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On "In the Tradition"


William J. Harris

In 1980 Baraka’s long poem "In the Tradition" was published in The Greenfield Review. This poem, dedicated to contemporary alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, is Baraka’s most fully realized and completed "epic" poem—epic in the Poundian sense that it concerns historical events. Baraka describes it as "a long poem, a poem about African-American history," and in it, he most successfully brings together his white and his black avant-garde traditions. While the thematic concerns here are black, they are expressed through an art form that derives not only from black music but also from both white and black avant-garde technique and theory. Like jazz, this form is uniquely New World, growing out of two distinct cultures and becoming something new.

The black tradition Baraka affirms in this poem is more complex than any conception of black culture he had expressed in the past. It is a tradition of heroes . . . . And it is a tradition of villains . . . . But while the poem is nationalist, affirming black people, it is revolutionary nationalist rather than culturalist. In his Marxist stage, Baraka has seen cultural nationalism as static, clinging to a feudal and romantic past, and he has seen revolutionary nationalism as committed to a struggle for a free and socialist future. According to Baraka, the revolutionary nationalist, like the cultural nationalist, believes like Marx "It in not enough to understand the world; we must change it," but unlike the nationalist the revolutionary knows the world can be changed only by organized revolution, not spontaneous revolt.

From The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic. Copyright 1985 the University of Missouri Press.


Philip Heldrich

Following these two remarkably musical and politically relevant works [Am/Trak and Reggae or Not!] defining Baraka’s style in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, he reaches even greater heights with In the Tradition. Privately published first in 1982 as a pamphlet, In the Tradition will some day be remembered as perhaps his most important work. In this piece, Baraka masterfully combines politics and cultural affirmation with a mature aesthetics reflective of the verse forms developed in Am/Track and Reggae or Not!. In the Tradition celebrates Baraka’s African-American heritage and its cultural achievement:

        In the tradition of
All of us, in an unending everywhere at the same time line
In motion forever
Like the hip Chicago poet Amus Mor
Like the Art Ensemble
Like Miles’s Venus DeMilo
……………………
in the tradition of all us in the positive aspect
all of our positive selves [.]

Clearly, In the Tradition represents Baraka at his best. By no means has his poetry suffered over the years. Rather, he has matured, finely tuning his lines and putting his listeners more in touch with poetic rhythms in a uniquely African-American tradition.

From a review of Transbluesency in CLA Journal, June 1996. Copyright 1996 by the College Language Association.


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