|Amiri Baraka (at right), at NYU,|
May 3, 2014
"What will be / the sacred words?" - Amiri Baraka
A great light, a fire, a forge has gone out of our literatures, our cultures, our society: Amiri Baraka has passed away. There are many important and a few major living poets, writers, social critics today; fewer still have assumed the mantle of change-agents, have put and continue to place themselves at center of social, political and economic, as well as aesthetic transformation, and done so continuously for most of their lives. The risks are tremendous, the payoff perhaps invisible and too small in personal, let alone broader terms. But Amiri Baraka did. He lived what he thought and believed, even when it was problematic or outright wrong, and in the process he played crucial roles in reframing how we think and see. If we think of him primarily as a poet, we should also consider that his poetry, and a poetics of the self, of the mind, of action, flowed through everything he did, whether it was producing literature across a range of genres (poetry, drama, fiction, essays, speeches, collaborative works, etc.), creating institutions and fighting to keep them alive, serving as a teacher, a professor, an editor, a mentor, a paterfamilias and parent, a polemicist, a friend, a cultural connector, a mage, working with activists of his generation and younger ones, being and living as a revolutionary and liberationist. He took very seriously, embodied, the charge of the ancestors and the principles espoused by W. E. B. DuBois in his famous essay, "Criteria of Negro Art." For Baraka, art and culture were not value-free or worthless, but, as the great Cape Verdean-Guiné-Bissauan poet and freedom fighter Amílcar Cabral pointed out, often weapons, and Amiri Baraka wielded them, when necessary, towards goals and aims far beyond himself or his career.
I first read Amiri Baraka's work in childhood, in an anthology (was it Black Fire!) that my godparents had in their library. In junior high, I am amazed to say, we read his poem "In Memory of Radio (for Lamont Cranston)," which I did not really understand--the radio's centrality to American culture having given way by then to TV--though I did grasp that at some elemental level I was picking up a frequency I had to pay attention to. By the time I graduated from high school I had decided to include a quote by Baraka on my high school senior yearbook page (along with quotes by Gwendolyn Brooks, T. S. Eliot (!) and Archibald MacLeish). Yet again I did not fully grasp what I was quoting--and did not realize until this past spring, when I was teaching my course on the "Black Arts Movement" at Rutgers-Newark that the words came from his introduction, as "Imamu Ameer Baraka," the first name he chose after ceasing to be Everett LeRoi Jones, as he was born in Newark in 1934, to Black Fire!, the landmark anthology of Black Arts Poetry--but something in his words spoke directly to me, almost like a life-force, and if I cannot remember much poetry by heart these days, those words, or a version of them, took root deep inside me.
|An excerpt from Amiri Baraka's|
"Foreword," from Black Fire!
|The Black Renaissance Noire panel|
at NYU (Barrett, Ismaili, Baraka, Johnson,
Dill, Jess), May 3, 2014
Outside of the literary realm, as one of the co-founders of the Black Arts Movement, as one of the political artists engaged in real-world politics in pushing for a national black political convention, as a force in New York and in Newark (New Ark, he labeled) it who helped to elect the latter city's first African American mayor, Kenneth Gibson, he could have operated primarily in the political and social arenas, with identifiable success in his track record. Yet Baraka did all these things and more. It is both the particularities and the holistic quality of his life and work that commend him to us and to the ages. He was that rare thing, the real thing, and even in the works that were less successful--some of the poetry of the 1970s, for example--the force of his drive to work through his vision and understanding, even if a misunderstanding, of the world still burns through.
|"Ka 'Ba," from The Amiri Baraka Reader|
I feel very fortunate to have met and spoken with Amiri Baraka several times. One story involving him that I have told many times (forgive me for repeating it again) involves a job I had at NYU in the late 1990s, which entailed sometimes going to pick up important visitors for a weeklong summer faculty development program. I was thus sent, via car service, to Newark, to go pick up Amiri Baraka at his home. Off we drove, we arrived at his house, I went in, and met his assistant, and then, we waited. He was getting ready, I believe--I don't think he was feeling his best then--and various people, all friendly, came and went from the living room. I cannot remember if Mrs. Baraka was there, or if I spoke with any of his children--I had met Ras Baraka some years earlier, when I was in my early 20s and with the Dark Room Writers Collective--but I vividly recall him finally appearing from upstairs, and then, we were off. Only we weren't. We had to stop to get his books and pamphlets, from another residence. I began to worry because given the awfulness of New Jersey and New York traffic at the best of times, but especially near rush hour, I could see us being late, possibly very late, and I knew my boss, and my boss's boss, the then-Senior Vice President at NYU, were not going to be happy. But I also had to accommodate our speaker. So as things proceeded at a glacial pace, our car eventually on the road and crawling from Newark through Jersey City to the Holland Tunnel, I sat there beside Baraka, and tried, despite my mounting anxiety, to make small talk with him and his assistant. (I wish I could remember his name.)
What did we talk about? His work, my admiration for him, Ras, black writing, NYU, all sorts of things. It was light and nothing went beyond the surface of my nerves or his politeness. He was not warm, but he also was not rude. I even summoned the brazenness to give him a copy of my first book. At some point, one of my bosses called my cellphone and said, "Where are you? You're late, and the big boss is thinking of firing you on the spot." I pleaded with him and tried to explain what was going on, but knew it was out of his hands. On we crept, inching forward, and Baraka could feel my anxiety, so he asked me what was wrong. I told him, and he urged me not to worry. Finally we arrived at NYU's Cantor Film Center, where he was to give his talk. All my colleagues were lined up at the curb, including the Senior Vice President. (Even she knew how important Baraka was.) The first thing he uttered after getting out of the car and greeting everyone was to defend me and explain why we were so late. He assumed all the blame, and even said something to the effect of "Do not fire him," quite forcefully, as if to preempt what at least one of the higher ups was considering. I apologized profusely and quickly, and then my direct boss said, "Just find out what he needs and bring him into the lecture hall." I accompanied him inside, he said he had to go to the bathroom, I made sure he was okay and he asked me if I was okay, and with that, he went into the packed hall where faculty members from all over the country were waiting, and brought the house down. It was one of the best lectures the program had witnessed, I was told, in its history. I kept my job.
|Amiri Baraka, at NYU, May 3, 2014|
Rest in piece, Amiri Baraka (1934-2014).
|Amiri Baraka's hand, and mine|