Saturday, January 11, 2014

RIP Amiri Baraka (1934-2014)

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!
Later, in college and after, I read quite a bit of Baraka's work, and found some of it deeply upsetting, confounding, enraging, especially his sexism, misogyny and patriarchy, his homophobia, his anti-Semitism; sometimes all of these can be found in just a single of his works, like "Black Art" or the play Mad Heart. Yet I also learned to read Baraka as a person of his time--my own father shared many of the same feelings and ideas, even if he never, expressed them as furiously or eloquently as Baraka, or became a Black Nationalist, Marxist, a Maoist--and to appreciate his deep love of black people, of working and poor people, of people engaged in the struggle whatever their race or ethnicity or gender or sexuality; I came to appreciate his ongoing self-criticism and self-correction, however stuttered it sometimes was, his capacity for reading himself and rethinking his views, and for his courage--and this is one of the greatest gifts Baraka has given us, in addition to the work--his remarkable courage, at speaking out, and then even greater courage in revising and recalibrating his views.
The Black Renaissance Noire panel
at NYU (Barrett, Ismaili, Baraka, Johnson,
Dill, Jess), May 3, 2014
As a writer and artist, I admire his tremendous prodigiousness and fluency, the richness and variability of his works, their capacity to engage the mind and the heart in multiple ways. I admire his critical acuity and facility, his ability to merge creativity and critique in ways that still hold value long after the moment of a given work's conception has passed. I admire the range of his learning and his ability to infuse his art with it. I admire his use of his own life, in multiple ways, as the ground for his art, and his fusion of times of life and art, his performance of his life as a work of political art. Had he merely continued writing only poetry, he still would have been a significant literary figure in the poetic firmament, his first five books alone worth dozens by other poets of his generation. Had he shifted to plays and stopped there, he would have ranked with Adrienne Kennedy as one of the most innovative American and African American playwrights of the 1960s, and with his revolutionary plays that appeared in the late 1960s, he would have cemented his fame alongside Ed Bullins and others. Had he written more fiction, he could have gained significant currency as an innovator in that genre. As a music critic he wrote one of the still salient--foundational--texts on Black music, Blues People: Negro Music in White America, and could have rested on those laurels for the rest of his life. As an essayist he was original from the start, and could have packaged all his essays together and used their afterlife as a calling card, if not to a cushy position somewhere--his battles in and with academe are legendary, though it is in part through his struggles and those of other black literary pioneers that I and many others have our jobs today--then to the lecture circuit. 

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
Last spring I saw Baraka for the last time this past spring when I attended a May 3, 2014 launch reading for the Spring/Summer 2013, Vol 13.1 issue of the journal Black Renaissance Noire, edited by Quincy Troupe. Among the readers were Tyehimba Jess, A. Igoni Barrett, Rashida Ismaili, Lesley Dill, and Jacqueline Johnson. And Amiri Baraka. I thought I had blogged about this, but when I searched my posts it turned out that I hadn't, nor had I at the very least included the photos in my "Random Photos" post. He was fiery, feisty, full of life, referring to the provocative essay he had written on the anthology Angles of Ascent, but more than anything, he was vintage Baraka, a figure who in a few words could bring a room to life. All of the readers were superb, and I was glad that I caught the reading, but I especially wanted to speak with Baraka afterwards, because, since I was teaching his work, so wanted to say hello to him in person after the reading, express on behalf of my students their enthusiasm for him and the ideas of his and the other Black Arts figures that they were encountering, and ask if he would be willing to come speak to my class in the future. Without hesitation, he told me, "Yes." I asked a gentleman who was standing nearby to take our picture, and he only captured our hands, in a shake, though I didn't realize this until afterwards.  I think of that handshake now, and of all that I have gotten from Amiri Baraka, all that we all have received from him over the years, and without hesitation, I can say, Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Rest in piece, Amiri Baraka (1934-2014).

Amiri Baraka's hand, and mine 

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