‘Is there around us an event...which carries along humankind in its totality’
The film Hiroshima, Mon Amour is built upon different ways of measuring importance. The end-time atomic bomb imagery is presented in relation to the Japanese city, the nation of Japan, progress, humanity, radical politics, the various contexts that should be invoked. The film begins with a museum recitation of numbers of casualties, degrees of heat reached, seconds from detonation, the length and breadth of the destruction. In later scenes, anti-nuclear protestors make their case with angry placard-carrying marching. The point of the movie seems to be that the genesis of this earth-shaking moment is nothing less than a deeply felt, personal ‘scandalous’ (chance and brief) love such as between a married French woman and married Japanese man. Hiroshima, My Love.
Photo: Amiri Baraka, 5 March 2007
Attempting to begin without preconceptions, the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York in September 2001 was a major news event. Like Hiroshima, from which the term ‘ground zero’ is borrowed, the significance of the event cannot be measured in one simple way. The number of casualties is large by revolutionary saboteur standards. The method of attack and the fact that it took place in the city of New York involving one of the world’s major architectural landmarks adds momentousness.
This is not necessarily the way the event has to be viewed. For example, the Indonesian tsunami of December 2004 resulted in over a hundred times more casualties than the attack on the Twin Towers. Is it therefore a hundred times more significant? An arson fire that guts a two-hundred-year-old African-American church in Alabama without resulting in any casualties could be as significant in terms of what it reveals about the society in which it takes place as a proportionately much more spectacular event. Shootings in average suburban high schools involving one or two students grip our nation more because they don’t take place in a significant setting such as New York city. The death of miners always seems particularly suspenseful and solemn.
To me, like most things that have importance, the attempt to understand the destruction of the Twin Towers is ignored. I’m not talking about the official bagpipe memorials or the well-planned twenty-one-gun eulogies. What about the artistic community, playwrights, painters, poets, philosophers, theologians, filmmakers? These people have been affected (or unaffected). In much work I’ve seen there are references and insights offered as to the meaning of such a cataclysm in terms of serious consideration. But few direct dealings. Is the War in Iraq an appropriate response? It is an impressive response but one that at the same time seems to miss the mark. In some skewed way it seems an attempt to upstage the Twin Towers. In a society where gasoline prices flare capriciously it sometimes seems that no one really cares about or remembers the Twin Towers, like a falling-over, weatherworn roadside cross.
With these sorts of thoughts in mind, I, myself, was elated to discover and read Amiri Baraka’s 2003 poetry collection Somebody Blew Up America and Other Poems, a collection of seven careful pensive longish free verse poems. The book also includes a lengthy introduction to the work of Baraka-LeRoi Jones by Kwame Dawes, a 2003 afterword by Baraka rebutting some negative response to the title poem and four rather essential photocollages by Angelo Rombley. The collection was published outside the U.S. by a Caribbean publisher, but judging from ‘about the author’, Baraka can be considered a widely recognized writer to U.S. readers.
In some ways it doesn’t matter what Baraka has to say about the destruction of the Twin Towers. Just the fact that he has written something at all means a lot. As a spokesman for radical black nationalism (with, some have said, a tinge of anti-Semitism), Baraka could have struck an exultant chord, which he has not, though there are those that have, generally based on the idea that the Towers symbolize something such as American corporate imperialism. Dean Witter, a name since changed, was the largest tenant of the Twin Towers, which resided in or near New York’s financial district. Baraka’s African-American perspective alone gives his book interest, as is reflected in its poem ‘Why Is We Americans?’ with its exhorting lines, ‘by burn/ by scar/ by slavery, by ghetto and darkness in the/ night of pain’....
why is we, then, they who it is
you say, americans
Perhaps, then, the destruction of the Twin Towers, which, occurring in a large metropolitan area, injured directly people of all ethnic backgrounds, has widened and brought Blacks (and others) more into the scope of the term American.
Most responses to the destruction of the Twin Towers have been rooted in the drama of the casualties. Not only the number of casualties, but the innocence, the office workers in their daily routines are sympathetic. The rescue workers that entered the damaged buildings to bring people out at the cost of their lives are also exceptional, heroic and sympathetic. The Islamic hijackers praising Allah, the beaten-up airplane crews and passengers talking on cell phones that perished as modern Boeing 767 airliners smashed into cosmopolitan skyscrapers – all these minute threads, these paramecia of living contemporary light accumulate, in an interval similar to what it takes to buy a New York Daily News at the corner newsstand, into an incredible apocalyptic fossil-fueled fireball of solar meaning.
Baraka’s response may be tempered by the thought of loss of life. But what really distinguishes this collection above other responses and types of response is the far-reachingness of its consideration. It interweaves the whole of African-American history into the event. I think that what is most praiseworthy about this collection of poems and artworks is that its relevance has been increased by events subsequent to its publication rather than decreased. I’m thinking about the rising number of casualties in the War in Iraq (more than the war in Afghanistan because more similar to a disaster), the roadmap to peace in Israel/Palestine, the Asian Tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the earthquake in Northern Pakistan, the commuter bombings in Madrid and London, the genocide in Darfur, school hostage deaths in Beslan, Russia, bird flu in China, the Columbia space shuttle disintegration, the 2005 summer of oil price-gouging in the U.S., particularly the hurricanes in New Orleans and the Gulf area. Arguably, somebody didn’t just blow up America; somebody blew up the whole world.
The question is who? The answer to that question though obvious is endlessly abrupt and complicated. The immediate sense of Baraka’s title Somebody Blew Up America is...it wasn’t me. There‘s a sense of relief from guilt. ‘Somebody’, at first, is somebody else. I think Baraka says this with resentment: Apparently U.S. society has some problems that it can’t blame on Black people (or on ‘me‘), the very problems Baraka has been attempting to talk about.
But, as is customary with his writing, Baraka goes further. ‘Somebody’ sets up an interrogatory approach. Each line of the title poem begins with ‘Who’.
Who live on Wall Street
The first plantation
Who cut your nuts off
Who rape your ma
Who lynched your pa
....Who overthrew Nkrumah, Bishop,
Who poison Robeson
Who try to put DuBois in jail
Who frame Rap Jamil al Amin
Who frame the Rosenbergs, Garvey,
the Scottsboro Boys
The Hollywood Ten
Who stole Puerto Rico
Who stole the Indies, the Philippines, Manhattan
Australia & The Hebrides
Who forced opium on the Chinese
Who/ Who/ Who
The poem goes on for ten pages in this manner, filled with finger-pointing incantation against every evil demon that ever oppressed or set hand to Black or anybody else’s freedom. Then come the lines,
Who you know ever
But everybody seen
Like an Owl exploding
In your life in your brain in your self
Like an Owl who know the Devil
All night, all day if you listen, Like an Owl
Exploding in fire. We hear the question rise
in terrible flame like the whistle of a crazy dog
Baraka has framed the problem so that these lines turn the invective around. The demons listed in the poem represent Baraka’s own owlish wisdom, his little world, a wisdom that was itself exploded, like all other wisdoms and all other worlds, on that fateful autumn day. The genesis of the meaning in the Twin Towers disaster is, perhaps, completion. Though the need for faith enters in, to me, the removal of the Twin Towers suggests the problematic of absence, of ‘something missing’. Who blew up the Twin Towers? Nobody. Everybody. Who knows? I don’t. It’s a mystery. It’s inexplicable. To answer ‘God’ is par excellence to beg the question. But ‘somebody’ implies motive, a solvable mystery, a reason. Somebody or some-thing.
To be sure, in a way, the answer is plain: the Twin Towers were blown up by Islamic fundamentalist hijackers, fervent anti-American jihadists carrying out the will of their god. But, in a theological context, it is no less plain on the face of it that these same Islamic jihadists might have been pawns of the Christian God, carrying out his chastising will. To which camp does their miraculous success belong? Perhaps to both camps equally. Perhaps the Twin Towers were blown up by Baraka or by wrongs done to Blacks. By injustice. Perhaps the Twin Towers were blown up by technology. By the dilemma posed by the entire Middle-East . By dirty air and dirty rivers. By Wal-Mart. By greed. By disregard for global warming. Perhaps the Twin Towers were blown up by all of these things together.
In any case, the destruction of the Towers symbolizes a big city-sized hole in our understanding, in the ongoing process of civilization, the dialectics of it, as if we weren’t yet ready for such splendid constructions. Even if we refuse to blame ourselves, the event represents a flawed recognition of the threat that caused it. In my opinion, the destruction of the Twin Towers was in essence self-inflicted. Basically in agreement with Baraka, I feel 9-11 represents the consequence of something missing from our society’s fundamental values.
* * *
The first poem in the collection is titled ‘Beginnings: Malcolm’. I think what Baraka is getting at is that the murder of Malcolm X represents the extreme of the problem of the individual in society. Malcolm X was not allowed to be what he hoped to be. He was murdered because he had become spiritual. Baraka makes this the beginning of his journey to the Twin Towers, borrowing surrealist imagery from – and this occurs throughout the collection – the New Testament.
When the Beast emerged from the western sea
as a fictitious ghost who was an actual ghost
to the niggers He carried in his pouch of filth
his Moby Dick ship called Jesus to trick Jesse
and the one legged man who was the Beast
caught the big red Satan and threw him in a cage
disguised in a zoot suit, full of rage...
This, then, is a perilous and strange time. A mixed-up and tumultuous time for everyone. ‘Betty & Malcolm’ is the suspenseful Noh playlet of the murder of the Prophet, Malcolm X, with his wife, Black Betty (Malcolm X was married to Betty Shabazz but Black Betty is a Black folk figure that dates from a 1930s Leadbelly song and before), by the Beast. ‘In Town’ tries to describe an interference, the phantom obstacle that stands in the way of all life‘s activity. The poem contains the lines,
The dead guy you saw me talking to
Is your boss. I tried to put a spell
On him, but his spirit is illiterate
And the lines:
Something in the way of things
Something that will quit and wont start
Something you know but cant stand cant know
But get along with....
I can see something in the way of ourselves
That’s why I say the things I do. You know it
But it’s something else to you.
...the garbage on the street is telling you you aint
shit and you almost believe it
Broke and mistaken all the time.
The poem following is ‘Understanding Readiness’, ‘For Kwame Toure who was Stokely Carmichael’ about leadership. ‘How do we know we must struggle,.../ is that why we are/ here, to listen again, to see again, to feel again...’ Then ‘Jungle Jim Flunks His Screen Test’ which might be titled ‘Understanding That Ugliness Might Just Possibly Be Beauty’.
You uglier than the painting Clarence Thomas got in the attic
Of his real self which Oscar Wilde did of him
...You uglier than zombie vomit.
Uglier than zoo dirt. You the ugliest thing in the human family
And that ID you got sayin’ you human is ugly
You ugly as Falwell dressed as Cab Calloway.
Then ‘Why Is We Americans’, the most indicting and uncompromising of the collection but in which Baraka confesses,
...he say, my man, dr.
king, and i know when i was
young i used to run him in the
In his introduction, Kwame Dawes describes Baraka as a ‘public poet’, with an agenda, an ‘agitator’ who carries on his work outside his text. He refers to the African term ‘griot’, a ‘warrior/ priest/ politician/ poet’ but adds that a griot is generally not a radical but is ‘rooted in tradition’.
The griot’s function has always been to carry the stories of the tribe, to sing praises to the nation’s leaders, to be present at weddings, funerals and other social gatherings with songs of celebration. The traditional griot is a priest, a musician and a spokesperson for the community. The griot’s palette is not always political; it is as varied as society is varied.
This is a good description for any type of artist, though I think there was a time when Baraka would have viewed this description as somewhat tame. It seems the description follows the book. Though it would be a mistake not to take the accusations in this book at face value, at the same time, I think it is also a mistake to identify the character of the book’s author as Baraka’s character. What’s missing from the writing parallels the ‘something missing’ manifested in the destruction of the Twin Towers. The stubbornly closed character of the writing opens for discussion what is missing. Rombley’s wordless photocollages seem to sympathetically fill in the blanks.
I think Baraka has acted admirably, despite objections, with Somebody Blew Up America and Other Poems. Griot or no griot, masked or brutally honest, Baraka has provided a legitimate critique of a problem that has caused many people to be desperate for answers, and he has done it in a way that generalizes from the specific problem to problems as they continue to plague a wide range of people. The book identifies for any intelligent reader the essential elements of the problem. Perhaps Baraka’s agenda lies outside his text, but at least he has given us a text. Text is tradition. Text invariably seems a bit slow and flawed. Baraka has demonstrated sensitivity to community, a watchful eye, an ability to judge critically, a willingness and responsibility in the often difficult affairs of all mankind.
Tom Hibbard, wearing red check shirt and blue-gray hat, holding the sign “I'm a peace-monger”, with friends.