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One of Baraka’s most typical nationalist poems, "Black Art" . . . is an expression of his Black Aesthetic, but is striking for its venomous language and for its rhetorical violence. The poem characteristically casts the "negro-leader," the "Liberal," the "jew-lady," or the Eliotic "owner-jews" as the enemies. The "abstract" and arbitrary sounds "rrrrrrrrrrrr . . . tuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuh tuhtuhtuh" are now the volley-shot sounds of "poems that kill" these enemies. The poem itself is to commit the violence that Baraka considers the prerequisite for the establishment of a Black world. By becoming an "assassin" the poem becomes political; and art merges with life by leaving its artfulness behind. Only this process makes an art that is as organic as a "tree." Admittedly, the poem must abandon poetry in order to perform this function. "Black Art" implies that poetry must die so that the poem can kill.

But why does Baraka’s poem kill Jews—who had once been his metaphor for Blacks? Precisely for this reason. In Baraka’s nationalist world view, Jews remain images of assimilated Negroes (who are not spared Baraka’s poetic violence, either). Baraka now regrets and renounces his own anti-Semitic phase and sees it as a "reactionary thing," an aberration suggested by bourgeois Black nationalism. (The Nation of Islam, e.g., distributed revised versions of Czarist anti-Semitic propaganda.) As a reaction to the success of the Black-Jewish alliance in the civil movement, anti-Semitism became, perhaps, even a matter of radical chic among Black nationalists of the late 1960s. Furthermore, if we follow the paradigms of Bohemianism and avant-gardism for an understanding of Baraka’s development, we may see the period of anti-Semitism as a reactionary swing on the antibourgeois pendulum. . . . .But more than the result of abstract Black nationalist influence, or a version of the reactionary side of Bohemianism, Baraka’s anti-Semitism was also an intensely personal exorcism of his own past; and his anti-Semitic references included his former wife and literary milieu in New York.


From Amiri Baraka / LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a "Populist Modernism." Copyright © 1978 by Columbia University Press.