On Sunday, November 20th, Ryan facilitated a discussion on Amiri Baraka’s Slave Ship.
A large part of the group’s discussion focused on trying to extend themes raised by Baraka into lessons that the Occupy Movement could take away.
While the group had several different perspectives on the play, what seemed clear was that Baraka, a Black Nationalist at the time the play was created, used Slave Ship as a way to express his political philosophy on the state of African Americans, as well as to challenge the positions of those who did not share his views. In particular, the end of the play, and the group’s various analyses of that end, illustrate the nature of Slave Ship and gave rise to our most varied interpretations.
Slave Ship ends with the apparent killing of a white person (“White Voice”) by a Chorus-like group of repressed African Americans. The play then fades to black, at which point actors dance on stage to the “Rise Up” song previously sang by the Chorus. The audience is then encouraged to join the actors. Once the audience seems to become comfortable with this and starts interacting with the actors in a casual manner, like an “actual party,” a replica head of one of the play’s characters is thrown into the dancing group. The head thrown belongs to a character named “New Tom,” an African American preacher who tries to work with the whites in order to “integrate,” and who, when he sees other blacks trying to “rise up” against the whites, actually begs the whites to destroy them.
Clearly, Baraka suggests that African Americans struggle, perhaps even violently, against repression from whites, and that those in the black community who attempt to work with whites in hopes of assimilating are traitors to the actual African American empowerment movement. What Baraka hopes to accomplish with his play is less clear.
Personally I saw the play as Baraka’s attempt to recreate his own mindset and emotional state in his target audience (other African Americans) so that they would in turn be more sympathetic to the ideas and solutions offered by Black Nationalism. In this view, the history of abuses suffered at the hands of whites is brought up in the play in order to foment anger and incite a desire for revenge. Then, as the play culminates in the killing of both the White Voice and New Tom characters, that anger has become directed at those groups which Black Nationalism itself sees as inimical to its cause. Finally, with the audience brought on stage to “dance” and “party” after such a drama, their agitation continues to build until the head of New Tom is thrown into their midst. The heightened Bacchinal emotional state created by the play and the call for active audience participation finally gets a concrete meaning and target. Thus, I see the play as trying to build a complex agitated tribal mental state in the audience so that it may direct that state against whites and those in the African American community that would take a conciliatory stance towards the abuses from white America. Baraka’s overall goal of Slave Ship would then be to convert others to his own political ideology.
Another interpretation offered by the group is that the end of the play forces those in the audience to make an explicit choice as to their stance on race relations. In this view, as the audience is brought on stage to join the celebratory party atmosphere of the actors, they slowly lose the awkwardness of the dramatic breakdown of the play’s fourth wall; the emotionally charged content of the play gradually subsides and the audience begins to enjoy themselves and the festivities. Then, when the head of New Tom is thrown on stage and the room fades to black, the tension of the play immediately confronts the lightheartedness of the dancing. The audience members who were enjoying themselves a moment ago must make a choice: do they wish to celebrate the “rising up” of the African Americans if it means the beheading of New Tom, or are they going to turn their back on the celebration that they were just enjoying moments ago? The head thus serves as a line in the sand, demanding audience members to pick a side: either they embrace Baraka’s stark Black Nationalist stance or they (at least in Baraka’s eyes) stand with the whites and the undignified and decapitated New Tom.
The group also explored how this second interpretation parallels a question essential to the Occupy Movement—namely, the creation of uncompromising sides within the movement. Just as Baraka demanded that African Americans refuse to cooperate with whites, even at the expense of excluding the support of many from his movement, a similar divide has often seemed possible in the Occupy Movement. While the Occupy Movement as a whole has tended to be a reform movement, with the goal of causing the present system of government to self correct certain problems and policies, there are many (myself included) who do not believe working with those currently in power is a sufficient solution to the issues facing our country. For many, the goal of this movement is not to reform the system, but to replace it with a more direct democratic system.
It was pointed out in the group that, not only is there a chance that those who wish to work outside the current political system might eventually splinter away from the group, but there are already examples of those who advocate reform trying to alienate and paint as outside the movement those individuals who have taken a more radical stance—as, for example, was seen in the reaction that many had towards the violence that occurred after the General Strike in Occupy Oakland.
Overall, while we did discuss the question of reforming versus replacing the current political system, I would agree with many in the group that divisions should be avoided—especially at this nascent stage. Looking back at Baraka’s play, if his goal was indeed to split the Civil Rights movement of his day into two camps (one working with Whites for solutions, one fighting against them and trying to create their own solutions), then his is definitely not a model we should currently embrace. However, if his goal was instead to create a narrative and to stir emotions of the audience in such a way that they would become more active and involved in the movement, then there are many lessons we in the Occupy Movement could take in order to awaken people in our own time.
Most likely though, Baraka’s intent included both of these motives, and this illustrates a potential question raised but not answered at the reading group. Can you create a inspired group without creating an enemy? And, if one needs an enemy, who exactly is the enemy that we in Occupy Movement can unify around in order to inspire others to join us? For Baraka, the enemies that unite and inspire people to his cause are the white man and the blacks who try to work with the whites—thus, Baraka felt that he had to create an enemy of many in the black community in order to unify his group. Likewise, if the Occupy Movement posits an enemy (such as the State, or the 1%, or corporations), then it loses the support of many who identify as or would work with such potential enemies. Yet, can the movement maintain a powerful and dynamic identity in the national consciousness without selecting an enemy and sacrificing some of its inclusiveness?
Baraka would almost certainly say no.