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The Bebop of Baraka: A Review of Tales of the Out & the Gone

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Amiri Baraka has always played with the language and, by extension, our minds.  His poetry and prose often reads like a jazz improvisation that Sun Ra or Coltrane would have created.  Words become sounds, and the sounds take on meanings never before conceived.  In terms of content, Baraka’s tales are about men and women who fought in the streets and about a politics that begins where every one else’s ends.  Like Sun Ra, he understands that the place of dark-hued people in the West is not unlike that of a brother from another planet — not because the brothers and sisters who don’t have pink skin aren’t human, but because the pink-skinned ones treat them as if they weren’t.  Don’t believe it?  Look at the history, says Baraka.  Then tell me it ain’t true!

Baraka began as one of the few Black writers lumped in with the Beat movement, still running with his Christian name of Leroi Jones.  His poetry stung, each sting a painful shot of antidote to the poison of racism.  Two of his 1960s plays, The Dutchman and The Slave, spell it all out for white liberals: “You great liberated whore!  You fuck some black man, and right away you’re an expert on black people”; and “The point is that you had your chance, darling; now these other folks have theirs.”   Like his compatriots H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael, Baraka threw the racist aspects of integration back in the liberal white face.  It wasn’t pretty, but it made the point better than and in spite of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP.

Tales of the Out & the Gone
TALES OF THE OUT & THE GONE
Stories by Amiri Baraka

BUY THIS BOOK

The recently released collection of short stories by Baraka, titled Tales of the Out & the Gone, drives home all of the above points and more.  While it is always a little difficult to review a collection as a whole — and this book is no exception — there are some things here that are consistent.  Most importantly, the language, which takes on multiple dimensions on a two-dimensional surface.  Playful and pointed, Baraka takes the language of the Beats into the language of the streets and back again, demonstrating that the original source of hip culture is the Black culture of the streets of America.  Lilting bebop exercises in poetical prose that bounce around inside your skull in a manner befitting Coltrane’s groupings on the Ascension recordings. . . .

Baraka divides the book into two sections.  One, the more linear in the telling, he titles “War Stories,” originally published from the mid-70s to the mid-80s; and the other, the “Tales of the Out & the Gone,” from the mid-80s to present.  Protests and politics, Muslims and Marxists, GIs and hookers.  Dudes who did it right and dudes who did it wrong.  Women who loved and women who were made love.  And a butler who takes a revenge worthy of Nat Turner.  All of them populate Baraka’s little fables of our lives in postindustrial capitalist America.

Baraka’s language is hilarious, but his subject is dark, like Raskolnikov is dark.   Racism isn’t gone, no matter what Condoleeza Rice, Bill Cosby, or Barack Obama might say.  And no matter what the leftists say, it ain’t just about class in the US of A.  Anyone who thinks that W.E.B. DuBois’s color line is a thing of the past is fooling himself.

Racism, however, is better disguised in the USA today, where many cities are run by Black politicians backed by white money, on behalf of white politicians backed by white money, much like the world of the “Neo-American,” first published in 1975, one of the stories included in Tales of the Out & the Gone:

Goodson readied himself for his big day. . . . [T]he President of the United States coming to town.  And he had the biggest front on it, since he was mayor.  The Mayor. (A quick look in the mirror confirmed that it was him thinking about him, and check, any photos handy?  Luckily — or as usual — they was right there.)

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

He’d talked to the president a couple of times.  He had called him Tim.  “How are ya, Tim?  How’s everything in Finland Station?  You’re doing quite a job, Tim.  Quite a job.  Ever think about getting on the team all the way?  I mean, leave the jackasses and join the big elephants?”

“I’m on the team now, Mr. President.”  (Couldn’t call him Jer . . .)  “Just a different wing of the old bird.”

“Wrong wing.”  They laughed. 

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

At City Hall, a lot of Muslims got jobs now too.  We give them jobs to be cool with everybody.  A little here, a little there.  “Just fire Sloane’s people wherever you see ’em.  Anybody you think is hooked up at all with that Revolutionary Congress, burn ’em! Nowhere, no way!”  Tim was screaming at Ethan Montgomery one morning.

“These R.C. people are never on time, never there.”

Some of them were demonstrating against Tim the same morning in front of City Hall.

“Then they want to come in here and get paid.  I ain’t going for that. Burn them niggers.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Like this president thing. The man’s just coming here to speak, raise some funds for the Republican Party.  So we gotta have a whole lot of demonstrations and bullshit like that, just to build one of these people’s names.  Tim marched in picket lines.  He knew when stuff was on the up and up and when it was BS.  This was BS.  Why?  Because the president wasn’t going to do anything.  There was nothing that could be accomplished by demonstrating in front of the hotel where the president was.  What’s that gonna do?  It ain’t gonna get nobody no jobs.  I’ll fix these simple niggers tho, they won’t even see the president.  And he won’t see them either — I’ll fix them.

Tim made this statement in the newspaper, and immediately the ACLU and some other bleeding-hearts called him up to protest, saying that they would sue if he violated the democratic rights of the R.C.  By the time that stuff even gets to where somebody will look at it, everything will be got up and gone.  Ha.

If race and class were already twisted into a tight knot of political perversions by America of the mid-1970s, the knot has become only tighter since then.  Someone needs to remind us of this fact.  Thankfully, Mr. Baraka does exactly that.  Quite cleverly, I might add.


Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch‘s new collection on music, art and sex: Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at <rjacobs3625@charter.net>.



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