The Last Black Radical: How Cuba Turned LeRoi Jones Into Amiri Baraka
Five hundred years from now, most of what we say today will seem like children’s singing. —Chairman Mao
Do you wish America was a communist country? Sure, I wish the world was, actually. —Amiri Baraka in the USA, 2002
I’m a poet, I write, that’s all, I’m not even interested in politics. —LeRoi Jones in Cuba, 1959
It’s thrilling, sometimes, to overlook the obvious for long enough that the blink of awakening is so overdue for you when it arrives, sudden and almost criminal for being so distant before, that it feels choreographed somewhere in the ripping catatonic laughter of ghosts of the future, half minstrel/half sphinx, a cauldron of dread and readiness. I’ve been so used to heroic meaning what it means to me, accustomed to the happy fact that all of my heroes are black and crazy-blue and full of tender militancy and the most beautiful at being that—I’ve been so comfortable accumulating their data, mapping their endless battles, denouncing anyone who conspired against them, and blaming my impeccable taste for my love of difficult souls, that I forgot to ask why. Not only why that particular karass is most heroic to me or why that breed of black spirit makes me feel safest and proudest and most like myself in the world, but also why or how the black radical happens in the United States of America, a country that runs on trends and norms, the utter boredom of their recurrence blotted out by a collective cowardice that stops most everyone from breaking with tradition in deliberate or sustainable ways. We mostly accept that there’s a black radical tradition like sloganeers looking for mascots, the same manner in which we accept that there’s a literary cannon shooting its tantrum of blanks into our sense of purposed storytelling and poetics and rebellion through artistic expression. But what really constitutes that black radical tradition we so readily nod in, and how does such an unpopular club of outcasts and recluses and rebel geniuses elect its members, and how do the members find themselves ready candidates? What makes a black radical, what is her conduit? Who is a black radical? Why, how, for how long? Why do so many of us cling to rotting roots and avoid becoming so, avoiding the departure from any depleted source that is radicalization? And how many of the black radicals brave enough to be that survive their own awakening or hostile CIA spying and conspiring like Cointelpro or the blasphemy of the indifferent masses.
My favorite black radical, the artist formerly known as LeRoi Jones, I’d assumed until recently was born with a special capacity for revolutionary consciousness, not made that way. And I was wrong. LeRoi was a born artist, yes, a native poet in a legacy of black, such an avid Jazz listener that he was honorary musician, but before visiting Cuba in July of 1959, that was the extent of his radicalism. In his 20s, when it was up to him, LeRoi was a black man surrounded by white bohemians, married to one, not too concerned with politics, maybe even complacent about the state of the world, and trying to feign the feigned disaffectedness of some of his white peers. Sometimes his early poems seemed to lament his double consciousness, and assume that tone of elevated privacy that poems of privilege are so good at assuming when they pretend to let you in the room for a few lines, only to leave you more deeply attuned to your exile when they demand retreat. Any outrage LeRoi carried at this stage was subtle enough to seem distant from the flesh. He even spoke in a vacant, disembodied tone, then, left air in his esophagus for the elocution of his poetry, didn’t grind and groan language into the atmosphere but let it hang there in monotone as if he was the tarot’s hanged man and committed to that costume. This allowed him to recite poems like “Black Dada Nihilismus” and seem abstract when he promised: “may a lost god or Damballah rest or save us against the murders we intend, against his lost white children.” And it was beautiful, his broken style, a sunny hip and listless counter-violence that carried no true threat, and its neutered strut would have destroyed him, made him pseudo and self-loathing and impossible over time. A call LeRoi received one vague hungover Saturday afternoon, asking if he wanted to visit Cuba, was the beginning of his new birth. He was rescued from dilettantism by chance, intervened on, actualized.
‘Where had I obtained such a fake morality?’
The poet and part-time magazine publisher, with a young daughter and a Jewish wife, is 24 in the summer of 1959. He’s been from a Newark upbringing during which his parents, his mother a social worker and his father a postal worker, made sure he knew exactly why his grandfather had fled the South (Klansmen had set fire to his store), why they were stationed in this glib New Jersey city. LeRoi went from his Newark upbringing to Rutgers, then to Howard University, where he met poet and professor Sterling Brown, who inculcated him in black music and the style it suggests for literature and for thought formation. Leroi was given permission to improvise and respect himself for it by a writer and professor whom he respected and admired. Nonetheless, Amiri failed out of Howard because he had taken it as more of a social experiment than an academic one, learned more outside of the classroom than inside of it, was that kind of slick lawless genius, and out of humiliation for failing out and fear of disappointing his parents, LeRoi joined the Airforce, or “Error Farce” as he nicknamed it, and served as librarian on his base in Puerto Rico while enlisted, in order to continue his education, ordering every book he would have encountered from Howard to Harvard. He was ultimately discharged for reading Marx, but that’s all he was doing with that leftist energy at the time, reading it, bowing toward it in hesitant and studious reverence.
In Manhattan, after having been discharged, LeRoi worked at a bookstore and then eventually for a Jazz magazine called the Record Changer, and he lived alone in a coldwater flat in the Village. In this first life, LeRoi was in fervent pursuit of an informed literary bohemianism that felt real but also glamorous in its hyper-awareness of the honest efforts at racial and economic integration that the lifestyle fetishized. This usually meant black men with white women feeling a kind of dispassionate transgressiveness and afraid to ever give up their access to that whiteness for their hood pass, ever again. In the Village the young LeRoi Jones could sleep with white women and meet rich painters and discuss Jazz on the job. When his girlfriend and co-worker at the magazine discovered she was pregnant for a second time in their relationship, they married. “There was still no passion,” he promises self-consciously in his autobiography, “or maybe I didn’t understand passion then.” Their lives became a little more square with marriage. LeRoi got a little more serious about his writing and published his first poem, “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,” in a small literary magazine before starting his own magazine, Yugen, where he would publish himself and poets he enjoyed, mostly Beats and other New Americans.
LeRoi Jones was on a path toward middle-class comfort with a stylish self-aware edge, and the rush he seemed to derive from his proximity to whiteness was palpable then, if only to him at first. I’m sure it would have grown more transparent or more like imitation, vain token ambition, assimilation. But the god in the machine wasn’t having that, not for him. In summer of 1959, LeRoi receives a call from Richard Gibson, a former CBS news correspondent who was fired shortly after forming the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Richard wants to know if our favorite black bohemian will replace Langston Hughes on a trip to Cuba, to ‘see what’s really going on down there.’ No poet turns down an adventure of that scale, even if it’s propped up by the State Department and precarious on several levels, even if he’s busy reveling in double hipness and liberated from passion by reason and responsibility and thinks he can make that last, and so his answer was yes, yes!
Through every phase of dutiful assimilation into the white superficially integrated art world LeRoi had infiltrated, and through every transformation leading up to the roles he played knowingly or otherwise in the Village, LeRoi Jones remained at heart and in spirit, sincere, almost desperate for ways to express that restless sincerity and also rescue himself from its peril: vulnerability. He had been doing what he thought he had to do to enact his version of the American Hustle, aka the American Dream Deferred, aka disappear into an idea of a black writer to become one. When this sudden invitation to Cuba came, it came as divine intervention at a time when he was not yet ruined by having too many white role models as a black man, though he had been dangling over the precipice of those seductive ruins. He still had room to become more like himself when the invitation to Cuba arrived like a messenger. And like one of his favorite musicians, Thelonious Monk, explains, “a genius is the one who is most like himself.” LeRoi still had the emotional space for the kind of salvation that only comes to sincere witnesses willing to testify, and be changed.
Tell Me About Harlem
LeRoi’s recountments of his voyage to Cuba and back are as a black Ulysses. The journey begins in a soothing monotony of mishaps as the group of black artists, intellectuals, and models, actors, philosophers, assembles, first at the airport in New York where they are told they have no tickets and have to battle and wait an entire day to board a flight, and then at the modest or borderline raggedy hotel in Cuba, where they begin making each other’s acquaintance and drinking and trying to figure out what kind of fair-played ambush Cuba and Richard Gibson plan for their souls, not realizing it’s already underway. On July 21, 1959, the Cuban Revolution was nominally complete. The rebel army defeated the Batista government and the rich landlords were being abruptly and unequivocally kicked off their land. The country was in the process of “Latifundia,” or land redistribution. No one could own more than 1000 acres and all peasant farmers would be given 66 acres of their own with which to reinvent their dreams. This meant no more monocrop of sugarcane, and automatically American Sugar was kicked out along with United Fruit, corporations that had raped the land and created a seasonal economy that gave farmers three months of underpaid work annually and left them to starve for the remaining months. LeRoi was learning all of this for the first time, and also watching the people of Cuba, supporters of the revolution, the same ones who the previous corporate-driven economy had strangled; so inspired, the air was electric, the chaos a kind of never ending hallucination, it hypnotized him out of that infatuation with stiff Western bohemianism and toward a love of what is real and penetrating.
He meets Robert Williams, a former head of the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, a former advocate of nonviolence who changed his pacifist message after the cops violently attacked black citizens in that town. Robert suggested that all black people carry guns from that point on and was exiled for his call to arms. He meets Fidel Castro and hears him speak and asks, “what do you intend to do with this revolution?” “Whatever the people want,” is Fidel’s response, as he explains that he’s not a Communist but a Radical Humanist. On the 14-hour train ride to the small town outside of Havana, where LeRoi encounters Castro, along with 40,000 additional Cubans eagerly awaiting address from their new leader, LeRoi encounters a Mexican student with whom he talks the entire way to that town. He explains how he’s not into politics, how he’s a poet. He’s emphatically mocked and attacked for that dodgy American approach to aesthetics. You want to cultivate your soul? You want to cultivate your soul? Those around him ask, tauntingly. He’s called a Yanqui Imperialist, a sell-out, a hypocrite, a fool. He’s brought close to tears on that endless train. And then someone says, as a culminating jab at his character and fidelities: “Tell me about Harlem.”
When LeRoi gets back to Havana from that speech attended by thousands of singing and cheering Cuban citizens awaiting their new land in the warm rain, in the blistering heat—an American paper reads, “Cuban Speech Rained Out.” He runs away from the newstand and that propaganda like he’s being chased by his own ghost.
Something in the Way
It would have been impossible for anyone or anything to deliberately enter LeRoi Jones’s bohemian experiment in the Village and make him militant with a little proof of black and brown bodies suffering and resisting across the globe, or of those same bodies staging successful revolutions and claiming tangible Reparations. He would have rebutted them with talk of Zen and integration, defensive, defending his access to his passion-free romance with the Village and the bureaucratic tidiness of its hopeless mess. In 1957 the Civil Rights Movement truly began and maybe as it progressed so too would LeRoi Jones’s social and political consciousness have advanced, but even if that had been the case, LeRoi was, before Cuba, upholding a sense of performed decency he had borrowed from the white world, one that protected that world better than it did himself, one that left him politically barren. For example, while in Cuba Mr. Jones balked at their open carrying of weapons until it was explained to him that they had to be prepared for a counter-insurgency in the aftermath of such a young and controversial revolution. It would not have been far-fetched for Cubans to expect America to send troops to help reclaim its access to their fertile tropical paradise, in the name of freedom. So while intentionally attempting to radicalize LeRoi Jones by telling him about the Cuban Revolution and Fidel and the people carrying weapons in self-defense, might have failed, or worse, backfired, and inspired him to deeper allegiance with his borderline-bourgeois Greenwich Village lifestyle as a kind of poetics of pacifism—sending the same young poet to Cuba in the electrified aftermath of that Revolution to show him its most pragmatic achievements firsthand, ruined him for all forms of Americanism and made his bohemian experiment in the Village feel quaint and vapid. He returned not only radical but deeply unimpressed with what he had formerly seen as the apotheosis of creative expression in the United States. Revolution was now the most inspired creative act in his estimation, and literature would have to support its aims and help establish a revolutionary consciousness in the United States and globally. After Cuba, Amiri had to unequivocally choose a side, and the one he chose made him the foil to his own former self, his own worst enemy. The “Suicide Note” that was his first published poem became eerily accurate prophecy. LeRoi Jones died and Amiri Baraka would be his resurrection.
What was packaged as the Black Arts Movement and spearheaded by Amiri and Larry Neal wouldn’t begin until 1968, almost a decade after Cuba, but in the interim LeRoi becomes famous for a play he writes one night in a frenzy, Dutchman, a piece in which a black middle-class commuter named Clay is murdered on the New York Subway by an obsessive, histrionic white woman who tries to seduce him and, when she fails, kills him. LeRoi Jones as an identity is undergoing the same crisis his character Clay faces, and he too is killed with the fictive blade in the play. Not by domestic malice as much as by his soul’s backlash against his own former imitation of life. LeRoi wins an Obie award for Dutchman and between that recognition and the publication of his first book of poems in 1961, he can add fame to the series of traps rigging around him.
What’s different post-Cuba is that LeRoi Jones is militant now and armed with Marxist ideology. The traps are trivial compared to what he now knows and cannot unlearn. He now understands class struggle and how the concept of race blinds many to the tyranny of class within Monopoly Capitalism. Now he knows exactly how programmed and naïve he’s been to think that he could make his best work in some tragic state of ambivalence, now he realizes he must not only pick a side but reinvent the aesthetic of that side. He’s been shamed into awakening. He does want to cultivate his soul, but not in the naïve apolitical way he had pined for before Cuba. Now he longs for the soulful and radical decency he witnessed there. He writes a manifesto on what he calls the Revolutionary Theatre around this time, and begins to realize his vision of an artistic life that is not at all separate from the mundane, so that the theatre can be woven into small daily acts and with it Marxist ideology, militant black consciousness, the will to actual power, the pursuit of Revolution.
Ghosts of the Future
What I’d overlooked is the swift and ruthless moment of radicalization in the life of LeRoi Jones. I was inordinately ready to attribute his rare combination of lucid political courage and activism and unconditional love for black people to his hermetic artistic talent, to the abyss of genius, and I couldn’t see him for the foolish, tripping-over-himself, manchild he’d once been or comprehend how narrowly he’d escaped a lifetime of aimless recklessness, when he said yes to Cuba. And why it matters so much exactly how LeRoi Jones became Amiri Baraka is because his transformation reveals why he has no successor in any of us.
LeRoi wanted to be a writer in a time before the hyper-professionalisation of the craft. Black writers coming of age in the 1950s weren’t told they had to get MFAs. Baldwin hadn’t gone to college, Langston Hughes had dropped out. LeRoi had been at Howard with Toni Morrison, and though she’d finished, she hadn’t yet published her first book by the time he, a ‘drop-out,’ had. The most heralded writers were living adventurous and very raw social lives, not yet mediated by the demands of universities, and their art imitated their very singular modes of existence. The United States had yet to convince the entire population it was middle class and had a vested interest in the continuation of the status quo, so that these same writers were belligerently opposed to how their nation was being run, how their families and friends were being forced to live, in Harlem, in Paris, in Bohemia, everywhere capitalism was sold. Without the flimsy safety-net of bureaucratic writing and literature degrees, writers were not as busy pandering to that machine and could be honest about its dirty grooves. So instead of being in a classroom in a system scripted by Western ideology and pedagogy, instead of being indoctrinated in the merits of unconditional ‘objectivity,’ LeRoi was writing his own script, fumbling, but on his own terms. And so there was no sense of propriety or trepidation when the call came inviting him to a newly Communist country, and when presented with Fidel and Robert Williams, LeRoi Jones didn’t have a counter-indoctrination in the primacy of democratic ideas to make him resent their revolutionary thinking. Instead, that domestic life he repeatedly described as passionless withered as he observed the unanimous youthful exuberance of the Cuban people, the real people who labor with their whole bodies, basking in the glory of their hard-won revolution. A less sincere man would have pretended he saw some tentativeness or misery in Cuba, but LeRoi couldn’t lie to himself—what he saw was joy and triumph and unbending solidarity. Because LeRoi was improvising his life, it made sense for him to land on the one with the rest of the free and young peoples of the world. Because most of us are following procedure and programs today, so many decades later, the society deeper in its decay, the bureaucracy more intimate and better at hiding and stylizing itself, it makes sense that our collective pitch is flustered with self-righteous democratic ideals. Today’s would-be black radicals are in big-name schools living on stipends or loans or salaries from those schools, while spouting off about the revolution, or they’re self-satisfied in organizations that try to solve racial warfare without addressing class warfare and end up endorsing Hillary Clinton, like good tokens. I don’t know if anyone’s going to Cuba or saying yes to anything that volatile on a whim, unless it’s for the clout or the resorts and mind-numbing ready-made vacation packages. I don’t know if anyone’s that spontaneous and undifferentiated anymore.
What LeRoi Jones and Amiri Baraka possess is, first, the good sense to be secular and still born again in this life, but also, enough love of beauty and truth to manage being true artists and demanding of themselves a clear and practiced ideological stance, one that implicates even the commodification of their own work. That tenacity, born of having nothing to gain or lose from the establishment, no nostalgia for the comfort of the rich university or the black capitalist lifestyle, comes with a fearlessness that today’s black literary figures really don’t access in the same way, and aren’t incentivised to support or respect or protect from the dangers that accompany it. We aren’t willing to get in trouble, that’s how deeply troubled we are. Our last radical almost died in solitary confinement humming Coltrane after the 1967 Newark Rebellion, during which police had targeted him and nearly beaten him to death. Our last radical was still raising and ruining hell in his 70s, accusing the state of every crime, teaching all of us who would listen how not to play the victim. Our last radical transcended the limits of form with the power of his substance and wrote in so many styles he shattered the idea of singularity or brand, ruined himself for black capitalism. We should thank him. Our last radical never led a revolution, but at least he wasn’t afraid of his own revolutionary shadow, at least he couldn’t be broken by abrupt and radical transformation into that shadow’s space, at least he had the good sense to spend the rest of his life after Cuba trying to incite revolt in every way he knew how—in himself, in his peers, in his community, in his pupils, in his family. Every day of Amiri’s life after Cuba was animated by that Revolutionary spirit.
I keep trying to imagine Amiri’s story or one like it occurring today, keep fantasizing about a man or woman not coopted by righteous neoliberal agitprop by the time his mind starts forming visions of Reparations and land redistribution. I keep trying to imagine a Black American writer visiting Cuba today, 60 ridiculous American years after LeRoi’s visit to that idyllic island. Today’s approximation is at the beach, or some conference everyone’s paid to attend so that he can collect a stipend for teaching workshops, like the ones commodified at the colleges but with lower stakes. Fidel is long dead in his imagination and in fact, the artist keeps busy drinking rum at the resorts and sulking over a blue screen or filming a music video about Vodun, featuring a cast of nameless female muses gathered around a vintage car that they’ve been washing for an eternity. The female writer is one of those women or off in a national library somewhere, digging up information on some American poets in the 1960s who went to Cuba and came back swinging and even as she perfects her swing, it echoes a limp roar, gets lonely. There’s no current movement that isn’t mostly vanity or some other drab spectacle of emptiness. There’s no plan in place for our own cultural institutions, spaces not funded by corporations we then have to spend our energy pandering to, like helpless demagogues. We’ve objectified every level of life, put it all on the free market, the space for revolt that remains in our hearts is there because of a break, not the boon of an opening, our hearts carry a numb collective wound gained while fighting this blind war on our own psyches, and we constantly leak pieces of ourselves into the machine. How do we radicalize ourselves now, in this mire, with all of its trapdoors and skeletons and temptations to become another deluded anointed one, temptations to just run in place while saying all the right ‘progressive’ things? Do we even desire radical black consciousness, or have we really become fellow capitalists just fighting to be peaceful bureaucrats and own homes and feel that American sense of entitlement and tell ourselves how original we are when we make a new piece of art to sell and still don’t own any publishing companies, still don’t control its distribution.
I think a lot of the depression that haunts so many communities comes from the collective declaration of false desires, pretending we want to change the system when we’d rather blame it for our lives and use it for crumbs and comfort, pretending we want to be more than we are when the work of exceeding ourselves isn’t casual or prefabricated enough for our branded daily acts. To be radical, and militantly so, is to really admit and really feel that you don’t want the way of life gleaming in the American Promise, not as fetish or consolation prize or Reparations, that you want and need to believe in the prospect of a new world, new ways of being in this world, and that you are willing to look crazy as you work to embody that potentiality with each and every breath. Radicalism is extreme, it’s ridiculous, it’s devastating black magic, a spell that cannot be broken, not at all precious or safe or familiar or Yeezy season 4 or Bard or Harvard or even Harlem, not a kind of voguing despair but actual ecstatic despair or disgust that forces one to change or die. I don’t know anyone that beautiful and willing to be mistaken and taken under today. I don’t know anyone crazy and rational enough to really save the world from all of us. Our last black radical was that. Amiri Baraka was that. Fidel was that. Malcolm was that. Harriet was that. Nina was that. Sun Ra was that. All this could be that if we would stop pretending catastrophes are movies, stop pretending society's evils are vague fictions nobody is accountable for and that we can all be spectators instead of witnesses, so that no one ever testifies except as victim. Maybe soon we’ll have a new heroic screamer to lift that myth and teach us our real names, a new exodus to answer yes. A new reality is better than a new movie. I wanna be ready that day, ready to be that brave and helplessly sincere and real to myself; I want to be both screamer and she who must respond yes to her own awakening. I want to say I remember Cuba, I remember Haiti, I’ll remember April, I remember Amiri, I’ll remember Clay, is this tomorrow? Venceremos. I want to be radicalized by the urgency of now and found answering the unanticipated call, yes. This to me is our only chance at some semblance of salvation in the Western world, all of us becoming a version of the last black radical in a frenzied unison, all of us reaching the impossible edge of consciousness and surpassing it, discarding the rotting roots, bloody roots of this savage society, or using them as kindling.
Born in Waterloo, Iowa, poet and choreographer Harmony Holiday is the daughter of Northern Soul singer/songwriter Jimmy Holiday. Her father died when she was five, and she and her mother moved to Los Angeles. Holiday earned a BA in rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley and an MFA at...