January 2003, Amiri Baraka came to speak at our small college in
Hickory, NC. The occasion was MLK day-Mr. Baraka spoke in the morning,
to kick off the annual MLK Day peace march, and that evening he
read from his work. Baraka made it clear from the beginning that
he had been more a supporter of Malcom than of Martin, and so the
atmosphere was charged from the beginning. In fact, hate mail had
already begun to arrive at the college, and extra security extra
security had been arranged to protect the speaker. In the days following
the reading, a spate of editorials in the local paper condemned
Baraka, the College for inviting him, and the paper for reporting
accurately what he had said.
I'll begin with a letter I sent to our local newspaper much later,
this past August, when we learned of the murder of the poet's daughter.
The letter was my belated response to what I perceived as the community's
hostile reception of the poet and the general feeling on campus
that such infelicities should be prevented in the future. (Doesn't
the Patriot Act cover things like this?) I wrote to my neighbors:
we mourn with Amiri Baraka the recent murder of his daughter Shani
Baraka, I feel called to reflect on the significance of the poet's
visit here this past January. I like writers like Baraka because
the energy and violence of their words cuts through the ignorance
and complacency that characterize most current discussions of race.
Let me explain.
This morning, a friend showed me an article called "What's
Different about Being a Black Leader." It reviews a recent
book on the pressures and anxieties experienced by black managers
in corporate America.
One response to the article could be this: people should be less
prejudiced and see blacks not as blacks but as individuals-they
should be "color-blind." Managers and executives, especially,
should be objective, seeing not race but accomplishments and contribution,
because that would make the work place more fair. This, I think,
is the way most people that I know would probably respond to the
This response, while understandable, is inadequate to the point
of being dangerous. Here's why.
1) It gives whites the message that they are ethically obliged to
ignore race. Whites wind up deciding that they must proceed as if
the race problem has been solved. If we all act as if the race problem
has been solved already, it will be solved, right? Wrong. Whites
get the impression that blindness is a virtue, which enhances their
already formidable ignorance and discomfort about race. Race becomes
something to which the only response is repression. The effect is
that the repressed hatred (which is really just fear) becomes less
easily to control and therefore more powerful.
2) At the same time, it gives blacks the message that race and heritage
don't matter. They are to be left at the corporate door. Race, like
religion, is something you only have or do in the evenings and on
weekends; you're to pretend it's not a part of your life. Separating
race, religion, or any other core part of your self from your career
path is unhealthy and dangerous. Blacks are often treated as if
their race is invisible (except when it becomes profitable for the
corporation to advertise its "diversity"), but they must
deal daily with well-meaning but ignorant whites who, though they
remain fearful and ignorant, feel they cannot address the issue.
Most people can handle this kind of pressure, but why should they
Amiri Baraka's art cuts through all this guilt, fear, and ignorance.
He gives our anger and fear a voice. His poetry gets it all out
in the open: you listen to him, and you stop repressing. You start
to feel. Poetry hurts no one, and its violence frees us from the
kind of anxiety that everyone these days seems to think is the correct
way of dealing with race. Baraka says, hey, I'm angry, people are
angry, there's a lot to be angry about-and then he cracks a joke.
He says, hey, they want you to go to Iraq to shoot Muslims, but
you don't have to. He says hey, they tell you everything's okay
now, that the playing field is level now, but you know it's not.
He says hey, it's okay to rant and rave-he shows you how to weave
an intricate fabric of your rage. The world around you is real,
and real things happen in it. Don't swallow it all-the world is
not some bitter medicine you have to take every day. Don't believe
the hype that makes you into the tool of the government and the
corporations. Baraka says, your anger is beautiful, your anger is
And he doesn't just say it. With his jazz-poetry, he shows you that
beauty. He lets you feel it.
Mourn with me this week Amiri Barka's loss of a daughter, and remember
his gift to the Hickory community. Anger is not bad. Violence is
not bad. Murder and vandalism are illegal, but anger about things
any reasonable person would be angry about is good. It's precious.
I think Baraka is the greatest writer we've had through LR in the
past four years. Baraka showed me the beauty of literature as I
had never been shown it before. I have been studying, teaching,
and writing about literature for fifteen years, but Baraka taught
me my craft. All grad school did was prepare me to appreciate people
like Baraka when they come along, and they don't come along often.
The paper did not print my letter.
I'll play a little of Baraka's performance at our college. Baraka
has written several books on jazz, but his performances show that
he is a jazz poet-he references jazz, even alluding to specific
melodies, but more than that, he is a jazz performer, bringing jazz
to the word.
track four: Baraka's jazz low-ku sequence>
members of the public made clear their disdain for Baraka's performance
in the newspaper (one man suggesting that Baraka move to Iraq),
as did many students in class discussions. The first complaint to
emerge was that Baraka's refusal to take President Bush seriously
was not to be tolerated. And they didn't appreciate his portrayal
of North Carolina as a politically backward state. Further discussion
revealed, however, that to many, Baraka was racist: by which they
meant that he's an angry black man who talks about race. The logic,
I think, was as follows: Baraka's poems and remarks were racist
because they seemed designed to make white people feel bad.
I don't mean to imply that everyone present responded this way.
But the only other interpretation I heard was the defense that it's
important that students at a liberal arts college be exposed occasionally
to that sort of unpleasantness-which, since it assumes and tolerates
Baraka's alleged racism, is just a defense of racism and cannot
be taken seriously. It certainly felt as though our community was
not ready to talk about Baraka as an artist. The question of his
political incorrectness seemed to dominate the discussion.
I'd like to bring a certain tradition of thinking about the structure
of the sign to bear, both on the form of Baraka's performance and
on its reception. The two seem related. In doing so I will sometimes
use the term "arbitrariness" in this paper to designate
all three of what are clearly essential qualities of the sign:
1) it is arbitrary: there is no natural connection between signifier
and signified (Saussure);
2) it is differential, existing only as the network of its differences
to other signs (Saussure); and
3) it is iterable: it only is to the extent to which, and by virtue
of the fact that, it can be copied, quoted, cited, or repeated (Derrida).
I suggest that what we witnessed during Baraka's visit to campus
was an interesting reversal of Saussure's familiar diagram of the
structure of the sign, and I'd diagram what happened this way:
signified racism. Recall that in Saussure's diagram, of course,
the signifier, "arbor," is on the bottom, and the signifier,
the concept "tree" on the top:
I want to suggest that in Hickory, the man was the signifier, the
poorly-defined concept the signified. It's not that the term "racist"
connotes some concept of people like Baraka, because it doesn't
at all. No one, prior to his visit, would have concretized the term
"racist" that way. (Things are not that bad yet, though
there is no reason why the term "racist" could not come
to simply denote a black person.) Rather, at least in Hickory this
past January, as in New Jersey months earlier, when Baraka first
read "Somebody Blew Up America," the word-signifies-thing
structure reversed: the image of Baraka was the signifier, and "racist"
the signified concept. This association seemed to be quite general,
despite the obvious fact that Baraka's purpose was to fight racism,
as he has been doing in America for 40 years.
At first glance, it might seem that a more ironic demonstration
of the arbitrariness of the sign would be difficult to find. The
bar in this diagram is of course meant by Saussure to signify the
arbitrariness of the signifier-signified association, but in this
case the bar was crossed: people followed the lead of New Jersey
Governor James E. McGreevey and insisted that Baraka was a racist
and would not back down. In "The Agency of the Letter in the
Unconscious," Jacques Lacan identifies this "crossing
of the bar" (Ecrits 164) as the structure of metaphor:
f(S'/S)S ? S(+)s
He explains the formula as follows:
It is in the substitution of signifier for signifier that an effect
of signification is produced that is creative or poetic, in other
words, which is the advent of the signification in question. The
sign + between ( ) represents here the crossing of the bar - and
the constitutive value of this crossing for the emergence of signification.
The bar, or arbitrariness, is crossed, and the association becomes
almost an identity:
symptom is a metaphor, Lacan says (175). This metaphor, angry black
man ? racist, seems to me a symptom of something deeply wrong with
our society. Behind the rhetorical "why can't we all just get
along?", the crossed bar signifies a lingering lie, the lie
of white guilt, white resentment, white aggression. I color this
response white, though some blacks present seem to have felt it,
What does all this have to do with jazz? As we've seen, Baraka weaves
his poems together in performance by singing jazz tunes. Baraka's
own semiotics of jazz has always been pretty simple. The harmonies
and rhythms of jazz and the blues hearken back to the slave plantations
and thence back to Africa, and presumably his invocations of jazz
melodies and motifs in performance are meant to ground his own work
in that tradition by association. There is no sense of arbitrariness
in this conception of the jazz sign-in fact, Baraka's purpose in
writing Blues People and other early works was to downplay the perceived
arbitrariness of the sign that seemed to allow white musicians to
play jazz and write critics to judge it. So instead of the arbitrariness,
should we be talking about the whiteness of the sign? I think so.
The arbitrariness of the sign makes the signifier always separable
from the signified (i.e. there's nothing essentially African about
it), and iterabity, which constitutes all being, therefore authorizes
any and all repetition. Arbitrariness, therefore, comes to signify
whiteness, and Baraka's continuing project of grounding his semiosis
in Black history would then be not a backward denial of Saussurian
linguistics but a savvy forestalling of arbitrary and politically
motivated interpretation and exploitation of black art. Interpretation
divides: one can base one's interpretation on structure or history.
In a white supremacist world largely devoid of cultural meaning,
white musicians would tap into traditions of expression still laden
with all the history of slavery and imperialism, capitalizing on
their energy. Conversely, in a world in which, thanks to iterability,
minority meaning is co-opted by the majority, it would naturally
seem necessary for the black artist to ground that meaning in the
historical provenance of the sign.
The sign is arbitrary-arbitrariness is the most basic quality of
the sign. (Did Saussure choose the word "arbor" as his
mnemonic example precisely to make that point?) But to understand
Baraka, we need to separate the arbitrariness of the sign from the
fact that arbitrariness can itself be a sign. Whether as assimilation
or as parody, arbitrariness has characterized and even produced
most American popular music for decades. The American popular music
scene has been and continues to be a site of cultural exchange,
of an artistic bricolage that the structure of the sign makes inevitable
and that Judith Butler shows also structures gender:
There is no self that is prior to the convergence or who maintains
"integrity" prior to the entrance into this conflicted
cultural field. There is only a taking up of the tools where they
lie, where the very "taking up" is enabled by the tool
lying there. (145)
But when most of the producers and consumers of this bricolage are
white Americans, the arbitrariness at play in the industry comes
to signify whiteness. Then one appeals to history. Black art must
then define itself against this arbitrariness-not denying arbitrariness
as the most basic fact of the sign, but distancing itself from arbitrariness
as the most basic paradigm of the arts in white America. The paradigm
of Baraka's black art, then, is not bricolage but philology-he emphasizes
not the arbitrariness of signs but the historical trajectories that
produce them. Baraka's fluid transitions from poem to jazz riff
to gospel standard to political satire seems at first like pastiche,
but his pastiche is grounded in an argument about the history of
signs, not a performance of their structure. One consequence is
a disabling of the arbitrariness/whiteness association.
My spouse often remembers how, when she first moved to the United
States, at age 25, there were few signifiers for her: every signifier
was to her a signified. She could speak fluent English, but she
could not joke, laugh, or dream because she didn't know what things
meant. This has been my experience in our travels to her native
country, Greece: it is difficult to tell the rich from the poor,
the liberals from the conservatives, the happy from the angry, etc.
It was also, I think, the experience of many in the audience at
Baraka's reading: who is this guy, what's he doing, why am I being
made to feel this way? A world of meaningless signifieds is intolerable,
so they, like sovereign foreigners in their own country, (naturally?)
converted Baraka into a signifier, a metaphor for the first idea
to enter their heads: racism.
As Lacan shows, "the symptom is a metaphor" (Ecrits 175),
"a crossing of the bar" between signifier and signified
in which "the signifier enters the signified" (151). This
is what happened on our campus and up in New Jersey. The metaphor
of Baraka as a racist is a symptom of the psychosis that is American
Conversely, if symptom is metaphor, "desire is metonymy"
(175)-desire is "the maintenance of the bar" (164):
f (S . . . S') ? S(-)s
What this means is that
The signifier installs the lack-of-being in the object relation,
using the value of 'reference back' possessed by signification to
invest it with the desire aimed at the very lack it supports. The
sign - placed between the ( ) represents the maintenance of the
bar - which . . . marked the irreducibility in which, in the relations
between signifier and signified, the resistance of signification
is constituted. (164)
In Baraka, the bar separating signifier (jazz) from signified (black
history) is crossed. Though symptom is metaphor, not all metaphor
is symptom, and in Baraka, poetry becomes black art and black history.
The bar separating arbitrariness from whiteness is metonymically
maintained, protecting black art from a reduction to parody.
Semiotics reveals a world of signifiers in which even the signifieds
are themselves other signifiers (Colapietro 81-83), an endless web
of signification. This is the world of Amiri Baraka, and of any
serious artist-a world awash with truth and significance, a world
of language liberated from bondage by the arbitrariness of the sign.
But it happens also to be a world in which that same liberating
arbitrariness itself signifies whiteness. Meaning is a consequence
of the splitting of the sign, and Baraka severs arbitrariness and
whiteness, making a place in the world for black art.
I would argue further that the three major periods of Baraka's life
correspond to the three Lacanian phases of development. The early
angry poems illustrate what Lacan calls the need for satisfaction.
Those of the middle, Marxist period illustrate the demand for love:
here Baraka complicates the race picture by introducing the dynamics
of social class and envisioning a just world, a world in which justice
is both demanded of the phallic other and is itself the phallic
Other. Baraka's later work, and in particular his jazz-poetry performances,
like the one I showed you, manifest desire, which is medial in Lacan's
structural topography but developmentally final (Feminine Sexuality
81). Desire is when the splitting begun in the mirror phase is complete
and the subject is fully spoken by language.
Baraka, Amiri. The LeRoi Jones/ Amiri Baraka Reader. Ed. William
J. Harris. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.
New York: Routledge, 1990.
Colapietro , Vincent M. Glossary of Semiotics. New York: Paragon,
Derrida, Jacques. Limited Inc. Evanston: Northwestern University
Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan.
New York: Norton, 1977.
--. Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the École Freudienne.
Ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose. Trans. Jacqueline Rose.
New York: Norton, 1982.
de Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Ed. Charles
Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Trans. Roy Harris. La Salle: Open Court,