- Duplicities of Power: Amiri Baraka’s and Lorenzo Thomas’s Responses to September 11
By adhering to an Afrocentric vision—in voice as well as subject matter—the poems of Amiri Baraka and Lorenzo Thomas acknowledge the painful American legacy of white oppression of blacks, as well as pay tribute to the rich texture of African American culture. Yet in style and tone, their poetry also enacts the struggle for individual integrity inherent in any use of ethnic and racial consciousness as a trope. To appropriate the thinking of K. Anthony Appiah (in “Race, Culture, Identity: Misunderstood Connections”), often in their poems Baraka and Thomas freely depict people, events, and conditions based on (in Appiah’s terms) “false theories [that] play a central role in the application of labels” (96).1 The result in both Baraka’s and Thomas’s poetry is an exploration of nothing less than a quixotic truth at the heart of American “multiculturalism” itself, namely, that to advocate racial or ethnic identity is to begin to deconstruct it, a paradox American poets are only beginning to articulate with any clarity.
One manifestation of this paradox evident in the work of both Baraka and Thomas is the almost contradictory pose of the poet as avant-garde yet pointedly didactic. As is well known, Baraka has adopted this position for nearly half a century. As Aldon Lynn Nielsen has convincingly shown, since the 1960s Baraka has been committed to “an aesthetics of innovation” (Integral Music 99), even at the expense of his own material comfort. Yet as Kwame Dawes and others have also emphasized, “Baraka is a public poet” and “an agitator” who, although in some respects he may resemble the West African griot as “a spokesperson for the community” (xii), is not only speaking for his own community but “constantly . . . involved with the task of shaping an aesthetic” (xiii) to influence that community. For his part, Lorenzo Thomas also delves into both innovative aesthetics and didacticism, though with markedly different results. While he has been consistently aligned with avant-garde writers, from the Black Arts Movement early in his life to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school more recently, one hallmark of both his writing and his life was his abiding interest in the public role of poetry (both artistically and politically). In his 1994 essay, “The Blues and the King’s English,” Thomas defines this double function of poetry according to what he calls the “normative” ethics of literary and ethnic communities. Acknowledging the importance of both the experimental and the popular venues for poetry in the U. S., especially (though not exclusively) within African American communities, Thomas argues for how the “pointedly didactic” (438) nature of poetry in the oral as well as the literary African American traditions serves its audience both in “maintaining normative values” and in “offering alternative opinions” (436). For Thomas, neither “normative” values (namely, the social ethics that a poem may openly advance) nor “alternative” values (the avant-garde aesthetics that challenge the status quo) should take precedence when we assess a poem critically. Rather, the unique manner in which poetry can create a dynamic balance between these two motives at once is ultimately its role, de facto, in the American canon, even though an individual poem may not at first be recognized as such.2
In applying this critical perspective to Baraka’s poetry itself, for instance, Thomas compares Baraka to Paul Laurence Dunbar when he writes, “Just as Dunbar’s poetic production was cannily and problematically divided between dialect poems and lyrics [End Page 167] in standard English, so does Amiri Baraka’s poetry occupy two modes: intensely personal lyrics and incisively political social comment. The persona of Baraka’s lyrics, however, is always clearly in this world now, [so it] is not surprising that Baraka brought something of his ideas—as expressed in his bifurcated poetic output—to the developing Black Arts aesthetic” (Bernstein 310–11). In effect, by deserting Greenwich Village to take his version of the avant-garde into the streets of Harlem, Baraka essentially “rejected the bohemian option in favor of the unique position that, however...