Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Personal Canon

BOND: Okay, so then you go to Rutgers, and what are you reading then?

BARAKA: Yeah. I started reading Ezra Pound, and e.e. cummings, these white writers that I had never heard of before.

BOND: Yes, and they had to be -- well -- I remember when I first read them, I'm saying, "Wow! I've never seen anybody do this before!"

BARAKA: Exactly.

BOND: " -- write this way before!" What did -- ?

BARAKA: Well, that's what -- I mean, cummings first -- I had never seen that. Pound, that whole other, allusions to, you know, the odes and the, you know, the use of the whole -- you know, the influence of the Confucian empire... I was influenced by that. You know, I began then to read T.S. Eliot. And I was a little boy. I mean, I was then a freshman in college. But then I couldn't stand Rutgers.

When I was in high school, I went to a high school that was predominantly Italian. I had to come all the way across town to go to high school. I started taking writing classes. I took two writing classes in high school. I became the sports editor of the high school newspaper for the last week of school. I mean, why they did that became obvious to me, because we were going through these transitions on the racial scene. So even though I hadn't done that for all those years, my last year --

BOND: For one week --

BARAKA: For one week, I became the sports editor. Can you believe that? That they would actually do that to a kid. Because I didn't know what was going on, you know. Then -- and I read science fiction. That's what I did. My reading at home was much deeper than it was in high school really. I mean, the books that they gave me in high school I didn't really like. The Yearling, The Scarlet Letter. I thought they were corny books, you know. But the books I used to read at home -- you know, H. Rider Haggard did those adventure tales, and Kipling -- you know what I mean. And Yerby. I thought that was some exciting stuff. But this stuff in high school was corny. But I started to write. I kept writing in high school or at least in these writing classes. As a matter of fact, they just published the first story I ever had published, and they even have an actor reading it, on -- you know, on --

BOND: On a CD?

BARAKA: Yeah, on a CD. They call -- it's called "First" something -- "First Voice" or something like that. All these writers, their first published stories. This is published in a high school magazine. And so when I got into college, I then -- you know, what that did is opened me up. For the first time I read, for instance, James Joyce. Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, which I loved that book. You know, that was -- I don't know what that was. It gave me a sense of another life. And a lot of the things that I learned in that, I didn't even understand until later. I didn't understand that Joyce was a nationalist, you know. I didn't understand certain things in the book.

BOND: Now when you say "another life," what do you mean another life, because surely even Haggard has given you a look at another life. Yerby has given you a look at another life -- ?

BARAKA: But that was in my -- that was in my house, see.

BOND: Okay.

BARAKA: You see? That was in my house. When I was a little boy, I could sit up in my house and read. You know, I could go in my room. I'd stretch out on the bed and read stuff. So even though that was about weird stuff, which I liked, cause I didn't in high school -- I would read -- I love science fiction, you know. But the Pound/Eliot stuff in college was context by being among mostly white students. But I had been in that before. Why? I don't know. Now I was in college now in Newark -- in Newark, Rutgers -- and the things that Pound and Eliot and e.e. cummings talk about were different, seemed different somehow. They seemed...

BOND: And then Joyce?

BARAKA: And Joyce. It seemed like it was different. Of course it was -- those were a little more complicated, remember. It was not just the easy -- well, you know, not easy ever, but the easier reading of, say, Charles Dickens.

BOND: Yeah.

BARAKA: You know. Or Yerby, you know. The Pound and cummings/Eliots had a complexity to it -- some of it useful, some of it not useful -- that could certainly later on mean -- I liked Ulysses of James Joyce. When it came to Finnegan's Wake, I thought that was like nuts. I thought it was just garbage, you know.

BOND: Now are you consciously or can you recall consciously saying, "Gee, I see what he's doing here. I like that and I can use that, take it to another dimension or twist it in a certain" -- are you consciously absorbing these things or you think unconsciously absorbing these things?


BOND: Not that there are influences in this way, but are they shaping you?

BARAKA: Oh, sure. Absolutely. I mean, I mean, those people I just named -- cummings and Eliot and James Joyce -- they were definitely... I mean, to whatever extent you could say is influence…

BOND: Yeah.

BARAKA: But they had they... it's like you suddenly see that people are doing something quite different, that there is an element of experimentation that you hadn't understood before. I mean, certainly the cummings thing with the letters all over the page and all --

BOND: Yes.

BARAKA: That was peculiar. And for me, it was very interesting.

BOND: Did it give you permission to do that?

BARAKA: Yes. Absolutely.

BOND: Yeah. But you hadn't thought you could do it before.

BARAKA: I didn't know that people did that.

BOND: Okay. And then from Rutgers to Howard. And how was that?

BARAKA: Well, you know, there's one other book. There was a book called One Hundred Modern Poems by Selden Rodman. Did Rodman die? I don't know. But anyway, as that transitioned in Rutgers, I read this book One Hundred Modern Poems, and then I got the whole story, I mean -- or the beginning of the whole story. I read people are like [Guillaume] Apollinaire and [Charles] Baudelaire and, you know, [Rainer Maria] Rilke, the people who were like, you know, really out there. You know what I mean? And they couldn't be no further out than the others. But then I could read in this anthology One Hundred Modern Poems. They were, you know, Bertolt Brecht. I began to see, "Man, there is a wild world out here. People are doing all kinds of wild stuff, saying all kind of wild stuff, and thinking all kind of wild stuff." And then I always loved the idea of these people who were being -- who were experimenting, but saying something that I could agree with. You know what I mean? That always -- I loved that. When they were saying, you know, when they were really doing something weird, but I'd say, "Geez, I could agree with that."