In 1982, while shaking hands with Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones), I told him how much I enjoyed a production I’d seen years before of his controversial, award-winning play, Dutchman. A short man with bits of gray in his close-cropped hair and intense sad eyes, Baraka thanked me in a barely audible voice, then blinked and looked away.
My girlfriend’s sister was friends with Baraka’s lawyer who was hosting the party in order to raise money for his client’s defense fund. The Georgetown apartment was full of liberals with deep pockets. It was Washington D.C.’s version of “Radical Chic.” Tom Wolfe’s essay had skewered Leonard Bernstein for the party he threw in support of the Black Panthers. This one had a similar dissonance and, like Bernstein, Baraka’s host was Jewish. I don’t remember what charges Baraka was facing, why he needed defending, but I do recall that he was the only black person in the room and that he looked distinctly uncomfortable. It was obvious, at least to me, that his lawyer had convinced him that his personal presence was the best way to raise some quick cash. Little did anyone there suspect that two decades later Baraka would be dismissed from his position as poet laureate of New Jersey for writing a poem that implicated Israel in the 9/11 tragedy. And little did Baraka suspect that the young white man shaking his hand had just stolen twenty dollars from his defense fund.
The host’s wife had greeted me and Mary at the front door, then indicated the straw basket in the foyer heaped with bills should we wish to contribute. While she and Mary were chatting, I stepped over to the basket which wasn’t much bigger than a soup bowl, a plain and humble receptacle. No doubt they thought I was about to add to the pile of money. Maybe I thought I was, too, until I lifted a bill off the top and crammed it into my right front pocket. I rejoined Mary and entered the living room where we helped ourselves to the refreshments.
I’m not normally an impulsive person, nor am I given easily to theft. Even as I was nibbling the finger sandwiches and sipping the white wine, I wondered what the hell I was doing and whether anyone was watching me do it. I worried in particular about the gray-haired, gray-suited man who, I’d been told, was a CIA agent. As appalled as I was by my behavior, several minutes had passed and I still had Baraka’s money.
Mary’s sister approached me, her hands clasped to her chest. “Would you like to meet Baraka?”
“Yes,” I said. “Please.”
She led me to where he was standing, off by himself, neither drinking nor eating. She introduced me, mentioning that I, too, was a writer, then backed hurriedly away, as if we had great and important things to say to each other.
After complimenting him on Dutchman, I tried to get Baraka to talk about the play, writer to writer. He muttered something I didn’t catch and fell silent. I tried again but he wasn’t any more responsive. I wandered off. If he wanted his money back, he would have to do better than that.
Aside from his refusal to talk to me, I had nothing against the man. Or did I? I knew something about African-American history both from my college courses and my own reading. I knew that in his younger days, as part of the Black Arts movement–black writers and poets dedicated to activist literature and revolution–Baraka had written what many said were nasty things about women, gays, Jews and white people. More recently, he had repudiated these views and vowed to be more tolerant in the future. Perhaps, despite his promise to do better, I had retained some suspicion of him, some antipathy.
I meant it when I told Baraka how much I admired Dutchman (the title refers to the Dutch slave traders), a powerful play set entirely in a subway train. Lula, a young, scantily clad, white woman enters a car and takes the seat next to Clay, a young, conventionally dressed (suit and tie), well-spoken black man. She flirts with Clay, hinting at the possibility of a sexual encounter. She also tells Clay things about himself (his fondness for French poetry and jazz) that he’s surprised she knows. She calls him a “well-known type,” meaning he’s a socially and professionally ambitious black man. She proceeds to ridicule Clay for being, in essence, a sell-out to his race. He takes her abuse until he explodes in anger, defending himself in a long speech that reveals the cost to his black identity of the compromises he’s made to fit into the white world. In response to his anger, Lula stabs and kills him. The other white passengers help her throw him off the train. The play is a call to revolution, a warning that until African-Americans cease trying to be like whites, cease trying to assimilate, they will continue to perish.
Tired of standing, Mary and I sat across from each other on identical Barcelona chairs, paper plates balanced on our knees. As I was biting into a rice cracker smeared with duck liver pate, I looked up and caught the CIA agent peering at me over the shoulder of a tall, elderly woman. Or was my mind playing tricks on me?
It occurs to me that Baraka’s reticence was understandable, even excusable, in that I was contributing to the evening’s dissonance by praising a work he’d written when his artistic priority was exposing the savagery of the white race. How strange for him to be surrounded by people he’d characterized in his greatest literary work as predators, (and named in his earliest writings as “devils”), and then have one of them shake his hand and tell him how much he’d enjoyed it. I can almost hear him saying, “Man, you are a fool.”
Baraka claimed in his early plays and public statements that success for blacks in mainstream America required self-hatred and assimilation, that the black bourgeoisie was incapable of any racial integrity. In 1969 he wrote Sidney Poet Heroical, a play in twenty-nine acts that viciously lampoons Sidney Poitier for his accommodation to white liberals, an association that so compromises and corrupts the Poitier-like protagonist that his skin turns white. Sidney Poitier was, at the time, the only black actor who could get substantial film roles, the only kind of black man–not angry, not scary–the country would allow to become a movie star. For Baraka, Sidney Poitier made it too easy for liberals to feel good about their high-minded intentions when there was still so much to be done to achieve racial equality.
Booker T. Washington, once the country’s most prominent black leader, was likewise accused of accommodating whites, specifically of easing the guilt of slavery by promoting the separation of the races. He founded Tuskegee Institute, a school devoted not to producing scholars and intellectuals (slaves, it will be remembered, were forbidden to read) but skilled laborers, a lower caste of citizens more likely, from Washington’s pragmatic viewpoint, to find fulfillment in segregated America than Negro artists and scientists who would only meet with rejection.
In the black history course I took in college the professor would select random students to read their book reports to the class. I was chosen to read mine on Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, Up From Slavery. It was a scathing attack on what I’d decided was Washington’s kowtowing to white leaders, his cowardly acceptance of Jim Crow segregation, his complete capitulation to the dominate race. I was proud of myself. I’d nailed the guy. But when the teacher, who was black, immediately called on someone else to read their book report instead of asking the class to respond to mine, his usual routine, the seeds of doubt were sown. Over the years, I’ve returned to that moment many times and never without shame. I hear in the lines I’d dashed off the night before all of my intellectual laziness, all of my simplistic, knee-jerk arguments. I had no right to judge Booker T. Washington so harshly, not because I was a privileged white person who knew nothing about racial prejudice, though there’s that too, but because no one has the right to judge anyone with such unmeditated scorn.
It’s possible the real reason Baraka wouldn’t talk to me about Dutchman was that he’d outgrown it. His days as a black cultural nationalist were behind him by 1982. His thinking about race had gone beyond the activist rage that inspired the play; perhaps he no longer cared to be identified so closely with it. It could be I took his money because I hadn’t forgiven Baraka for what he’d said and written in his Black Arts’ days about gays, women, Jews, whites. I may not have fully accepted his recantation, and his implicit apology. I may have been feeling as ambivalent about his career as he felt about being on display in that white, liberal enclave.
After everyone had eaten, Baraka’s lawyer called the room to order. Rows of metal folding chairs had been set up in the living room. Baraka sat on the first row beside the host’s wife. Mary and I stood with her sister near the back. As the lawyer began describing his legal strategy for his client’s defense, I drifted to the front of the apartment and into the foyer. I stood before the little straw basket overflowing with bills. I put the money back.