Digging Amiri Baraka

By HBW Contributor: Jerry W. Ward, Jr., Professor of English at Dillard University.

 Baraka, Amiri.  Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

“Man is capable of doing what he is incapable of imagining.  His head tills the galaxy of the absurd.”
          René Char, Leaves of Hypnos, Note 227
1963.  I discover Leroi Jones and “The End of Man Is His Beauty” in Beyond the Blues (1962), edited by Rosey E. Pool.  At that time, his essays and jazz commentaries had moved beyond the United States, as far away “as CRUCIBLE, a periodical published in Scotland” (Pool 135). LeRoi Jones had also published Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963), which Ralph Ellison thought was an attempt to do brain surgery with a switchblade. A proper Negro would reach such a conclusion.  I was just a black teenager in Mississippi who had first listened to Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo” in 1959, so I valued Mr. Jones more than Mr. Ellison did. And Blues People was easier to read than Invisible Man.

Pool noted  in Beyond the Blues that Leroi Jones had two ambitions: “To write beautiful poems full of mystical sociology and abstract politics” and “To show America it is ugly and full of middle-class toads (black and white)” (Pool 135). The revolutionary essays in Home: Social Essay (1966), especially “ Myth of a Negro Literature,” “Black Writing,” and “Expressive Language,” helped me to grasp that what Jones was saying about rhythm, syntax, and semantic values in speech had parallels in what he said about music.  Despite my choice not to follow Jones/Baraka in the Marx-Lenin-Mao labyrinth, I never lost respect for his provocative analyses, for his ideas about the intimacy of language, oppression, and systemic racism.  It made sense that Jones’s insights about “the changing same” in Black Music (1967) would inform Stephen E. Henderson’s theorizing in Understanding the New Black Poetry (1973), my developing thoughts about black literature and writing as acts of historically situated necessity. So, I could accept and dig Jones/Baraka as a mentor.

The ambitions Leroi Jones had in 1963 changed as he changed from Everett LeRoi Jones to Leroi Jones to LeRoi Jones to Imamu Ameer Baraka (Blessed Prince) to Amiri Baraka.  The desire to write “beautiful” poems became the writing of purposeful poems that resist cheap praise; the showing of the ugly toads in the New Jerusalem, in the raped geography of indigeous peoples,  was progressively demonstrated in Baraka’s plays,  fictions, essays, editing of Black Fire (1968) with Larry Neal, the work in Transbluesency: Selected Poems 1961-1995, and it all culminated in “Somebody Blew Up America” (2001), a haunting poem that still demands inquiry about the culture-changing tragedy of 9/11. From my biased vantage, this “not-beautiful” poem has a utility fundamentally different from the utility of the aesthetic gems of the early twenty-first century. Like Ginsberg’s “Howl,” it is a classic to remember.

Baraka’s fine ability to listen simultaneously  to the pulses of change in American classical music and in African American expressive traditions necessitates juxtaposing The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues (1987), which he co-authored with his wife Amina Baraka, and Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music. Baraka has 20/20 hearing, which he reinvests in performing the music of his own language. Asili ya Nadhiri , Jayne Cortez , Sonia Sanchez, and Yusef Komunyakaa  also possess this gift for taking listeners into the interiors of language, into the galaxy of the absurd.

In the introduction to Digging, Baraka defines himself as the Digger: “One who gets down, with the down, always looking above to see what is going out, and so check Digitaria, as the Dogon say, necessary if you are to dig the fartherest Star, Serious” (1). If the works in The Musicexist as feeling forms of that music” (13), the works in Digging are intense autobiographical forms of feeling the music. 2011. I dig Amiri Baraka for keeping us serious in our excavations of our history, our words, and our music. I dig checking Digitaria to be anchored in the earth with crabgrass and fonio.