Two men of valor, courage, wisdom and immense gravitas have passed away in the span of the last few days. Amiri Baraka remains the soul of research when it comes to writing on black/African American music. The amazing playwright, poet, commentator, critic, and all around accomplished artist paved the way for scholars when writing on black music. His seminal masterpiece, Blues People, forever changed the way we heard and thought of when speaking of African American musical traditions. I wrote a historiographical paper on this not too long ago where I claim that serious scholarship on this specific type of music began with him, and this magnificent book. Ariel Sharon was a tank of a man, never giving an inch to anyone and always bending the rules to his own fitting. He is in the true sense the last Israeli pioneer alive, or dead now, who lived and fought for the Zionist dream. Although they were born a few years apart, Baraka in 1934 and Sharon in 1928 respectively, they were also born worlds apart. But one of the most facilitating thing is that they were very controversial figures who were either loved to death, or loathed to life. Each was seen as a towering figure or a pariah by their own people (Israelis and Jews all over the diaspora for Sharon and the many liberal whites and African Americans for Baraka). The outsiders both hated and feared these men with a passion because at any moment they could unleash a flurry of rage through words or actions.
Amiri Barka, who’s birth name was Leroi Jones, lived through the many changes society was facing and became radicalized through his art. He said many incendiary things that held very true, yet stung like a swarm of attacking hornets. He could be very scathing and like certain African Americans around him, he felt that white liberals were fatally flawed as well. White liberals who fought for Civil Rights, and were disproportionately Jewish in representation, had this aura of condescension. This was felt by many black intellectuals, such as Malcolm X. In manning Marable’s masterly written biography on Malcolm X titled Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention he wrote that Malcolm was extremely weary of white liberal guilt. The guilt would also transform into a sense of waiting for gratitude to be given by African Americans. He could not stand that hence his criticisms on white liberals and the push for separation. Baraka was well aware of this and he made it well known.
In Jeffrey Melnick’s book on Jewish participation in African American musical forms he writes about an incident with Baraka. His book, A Right To Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song, opens in 1965 with a panel discussion including Baraka and a few more artists discussing the Black Power Movement. He and a black colleague are asked what the white population can do to help. They said very frankly, absolutely nothing! After a deluge of variation of the same question, and the same response from the panelists, someone asked about the two Civil Rights workers who were killed in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964. Didn’t this mean anything to them that two white Jews sacrificed their lives for the progress of the African American people? After being pressed they still asserted that it meant nothing. Baraka said that the two Jewish men were “artifacts” and painting on the wall. He meant that as an African American man who had suffered for so long, why would he relent to another group. Plus, this demystifies the black-Jewish relations in the United States. We needed, and I say we as in Jews, a person like this to say wait, hold on and get the fuck off your high horse. Certain Jews, not all, have kept this waft of superiority because of their work during the movement. But this sense of ingratitude is a part that Baraka swatted right in the face. Fast forward to the attacks on September 11th, 2001 and his poem he still carried this iconoclastic stick to wave in our faces. I’m not condoning what he said, Israeli conspiracy theories are not an interest of mine, he still had the right to say it.
Ariel Sharon has carried the same type of stick for so long. When I was a kid growing up in Israel in the 1980’s he was an interesting figure. He was lionized for past heroics and his stedfast courage and boldness under immense pressure. Thanks to him, and his iron-clad resolve, that we won the Six Day War with a sweep and bested our attackers on the Yom Kippur October surprise. However, once becoming Minister of Defense under Menachem Begin he also carried this odd aura of superiority.
This would be tempered down after the findings on the Lebanon War, the first that is, and the murders at the Sabra and Shatila camps. He took the brunt of the findings and would leave his post under Begin. Still, his figure loomed large over the country and of course over Israeli politics. He would toe the line remaining steadfast in the belief that there were no Palestinian leaders to speak with. He also knew of the duplicitous behavior of Yassir Arafat of placating the west but goading his people to be violent. He kept him in his disheveled stronghold until he was air-lifted to his death. He was stubborn, which is why it had to be his way or the highway. Israel needed him and his brash tactics and methods. Maybe in places like the United States he wouldn’t hold well, but in Israel a fighter, a resolved tank, was exactly what we needed to get by. Not only for protection, but for sheer intimidation. Sharon knew this all too well seeing these tactics being used during the Independence War. His use of psychological warfare is amazing, which is why to this day his name still rings the alarm among Muslim leaders.
Also, like the hawk who went dove Yitzchak Rabin, Sharon came with a waft of hardcore right wing aggression, but then went through a sea change. He was a vocal supporter of the settlements, being a housing minister in the past, and now he was sending in Israeli troops to physically vacate settlers in the Gaza Strip. It is amazing to see catharsis in action because it gives us all hope that any type of change, whether individual or collective, is possible. In the words of the great David Ben-Gurion, a Jew who does’t believe in miracles is not a real Jew. Sharon was a real Israeli and Jew, and Baraka was a real black man, and a real artist in his own right.