As I read various accounts of Amiri Baraka’s life (not in the accounts of my FB friends), one thing that I think often gets somewhat misunderstood is his early career in the bohemia of downtown New York City. Frequently, he is represented as a sort of follower of white “beats” in a very pale environment. Of course, he did have a sort of apprentice period after his arrival in NYC in the late 1950s after his discharge from the Air Force. However, rather than being a follower, he quickly became a leader in a counterculture with a very strong black presence. He shaped that counterculture at least as much as it shaped him.
Before Baraka’s arrival, the various sub-groups of what became known as the “New American Poetry,” the “Beats,” the “New York School,” the “California Renaissance,” and the “Black Mountain School,” had uneasy and sometimes semi-hostile relationships. (Jack Kerouac once shouted, “you’re ruining poetry” [or something like that] at Frank O’Hara during a poetry reading. “That’s more than you could ever do,” O’Hara is said to have responded.) Most of them, other than Allen Ginsberg and Kerouac, had pretty marginal literary careers. Baraka, organizer and institution builder that he always was, sought to bring these different sets together in a sort of countercultural united front in his journals Yugen and Floating Bear and the books he published in the Totem-Corinth series. He did much to promote the careers of many of the leading “New American Poets,” including O’Hara, Ginsberg, and Kerouac.
If you read the letters of many of the leading “Beats” and other members of this counterculture in such archives and libraries as the Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut, one quickly realizes how important Baraka was to New York’s literary bohemia in the late 1950s and early 1960s. There is a great concern with what “Roi” is doing and what he thinks or might think of various poems. As Allen Ginsberg said:
LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) was another center, a center of black and white culture mixing it up and at the same time editing an putting together all the different, disparate schools of poetry in one magazine called Yugen - and LeRoi Jones and Frank O'Hara both advised Don Allen in preparation of this book (The New American Poetry) … He had this marvelous little magazine, tiny thing, of about sixty, forty to sixty pages, where the first pieces of “Kaddish” were published, Peter Orlovsky's first poems were published, “Heaven,” I think was published (Kerouac's "Heaven" poem), (Charles) Olson’s Maximus Poems were there, new (Robert) Creeley poems were there, I think Denise Levertov also, (Robert) Duncan.The only figures close to him in significance in the bringing these groups and artists in different media and genres together were his close friends Ginsberg (who remained a friend of Baraka’s continuously until Ginsberg’s death) and O’Hara. However, as important as Ginsberg and O’Hara were, they were not really institution builders, publishers, and editors in the way that Baraka was.
One thing that you could miss in reading Allen’s The New American Poetry, despite what it owed to Baraka conceptually and aesthetically, is the heavy black presence in this counterculture—Baraka is the only African American included in the original edition of the anthology. This still shapes many people’s vision of that moment. But, as the poet and critic Lorenzo Thomas (himself an important black participant in that downtown bohemia), pointed out the Lower East Side and, to a lesser extent Greenwich Village, was full of black poets, novelists, critics, musicians, playwrights, actors, directors, dancers, and so on. As Thomas also noted, these bohemian circles were one of the very, very few places in the United States outside of the beleaguered radical Left during the late 1950s and early 1960s where black and white people could meet on the level of more or less equality—which is not to say, as Baraka would argue in his dramatic polemic signaling his ideological break with this integrated bohemia, Dutchman, that racism was not present, only that it was a space where black and white intellectuals and artists interacted.
Of course, this bohemia was not simply a place of racial integration, but also a place where black artists and intellectuals organized new avant garde and politically radical African American groups and institutions, such as the Umbra Poets Workshop (which at times included Tom Dent, David Henderson, Calvin Hernton, Ishmael Reed, Joe Johnson, Lorenzo Thomas, Askia Touré, Steve Cannon, Alvin Simon, Archie Shepp, and various other black artists—though not Baraka), the Organization of Young Men, and On Guard for Freedom. The public gathering spot for this downtown black bohemia was Stanley’s bar on Avenue B. Baraka, as the most visible black downtown artist, was also a leader in these circles, which overlapped with other sectors of the counterculture.
Of course, Baraka himself sometimes overemphasized the whiteness of this downtown bohemia so as to make the story of the break with it more powerful—such dramatic license is often a part of what artists do. Nonetheless, it worth remembering that this is the period when he wrote Blues People, Dutchman, The Slave, and The Dead Lecturer, when he publicly wrote in defense of Monroe, NC NAACP leader Robert Williams’s advocacy of armed self-defense (he met Williams during a trip to early revolutionary Cuba), demonstrated (and was arrested) at the United Nations with various stripes of black nationalists and black radicals (from downtown, uptown, and all around the town) protesting the murder of Patrice Lumumba, joined with Calvin Hicks and Sarah Wright in the formation of On Guard for Freedom, and so on. I am not of the opinion that the period is when Baraka wrote the bulk of his greatest work—in my opinion some of his very best poetry appeared in the decade before his death. However, clearly Baraka’s sojourn in downtown bohemia was a period in which he wrote some of his most influential radical black work and was an important architect of a growing black radical infrastructure.
Okay, so for what it’s worth and for those who care, my points here are that Baraka was never (or only briefly) what you could call a follower; that he was not simply a “Beat,” but was in fact one of the most important people in shaping the downtown NYC artistic counterculture in the late 1950s and early 1960s; was not a sort of manqué would-be white bohemian who suddenly (and somehow dishonestly) became super-black, as Frank O’Hara’s sometime roommate and lover Joe LeSueur some crankily suggested in his biographical writing on Frank O’Hara (LeSueur was obviously still mad about Baraka’s offhand characterization of him in his autobiography); and was always a radical black artist and critic. For a variety of reasons, he came to find the downtown bohemian milieu untenable, given his political, intellectual, artistic, and emotional development (and the movement of events in the United States and around the world), leading him to leave the Lower East Side and (later) Harlem for his native Newark, where he would remain with a few brief interludes for the rest of his life (almost 50 years), from where he would exert a tremendous influence on black (and U.S.) art, letters, and politics, again, right up until his death. We should all go out on such a high note.
A Notebook on Amiri Baraka
James Smethurst is a professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He is the author of The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946 (1999), The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (2005), and The African American Roots of Modernism (2011).