Though I knew a few things about spoken word by the end of my first year of college, nothing had prepared me to hear a recording of Amiri Baraka’s “Dope.” I had been reading regularly at an open mic that helped birth the Columbus spoken word scene–Snaps-n-Taps–a tiny place full of mostly black people, a positive, welcoming place, bursting with every cliché you’ve seen in films like Love Jones and at actual poetry slams. But Snaps-n-Taps also delivered moments of astonishment, when future spoken word giants like Ed Mabrey and Scott Woods took the stage, and gave me, a thoroughly midwestern kid, the sense that significant artistic achievement could come from cities other than New York, Los Angeles, and other fabled places. A few key things had already happened that were informing my awareness of spoken word as a larger world of word art. Ursula Jones had already recorded “The Unlocking” on The Roots’ 1994 album Do You Want More? ; Sarah Jones blazed “Blood” on the Lyricist Lounge Vol. 1, a watershed collection that also included Saul Williams’ ground-breaking “Ohm.” None of this, however, really prepared me to hear an old recording of Amiri Baraka’s “Dope,” a Marxist, militant, homophobic rant that denounces both white supremacy and black holiness, an indictment of imperialist violence and the U.S. “intelligence” machine, from Newark to Santiago to Kinshasa.
The fragmentation in “Dope” and similar poems of the era, and in the spoken word and hip hop that would arrive in their wake, reflects a desire to explode a deceptively unitary world view held together by dominant ideology, where the Communists or the Devil are to blame for why things are so hard for so many. In some ways, the globe-trotting, seemingly random interconnections traced by spoken word art like “Dope,” and later by hip hop artists, from Nas to Immortal Technique, are not simply random. They trace a truly interconnected network of global effects of capitalism, effects that correspond to clandestine intelligence operations, the forceful infliction of “free” market policies through economic hit men and financial giants like the IMF and World Bank. These juxtapositions challenge the dominant mapping of the world, indeed, challenge the notion that a line about a boy in Harlem beside a line about a boy in Palestine is a juxtaposition at all–in the hip hop worldview, Harlem and Palestine can be, and are, the same place. This is actually no less logical than saying that Lewiston, Maine and El Paso, Texas are the same place, or that Columbus, Ohio and a U.S. military base in Guam are both “American soil.” “Dope” may seem like a paranoid jeremiad; it may seem schizophrenic, and it is, but then so is the country that made the world that “Dope” describes.
Some in the Black Arts Movement thought Baraka to be overly paranoid. At an early meeting of a group of creatives he wanted to help him kickstart the movement, he supposedly went off about how there were FBI operatives in the meeting, though he couldn’t prove it. As it turns out, while he may have been extremely paranoid, he was still right. Washington University english professor William Maxwell’s current, brilliant research project–FB Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature--has uncovered that there were, indeed, FBI informants at that meeting, and at many other key moments in modern African American literature. James Baldwin biographer David Leeming, a long-time secretary and close friend, recounts a time that he accused Baldwin of paranoia, and was brought into awareness of how race splinters reality, or, as Baldwin once put it, makes it so that whites and blacks live, literally, in two different realities. I quote Leeming’s James Baldwin: A Biography at length here, one of the most memorable passages I’ve read in any biographical work :
“Fearing that Jimmy was losing touch with reality in his complicated personal and business relationships, I had suggested that the anarchic aspect of his life was interfering with his writing, and I had been so insensitive as to accuse him of paranoia in his insistence that his brother and my brother were in danger in America. The letter in which he responded was the most instructive I ever received from him. He declared that although I might be right about the anarchy, I must understand that disorder was in a sense a necessary aspect of his life as a writer. He could not afford to be tamed. The writer’s job was to confront life in all its complications. As for the paranoia, they ‘are trying to kill me. Every day and every hour.’ While he was writing this letter, he pointed out to me, Odette, his father’s daughter by his first marriage, was sitting iwth his mother, telling her–the way Beauford [Delaney] told his friends–about the people who were after her. And his mother had had to face the insanity of her husband. Perhaps paranoia was too easy a word. If he had tantrums and seemed overdramatic to me, there were good reasons for his behavior that I could probably not but must try to understand. A personal who had almost been killed would carry his experience with him always. […] I never accused Jimmy of anarchy or paranoia again.” (p. 276)
Baldwin’s mentor, far more significant in his life than Richard Wright, was Beauford Delaney, a gay black painter and Harlem Renaissance alum who lived in Greenwich Village and took a young, incredibly gifted and troubled Baldwin under his wing. Plagued by what we, living after the declassification of many FBI files on black artists and radicals during the Cold War, can only call a reasonable “paranoia” that people were out to kill him (what else was a gay man, much less a gay black man, to think in America in the 1970s?), Delaney died at St. Anne’s Hospital for the Insane, in Paris, in 1979. The complexities of paranoia, of schizophrenia both as a real mental disease that causes suffering, and as a physiological effect of social and racial oppression, is far too complicated for me to handle in any thorough way here (see Jonathan Metzl’s The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease for perhaps the best analysis of these inter-related forces). Baraka’s passing, more than anything else, has caused me to reflect on that moment I heard “Dope,” a poem that sounded both like the ravings of an insane man and of a brilliant, lucid, angry poet. It caused me to reflect on the many black writers and artists diagnosed one way or another, and to question the medical location of insanity, especially in the form of paranoia, in the body of the diagnosed.
Baraka, like Baldwin, still provokes many different, still tense, responses, exemplified by comments on Jelani Cobb’s memorial post on The New Yorker blog. Such tributes are not, necessarily, though some perceive them to be, validations of Baraka’s anti-semitism, or other destructive streams in his life and thought. I don’t have an overall assessment of him as a human being, which, to me, as someone whom his work fed fire, isn’t really the point anyway. Perhaps Questlove put it best, in his New York Times piece: “Whatever Baraka I’ve read, whenever I’ve read it, is bracing. It braces me. It keeps me upright from falling, even when I don’t agree, sometimes especially when I don’t agree.” Henry Louis Gates made a similar declaration about Baldwin, in his recollection of discovering The Fire Next Time at age 14: “This was the first time I had heard a voice capturing the terrible exhilaration and anxiety of being a person of African descent in this country.” Perhaps this is why “Dope” stays with me, those rhythms, shouts, grunt punctuations, the underlying, flickering beatbox that supported the words, adding up to a frenetic, healthy paranoid image of the world, like a vision attempting to cohere–the shape of black poets to come.