Things have come to that.
Meditations on Baraka somehow, always and inevitably have me thinking about the women who surround him, the voices more often muffled under the roaring charge of the poet and his disciples, the “bangclash” of the Black Arts aesthetic, its infamously hyper masculine tenor and misogynistic content.
Since learning of the existence of Yugen, the little magazine Hettie Cohen co-edited and published out of Greenwich with soon to be husband Leroi Jones for the closing two years of the 1950s, I’ve had Cohen’s memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones on my reading list, where, due to requisites and life, it still rests.
But while my entree into the life of Ms. Cohen is yet in waiting, I had the privilege of an introduction to Baraka and Cohen’s first child, art historian, curator and critic Kellie Jones, while I was an undergrad at Columbia. I took her course on African American Artists in the West, the ‘West’ of the title referencing the American west coast, not hemisphere, which was a discrepancy “shopping” students found rather surprising. The strangeness of such a location specific African American art history class existing at Columbia, I think, points to longstanding conservative ideologies of the art history discipline and also, and perhaps more significantly, the way in which Dr. Jones’ entire career has spoken back to such an exclusionary tradition.
And with such repose. While her father is known for his brash brilliance, Kellie Jones is the quiet luminary, who has steadily advocated for, in part by way of explicating on, the works of women and artists of color for decades through critical writings and exhibitions both. The recently wrapped Now Dig This, part of the south coast-wide Pacific Standard Time, turns an eye toward black art production in Los Angeles, and it is through projects like this, the local, that Jones has brought wide critical attention to artists existing some ways beyond the fringes of the academy.
Her newest project is Eye Minded, a book that chronicles her artistic upbringing through essays in conversation with her notable family—mother, father, and sister/artist Lisa Jones. The book reminds that her familial background is just as exceptional as her individual career, but I respect Dr. Jones for the way that she situates her atypical past in relationship to own career, specifically the way in which she has sought to bring women artists along with her as she progresses in it. When I took Professor Jones’ class my senior year, I actually hadn’t learned of her lineage until seeing her at a Baraka reading on campus, where she was sat some rows from the stage.
In that auditorium on that day Baraka recited his controversial poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” and I spent the event ruminating on his politics without giving much thought to her existence there in the audience, the remarkable fact of their pairing. I didn’t know as much of Baraka or Jones then than I do now, but perhaps some few years later it is not such a coincidence that a favorite of father Jones’ poems is one dedicated to daughter Kellie, “born 16 May 1959.”
"Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note"
Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus…
Things have come to that.
And now, each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.
Nobody sings anymore.
And then last night I tiptoed up
To my daughter’s room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there…
Only she on her knees, peeking into
Her own clasped hands