Wednesday, December 13, 2017

William J. Harris discusses Amiri Baraka for the St. Louis Book Club

Phil Dunlap, Director of Education and Community Outreach for Jazz St. Louis and Gerald Early prepare for presentation by William J. Harris. 

Last night, I sat in on the Jazz St. Louis Book Club, a monthly discussion group hosted by Gerald Early, Merle King Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University. The group was discussing Amiri Baraka's Blues People (1963), but I was mainly attending because I heard at the last minute that my former professor William J. Harris would be the special guest. The group arranged to have Professor Harris, who lives in Brooklyn, offer comments via Skype.

I've known Professor Harris for about 18 years now, and we've talked about a wide range of subjects, like jazz, poetry, various books, and black history and culture in general. The subject of Baraka and his work has persisted through all of that. So how could I pass up a chance to hear him discussing one of Baraka's many key works here in St. Louis?

The discussion went really well. Before calling Professor Harris, there were some general comments about the book. Professor Early said that he first read Blues People in high school, and he noted that he remembered seeing the book advertised in the back pages of the magazines Liberator and Freedomways. He noted that his older sisters were involved with SNCC, so he was aware that everyone "in the Civil Rights crowd" had read the book as well.

I was fascinated by the idea that a common couple of African American magazines were where people heard of new books. I wondered what the presence or absence of such sources might mean for the high school and college students I work with now. I also wondered what "crowd" might influence what those young people are reading and thinking about these days. And too, I wondered what books they might look back on published 50 and 30 and 15 years ago.

Professor Early then facilitated a brief conversation among members where they shared their initial thoughts about Blues People. There were a variety of perspectives. Some people felt it was a good read. Others thought it was difficult -- because of the writing style -- to move through the work. Some noted gaining new perspectives. Still others expressed confusion. Professor Early then stepped in and offered a few useful comments about the historical context leading up to the book. In particular, he mentioned how the historiography concerning slavery was shifting, with books by various scholars, including Stanley M. Elkins's "controversial at the time" Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959).

William J. Harris on Skype 

After some minor technological hiccups, we got Professor Harris on Skype, who provided comments from some notes he had prepared. He remarked that he'd first read Blues People in college. He had covered the book with his students throughout his decades as a professor, and thus, it's "a book that is important to me." Professor pointed out that Blues People is a history, yes, and just as important, the book is "an intellectual history." Professor Harris pointed out a few passages where Baraka mentions the thought and thinking in the music.

Baraka was a leading, prominent figure among a group of writers and commentators who were adding intellectual weight to jazz and its practitioners, the musicians. Today, we might take the knowledge and deepness associated with for granted. That wasn't always the case, not widespread at least, back when Baraka wrote Blues People. In addition, folks certainly weren't thinking about the African American origins and slave routes of the artform. So we definitely owe a debt to Baraka for taking such an active role in shaping the conversation and perceptions.

Professor Harris observed that Baraka would become more poetic and figurative in his prose in compositions after Blues People, which was written conventionally in comparison to his later works. What was particularly interesting for members of the book club though was when Harris offered comments on Baraka the person--the man beyond the book so to speak. For the final question, a member asked Professor Harris why he had been interested in Baraka for all these years.

He took a moment, noting that he could answer the question in a really personal way, meaning I think that he could go on and on about the intellectual kinship and memories that he developed and shared with Baraka over the course of a half century. Yet, Professor Harris decided to talk in a different direction. For one, he noted Baraka's intellect. "I really think he's a genius, a brilliant man," said Professor Harris. He conceded that Baraka had upset and offended  people at various times. Yet, in close proximity, he found Baraka to be "a warm human being."

YouTube video of Amiri Baraka reading "Something in the Way of Things (In Town)"

Further, he said that Baraka was "one of the great writers of our time." He constantly produced "original work over an entire career." That's a writing career, a highly prolific writing career that spans more than 50 years. "He's always interesting," added Professor Harris, "whether you agree with him or not."

In passing, he mentioned Baraka's poem "Something in the Way of Things (In Town)." After Professor Harris signed off, someone in the group mentioned that we close the book club meeting by listening to that Baraka poem that Professor Harris had mentioned. So listening to Baraka reading was how the session closed.

A Notebook on William J. Harris
A Notebook on Amiri Baraka

No comments: