A Friend, An Enemy

“On April Fool’s Day, 1965, Amiri Baraka (known then as LeRoi Jones) sent a postcard to the poet Kenneth Koch. The image on the front of the postcard is racist: three alligators chase a Black man, who looks up to heaven with tears streaming down his face. A four-line poem presents his ‘prayer’: Dese gater looked so feary / And yet dey ‘peered so tame / But now that I done met ’em / I’ll neber be de same. According to the Newberry Library, the Curt Teich Company began producing postcards with this image in 1940. But Teich produced similar postcards as early as 1918, and the ‘alligator bait’ stereotype has a much longer history. On the back of the postcard, Baraka writes: Dear Kenneth,  Better start saying your prayers, if you think you can spend your time playing chess while millions struggle!  Love, LeRoi 2X  The postcard was sent to Koch’s apartment at 69 Perry Street in New York’s West Village, using a five cents John Kennedy stamp. … What kind of April Fool’s Day joke was this? Was the postcard even a joke? Or was it a threat? The case for reading the postcard as a joke is precarious, yet plausible. We have the date. We know that Baraka and Koch were friends. In The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (1984), Baraka describes hanging out with Koch and other New York School poets at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village: ‘the New York school people, Frank [O’Hara], Kenneth, would be holding court along with any number of painters (Larry Rivers, Mike Goldberg, and Norman Bluhm were special friends of Frank’s).’ Perhaps the postcard extended a private joke about the absurdity of Jim Crow or the earnestness of Black nationalism, or both. We also know that Baraka admired Koch’s poetry and sense of humor. … A small act of interpretation unfurls into a wild and contradictory meditation on art, skepticism, and the meaning of life. Baraka likely read the story in Art and Literature, or about the story in Ted Berrigan’s review of Art and Literature in the journal Kulchur, which Baraka co-edited. …”

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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