Related:
The Language Arts and Leadership Conference, 2017
A Notebook on Digital East St. Louis  

Black boys and astrophysics

image source

Over the last couple of years, I've been working with Digital East St. Louis -- a National Science Foundation-funded project designed to increase interest in STEM among African American students. The project is directed by the STEM Center at SIUE.

Our Language Arts and Leadership conference is rooted in the arts and humanities. However, given my experiences working with Digital East St. Louis, I reached out to Matt Johnson, Instructional Design and Curriculum Specialist for the STEM Center, to provide suggestions on topics related to science that we might include in one of our sessions. We decided to concentrate on astrophysics. Matt provided a short overview, which I read and recorded. I added instrumentals by music producer Just Blaze, primarily because he's a self-described "tech geek." We also included a selection of images that corresponded to the topics that Matt discussed such as the Big Bang Theory, the Hubble Space Telescope, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The students listened to the audio and viewed the images on our tablets. They then responded to questions about what information they found most interesting concerning astrophysics. Here's a sample of their responses:
• I like the idea that they have telescopes that can explore and see outer space beyond our stars to what may be or what have been other galaxies and universes.

• I was most interested in the portion conceiving the Big Bang theory and the image that correlated with it because I find the entire concept of universal expansion an interesting topic.

• The information which is important to me is the Hubble Telescope and the big bang because I love technology and how the world evolved.

• What interested me most was the time it takes light to travel throughout the galaxy.

• The information about the telescope and how it was built were most interesting to me because of how they came along and made it.

• Space itself shows the vast realm of things we as humans do not know. “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” This kind of gives new hope in the fact that something new always awaits me, and that there are never-ending possibilities that can occur in life.

Related:
The Language Arts and Leadership Conference, 2017 

Black boys imagining Black Panther covers

A selection of variant covers from Black Panther #1.

One of the activities for our "Language Arts and Leadership" conference oriented participants to the many variant covers for Black Panther #1. The high school students got a chance to use the tablets to view the 25 different covers.

After presenting the information, I asked the students: what kind of variant cover would you design? What would the cover look like?"

What follows are some of their responses:
• "I would design a cover that catches others’ eyes, representing black power. The cover will look like a lion taking off its mask revealing a man, symbolizing that the man has a heart of a lion."

• "I would design a heroic but strong cover. It would be the Black Panther fighting against a large amount of enemies. It would be fascinating to viewers because of the art and visual but the message of never giving up for what you believe no matter the odds."

• "I would design the cover to show his true strength."

• "The cover of my Black Panther comic would be a simple strip of comics showing his growth from a little boy to his rise as the Black Panther."

• "The cover of my comic would tell the story of the Black Panther’s childhood into becoming what he is now. The design I would use to tell such a story from the get-go is a little boy, to a teenager, to the Black Panther."

• "My cover would symbolize black struggle."

• "I would design an image of the Black Panther surrounded by panthers."

• "The cover I would create would depict the black panther standing boldly in front of a mass of people who look as thought they’ve been in some sort of struggle. This would show how Black Panther is the figure that represents the unheard voice of those in his shadow."

Related:
The Language Arts and Leadership Conference, 2017 
A Notebook on Black Panther