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Interrogating Amiri Baraka’s Poem "Something in the Way of Things" (In Town)
Amiri Baraka’s poem ‘Something in the way of things (In Town)’ clearly manifests Baraka’s quest for social justice exploring interrelated issues of racial, national oppression, self-determination and national human liberation which he has long been addressing creatively and critically as in his first collection of essays in book form The Essence of Reparations. The poem itself is in actual fact Baraka’s own lyrics in a rap song of the same title by the hip-hop group THE Roots from their album titled ‘Phrenology.’ But what I heard was the poem being read by Baraka to the accompaniment of a stomp -like hip-hoppy beat from the group. THE Roots shares much with Baraka’s preoccupation, since it came as a response to the subjugation and oppression of blacks in America. They therefore seek to point out the injustices in the system and thus create awareness in the blacks and the American society generally.
The poem is characterized by complicated but captivating verse full of stretches of scornful and biting satire on the way of things in town. In the opinion of one of my students of Practical Criticism it also suggests the vulnerability of man to a force that is above human control but which remote-controls him and even determines his destiny. At first the poem sounds like a dramatic monologue with the persona the only voice speaking throughout speaking quite passionately as if speaking directly to us. But then one gets the suggestion that he is talking to someone also directly involved in the situation of the poem. Through his use of language the persona suggests the presence of this passive listener whom he often and again orders to do things to which he seems to comply most times.
Open your mouth like you was gon’ say somethin
Close your eyes and remember what you saw and what it made you feel like
Now don’t you see something else
Something cold and ugly
But then it does not seem like being a dramatic monologue in the mould of Tennyson’s ‘Ullysses’ or Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ as other essential characteristics of the dramatic monologue like the occasion are not made clear. Besides, it lacks another characteristics known as undercutting wherein the persona exposes his flaws unknowingly as he speaks.
The title of the poem itself suggests obstacles standing in one’s way. One reader saw it as about the limitations and hindrances standing between man and his aspirations. The title could also mean that something is standing in the way of things in town in such a way that one is prevented from seeing these things clearly enough or even that those things are thus obstructed from easy movement.
A note of desperation and frustration marks the tone of the persona as he speaks prophetically to us, his audience, who seem lost to whatever could be happening to them or are just complacent or simply incapable of speaking of what is endangering their lives. The persona, though passionately presenting his prophecy, does not clearly state his vision. He, instead, presents series of situations which at first appear unrelated as they are not sequential thus leaving us the task to piece them together.
The sense of urgency and the ominous signals of imminent doom are unmistakable in the opening lines
Something in the way of things
Something that will quit and won’t start
Something you know but can’t stand
Can’t know get along with
Riding on top of the car peering through the windshield for his cue
Something entirely fictitious and true
That creeps across your path hallowing your evil ways
Like they were yourself passing yourself not smiling
This urgency and feeling of imminent danger is reinforced by the repetition of ‘something’ and the paradoxical qualities it embodies in each line showing a thing that is unwieldy, unpredictable and even unreliable for even though you claim to know it you can’t possibly put up with it neither can you get along with it or him, for suddenly it seems more like someone than a thing. It will also quit but puzzlingly it would not start and even though fictitious it is all at the same time true.
Its character becomes most unidentifiable and slippery if not downright dangerous and life-threatening. Its being compared to death in a sinister way ‘Riding on top of the car’ and as if that is not frightening enough, ‘peering through the windshield for his cue. These lines are so much invested with drama, suspense and puzzles that it inevitably arouses the curiosity if not anxiety of the reader who is thus compelled to read on to untangle the mystery and the puzzles.
The rest of the lines in that first stanza portray the persona desperately trying to create awareness in his audience ‘Something entirely fictitious and true/That creeps across your path hallowing your evil ways..’ suggests sychophancy for one could only hallow or revere another’s evil ways out of ignorance or sycophancy or perhaps as an extreme case of being compelled to praise what is unpraiseworthy out of being terrorized into it.
A difficult and puzzling part of the poem are these two lines:
The dead guy you saw me talking to is your boss
I tried to put a spell on him but his spirit is illiterate
If the guy is dead, one wonders, how then could he be spoken to? Is he a literarily dead man or a figuratively dead one? But then if his spirit is said to be illiterate it suggests that it’s his spirit that is dead. But then one could recall our common traditional knowledge that the dead are survived by their spirit. But then if this dead guys’ spirit which should survive him is associated with illiteracy then his affliction to a death-like pit is doubled. This is why the persona’s effort to cast a spell on him is futile, for he fails to respond. One even wonders whether he was consciously participating in the conversation. But then this dead guy has been given the onerous duty of leading an organization. How well he does it could well be imagined.
The ‘something’ Baraka is talking about so much seems omni-present, omni-powerful, affecting everybody and even greeting everybody like the good humour man whose good humour seems forced and suspect.
The second stanza emits real steam with the speaker talking about people he is talking across their heads into houses whilst he is unaware of the people gathering around him with ice-picks which seems like another signal of danger. For whilst the people over and across whose heads he is talking to others in their houses are aware of the crowds of ice-pick-wielding men closing in menacingly on him, he is totally blind to their presence. But yet the persona goes on to paint a picture of how they look like, possibly in the audience’s eyes, thus further accentuating the ominous signaling of doom and despair.
But they looked like important Negroes on the way to your funeral
Looked like important jiggaboos on the way to your auction
And let them chant the number and use an ivory pointer to count your teeth
These lines further build upon the idea brought in earlier of the dead man who though being spoken to remains unresponsive. This further emphasizes that the people are like corpses whose burial has been postponed. They are in a sense dehumanized and denied of any sense of being alive.
The third stanza brings the poem to an intensity clearly marked by the repetition of the same line at the start of the stanza.
I can see something in the way of our selves
I can see something in the way of our selves
This repetition I find significant in its emphasizing the ominous nature of what the persona knows, as revealed in the repeated lines which he reveals has bestowed on him much understanding of men and things, thus enabling him to say with much insight and wisdom ‘the things I do’ which the audience knows but completely disregards or underestimates. The persona therefore seems desperate to create awareness in an audience that seems insensitive to what is happening around them.
The idea of life-denial is further reinforced with specific reference to ‘that niggga’ that the machines in the factory are sadistically yearning ‘to come and give up his life/Standin’ there bein’ dissed and broke and troubled.’ The last three verbs ‘dissed’, ‘broke’ and ‘troubled’ sum up the nigga’s lost condition being a receptacle for rejection,disrespect, insults, humiliation and disorientation. In effect his life no longer belongs to him, that is if he manages to survive certain death for the odds seem so much against him with the ravenous machines yearning so much for his life than he seems eager to preserve. The machine which seems more alive than he the human, aware of the inferior and rejected position of the black man in society is longingly waiting to absorb his strength if not his life into its system. African-Americans are thus seen as perpetual victims of a harsh and exploitative capitalistic system which only values them for the labour and energy they expend in the factories which are presented as virtual death traps. Another student described them as being hopelessly manipulated and rejected. As such, he goes on, the something the poet might be visualizing or better still visioning is the unstoppable rebound of the blacks. For when pushed too far against the wall there is certainly going to be a backlash.of untold consequences.
In the fourth stanza, the persona concludes that the foregoing gives proof that God didn’t exist. But then his interlocutor is quick to emphasize that it is rather an affirmation that it’s the devil that reigns. This explains the prevalence of evil. Racial prejudice, an evil in itself, is given hint to in the fourth to last line where the white boy wears rather provocatively a t-shirt celebrating his poverty and frustration which in actual fact is the Black’s identity that is being mocked for only if you are thick in the skull enough would you readily fall for those lies and accept him as your soul mate. But his affliction is different from the Blacks since it is not drawn from racism. The lying rag which might be what the white boy wears bearing inscriptions showing that he is going to die poor and frustrated and that ‘them dreams walk which you cross town might give the Blacks false hopes that their suffering is shared and identified with by the other race and therefore could be addressed without their own active intervention. That could be what Baraka dismisses as ‘garbage’ telling you you ain’t shit which you accept as being the case inspite of your affliction with perennial pain.
These are some of the sentiments they as blacks swallow which renders them complacent about their situation. The negro thus becomes synonymous with poverty and frustration because a white-dominated and racist society has denied him his rights as a human being. He has therefore come to the bitter realization that his dreams can never be realized for he is only fit to be overworked Even the garbage in the street seems to have more significance.
In stanza five, something is shown as stalking the Blackman thus debarring his progress.’Like an ugly thing floating at our back calling us names’.thus becoming a perpetual nuisance and humbug trailing and mocking one. This people could see and hear. But then the irony is that even though it presents such a menace to him he justifies it as having a right to exist because ‘God made it ‘ he himself thus contributing to his denigration. Whatever he says or does results in his being classified as wrong.
Broke and mistaken all the time
You know some of the words but they ain’t the right ones
The nigga thus becomes in the persona’s words: ‘addicted to sadness’ The persona stands out as exceptional, being the only one bold and forthright enough to give voice to the things that threaten their existence. The nigga’s entrapped position is imaged as that of a bird locked up in a cage. He is thus not free to speak out against the ills of his society.
Remember the Negro squinting at us through the cage
You seen what I see too?
The smile that ain’t a smile but teeth flying against our necks
You see something too but can’t call its name
The last two lines bring out suggestions of treachery and hypocrisy of both races. The injustices suffered by negro youths is then brought out. They are seen as suffering for crimes for which they are innocent but for which they still have to answer and suffer, for being black. But then again the inability to raise a voice over such abuses is once more bemoaned in the refrain ‘you see something too but can’t call its name’.
The sixth stanza brings us the plight of a nice boy who was always too kind to his mother and was always greeting people on his way to work but then whose cheerful and pleasant mood was suddenly changed perhaps in expectation of his confrontation with the harsh and cruel justice system.
But that last time before he got locked up and hurt, real bad
I seen him walkin’ toward his house and he wasn’t smiling
And he didn’t even say hello
This just shows the power injustice expends in eroding humanity. A humane person thus suddenly becomes morose and embittered contrary to his true nature before. Sadly, his geniality and civility does not enable him to escape the brutalities and injustices of this heartless world. And the persona comes on with his world-wise explanation as to what brought about the transformation in the disposition of the boy.
But I knew he’d seen something
Something in the way of things that it worked on him like it do in will
Baraka now comes with the most intense moment in the poem with the coalescing of the images of the various victims with a plea for us to take a closer look at ourselves to see what we see in these objects of oppression and how those images could be seen in our very selves.
kept marching faster and faster away from us
And never even muttered a word
Then the next day he was gone
You want to know what
You want to know what I’m talkin’ about
Sayin’ “I seen something in the way of things”
And how the boys face looked that day just before they took him away
The is? in that face and remember now, remember all them other faces
And all the many places you’ve seen him or the sister with his child
Wandering up the street
Remember what you seen in your own mirror and didn’t for a second recognize
The face, your own face
Straining to get out from behind the glass
Open your mouth like you was gon’ say somethin’
Close your eyes and remember what you saw and what it made you feel like
Now, don’t you see something else
Something cold and ugly
Not invisible but blended with the shadow criss-crossing the old man
Squatting by the drug store at the corner
With is head resting uneasily on his
And the boy that smiled and the girl he went with
And in my eyes too
A waving craziness splitting them into the jet stream of a black bird
Wit his ass on fire
Or the solomNOTness of where we go to know we gonna be happy
I seen something
I SEEN something
And you seen it too
You seen it too
You just can’t call it’s name
NOTE: This is the first part of a series of articles throwing light on various aspects of the content and artistry of Baraka in his recent poems. I am indebted to Rudolph Lewis of CHICKENBONES for initially mailing me the poem and the link to Baraka’s site and for his subsequent piece musing on the general significance of the poem and our initial inability to respond. That jolted me into thoughtful action. I threw the poem for discussion in my Practical Criticism and American Literature classes and that stimulated much of my thoughts on the poem.
See full poem below:
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