Type of Document Thesis Author Pellicer, Robert Fayze URN etd-10302007-004407 Title "The Prophet Murdered for the Profit of the Beast": Christianity, Capitalism, and Slavery in the Work of Amiri Baraka Degree Master of Arts Department English, Department of Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title Andrew Epstein Committee Chair Christopher Shinn Committee Member Jerrilyn McGregory Committee Member Keywords
- Amiri Baraka
- African-American Literature
- Black Literature
- Counter culture
Date of Defense 2007-07-23 Availability unrestricted AbstractIn Hard Facts, Amiri Baraka’s first volume of Marxist poetry, the poem “When We’ll Worship Jesus” catalogues the poet’s disillusionment and ambivalence about accepting religion as a possible weapon to combat racial and economic injustice. Baraka writes:
imperialists not afraid
of jesus shit they makin money
off jesus […]
jesus aint did nothing for us
but kept us turned toward the
sky (him and his boy allah
too, need to be checkd
Aside from his insistence on the inability of Christianity to positively influence the political realm (“capitalists racists / imperialists not afraid / of jesus”), Baraka reveals the power of subjugation that religion holds over the politically and socially disenfranchised since its inception into mainstream culture by the culturally and economically elite:
we aint gonna worship jesus cause jesus dont exist […] except in
tears or trillion dollar opulence stretching back in history, the
of the oppression of the human mind (253)
For Baraka, Christian religion is just another slave-system—an instrument of economic subjugation that forces the lower classes to view their subservient status as natural and sanctioned by a higher, abstract form.
“Beginnings: Malcolm” from his most recent volume of poetry, Somebody Blew Up America reveals the origins of the devil in Western capitalistic systems:
When the Beast emerged from the western sea […]
he had no soul, and they’d
created money, the animal king, the coin, the khan,
the con, hard currency (3)
The Beast’s origin in “the western sea” accounts for Baraka’s view of capitalism as an instrument of evil designed to oppress the lower economic classes. Capitalism is also posited as a residual element of the West-African slave trade. Just like slavery, religion keeps “us turned toward the sky,” constantly promoting submission to the cultural elite. In this way religion advocates “slum stained tears” and the creation of cultural martyrs that view oppression and pain as a viable and necessary part of the social order. Baraka also maintains that the bourgeoisie and its “trillion dollar opulence” advocate these oppressive systems in order to limit social mobility and ensure the continued exploitation of the lower classes and the continued dominance of the cultural elite.
Baraka’s attention to economic striation and the burdens of capitalistic systems in his Third-World Marxist phase seems to inform his recent adoption of religious imagery to delineate the difference between the oppressor and the oppressed—the predator and the prey. To the extent that world religions—particularly Christianity—do not address class difference and the liberation of subjugated peoples, Baraka maintains an overt aversion to their embrace of victimization as a vehicle to attain abstract notions of comfort in otherwise oppressive capitalistic systems.
But while Baraka is quick to point the finger at Christianity for its complicity in maintaining the status quo, he does not go so far as to identify exact points of reference for his criticisms. Rather, he often concerns himself with vague attacks and incomplete evaluations of Christianity’s influence on the motion of world history. He is also quick to associate the Roman Catholic Church—the main beacon of Christian philosophy prior to the reformation—with other post-reformation sects that each harbored distinct beliefs regarding the ownership of slaves and the ability of the lower-classes to ascend the social and economic ladder.
Tracing Baraka’s beliefs about the inability of Christianity to address the potential liberation of subjugated peoples globally, one must inevitably conclude that his assessments are based on very broad, subjective situations and outcomes. As an artist, Baraka has the unique ability to ask certain questions and reach certain conclusions without resorting to scientific methods of evaluation, which may, if they are employed properly, lend credibility to his assessments. But Baraka is neither concerned with an objective class analysis or with positing a true scientific theorem within the existing body of cultural studies. His concerns are steeped within an artistic platform that utilizes emotionalism and spontaneous shock values in order to posit the inevitable decline of Christianity and its lack of a true scientific base.
To reach such conclusions within a constantly shifting subjectivity such as Baraka’s is to inevitably undermine the entire enterprise, but Baraka’s views on Christianity should not be side-stepped or written off as the incoherent ramblings of a reactionary. His beliefs are steeped within an expanding body of historical data and are, for the most part, in accordance with the ebb and flow of modern history, despite his tendency to fracture or reduce certain historical points into easy-to-digest—and sometimes skewed—vantage points.
But with regard to Baraka’s belief that Christianity lacks the capacity to tangibly improve the life of subjugated peoples, we must lend an open ear. His work takes us on a ride through the ups and downs of modern history in order to show us the true face of modern religious movements and their tendency to subjugate peoples and resort to violence as a manifestation of the prophet’s message.
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