Friday, January 10, 2014

In Memoriam--Amiri Baraka
In Memoriam—Amiri Baraka

By Herb Boyd

      Amiri Baraka, like his name, was a blessed prince, and he loomed
like a colossus over the Black arts movement, excelling in practically
every literary expression—as a poet, playwright, novelist, historian,
journalist, and essayist.  One of the most versatile writers in America,
Baraka died Thursday afternoon in Newark, New Jersey, where he was born
and lived most of his life.  He was 79.
      No cause was given for his death, though he had been hospitalized
for several weeks and was reportedly a diabetic.
      From his early days in Greenwich Village where he began to make
his mark among a coterie of beatnik and avant-garde notables such as
Allen Ginsberg, Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, Bob Thompson, Hettie Cohen and
Diane di Prima (and he had children by both women) as a poet and
publisher of small journals to his halcyon days in the fulcrum of the
Black liberation struggle, Baraka was an irrepressible spirit and his
star would shine even brighter after settling in Harlem and helping to
spur the emergence of Black nationalism and Pan African thought.
      But he had already established himself as a leading playwright by
1964 with “Dutchman,” which earned him an Obie award.  The play featured
two characters, Clay, a black man, and Lula, a white woman.  And their
intense exchanges often mirrored the nation’s troubled race relations.
        A year before his acclaim on Off-Broadway, Baraka, then LeRoi
Jones, had written Blues People that was a sizzling summary of African
American music which is still considered among the best compendium’s of
the blues; and he would later complete Black Music and do for jazz what
he had done for the blues.
        By 1965, following the assassination of Malcolm X, Baraka was in
Harlem and an active member of the Haryou Act where he dispensed lessons
in theater while sharpening his political analysis and assuming a larger
role in the activist community.
        This is not to say he wasn’t politically conscious since the
sprigs of that sprouted as early as his days at Howard University and in
the Air Force, which he called the “Air Farce,” and certainly by the
time he was a delegate who traveled to Cuba at the invitation of Fidel
        During the late sixties Baraka was a prominent figure in the
Black Power movement and as a founder and leader of the Congress of
African People (CAP) he promoted the philosophy of Kawaida {Swahili for
tradition) formulated by Maulana Karenga.  In 1972, he was in Gary,
Indiana as a guiding force in the National Black Assembly.  But two
years later as a delegate to the Sixth Pan African Conference in Dar es
Salaam, Tanzania he announced in a paper delivered at the conference
that he had adopted a Marxist-Leninist outlook, an ideology he would
retain for the rest of his life.
        Born Everett Leroy Jones on Oct. 7, 1934, he was the son of
middle class parents and was on the same path as a student at Howard
University.  But soon his iconoclastic personality surfaced and to
demonstrate his break with the bourgeois tendencies so prevalent at the
school he derided the administration by sitting in the middle of campus
eating a watermelon.
      That same defiant attitude would color his stay in the Air Force
and he was dismissed with a dishonorable discharge, accused of reading
subversive literature.
        The Village with its abundance of free spirits was a natural
environment for his non-conformity, his radical penchant and one who was
always eager to think and act outside of the box.
        While Baraka possessed a Midas touch when it came to the
written word, his preference was poetry, and it’s hard to choose one
poem that encapsulates his prowess, though “We are unfair, and unfair/We
are black magicians, black arts we make in black labs of the heart. The
fair are fair, and deathly white. The day will not save them/and we own
the night” provides a glimpse of his sentiments about racism and white
supremacy during at least one stage of his ever evolving life.
        In a poetic homage to Baraka, esteemed poet and publisher Haki
Madhubuti wrote a number of poems for his friend and this excerpt is an
expression of his respect and high regard—“…approaching him I wondered
why this genius of serious music of transcendent literature wasn’t
surrounded by readers, fans, collectors of fine words on pages seeking
instructions and autographs.”
      His devotees may not have been as obvious and visible as
warranted but they were many and you didn’t have to walk to far in
Newark to bump into someone ready to spout about Baraka’s black magic,
his relentless fight against forces of oppression.
      Even into his seventies, his younger associates in Newark
declared, Baraka was still on the ramparts, despite all the controversy
surrounding his poem about the bombing of the World Trade Center,
despite being stripped of his laureate honor, and despite the crippling
challenges that came with age.  “Even though he was in his late
seventies,” wrote anti-violence activist Bashir Akinyele, “he was with
us on the streets at many of our most critical turns, like when we shut
down Broad and Market the first time in 2009!”
      And none of the late challenges in his life were as hurtful as to
lose his sister and his daughter Shani and to see the daily assaults
targeting his sons as they fought to make their hometown a safe haven.
      Two years ago, the ever feisty Baraka expressed his derision over
the publication of Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X.  It was his
opinion that Marable had assassinated Malcolm again and he publicly
denounced the book at several forums and in print, which he did with his
typical sense of outrage and denunciation.
      Still, there was Baraka the praise master as he did at the
funeral services for James Baldwin and at the more recent memorial for
Jayne Cortez.  And a more extensive collection of his words can be found
in a reader under his name, which resonates with much more conviction
than even his autobiography.  Baraka at one time referred to himself as
Imamu and Mwalimu and to a great extent he was both priest and teacher,
as the Swahili words designate, and there are thousands of his students
to attest to his profound wizardry in the classroom.
      However, in the end, the final words ring with beauty and
authority in his poetry.  In this one Baraka’s ironic wordplay is never
more succinct and to the point.
                      Monday in B-Flat

I can pray
    all day
    & God
    wont come.

But if I call
        The Devil
            Be here
        in a minute!
      Baraka, who moved effortlessly from art to politics, leaves behind
an extraordinary corpus of creativity to be protected and managed by his
talented wife, Amina, and his children Amiri Baraka, Jr.. Ras Baraka,
Obalaji Baraka, Ahi Baraka, Dominique DiPrima, Maria Jones, Lisa Jones,
and Kellie Jones.

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