Poet, playwright, activist, and intellectual Amiri Baraka died yesterday at 79. A renaissance man who spent over fifty years fusing art and politics, Baraka was also a brilliant critic whose Blues People: Negro Music in White America has proven an enduring study of black music and its meanings. That work was highlighted in Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties, where author Scott Saul recounts Baraka’s heralding of John Coltrane as “the heaviest spirit,” exemplar of a black aesthetic. Baraka wrote of Coltrane that he “showed us how to murder the popular song,” an act Baraka rendered emblematic: “New Black Music is this: Find the self, then kill it.” In the following excerpt from Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t, Saul explores Baraka’s location of a new black consciousness in Coltrane’s music.
“Find the self, then kill it”: such was Baraka’s prescription for a more vibrant black music and a more vital black community, and he began with himself. His Blues People was an unprecedented work of cultural criticism that told the history of black America through its musical forms, but it was also a personal act of re-making—an attack on the white jazz critics who had given Baraka a platform for his own writing, and a critique of the black middle-class world that he had grown up in, as the child of a postal supervisor and a social worker and as a student at Rutgers and Howard University. The basic thrust of Blues People was to reclaim the blues as a way of looking at the world, not just a music: “each phase of the Negro’s music,” he wrote, “issued directly from the dictates of his social and psychological environment.” Baraka attacked white critics for pretending that all music was equal, that it could be evaluated in isolation from the cultural needs of the community that created it. “The catalysts and necessity of Coltrane’s music must be understood as they exist even before they are expressed as music,” he wrote. The question for the critic was less “What do I think of Coltrane’s scream?” and more “Why does this man—and so many like him—feel compelled to scream in the first place?” The goal of jazz criticism was understanding, not appreciation.
Understanding contemporary black music for Baraka meant locating it as part of a long and complicated struggle, one between the dominant forces of Western modernity and a black countertradition that had often been derided and suppressed. This struggle was grounded in separate worldviews, separate systems of ethics and aesthetics. While the “‘enlightened’ concepts of the Renaissance,” he wrote, “created a schism between what was art and what was life,” black music refused to separate art from living ritual. While American culture was geared to rationalization, compartmentalization, and “economic-mindedness,” black music filtered mystery, tragedy, and joy into a compelling form of consolation and resistance. Baraka used this overarching theoretical framework to understand the cultural work of specific musical genres, from work songs, shouts, and spirituals to the blues and jazz in all its forms. At its most incisive, Blues People told the history of jazz as the history of a hybrid music, the sound of creative social antagonism. One of Blues People’s most powerful passages, for instance, describes how early New Orleans musicians were riven by the contradictory desire both to connect with the black community and to “make it” in white and Creole society, and then links this inner conflict between “freedman” and “citizen” identities to the music’s synthesis of blues timbre and brass-band orchestration.
More problematically, Baraka devoted much space in Blues People to a bruising attack on the black middle class, which he saw in thrall to a “Puritan ethos,” the love of acquisition that had motivated the practice of slavery in the first place. Baraka made the repudiation of black music—and the values he ascribed to it—into the hallmark of black middle-class identity. Here he followed his Howard University teacher E. Franklin Frazier, whose Black Bourgeoisie was a well-known indictment of the black middle class as a self-hating group, a wedge between the black working class and the much larger dominant culture. The “moral-religious tradition of the black middle-class,” Baraka wrote, “is a weird mixture of cultural opportunism and fear. It is a tradition that is capable of reducing any human conceit or natural dignity to the barest form of social outrage.” Baraka claimed that, of all the arts, black music prospered most in America because, ironically, the black middle class had scorned it as coarse and illegitimate.
Baraka’s argument was probably at its most brittle when he claimed that jazz musicians and the black middle class were axiomatically at odds—that “a middle-class blues singer” was “a contradiction in terms” and that black music was only “authentic” if it was radically nonconformist and anticommercial. There is little room in Baraka’s analysis, for instance, for those musicians like Oscar Brown, Jr., who tried to imagine a solidarity between the black working- and middle class. For their part, contemporary jazz historians have devoted much energy to understanding how jazz musicians tried to succeed both as artists and as workers who needed to make a living through their music—which is to say, as professionals. The work of Burton Peretti and Scott DeVeaux, for instance, has suggested how jazz artists from the Chicago school of the 1920s and 1930s through New York’s bebop musicians used their identity as professionals to navigate the middle class, flout the canons of white America, and establish more stable economic foundations for their livelihood all at the same time. Jazz and the blues have often given black musicians creative ways of “making it” in the teeth of middle-class presumptions about how that might be done. Or, as Ralph Ellison pointed out from another angle, the distinction between jazz as protest and jazz as tepid commerce is difficult to maintain when the full contexts for music-making are considered. The blues might be understood both as folklore and as entertainment, depending on the context; commercial and noncommercial types of music are difficult to disentangle, when the same song might be performed on a stage for money or sung to children for love.
In retrospect, we can see that while Baraka may have overstated the distance separating the black middle class and black music, his animus toward the black middle class did mark a contemporary crisis in that class—an upheaval reflected by new energies and rifts in the civil rights movement. After the wave of sit-ins in 1960, black students became leading players in the Movement, and their organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), increasingly defined itself against Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), both in its more instrumental use of nonviolence and in its stated preference for grassroots, rather than charismatic, leadership. This split was pronounced even at the 1963 March on Washington, where SNCC chairman John Lewis hoped openly to criticize the Kennedy administration and threaten a “nonviolent revolution,” “a source of power, outside of any national structure, that could and would assure us victory”—but then was pressured by King and more moderate civil rights leaders to revise his text. Baraka’s Blues People was part of this shift among young, well-educated blacks, part of a growing repudiation of “middle-class” values of patience and decorum. More and more “Negroes” were turning away from the promise of a unified national culture, trying to unmask the ideology of assimilation, and deciding (in Baraka’s words) that “a society whose only strength lies in its ability to destroy itself and the rest of the world has small claim toward defining or appreciating intelligence or beauty.” In the October 1963 issue of Liberator, future Black Arts writer Askia Muhammad Touré announced the emergence of “a generation of militant young people” “suspended between [the Nation of] Islam and the civil rights organizations,” nationalists who were ready to ally themselves with African liberation movements. The same year, James Baldwin posed his famous question in The Fire Next Time: “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” Young blacks—and not a few young whites too—were yearning to be counted as blues people, and artists like Baraka were showing how it might be done: by disdaining the complacency of affluence, reclaiming a heritage of political and cultural struggle, and shedding the parts of oneself that were a betrayal of that legacy.