Real Politics, Real Poetry
The role of creative people in society has long been debated. Should they focus on their art and stay away from politics? Poets, writers, painters, filmmakers, musicians, artists in general occupy a unique position. Their impact and influence extend far and wide. They illuminate realities in imaginative ways that expand awareness and understanding. Think of Dylan’s “Masters of War” or Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or Picasso’s “Guernica” or Langston Hughes’ poem “Columbia,” where he exposes the depredations of U.S. imperialism. He writes:
“In military uniforms, you’ve taken the sweet life / Of all the little brown fellows /
In loincloths and cotton trousers.
When they’ve resisted, /You’ve yelled, “Rape,” / Being one of the world’s big vampires, /
Why don’t you come on out and say so
Like Japan, and England, and France, / And all the other nymphomaniacs of power.”
Amiri Baraka was a cultural icon and an iconoclast. He rose to fame in the 1960s as LeRoi Jones. His 1964 off-Broadway play, Dutchman created a sensation. Later he became Amiri Baraka and was a central figure in the Black Arts movement. He was an award-winning playwright and poet and recipient of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was the author of many books including the classic Blues People. He was brilliant as a homeless sage in the movie Bulworth. His politics were uncompromisingly radical. Through his work he explored the parameters of African-American culture, history, memory, racism, class struggle and political power relationships. As an orator he had a distinct and urgent style. He had a special affinity for jazz and such titans as John Coltrane, Max Roach, and Thelonious Monk. He once said of himself, I’m a revolutionary optimist. I believe that the good guys—the people—are going to win.” He died in 2014. Thousands turned out in his hometown of Newark to honor him.