Sic Transit, Baby

Fenster writes:

I wrote here, here and here about people who were quite famous in their day, now more or less down the memory hole.  With that in mind, I note the passing of playwright/poet/provocateur Amiri Baraka (née Leroi Jones), and wonder if and how he will be remembered decades hence.

I saw Mr. Baraka once.  It was at a conference I attended in 1968–the annus mirabilis of a long-ago era.  That bundle of contradictory forces that now goes by the name of The Sixties was just about to pop.  But for the moment it was still tentatively holding together.  And so a “conference” at Buffalo State College was capable of being many things: a rogue’s gallery of all the top psychedelic leaders like Tim Leary and Ram Dass talking about new religion, a concert by the white revolutionary rockers the MC5 and a platform for the discussion of black rebellion.  All were welcome and it seemed all came.  And in the moment of course it all seemingly cohered.

The assembled crowd was also made giddy by the unexpected arrival of the New York City anarchist collective Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers.  The group burst into a presentation by a blissed-out Leary on the virtues of turning on, tuning in and dropping out.  The were dressed for their parts as heroic vanguardists and inhabited them fully.  The men were determined, resolved and more than a little menacing.  The women wore long flowing dresses and babushkas, carrying their revolutionary babies close to their breasts.  Thus fitted out, they rushed the stage and commanded it, adopting a steely socialist realist posture

IMG_1146 (1)

and proceeded to give Leary a good shellacking.  Capitalist roader!

The audience might have espied problems ahead for the putative allies in the counterculture.  Leary himself was a few years away from his own erratic embrace of Eldridge Cleaver and violent revolution, an embrace that soon fell away.  For the most part I suspect the audience felt the whole shebang could hang together somehow.  And it made for great theater.

On into the night the MC5 rocked, with the largely white, middle-class, college student population going from ecstatic dancing to what appeared to be hive formations–a proto-rave I guess.

Late in the conference Baraka showed up.  The same white college students, having recovered from their brave shenanigans with the MC5, now sat meekly awaiting a pronouncement from this tribune of the revolutionary black vanguard as to what the future might hold, and what part they might play in it.


He came to the podium and just  looked at the audience, waiting for a very, very long moment before saying anything.  The crowd grew a little tense.  Sure we were white middle class kids, but we were here to support him in . . . whatever.  Just let us know, Mr. Baraka!

Finally, a small smile from Baraka.  Then, in a sing-song voice, proto-rap:

“Can you SING with me?”

The audience, relieved, shouted back as one.


Another long pause.

What is he up to?

“Can you SING with me?”  This time louder, more dramatic, more rhythmic.


Now it was being set up as a call and response.  The clapping started to set up a groove.  Back and forth Baraka and the audience went.

“Can you SING with me?”


“Can you SING with me?”


This went on quite pleasurably all around for a couple of minutes.  What was not to like?  Baraka was entertaining, he was fun and he was obviously delighting in what appeared to be his proffer of an olive branch to emerging revolutionaries.

But then he came to a full stop and once again simply looked out over the crowd.  The rhythmic applause petered out.  Wha . . . ?

Then, with a steely look also borrowed from socialist realism, he continued on in his sing-song way, this time without a smile:

You can’t sing with me.

You’re the EN-E-MY!

And with that he walked off the stage.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
This entry was posted in Personal reflections, Politics and Economics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Sic Transit, Baby

  1. Faze says:

    You evoke the period perfectly: the constant effort to organizations, artists and individuals to outflank one another on the left, leading to roundelay of militant posing. The former LeRoi Jones managed to scare the pants off the white cultural crowd with his potential combination of genius and militancy, but he never actually wrote anything memorable or edifying — it was all suggestion, like his little “Sing” troll at the event you describe. Such a paltry figure, especially if you compare his output to an artistic contemporary like, say, Smokey Robinson. And what to make of the MC5? They were potentially a great band that self-destructed on politics, drugs and a wish to be White Panthers. That should say enough. But ya gotta admit, they had their moments, like this, which must have been the coolest rock performance of 1970 …


  2. Fenster says:

    I had–maybe still have–the MC5’s first album. I have to say I never really liked it, on vinyl. Even at the height of the nuttiness, when revolution seemed to imply the need for bombast, I tended to like my rock more musical, by which I mean “musical” by my own lights, emphasizing the musical elements I like.

    On the other hand, seeing a band like the MC5 live is another thing altogether. That of course is what the experience is about, and it can be hard to capture on a recording. It was a great concert.


    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      I tried hard to like the MC5, but aside from a couple of things — “Kick Out the Jams,” primarily — I couldn’t quite get there.


  3. Toddy Cat says:

    “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers”, music and poetry edition.


  4. Will S. says:

    I’ve always felt Ram Dass is a most unfortunate name. 😉


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