LeRoi Jones/ 1963

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

It seems to be an innocent use of time when we celebrate
memory at intervals of fifty years.  The
ghosts of things past, however, can become rowdy.  Things can get out of hand. 

Reflection on then and now, dignity,and solemnity could have marked celebration of the historic March on Washington. The March was not about Dr. King and a good Baptist sermon about dreaming. The trek to the nation’s capital in 1963 was about the sacrifices made by thousands for social justice. The ghosts of the past and the media gave scant attention to original intent. The cameras focused on bickering among heirs of history and the seduction of self-advertisement. 

Time does not bow to desire for neat patterns. James Weldon Johnson published Fifty Years and Other Poems in 1917 not 1913. We have no opportunity to say he celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) fifty years later. We could alter history and say LeRoi Jones’s publishing Blues People, a landmark work in vernacular cultural theory in 1963 was a special salute to Johnson’s admonition “to find a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than by symbols from without.” Without resorting to the ahistorical, we can say LeRoi Jones did salute Johnson. He theorized that the music of the enslaved, the blues, and jazz was a better manifestation of racial spirit than what could be found in “Negro literature.” In this way, Jones acknowledged Johnson’s insights about the ineluctable connections of music, poetry and spirit. We celebrate Jones [Amiri Baraka] and Blues People fifty years later by asking what the book tells us about 2013.

The lines

Who killed Malcolm, Kennedy and; his Brother
Who killed Dr. King, Who would want such a thing?

Are they linked to the murder of Lincoln?

From Baraka’s long poem “Somebody Blew Up America” (2001) is a dense warning that we may want to be careful in remembering November 22, 1963 and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. We do well to interpret Baraka’s questions in the context of political murder in the United States of America, a context saturated with awareness that terrorism is ferocious, amoral, and vengeful. We benefit from remembering that for fifty years Jones/Baraka has sandpapered our minds with light.