BWW Blog: The Legacy of LeRoi Jones
Celebrated and criticized writer-activist Amiri Baraka died at age 79 on January 9.
When I first read his poetry his name was LeRoi Jones (his birth name). I came to him through reading early literary heroes, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, birthers of a literary and cultural movement that welcomed Mr. Baraka into their wide fold. He in turn published some of their work, later penning controversial plays and helping lead the Black Nationalist movement.
His passing reminds me of a few things as someone who creates and also deals with politicians for a living as a representative of a company that the federal government, in order that Tennessee Shakespeare Company may enjoy tax-exempt status, charges with remaining, as it were, un-political.
If you read some of the obituaries that have been written of Mr. Baraka, you see quickly his personal extremism in the face of what he felt was an immediate and social need for America to change itself. Agree or not with that need for change, you may find power in a couple of things he is quoted as saying:
"There is no depth of education without art."
"Art is whatever makes you proud to be human."
For Mr. Baraka, the person you and I are, and the person he was, are largely defined by our artistic expression. To excise part of what makes us human, in an effort to further understand our humanity and gain compassion for others, is counter to a genuine act of creativity. My favorite, though parsed, comment of his:
"The attempt to divide art and politics is a bourgeois which says good poetry, art, cannot be political, but since everything is...political, even an artist or work that claims not to have any politics is making a political statement by that act."
So, I am reminded to be more conscious of the political impulses in me affecting my creative work in the wake of the death of Mr. Baraka. The word "political" is far less about choosing political parties, a simplified labeling which continues to strike me as fake armor for fighting rather than thoughtfulness for seeking agreement, than it is about our activism for what each of us believes needs to become more important for our general well-being.
And, in my field, unless one is producing or directing the plays of William Shakespeare exclusively for entertainment purposes, it is quite impossible to do so without feeling Shakespeare's own political and social impulses of his day. To deny them is to deny a crucial foundation of his work, I have found. Then to make his stories immediate and personal today, the modern interpreter must consider his or her own political impulses.
Whether conscious of it at the time or not, I reflect now on ten very full years of directing Shakespeare's plays and, inspired to peer at them through Mr. Baraka's lens, I see on those stages a striking absence of blood, an abundance of women in mens' roles, violence not as a titillating end to a story but a tragic throughway to grace, and the absolute necessity of the inclusion of and informed reliance upon people of all cultural backgrounds, ages, sexual identities and persuasions, and spiritual beliefs.
And I needn't look back too far as a classical theatre producer and educator to discover our response as a creative organization when, as TSC stood up publicly last summer to challenge our municipal government's proposed elimination of all of our education funding, I recall the promises of political retribution if we did not mute our position. The TSC Board, staff, and supporters felt our rights to free speech and general assembly were being threatened. And then, after speaking and assembling, TSC was indeed punished with a 2014 eviction from our City-owned office. But that story is not yet done. The community will speak again.
I felt quietly supported during that period by imagining Shakespeare floating his playhouse timbers over the Thames to re-build his outlawed theatre on Bankside, or by imagining what personal events might have prompted him in King John (3.1) to write his surprising dialogue involving the Pope's legate, Pandulph.
If you are encouraged to consider your own creative impulse, indeed reflect upon your own creations in life, now conscious of that which is "political" for you having been instrumental, then I imagine we have the activism of Amiri Baraka, in part at least, to thank.