“In Memory of Radio”

by Amiri Baraka
   First appearing in White Dove Review in 1959, “In Memory of Radio” is perhaps amiri baraka’s (LeRoi Jones) most famous poem. Later collected in preface to a twenty volume suicide note, this work connects Baraka’s understanding of the duality of the black experience in America with the slipperiness of popular culture. With “maudlin nostalgia” that is apparent in other poems such as “Look For You Yesterday, Here You Come Today,” Baraka looks beneath the surface of American popular culture in what David L. Smith describes as “the most fundamental of Christian dilemmas: the knowledge of good and evil.” Wondering at the divinity of Lamont Cranston, the alter-ego of The Shadow in the mystery 1930s radio program by that name, Baraka both looks back at the innocence of childhood and raises the specter of the black experience in an American society with a distinctively white consciousness. “Shadow” is not only black vernacular English for an African American, the very word suggests a kind of invisibility. Baraka conjures the images of violence, both physical and epistemological, against blacks when he mentions Goody Knight. As John Hakac has pointed out, California governor Goodwin “Goody” Knight was in part responsible for keeping Caryl Whittier Chessman on Death Row for more than a decade. When the poem was first published in 1959, international outrage flamed over the inhumanity of this process. Knight neither issued any stay of execution nor pardoned Chessman. He simply provided a rhetoric of social stability behind which a mechanism of injustice could grind. The image of Goody Knight acts as a metaphor for the popular culture that the poet ponders, the surface of harmony hides no real altruism. Demonstrating through his hallmark typographic slight of hand, Baraka shows the double nature of love: “Love is an evil word. / Turn it backwards / see, see what I mean? An evol word.”
   Remembering his childhood love for such programs as Red Lantern and Let’s Pretend leaves the poet feeling uneasy. He mourns the loss of his innocence, being able to believe in the surface of things. As for pretending, the poet still does “Thank God!” Like the programs themselves, his love for popular culture had an underside. He had to give it up or be subsumed by the dominant hegemony. “It is better to have loved and lost / Than to put linoleum in your living room?” However, the poet frets at his own impotence in the face of the myths of American culture, a recurring theme in Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, and admits complicity with it.
■ Hakac, John. “Baraka’s ‘In Memory of Radio’.” Concerning Poetry 10, no. 1 (1977): 85.
■ Hudson, Theodore. From LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka: The Literary Works. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1973.
■ Smith, David L. “Amiri Baraka and the Black Arts of Black Art.” boundary 2 15, nos. 1/2 (Autumn, 1986–Winter 1987): 235–254.
■ Sollors, Werner. “Does Axel’s Castle Have a Street Address, or, What’s New? Tendencies in the Poetry of Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones).” boundary 2 6, no. 2 (Winter 1978): 387–414.
   Stephanie S. Morgan

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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