“They now gonna make us shut up”: The Black Nationalist / Third-World Socialist poetry of Amiri Baraka

ZP_photograph by Fundi_Billy Abernathy_from the 1970 Imamu Amiri Baraka book In Our Terribleness_I love you black perfect woman. Your spirit will rule the twenty first century. This is why we ourselves speed to grace...

ZP_photograph by Fundi_Billy Abernathy_from the 1970 Imamu Amiri Baraka book In Our Terribleness_I love you black perfect woman. Your spirit will rule the twenty first century. This is why we ourselves speed to grace…

Amiri Baraka (born Everett LeRoi Jones, 1934)

“Numbers, Letters” (written in 1965)


If you’re not home, where

are you?  Where’d you go?  What

were you doing when gone?  When

you come back, better make it good.

What was you doing down there, freakin’ off

with white women, hangin’ out

with Queens, say it straight to be

understood straight, put it flat and real

in the street where the sun comes and the

moon comes and the cold wind in winter

waters your eyes.  Say what you mean, dig

it out put it down, and be strong

about it.


I cant say who I am

unless you agree I’m real


I cant be anything I’m not

except these words pretend

to life not yet explained,

so here’s some feeling for you

see how you like it, what it

reveals, and that’s Me.


Unless you agree I’m real

that I can feel

whatever beats hardest

a our black souls

I am real, and I can’t say who

I am.  Ask me if I know, I’ll say

yes, I might say no.  Still, ask.

I’m Everett LeRoi Jones, 30 yrs old.


A black nigger in the universe.  A long breath singer,

wouldbe dancer, strong from years of fantasy

and study.  All this time then, for what’s happening

now.  All that spilling of white ether, clocks in ghostheads

lips drying and rewet, eyes opening and shut, mouths churning.


I am a meditative man, And when I say something it’s all of me

saying, and all the things that make me, have formed me, coloured me

this brilliant reddish night.  I will say nothing that I feel is

lie, or unproven by the same ghostclocks, by the same riders

Always move so fast with the word slung over their backs or

in saddlebags, charging down Chinese roads.  I carry some words,

some feeling, some life in me.  My heart is large as my mind

this is a messenger calling, over here, over here, open your eyes

and your ears and your souls;  today is the history we must learn

to desire.  There is no guilt in love.



(from “Black Magic”, published 1969)


.     .     .


“Black Art”


Poems are bullshit unless they are

teeth or trees or lemons piled

on a step.  Or black ladies dying

of men leaving nickel hearts

beating them down.  Fuck poems

and they are useful, wd they shoot

come at you, love what you are,

breathe like wrestlers, or shudder

strangely after pissing.  We want live

words of the hips world live flesh &

coursing blood.  Hearts Brains

Souls splintering fire.  We want poems

like fists beating niggers out of Jocks

or dagger poems in the slimy bellies

of the owner-jews.  Black poems to

smear on girdlemamma mulatto bitches

whose brains are red jelly stuck

between  ’lizabeth taylor’s toes.  Stinking

Whores!  We want “poems that kill”.

Assassin poems, Poems that shoot

guns.  Poems that wrestle cops into alleys

and take their weapons leaving them dead

with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.  Knockoff

poems for dope selling wops or slick halfwhite

politicians Airplane poems, rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr


…rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…Setting fire and death to

whities ass.  Look at the Liberal

Spokesman for the jews clutch his throat

& puke himself into eternity…rrrrrrr

There’s a negroleader pinned to

a bar stool in Sardi’s eyeballs melting

in hot flame Another negroleader

on the steps of the white house one

kneeling between the sheriff’s thighs

negotiating cooly for his people.

Agggh … stumbles across the room …

Put it on him, poem.  Strip him naked

to the world!  Another bad poem cracking

steel knuckles in a jewlady’s mouth

Poem scream poison gas on beasts in green berets

Clean out the world for virtue and love,

Let there be no love poems written

until love can exist freely and

cleanly.  Let Black People understand

that they are the lovers and the sons

of lovers and warriors and sons

of warriors Are poems & poets &

all the loveliness here in the world


We want a black poem. And a

Black World.

Let the world be a Black Poem

And Let All Black People Speak This Poem




(from “Black Magic”, published 1969)

ZP_from page 1 of In Our Terribleness_Some elements and meaning in black style_by Imamu Amiri Baraka_with Fundi_1970

ZP_from page 1 of In Our Terribleness_Some elements and meaning in black style_by Imamu Amiri Baraka_with Fundi_1970


“J. said, “Our whole universe is generated by a rhythm””


Is Dualism, the shadow inserted

for the northern trip, as the northern

trip, minstrels of the farther land,

the sun, in one place, ourselves, somewhere

else.  The Universe

is the rhythm

there is no on looker, no outside

no other than the real, the universe

is rhythm, and whatever is only is as

swinging.  All that is is funky, the bubbles

in the monsters brain, are hitting it too,

but the circles look like

swastikas, the square is thus

explained, but the nazis had dances, and even some of the

victims would tell you that.


There is no such thing as “our

universe”, only degrees of the swinging, what

does not swing is nothing, and nothing swings

when it wants to.  The desire alone is funky

and it is this heat Louis Armstrong scatted in.


What is not funky is psychological, metaphysical

is the religion of squares, pretending no one

is anywhere.

Everything gets hot, it is hot now, nothing cold exists

and cold, is the theoretical line the pretended boundary

where your eye and your hand disappear into desire.


Dualism is a quiet camp near the outer edge of the forest.

There the inmates worship money and violence. they are

learning right now to sing, let us join them for a moment

and listen.  Do not laugh, whatever you do.



(from “Funk Lore” – New Poems, 1984-1995)


.     .     .


“Brother Okot”


Our people say

death lives

in the West

(Any one

can see

plainly, each evening

where the sun

goes to die)


So Okot

is now in the West


Here w/ us

in hell


I have heard

his songs

felt the earth

drum his


his wide ness

& Sky self


Ocoli Singer

Ocoli Fighter


Brother Okot

now here w/ us

in the place


Where even the Sun



Editor’s note:

Okot p’Bitek (1931-1982) was a Ugandan poet, author of the epic poem “Song of Lawino”,

written in the Acholi language.  (Acholi = Ocoli).

One of Okot p’Bitek’s daughters, Juliane Okot Bitek, is a poet whose work was featured by

Zócalo Poets in February 2012.


.     .     .







But Drum




act      slick

drum turn



drum go voice

be hand

on over


dont die

how some ever

drum turn slick


no drum




be a piano

a fiddle

a nigger tap




if it need to

Thing say Kill drum

but drum

dont die/dont even


& drum cant die

& wdn’t

no way!


(from “Funk Lore” – New Poems, 1984-1995)


.     .     .


“Bad People”


We want to be happy


to check

the definition


We want to love

& be loved


What does that



Then you, backed up against

yr real life


claim you want


to  be correct.


Imagine the jeers,

the cat calls

the universal dis


such ignorance




(from “Funk Lore” – New Poems, 1984-1995)


.     .     .     .     .

ZP Editor’s note:

“They now gonna make us shut up” is the opening line of Baraka’s 1969 poem “The People Burning”.


Editor Paul Vangelisti wrote in a 1995 foreword to an Amiri Baraka anthology that the poet “remains difficult to approach” – that is, for readers trying to place his ‘opus’ – since the U.S. literary establishment is “positioned somewhere between Anglo-American academicism and the Entertainment industry.”  Baraka cannot be fitted neatly anywhere – though he has been compared to Ezra Pound for “making poetry and politics reciprocal forms of action” (M.L. Rosenthal, 1973).

Imamu Amiri Baraka (Arabic for Spiritual Leader-Blesséd-Prince) was born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, and was one of the “urgent new voices” – black voices – of the 1960s.  Like a number of U.S. cities with Black citizens who were barred from “getting ahead” and who felt fed up with a normalized police brutality, Newark experienced what were then called “race riots”, in July 1967, leaving 26 people dead.  Over the decades Baraka has stuck by his city, continuing to live there through thick and thin.


The poet had often signed his poems “Roi”, up until 1966, at which time he took his Muslim name.  After the assassination of Malcolm X Baraka became more forceful in his poetry – promoting a Black Nationalist culture – and trying to give poetic shape to Anger.  But in the 1970s he distanced himself from Black Nationalism, finding in it “certain dead ends theoretically and ideologically”, and he gravitated toward Third-World Liberation movements involving Marxism.


Baraka has been brought to task over the years for sexism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia in his writing (from the 1960s especially) – but he was,  in his poetic passion, giving expression to his full self – his ugly thoughts as well as his ideas and yearnings.  In that sense Baraka was ordinary not special – yet he was egocentric enough to want to ‘say it all’.

About the criticisms against the “prejudices” evident in his work he has said:

“The anger was part of the mindset created by, first, the assassination of John Kennedy, followed by the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, followed by the assassination of Malcolm X – amidst the lynching, and national oppression. A few years later, the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. What changed my mind was that I became a Marxist, after recognizing classes within the Black community…..”

ZP_Muhammad Ali with Malcolm X in the background_1964 photograph by Robert L. Haggins

ZP_Muhammad Ali with Malcolm X in the background_1964 photograph by Robert L. Haggins

Baraka’s poetry from the 1990s took as its template Blues and Jazz structures and he penned poems that in their own weird ways honoured Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk and Sun Ra.  There was also polemic and vitriol, sometimes downright pessimistic, in poems about Clarence Thomas and Spike Lee.  Still “making poetry and politics reciprocal forms of action”, as Rosenthal had described Baraka in the early 1970s, it came as no surprise when the poet wrote an inflammatory poem, “Somebody Blew Up America”, about the September 11th, 2001, World Trade Center attack.

.     .     .     .     .

All poems © Amiri Baraka