Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Career Development

BOND: Let me take you back to Howard.

BARAKA: Yeah. Sure.

BOND: Although you were leading into something I want to come back to, too, but back at Howard. So you're meeting these people. You're -- Sterling Brown is exposing you to part of your history you hadn't acknowledged before, hadn't thought of before. And how does all this affect you? What does it make you into?

BARAKA: A writer. It began to -- I began to write then and read. I didn't really like the stuff I was writing. I mean I didn't really know what I was doing, but I was writing and I was reading. And I was reading weird people now, even in the Howard University context. But --

BOND: Like whom?

BARAKA: Well, I'd be reading, like, Gertrude Stein, you know, or more Eliot or, you know -- I was reading things that I -- and the people that I read in that One Hundred Modern Poems, I was beginning to read who, for instance, was Apollinaire, who was, excuse me, a Baudelaire. I read Flowers in Evil, for instance. And walked around, you know, identifying with Baudelaire, in this all-black school --

BOND: And did anybody censor you in any way and say, "Gee, you know, that's white stuff"?

BARAKA: No. No. They told me "Don't eat watermelon on the campus -- "

BOND: "You need to be reading Langston Hughes -- "

BARAKA: No, they didn't. But then I got fixed on Garcia Lorca, who I had got through Langston Hughes. Because I was reading Langston, obviously. And it was Langston Hughes who translated Garcia Lorca for me. And I started reading Garcia Lorca. I would sit up in the dormitory at night with some yellow glasses on, for some reason, reading Garcia Lorca, and trying to read it in Spanish. That came from Langston, see, because Langston's poetry, you know, I took for granted. I knew Langston, I thought. I didn't have to search Langston. Langston was my man. That was a voice that I took for granted. But what Langston led me to was not only to Garcia Lorca, but later on to Jacques Roumain. Great -- these great -- still, for me, great, great writers. Great poets, you know. And so Garcia Lorca was the first influence I can say, really, as influence, you know what I mean, where you are trying to be a poet and, like, directly relating to a writer. It was Federico Garcia Lorca.

BOND: Now to what degree would you begin thinking of yourself as a writer, are you saying, "I'm going to write like this person"?

BARAKA: Never.

BOND: Or -- then what -- when you say "influenced" -- ?

BARAKA: Influenced in the sense that you love what he has done, and that's the feelings that you feel you were trying to get that feeling, that kind of lyricism in Lorca, for instance, that use of the colors, you know. The kind of musical, you known, porosity , the total sound --

BOND: And you want your readers to come away with the same feeling?

BARAKA: Exactly.

BOND: But it doesn't have to be communicated in the same way or structured in the same way?

BARAKA: No, but that kind of -- it certainly was influence that I thought that was -- I thought that was what beautiful meant, you know.

BOND: Now then, were you thinking then that poetry had to be beautiful? Couldn't it be hard? Couldn't it be a slap in the face?

BARAKA: Well, I always thought it could be funny. But I thought it could be beautiful. I thought what my idea of beautiful was.

BOND: Did you think then it could be harsh?

BARAKA: I think so. Not as much as I later found out. But I think after I started reading the -- well, I don't know if I felt like that, but I know that modern poems made me understand, you know, poems like -- about [Bertolt] Brecht and [Vladimir] Mayakovsky and people like that. I could see a kind of a harshness. But then I come out of a reading of things -- harsh language or harsh events --

BOND: Hard-hitting in a way that romantic poems aren't?


BOND: I mean, they just aren't.

BARAKA: I guess I developed that because I was going to say when I would read Frank Yerby or Richard -- or -- yeah, Richard Wright, when I was twelve years old, you know, there were things in that writing that might strike you with that kind of impact.

BOND: Yeah.

BARAKA: But then the poetry was from a different model. Because I was writing the Rubaiyat, which is calm and cool and, you know, romantic, if you will. So I guess it was not until later when I began to see things like, you know, Eliot and cummings, that the idea of a -- "this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper." You know, the Eliot thing. Then I could begin to see the whole use of those kind of forceful images, you know. And then it was very weird because in those days that kind of sweet, sort of hopelessness that you get from that kind of, you know, nihilistic kind of images, you know, "All over the world is, you know, nobody understands the intellectual. Nobody understands you." That was not the same as with the poetry that later came out of me that was supposed to be hard-hitting but still made me laugh. It's funny. I mean, because the more harsh that I would get, the funnier it would be to me in terms of my own feelings about it. You know what I'm saying? Whereas, the poetry that was supposed to be harsh in terms of imagery, from Eliot and Pound and people like that, would always leave me feeling in this kind of nihilistic world-weary kind of, you know --

BOND: I was amazed last night when you were talking, when people would laugh and I would laugh because what you said was funny. But I don't think it was, the laughter was because it was funny. I think it was because they hadn't heard that --

BARAKA: Right.

BOND: -- before, and it's an easy impulse to laugh.


BOND: So it's a combination of it being funny and being, "Whoa! I didn't think of that before."