That's Where Sarah Vaughn Lives": Amiri Baraka, Newark, and the Landscape and Soundscape of Black Modernity.

Author:Smethurst, James
Position:Critical essay

We are being told of the greatness of Western Civilization Yet Europe is not the West Leave England headed West you arrive in Newark, --Amiri Baraka, "I Am" (1) Amiri Baraka was the poet-laureate of New Jersey, but his deepest connection to the state was to the relatively small, densely populated portion comprising the city of Newark, where he lived the majority of his life. What is notable about the soundings and representations of the black neighborhoods of Newark in Baraka's poetry, fiction, criticism, drama, and (especially) autobiographical narrative is the way he consistently remained committed to depicting the social, cultural, historical, and geographical particularities of the city while portraying Newark after the onset of the Great Migration as representative of the struggles, strengths, and weaknesses of urban African American communities, of a black nation, in general.

Here, I want to consider the importance of Newark in Baraka's work as an embodiment of the black modern that he posed against more restrictive (and politically conservative) notions of "high modernism," especially those enshrined in the New Criticism, and against more depoliticized and whitened versions of bohemia, as well as what followed this modernity. By the black modern and black modernity, (2) I mean Baraka's vision of the creation of a black industrial working class and working class experience and culture in the wake of the Great Migration from the South. This was a class forged by industrial and urban organization, exploitation, racism, and struggle against class and racial exploitation. By "what comes after modernism," I suppose one might say something like "postmodernism," but Baraka himself rejected that term as an academic obfuscation or abstracting of the actual experience of people. Rather I refer to Baraka's sense of what scholars such as Thomas Sugrue have termed the "urban crisis" of deindustrialization vividly seen practically everywhere in Newark and the assaults of what many would term the "neo-liberal" regime, but which Baraka would much more call "imperialism" or "capitalism." In particular, it will focus on how the cultural geography and history of Newark informed Baraka's positing of a popular avant-garde continuum of black culture and politics, a formulation that Baraka saw as issuing from a black modernist tradition significantly issuing from Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown, but with a Jersey accent, so to speak.

The first black mayor of Newark (and a major East Coast city) Kenneth Gibson, probably under the influence of Baraka, placed Newark firmly in the U.S. urban vanguard during his 1970 election campaign, "Wherever American cities are going, Newark will get there first." (3) Given the demographics of Newark in 1970 (African Americans were about 60% of the population, if a smaller portion of the electorate), Gibson was really talking about a black vanguard. Despite their later break with Gibson, Baraka and his Committee for a United Newark (which morphed into the Newark chapter of the Congress of African People) were the architects of Gibson's election. Gibson's visionary rhetoric here was based both in Baraka's sense of Newark as a "New Ark," which obviously riffed on the biblical ark and less obviously (to non-Newarkers) reproduced the way that black southern migrants pronounced the name of the city (as opposed to white Newarkers, who typically said something closer to "Nerk"), and as a typical modern and a postmodern, postindustrial landscape. In short, it was near, but not New York. The Central Ward, the historic center of black Newark where Baraka's center, Spirit House, was located on Stirling Street, was not Harlem or the South Side or even the Shaw district of Washington, D.C.

Baraka famously wrote in the poem "Return of the Native" that "Harlem is vicious modernism," (4) but really, I believe, he was thinking of Newark displaced onto Harlem there. Newark is the last major stop on the old Pennsylvania Railroad from the South before New York City. It was a city of about 450,000 at the time of Baraka's birth in 1934. It was an industrial city about three or four...

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