Vince Aletti on Amiri Baraka’s
In Our Terribleness
Poet and playwright Amiri Baraka recently passed away in Newark, New Jersey, at the age of 79. In his memory, Aperture republishes Vince Aletti’s reflection on Baraka and Fundi’s 1970 book, In Our Terribleness. This article appeared originally in the Winter 2013 issue of Aperture magazine.
Since there is a “good” we know is bullshit, corny as Lawrence Welk On Venus, we will not be that hominy shit. We will be, definitely, bad, bad, as a mother-fucker.
My copy of Imamu Amiri Baraka’s 1970 book, In Our Terribleness, is full of red brackets and underlines, drawing my attention back to passages like the one above. I knew I was not included in the “we” Baraka was addressing, but even if I couldn’t be bad, bad as a mother-fucker, I could relate. Who would choose corniness over James Brown, Smokey Robinson, and Aretha Franklin? No one I knew. We were excited by black music, fascinated by black culture, and In Our Terribleness, subtitled (Some elements and meaning in black style), bristled with insights into both that seemed all the more valuable because they clearly were not intended for us. Baraka was talking to his brothers and sisters; we were eavesdroppers, curious and concerned but tolerated at best.
When he was still known as LeRoi Jones, the avant-garde playwright, novelist, and poet, he had written extensively about jazz, blues, and black popular music, but the essays collected in Blues People (1963) and Black Music (1968) were directed to the general reader. By the time he produced In Our Terribleness, Baraka was a controversial and divisive figure. He’d left a white wife and their bohemian circle in the Village to reconnect with his black roots in Harlem. When his Black Arts collective there imploded, he returned to Newark, his hometown, and threw himself even more vigorously into what had become the Black Power movement. His intellectual and political alliances changed radically in this period, but he wrote Terribleness under the influence of Los Angeles activist Maulana Karenga, whose philosophy, which he called Kawaida, was a mash-up of black nationalism and Pan-African theory. Baraka’s book is dedicated “for all the advocates of Kawaida,” and is peppered with references to its tenets (Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Responsibility, etc.) and nods to Karenga, “the master teacher.”
I couldn’t ignore the politics and philosophy that drive In Our Terribleness —the book is part poetry, part polemic —but because I was queer and identified with the counterculture, I imagined myself exempt from Baraka’s scorn for the white establishment, “the Western Empire,” “the iceman, the abominable snowman,” and “the naked apes on horseback from out the icebox zones.” If only because Baraka has long since renounced black nationalism, distanced himself from Karenga, and put his anti-white posturing into some understandable perspective, the book is a period piece. But its passion still sears and its celebration of black style still resonates—mostly because Baraka’s words are matched punch for punch by the sly, soulful photographs of Billy Abernathy, an African-American photographer from Chicago also known as Fundi. Like The Sweet Flypaper of Life, the 1955 book by Langston Hughes and Roy DeCarava that surely served as an inspiration, In Our Terribleness is a collaboration between a poet and a photographer. But, unlike Flypaper, it’s not a narrative, it’s an essay (occasionally a diatribe) whose poetry and prose incorporates, comments upon, and all but overwhelms the terrific black-and-white images scattered throughout the sprawling text.
Baraka talks about the photographer and his work early on, writing, “There are mostly portraits here. Portraits of life. Of life being lived. Black People inspire us. Send life into us. […] We wanted to conjure with Black Life to recreate it for our selves. So that the connection with you would be a bigger Self. […] Abernathy is himself, a terrible terbul dude. The way the terribleness of us gets thru thru him to us, again. The artist completing the cycle recreating.” Those portraits, nearly all of them made on the streets of Chicago, punctuate and animate the book, at once grounding and spurring Baraka’s wildest, most ecstatic flights. On a page with the word GESTURE typeset like a totem, he riffs:
O nation of super hip swift motional creation
O people of natural sweet smoothness
O Beings of the double clutch the attitude
the slow hang in the air
The gestures in Abernathy’s photographs are subtler but no less engaging. His pictures define black cool. It’s not flash, not bling, but confidence, vivacity, and an elegance so understated it’s almost subliminal. Draping his words around the picture of a young boy in a V-neck jersey stepping through a doorway, hand on hip, Baraka pins it down: “Not the special occasion. (That Smokey Robinson sings of.) But the day to day always continuous exercise of astonishing grace.” Although the book salutes black women with a brief series of headshots (and the striking image of a sea of white-robed Black Muslim sisterhood), men and boys—“the bloods”—are its real concern. Manhood may be more than swagger and menace, but Abernathy’s picture of a young man in a black leather jacket and a porkpie hat flaunting a switchblade is one of the book’s most potent images: Original Gangster. Baraka’s volatile combination of lyricism and trash talk, consciousness raising and low blows, was shared by his late-’60s contemporaries the Last Poets and picked up later, consciously or not, by the most trenchant rappers.
Although he would hate its crass materialism, Baraka anticipates the rhythm, bluster, wit, and fury of hip-hop. Abernathy’s photographs describe the recent history of black style without ever receding completely into the past. Maybe because these pictures have remained little-known for so long, his vision remains fresh, raw, and startling. Baraka deserves the last word here. “Ideology and style are the same thing,” he insists. “You think Marx ever dressed like this dude in the black. Its about that.”
Vince Aletti reviews photography exhibitions for the New Yorker. His book Rodeo, with photographs by Bruce of Los Angeles, was published this year by Acne.