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Photo by Roundabout Theatre Company.

On "The Slave" by Amiri Baraka.

"I am obsessed with all the things that have hurt me."

Dave Harris

The Refocus Project: Year One:

On "The Slave" by Amiri Baraka.

I’m not convinced I’ve ever been certain about anything. My most frequent terrain as an artist is interrogating the distance between internal and external revolution. Good art offers questions not answers. So you understand then that I am a good artist because I have no confidence.

The first time I read Amiri Baraka, I felt like I was on fire.

         WALKER:          I, Walker Vessels, single-handedly, and with no other adviser except my own ego, promoted a bloody situation where white and black people are killing each other; despite the fact that I know that this is at best a war that will only change, ha, the complexion of tyranny ...

The premise of Amiri Baraka’s lesser known play The Slave: Walker Vessels is a forty-ish Black man who commands the Black army in the race war. While his army is sacking the city, Walker drunkenly breaks into his white ex-wife’s house with a gun, hoping to confront her, her white husband, and his offstage sleeping daughters.

It makes no sense. Walker is the revolution. He has done the American impossible: awoken the masses to rise up against the tyranny of contentment. He has armed the proletariat. He has killed his enemies: devilish white folk and compromised Black folk alike. And as the army’s bombs explode and light up the set, here he is, the leader of the resistance, sobbing in his white ex’s living room.

Why is Walker obsessed with white people?

Why am I obsessed with white people? There’s a boring way of reading this question that suggests that by asking it, I am saying I put whiteness on a pedestal and thereby desire it. That’s not what I mean. I am obsessed with the things that have hurt me. Swap whiteness with my father, my ancestors, Blackness, God, love, violence. All things I haven’t stopped writing about. I could burn the bridges and would still likely be curious enough to dig through the soot.

To interrogate my relationship to whiteness is to still have a relationship. And maybe that’s the mistake.

       WALKER:          But something occurred to me for the first time, last night. It was the idea that we might not win …I thought maybe I might be able to sneak in just as you and my ex-wife were making love, or just as you were lining the girls up against the wall to beat them or make them repeat after you, “Your daddy is a racist murderer.” And then I thought I could murder both of you on the spot, and be completely justified.

The speaker of the play is ambivalent. It is only when Walker wavers in his revolutionary war resolve that he decides to visit his ex, which places him in the crosshairs of his own weapons. Walker is drawn to whiteness when he is at his weakest. The comfort of a familiar pain. Of knowing he could never really lose in the face of the whites who can’t tell him shit.

The Slave is operatic in its plainness. It’s a revenge play as much as it is a battlefield love story. In one beat, Walker backhanding a white man while singing “My Country is of Thee,” and in the next beat realizing that he and his ex-wife have so much history that nothing they say can hurt the other. It is a brutal read. Baraka’s complexity occasionally retreats behind a reductive masculinity. His thrashing against white supremacy often reinforces other oppressive hierarchies. It might trigger comparisons to the later warring cruelty of Sarah Kane.

A year after The Slave, Malcolm X would be assassinated and Amiri Baraka would pen one of the most uncompromising ars poeticae of any canon (“The Revolutionary Theatre”). He would change his name and found the Black Arts Movement, and his mission would shift and become “to put history back in our menu, and forget the propaganda of devils that they are not devils.”1 It makes sense to me that his most famous playwriting happened before this.

Baraka would mark this change in his writing, saying of his rarely produced later plays that they were “flatly nationalist and antiwhite.”2 But in the same breath, he’d condescend towards his earlier successes like The Slave and Dutchman as “essentially petty bourgeois radicalism, even rebellion, but not clear and firm enough as to revolution.”3 It’s possible that I’m suggesting that a relationship to whiteness made his early plays more complicated. It’s possible that I’m suggesting that once he stopped leaving space for white people in his interrogations, he stopped getting produced. It’s possible that the idea that good art asks questions is a white liberal lie designed to breed passivity.

In his most radical moments, Baraka’s work is calling us to arms. SOS. To claw ourselves out the asphalt. In his most interior moments, his work is lusting for the pleasure of hurting a white person. Placing private desire above cause and action. The target of external revolution is obvious. The target of internal revolution is endless.

And this is why I say I felt like I was on fire. Because Baraka made himself kindling. He screamed through the pyre and marched out anew with each work. He led the revolution, yet still revolution was sometimes just another mask. His life and his art seem to map perfectly onto each other. And what a glorious map it is.

It is a gift to live long enough to grow as your art grows. For soul and craft to climb alongside each other. I don’t think anyone is as brave as the words they write. I distrust institutions. I sometimes distrust movements. I think radical imagination is possible. I think humanity has never changed. I think with every revolution I’ve only found new words for an old self. I think it’s all a symptom of capitalism.

But, like Baraka, I want to be ambitious in my own pursuit of evolution. Years from now, I will have a new name and body. Hopefully I’ll have grown. Maybe I will have made something in my twenties that people think is beautiful. If I’m lucky, by then I’ll think it silly. ♦

1. Amiri Baraka, The Motion of History, 1978
2. Ibid
3. Ibid

DAVE HARRIS is a poet and playwright from West Philly. He is the Tow Playwright-in-Residence at Roundabout Theatre Company. His play TAMBO & BONES will be produced at Playwrights Horizons and Center Theatre Group, and his play EXCEPTION TO THE RULE will be produced at Roundabout whenever theatre allows. His adapted film Summertime had its premiere at Sundance in 2020 and will be distributed in 2021. His first full-length collection of poetry, Patricide, was published in May 2019 from Button Poetry. Dave received his B.A. from Yale University and his MFA from UC San Diego.

AMIRI BARAKA (1934 - 2014) was a playwright, poet, and essayist, and a founder of the Black Arts Movement. Others works include the plays Dutchman (1964), Slave Ship (1970), and The Sidney Poet Heroical (1979).

Photo of Amiri Baraka: