This is the poem that broke open for me the performativity aspect of poetry in that now I think I “get it” – at least “get it’ better than I did before I studied poetry. A lot of it has to do with just how talented Baraka is as a performer – he seems to have all the skills of a great actor / performer along with being a great poet. For me this sets him apart from other poets who have a distinct performativity in their delivery, such as Plath and Thomas. And not to undermine Plath or Thomas, but their delivery is so “poetic”, it feels like it’s trying to be elevated above the people listening, whereas Baraka seems to have it both both way: as a preacher and as a slave parishioner.
This poem launches not with formal poetic language, but with grunting vowels, specifically the letter “u” which is interesting because he’s talking to us, to “you”, but it’s unintelligible and, frankly, sounds like the animal noises we’d expect “rockefeller” would hear instead of a human being addressing another human being. It has a tribal quality to it, and it goes on and on to get our attention but has a musical quality to it, too like some sort of dark African black chant. Also, there is a funny bit of intertextuality here that I’m not sure if it’s intended or not, but in the sitcom “Welcome Back Kotter” Horshack would make the same sound when trying to get Kotter’s attention in class.
And while I don’t want to write about every line in the poem (though I probably could), other things that stand out for me are his use of stage directions. He writes “(Screams)” but doesn’t say “(Screams)”, rather he actually screams the next line, “ooowow! ooowow! It must be / the devil”. He follows with another direction “(jumps up like a claw stuck him) oooo / wow! Oooowow!”. So when we read this as opposed to listening to it we are, in a way, getting something like what Shakespeare would be doing in giving the actor direction in the play, only here Baraka is telling us (telling “u”) how to act. In a way he is transcending a formal form of plays and direction to give direction to an audience that needs to act.
And the role he is playing feels very much like that of the preacher, yet it’s an odd preacher who could also be a drug addict (poem’s called “Dope” after all) and so he’s embodying many roles of the black man in his poem. He’s a one man show.
But this isn’t just performativity masking a poem that needs it to work, this is a powerful work all on its own, specifically in the lines “going to heaven after i / die, after we die / everything going to be different, after we die “. This line, “after we die” sums up so much about the attitudes towards African Americans (whites wish they would just die), that African Americans have of themselves in that there’s a sort of cynicism that the world isn’t for them and that hope can only be found in death but that’s coupled with a weird saviour mentality in that they will find glory in death, but this Jesus savior mentality is mixed up with African and Muslim religion that rejects (through the implied sarcasm) the hegemonic institutions of Western Religion.
“after we die” might actually be the most powerful line of poetry written in the 20th century,
And that sarcasm permeates this whole poem, especially with his sarcastic apology for Jimmy Carter as being a friend to black people even though “nixon lied, haldeman lied, dean lied, hoover / lied hoover sucked (dicks) too” – (dicks) not being performed but left as a gift just for readers – and with “drunken racist brother aint no reflection” which is in reference to Carter’s actual brother and together it’s an indictment of all white people in power as a group that can’t be trusted. And this also implicates the entire left because just because the left finally got one of their “own” in the White House (Carter), nothing is really gonna change – at least until “after we die”.
His sarcasm doesn’t end with white people, though. He also indicts black culture for buying into a religion that just wants your money, “gimme / that last bitta silver you got” and with his tone of placating the audience with “o back to work and lay back” and “now go back to work, go to sleep, yes,” for buying into a rigged system that doesn’t give a fuck about them. At all.
This poem is dope. Literally. It’s the dope (dupe) that has been fed to black people since “Assblackuwasi helped throw yr ass in / the bottom of the boat”, it’s the dope that tricks you into thinking another white man in the white house will do you a solid, it’s the dope that religion has fed black people into giving up their lives right now for a better life in heaven so the white man can live good now. It’s dope, alright.
And the way he ends it with the same “u”, but this time he sounds like he’s weeping. And he weeps because he’s tired and sad and fed up.