To Be or Not to Be?
TOO OFTEN THE homophobia and heterosexism within the African American community force men to be the "hardest hard." They must nullify any feelings and emotions others may consider unmanly. To prove their manhood, they will often attack that which they fear in themselves. Amiri Baraka (born Everett LeRoy Jones) constantly denounces homosexuality in his writings. He despises "faggots" and believes being called one is the worst insult a man can suffer. In "A Poem for Black Hearts," Baraka praises the late Malcolm X as a "black god" whose death black men must avenge or be called "faggots till the end of the earth."1
Faggots are the epitome of what Baraka opposes. "Faggot" is the description he uses to insult black leaders he disagrees with. In the poem "Black Art," he speaks of the "negroleader on the steps of the white house—kneeling between the sheriff’s thighs negotiating cooly for his people."2 In "Civil Rights Poem," Baraka begins by stating, "Roywilkins is an eternal faggot. His spirit is a faggot."3 In the poem "The Black Man Is Making New Gods," he refers to the crucifixion of Christ as "The Fag’s Death they give us on a cross."4 For Baraka, faggots have no redeeming qualities and should be persecuted as a matter of principle. In the poem "Hegel," he states, "I am not saying ‘Let the State fuck its faggots,’ only that no fag go unfucked, for purely impersonal reasons."5
In plays such as The Baptism and The Toilet, Baraka portrays homosexuals as degenerates and cowards.6 They are weak, soft, and unmanly. Gay men are the antithesis of what he idealizes as the "Black man," and they become synonymous with his image of white men. In an essay titled, "American Sexual Reference: Black Male," he writes, "Most American white men are trained to be fags. . . . [T]heir faces are weak and blank. . . that red flush, those silk blue faggot eyes."7
According to Baraka, since white men have black men doing their manual labor, white men have become "estranged from. . . actual physical work." As a consequence, white men are alienated from reality and nature. They have no real "claim to manhood." He states:
[A] people who lose their self-sufficiency because they depend on their "subjects" to do the world’s work become effeminate and perverted. . . . Do you understand the softness of the white man, the weakness. . . the estrangement from reality? Can you for a second imagine the average middle-class white man able to do somebody harm? Alone? Without the technology that at this moment [allows] him [to] rule the world.8
Baraka characterizes white men as spineless, middle-class bureaucrats and black men as natural superstrong studs. To support his position, he points with pride to the fact that blacks dominate the "manly art" of boxing.9
Amiri Baraka is a fascinating study of the homosexual-heterosexual conflict among African American males, for the tragic irony is that the "faggot" Baraka attacks so viciously is in reality himself. He has never reconciled his homosexual past with his persona as the clenched-fist black militant leading mass movements, the perfect example of the black warrior. This conflict is alluded to in "Tone Poem," in which he writes:
Read this line young colored or white and know I felt the twist of dividing memory. Blood spoiled in the air, caked and anonymous. Arms opening, opened last night, we sat up howling and kissing.
Men who loved each other. Will that be understood? That we could, and still move under cold nights with clenched-fists.10
Perhaps it is the homosexual desires Baraka had as an adolescent and a young adult that motivate his homophobia. His homosexual desires are not revealed in The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones. No, to truly understand the paradox of Baraka’s need to denounce faggots while at the same time suppressing his attraction, one must read an autobiographical novel he wrote twenty years earlier, The System of Dante’s Hell. It is a story many gay brothers can relate to. After reading it, one’s anger toward Baraka’s homophobia is replaced with sympathy. We understand the pain and the fear.11
Before he deemed himself Imamu Amiri Baraka, before he divorced his white wife, before he changed the spelling of his name from Leroy to LeRoi, Baraka was a "short. . . skinny . . . runt [with] big bulbous eyes." He felt inadequate because of his size and was obsessed with growing taller. In grade school, his peers told him about "dicks and pussies and fags and bulldaggers." He saw how people reacted to "cocksuckers," and he grew to understand "what fucking was and what it had to do with sucking."12
As a teenager Baraka pretended to have only heterosexual desires, for he understood the penalty for being a faggot. "We did a lot of things, [those] years. . . . We [told] lies to keep from getting belted, and [watched] a faggot take a beating in the snow from our lie. Our fear."13
As an undergraduate at Howard University, Baraka saw gay men harassed and ridiculed.14 He felt alienated. It was at Howard that he changed his name to LeRoi and began to read Gertrude Stein.15 Poor grades, however, forced him to leave Howard in his junior year. He joined the air force and was stationed at various bases, including one in Rantoul, Illinois, near Chicago. It was in Chicago that he again engaged in homosexuality. In The System of Dante’s Hell, he writes:
In Chicago I kept making the queer scene. Under the "El" with a preacher. . . [He] held my head under the quilt. The first guy. . . spoke to me grinning and I said my name was Stephen Dedalus. . . .
One more guy and it was over. On the train, I wrote all this down. A journal now sitting in a tray on top the closet. . . . The journal says "Am I like that?"16
Once more, Baraka found himself disconnected and alienated.17 His homosexual desires would not cease. He felt guilty and frightened of himself. "My cold sin in the cities," he writes, "My fear of my own death’s insanity, and an actual longing for men that brooked in each finger of my memory."18
One night in the "Bottom," a poor black ghetto in Shreveport, Louisiana, the shame Baraka feels as a homosexual reaches a climax when he finds himself drunk in a whorehouse, dancing with a prostitute named Peaches. He becomes ill and attempts to leave, but she prevents him.
She came around and rubbed my tiny pecker with her fingers. And still I moved away. I saw the look she gave me and wanted somehow to protest, say, "I’m sorry, I’m fucked up. My mind is screwy, I don’t know why. I can’t think. I’m sick. I’ve been fucked in the ass. I love books. . . . You don’t want me. Please, Please, don’t want me.19
Outside, Peaches and her friends tease Baraka like some "fag" by taking his cap and tossing it among themselves.20 To get his hat back, Baraka agrees to buy Peaches another drink. He, too, has more to drink and becomes more intoxicated. Overwhelmed with shame, he longs to be "Some other soul, than the filth I feel. Have in me. Guilt like something of God’s. Some separate suffering self."21 Voices begin to haunt him. "You’ve got to like girls. Say something. . . . Move. Frightened bastard. Frightened scared sissy motherfucker."22 Delirious, Baraka reminisces about his cold sin in the cities:
It was Chicago. The fags and the winter. Sick thin boy, come out of those els. . . . To go back. To sit lonely. Need to be used, touched. . . . I hate it. . . . To feel myself go soft and want some person not myself.
. . . That I walked the streets hunting for warmth. To be pushed under a quilt, and call it love. To shit water for days and say I’ve been loved. Been warm.23
After dragging Baraka back to her house, Peaches strips him and grabs his penis. He is unable to get an erection. She chastises him and becomes violent:
She pulled, breathing spit on my chest. "Comeon, Baby, Comeon. . . .
Get hard. . . . Get hard." And she slapped me now, with her hand. A short hard punch. . . . She cursed & pulled as hard as she could. [She said] "You don’t like women, huh? . . . No wonder you so pretty. . . ol’ bigeye faggot. . . . God-damn punk, you gonna fuck me tonight or I’m gonna pull your fuckin dick aloose.
I was crying now. Hot hot tears and trying to. . . say to Peaches, "Please, you don’t know me. Not what’s in my head. I’m beautiful.
Stephen Dedalus. . . . Feel my face, how tender. My eyes. . . ."
And I [thought] of a black man under the el who took me home.
. . . I remembered telling him all these things. . . . And [crawling] out of bed morning. . . . Loved. Afraid.
[Peaches] started yelling. Faggot. Faggot. Sissy Motherfucker.
And I pumped myself. Straining. Threw my hips at her. And she yelled for me to fuck her. Fuck her. Fuck me, you lousy fag. And I twisted, spitting tears, and hitting my hips on hers, pounding my flesh in her, hearing myself weep.24
After fucking Peaches, Baraka dresses and leaves. He stumbles through the streets, lost and intoxicated. A gay man approaches him in the darkness saying, "Lemme suck yo dick, honey. . . ." Once again Baraka is confronted with homosexual desire. The man begs him, but Baraka won’t give in. Peaches has freed him of his past. He walks away as the gay man screams behind him like "some hurt ugly thing dying alone."25
Baraka returns to Peaches’s house to sleep. He awakes a new man, a heterosexual man:
I woke up. . . . And I felt myself smiling. . . . [It] seemed that things had come to order. . . . It seems settled. . . . I thought of black men sitting on their beds this Saturday of my life listening quietly to their wives soft talk. And felt the world grow together as I hadn’t known it. All lies before, I thought. All fraud and sickness. This was the world. . . . I cursed Chicago, and softened at the world. "You look so sweet," [Peaches] was saying. "Like you’re real rested."26
Understanding Baraka’s life turns our anger toward him to sympathy; indeed, pity. That he would feel so much guilt and shame for desiring male love is the lesser tragedy. The greater tragedy is that once he claims "heterosexuality," perhaps as a disguise, he then denounces and ridicules "faggots" so vehemently. How could a factor of life that afforded him the opportunity to be understanding and compassionate become one of pathetic hypocrisy? Baraka is not the first man to become a homophobe after experiencing homosexuality or repressing homosexual desire. We have encountered his kind before. Have taken them to our beds and soothed their fears. Made them feel whole in our arms. Our anger will not help these brothers to understand that they fear themselves. We must show them through such compassion and understanding that one can be gay and be a socially, culturally, and politically useful man. We can be gay and committed to "Blackness," committed to the liberation of black people. We can be clenched-fist militants no matter what gender we love.