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Disrupting racial performances in Amiri Baraka's Police.

Amiri Baraka's neglected one-act play Police (1968) exemplifies the rhetoric and the rage of black revolutionary drama of the 1960's (A Sourcebook of African American Performances. Ed. Annemarie Bean [NY: Routledge, 1999]). The play focuses on the Black Cop who, under a white regime, oppresses the black community and, suffering from guilt, shoots himself. Embedded in this action is an "imaginary bank jewelry shop" holdup after which the Black Cop kills the Black Man. Baraka himself experienced a traumatic run-in with the law when, two years before Police was performed, his own Black Art Repertory Theatre School in Harlem was shut down by the police. A manifesto from a turbulent decade, Police exposes the politics of anti-black racial identity by undercutting the literary traditions upon which such identity has been predicated.

Police is a melange of dramatic techniques that Baraka uses to denounce racial oppression. An example of street theatre, Police also resembles the Off Off Broadway "happenings," spontaneous and random anti-establishment plays that had no neat, linear plots. As in a happening, the improvisional actions in Police underscore the instability of racially stereotyped identities. Appropriately, the play opens with this dialogue: "Black Man: Hello. Black Woman: Discovery." What follows is the discovery of how race is performed and deconstructed. Baraka inserts such agit-prop techniques as having "People leap up out of the audience crowd" (44) and "appear from audience or out in the crowd" (43). In the process, Baraka dismantles the mimetic walls behind which a white middle class audience could hide from culpability. Further, Baraka combines Artaudian cruelties with Becketian comic violence to excoriate racial oppression.

Baraka's language reflects the outrageous instability of such racially stereotypical categories. Signifiers shift and slip as the play raises questions about who is black, who is white, or even who is human. At the center of this confusion is the Black Cop whose racial schizophrenia results from his violations of legal, communal, and sexual taboos. As the Old Street Woman, the griot of Police, declares: "You a black cop that can't cop" (41). The multiple meanings of cop--to have sex, to take drugs, to steal, to understand--paint him as both victim and thief. Waging war on his own kind, he only "hurts" himself (40). By selling himself and his community out to the establishment, his own identity has been stolen and is transformed into "the white man's fool" (45).

In the comic nightmare world of Police, the Black Cop's role as preserver/protector is satirically inverted. When the Young Boy shouts: "We want to report a crime" (41) and the Black Cop rejoins, "Where? I must solve it" (41), his legal role becomes topsy-turvy and he becomes "the murderer." "A black cop a murderer. He just shot my man," shrieks the Young Girl. Rather than preserving the peace, he destroys it. He is morphed into a white cop predator. All the black characters chant, "We want to report a murder," denouncing him before the white cops on stage as "a lousy-ass murderer ... for white folks." Baraka parodies the system to discredit it. Police becomes a warrant for his arrest, an indictment, and a trial to set his punishment from the street. Although the Black Cop offers lame excuses involving "economics" and the "constitution" (42), he is a mercenary who breaks the law by killing a "good black man" (45). Characteristically, the white cops refuse to exonerate him: "You couldn't take it, that's all. You're not fit for justice among the civilized. The great face tooters. That's all" (41).

The comic-sounding "face tooters" has sinister connotations for the Black Cop. Metonymically, it suggests white faces (mouths) that proclaim law and confer identity. But "face tooters" also ironically hints at "factotums," or black police lackeys who do anything white cops demand. Trying to escape his race, the Black Cop thinks he can join the powerful white cops, wear their uniform, and drink their "scotch" (41). But he is vilified as part of "cop face cracker America," a doubly derisive insult to his adopted identity as a bigoted white person and cocaine addict. For the black community, the Black Cop cannot be distinguished from a cracker, exemplifying "cop crazy in America" (44). As the Other, he is scorned as a "black white man who killed my mother" (44).

The disruption/exposure of his assumed identity is graphically represented when the Black Woman humiliatingly whips him while other characters exhort: "Beat the black off him as his outside be just like his insides" (45). The condemning chorus taunts: "You gon kill yourself or you want all the whities to know how freakish you is. Punk man ... for real." He has become a freak, a white black man, a man "turned inside out" for his race-betraying actions. Belonging to neither world, he is a "freak," a "fool," as Negro Sarah is called for wanting to be white in Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964). Anachronistically freakish, too, he is labeled a "punk," the name for a young slave boy who fanned white planters as they ate or slept. By serving the white establishment, Black Cop surrenders his contemporary presence as a free man. Moreover, he is a freakish outcast from humankind. Using the slang name for cops, the Young Girl denounces him as "A Swine. Eater and A Swine" (45).

His punishments at the hands of both the black and white communities further attack black racial betrayals. The Black Woman "comes up with a yellow 'cat-'a-nine' ... curls it up ... and begins snapping it at the cop" (44). Then, after he shoots himself, the "white cops ... assemble around [him] doing pixie steps, or slobbering on his flesh, a few ... are even eating chunks of flesh they tear off in their weird banquet" (45). Juxtaposing these two events, Baraka destabilizes racial fictions that have been culturally transmitted through literary representation. In Police, dramatic representation and racial identity are not mutually constitutive. While the whipping visually portrays the Black Cop as a stereotypical slave, ironically he is punished for being a surrogate white order figure, further disrupting the historical dialectic of slave/master. Baraka reverses gender stereotypes, too, by having Black Woman assume the position of the white overseer, or master, as she lashes out at his "penis pistol." Simultaneously subverting his identity as both a white cop and a dishonest black man, she emasculates the Black Cop.

Even more disruptive of literary racial identities is Baraka's portrait of the white cops as cannibals. As with the whipping, Police challenges the literary authority of demonizing blacks as savage cannibals in such texts as Robinson Crusoe, Mutiny on the Bounty, Moby Dick, Benito Cereno, and even Tennessee Williams's story "Desire and the Black Masseur." Indicting the cops incestuous cannibals, Characters 1, 2, and 3 tell them, "You savages keep your own" (45). In their perverse sacrifice, the white cops, then, are more criminal than the street people whom they brutalize. Finally, Baraka deflates the white cops' manly image by having them do "pixie steps" before "slobbering," transforming them into another type of freakish creatures.

Philip C. Kolin, University of Southern Mississippi
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Author:Kolin, Philip C.
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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