Saturday, June 26, 2021

Amiri Baraka, Slavery, and Rumors/Ruins

In April 2002, when I was a graduate student at Penn State, Amiri Baraka visited the campus as a featured artist for a Free Jazz concert organized by my professors William J. Harris and Paul Youngquist. Professor Harris generously designated me with the responsbility of getting Baraka to and from some events. That meant I got some time to talk to him one-on-one. 

At one point in one of our conversations, as I've noted here before, I began talking through Ayler's music. I was throwing out song titles, moments in the songs, and collaborators. Baraka listened and nodded. I thought I was on a roll, until, Baraka interjected....
"Ruins," he said. 
 "Hunh?" I asked.
"Rumors," he said. 
"Rumors?" I responded. 
"What you heard on the albums were ruins," he said. 
"Ruins?" I went. 
"Yeah, what you heard were rumors. Rumors of what Albert sounded like live," he said. "The recordings couldn't capture his sound, his actual sound. So what you heard were ruins of his real sound."

At the time, I thought on the idea of certain jazz recordings as rumors/ruins. But what if we applied Baraka's point to other places where we thought we had access to something yet all we had were in fact rumors?

Like, the spirituals. 

Frederick Douglass writes about the spirituals in his Narrative. He noted that his fellow slaves "would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves." And he goes on to note that "Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery."

You  read Douglass, and you listen to recrdings of groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers or to Paul Robeson, and you understandably think you've heard or know the spirituals. 

But then, Baraka haunts you: what you read were rumors; what you heard were ruins of the real sound.

And not just the spirituals. What you read and studied about slavery, and even the most graphic displays of violence in those films you saw about slavery were rumors or ruins (ok, or representations) of the real thing.  

Maybe we always knew that, but sometimes I'm not so sure. 


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