Baraka, Dhasal, and Protest Poets:Radicals or Cocoons?

(Published in CounterPunch, Jan 17-19)

“A human being shouldn’t become so spotless.
One should leave a few stains on one’s shirt.
One should carry on oneself a little bit of sin”

Spotless-stains-sin do not sit well on the rebel. What moral prisms do outcasts refer to, those with shirts borrowed, and whose sin is sweat? Don’t ask, I am told. Swallow the mutinous words whole, the spluttered out phlegmatic prosody.

Namdeo Dhasal, the Dalit poet, is dead now, he who spoke about a bit of sin. Amiri Baraka is dead too. I understand their anger, the pain that gave birth to pain, the bloodied lines. I can feel these in my mouth, in an anger far different from theirs. 

Yet, I ask. When do rebels die? When their bodies give up or their rage does? By fucking the fuckers why do they accept those strawberry-flavoured trophies?

Wait. I know what you will say. One needs to flow, even become part of the system to expose it.

Imperialists are always waiting to reward the recusant; if not the establishment, then the parallel one of corporate cacophony at literary festivals with tented venues named after business empires and industrialists.

William Dalrymple who oversees the Jaipur Literary Festival had said a couple of years ago how they had “programmed a whole raft of Dalit or ‘untouchable’ writers from across India. I was skeptical that we needed quite as many as 30 Dalit poets to make the point, but I couldn’t have been more wrong: The Dalit sessions were the most crowded and exciting of the festival”.

There are other ways to explain the term. Dalit writing and the Dalit people have broken the untouchability wall. But, such tokenism is part of the literary scene. Most events are sponsored. When the writers speak, there are banners, like halos, that might be antithetical to their literary and social concerns. There is silence over this to leave a little opening for the possibility of future contracts.

Dhasal was honoured with the Padma Shri, a yearly tug-of-war civilian award with a pecking order that only the Indian government understands. Baraka was genteel-ed as poet laureate of New Jersey, a title that was taken off after he wrote ‘Somebody Blew Up America’ on the 9/11 terror attacks.


“Who tried to keep the Vietnamese Oppressed
Who put a price on Lenin’s head
Who put the Jews in ovens,
and who helped them do it
Who said “America First”
and ok’d the yellow stars”

These lines are not remembered as much as “Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed/Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day?”

There is a reason. Baraka wrote the poem ten months after the September attacks. There were enough conspiracy theories by nice white men and women. And then he went on to explain how he was not against this and that. Baraka soon became a “former” many things.

Is it intellectual licentiousness or emotional guilt that makes mavericks alter their stance, sometimes their political ideology? The Guardian obituary referred to him as “a controversial American poet turned Marxist”, as though the two are manifestly mutually exclusive. It goes on to say: 

"Jones changed his birth name to Amiri Baraka in 1968, when he became Muslim. He initially had chosen Imamu Amiri Baraka, since Imamu means spiritual leader. He no longer used Imamu when he became a Marxist-Leninist in the early 1970s, due to its spiritual implications.”

Baraka had done the done thing – converted to Islam. Such conversions have been one of the grounds for the image of the conditioned Muslim to gain currency. Had he remained LeRoi Jones, many of his views might have struck closer home and not be seen as those of a convert who took the naturalised position of his new ‘origins’. Then, his criticism of Martin Luther King as a “brainwashed Negro” (which he was to later retract) would not look like a tussle between the Reverend and the Imam.

He adopted what might appear to be a Muslim tone here again: “The empty jew betrays us, as he does hanging stupidly from a cross,…the little arty bastards talking aritmetic they sucked from the arab’s head.”

While dismissing the division of art and politics as “bourgeois”, Baraka seemed to contradict himself when he said, “Thought is more important than art. To revere art and have no understanding of the process that forces it into existence, is finally not even to understand what art is”.

The environment may influence individual creativity, but it gets filtered through an intricate process between subject and response. It is a minefield where reality is perception. Therefore, much of the symbolism may not register as creatively as it was expressed. It will be read in a soapbox scenario.


“Smash the bones of your critics’ shanks on hard stone blocks to get their marrow,
Wage class wars, caste wars, communal wars, party wars, crusades, world wars
One should become totally savage, ferocious and primitive…”

The irony of Dhasal’s words is that many of the underprivileged are considered primitive savages. In fact, the Hindu right has used Dalit food to point out the bestiality, so the call to cannibalism, however symbolic, is tantamount to feeding the archetype.

He transformed the neo-Buddhist hero into a seraphic figure in ‘Ode to Ambedkar’: “The skin of the untouchable parched by cycles of untouched life is moistened by your Heavenly stream;/You’ve smashed the head of the god-given wind…”

After the December 6, 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid and the riots that followed, he wrote, “Yesterday they murdered Gandhi/Now they want to put the whole/nation to death”. Rather surprising for a founder of the militant Dalit Panthers Movement to make Gandhi into the essential moral superman that the nation will follow in death.  Gandhi was among the first to talk about a Ram Rajya (the rule of Rama, the idealised notion of Hindutva).

But, then, the poet did experiment with varied truths. For someone who wanted no shackles, he supported the Emergency. In later years he shared space with two extreme rightwing organisations – the Shiv Sena and the RSS.

The see-sawing would be seen as evolution, except that a movement is not a puddle pool for street messiahs where, as I wrote here earlier, people throw pamphlets in the air like tinsel on Christmas tree Christs.


“Come up, black dada
nihilismus. Rape the white girls. Rape
their fathers. Cut the mothers’ throats.”

Were black people the audience here? Or whites? Or those watching Baraka beneath the mellow lights on a dais?

His lexis has been analysed thus in the New Yorker essay

“His poetic voice, with its Ebonics conjugations and sly rhythms, was that of the man on the Newark boulevard or the Harlem avenue. If black people can exert a valid claim on American democracy, Baraka seemed to be saying, then there’s no reason for their language not to have equally powerful standing in American literature.”

How often was he judged as literature instead of the anarchy of ideas? Black art as a genre will have a different linguistic notation, as would that from other cultures. But, do we critique it in a similar manner without referring to its history, unlike, say, mainstream works?

It is a distinctive tone, a curdled mélange of uncontained bile. It reads like dark streets and desperation, and why would it not? It is born of these.

Dhasal, too, started out as a streetwalker poet, but to assume that the language is the language of the poor and dispossessed is wrong. This is reductionist and, in fact, assumes how ‘lesser people’ speak, as opposed to the electrifying, elecutionised, ‘etherised on a table’ stanzas.

Do those who make the annual trip to Mumbai’s maidans for Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s anniversary talk violently? Meet the cobblers, the ironsmiths, the masons. Listen to them, even as they drink their bootlegged booze fermented in gutter barrels. Come to the sweeper’s colony, where they preserve old papers that taint them for their caste, because this is their ticket to the reserved space, a space that spells survival. They did not know about Dhasal when I met them. The Dalit literature movement, like almost all such movements, addresses others.

It was in college that I was woken up from the Wasteland and pushed right into what were known as the “underworld poems”. It was also the time cinema was producing stark films of a world removed from the “bottoms of my trousers rolled” one. The dissonance was disturbing. For a while. A few years. Until I figured out that many cocoons are less excoriating and more elastic.

If you must flow then, as Dhasal said, water is “the colour of your thirst”. Empathy is not what you dip your finger into at the hallowed shrines of insurgent words.

© Farzana Versey 


  1. FV

    I understand your views, but I feel you should be more circumspect about what to eulogise. There is a definite difference between protest and hate.

  2. Footloose,

    A *definite* difference? Really?

    Well, maybe -- maybe that defining difference is the presence and/or absence of empathy, as Farzana notes at the conclusion her very fine essay? For me, it brought to mind the various turn-based games we used to play as kids. Usually, as a rule, everyone who wanted to play got a turn; though, of course, there were those . . . well, "arenas," perhaps, in which aspirants to the game had to be of a certain age, a certain skill-level -- you name it. If you didn't like the rules, you didn't play and, by and large, were none the worse for it -- no hard feelings.

    If there were -- or are -- hard feelings, where do you suppose those come from?


  3. Mstaab,

    1. Empathy should be universal, not selective.

    2. I suppose you could try and answer your own question: Where do all those hard feelings come from?

    I am sure you do not intend to blame the targets of hate. Perish the thought! Am I right?

  4. I'm thinking your vantage must be loftier than mine, Footloose. I mean, for you to say, "Empathy should be universal," seems somewhat selective in itself. Doubtless you have your reasons for seeing it that way?

    My own view -- limited as it is -- is that folks, generally, are quite empathic -- that is to say, quite susceptible to projecting their consciousness, their feelings, into/onto another. Witness the proliferation of novels, movies, rhetoricians of all stripes . . .

    >>I suppose you could try and answer your own question...<<

    I think I just did.  :)

    >>I am sure you do not intend to blame the targets of hate.<<

    Well, I wouldn't be so certain. Perhaps you have specific targets in mind?  :)


  5. I'd like some clarity here...


    From what perspective do you imagine that I was eulogising? If anything, this has questioned the unquestioning stance of those who iconise certain figures without ever looking at a broader picture.


    Are your responses based on the gentleman's assumptive reading? If not, why did you not correct him?!

    "fine essay"...I think so too :-)

    And just in case, both of you contributed to a discussion on an earlier post (I used a para from there). Should make some points clear:


  6. Hi Farzana,

    >>Are your responses based on the gentleman's assumptive reading? If not, why did you not correct him?!<<

    Ah. Well, no, not exactly. Can we say I was largely distracted by a vivid recollection of your fondness for peep-toe shoes?  :)

    >>Should make some points clear.<<

    Precisely.  :)


  7. Mstaab, F&F:

    Regarding "targets of hate" that F&F talks about, I suppose it is almost always a two-way street, if restricted to verbal or artistic expression. The hater is also the hated, the caricatured is often caricaturing the caricaturist, in more actual situations.

    Empathy here would signify an understanding of who suffers more in real terms. Baraka and Dhasal did.

    If we extend the idea of empathy, then one if forced to ask, as I have done, do the empathised not become another system?



    Ahem, peep-toe shoes...nice analogy, but quite blameless they are!

  8. Farzana,

    Viz your "do the empathised not become another system?", my own view is, yes, they do not so become. What the empathised become, it seems to me, is -- and by various means -- assimilated. You may have suggested as much in your essay.

    Why do *I* suggest as much? The "system" would appear to retain certain peculiar, seeming fundamental aspects notwithstanding ostensible change, namely -- and among others, certainly -- an affected tone-deafness and myopia. Quite exhausting, really.  :)

    Of course, it goes without saying such may be peculiar to systems generally, once they become a "system" . . .


    Ps. Peep-toe shoes . . . blameless, somewhat like Shri Lanka?  :)

  9. Mark:

    Assimilation co-opts, therefore "tone-deafness and myopia" of the system could rub off. Some things are quite infectious! Also, it is myopia that refuses to even look at queries that question the position of dissent. 

    {Ps. Peep-toe shoes . . . blameless, somewhat like Shri Lanka?}

    If only the word footloose weren't kind of patented here :-)


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