The first thing that strikes many about Amiri Baraka‘s poetry, especially his later works, is that it carried the sharp tone of an oppressed, angry people. It wasn’t flowery prose full of lofty life affirmations. It was the product of the frustration typically used when writing from a critical stance of a society that seemingly crushed the hopes of Blacks in America. Along with Baraka’s written works, his speaking engagements and lectures were always peppered with the spirited speech of, as he liked to say, “Afro-American” revolution.
Of course, historians will note that Baraka wasn’t always a fiery champion of African-American thought and that he changed political courses many times in his life. Others will criticize his often controversial views in an attempt to demonize him. In that way, he was no different than many of us trying to find a voice that best represented our lives, triumphs and struggles.
I came to Baraka’s work in my late teens, blessed to get a dog-eared copy of his book “Blues People” from a friend of my mother. I was thankful to have a parent who allowed my intellectual curiosity be applied to discovering myself as a Black man, and that book was one of many that formed the foundation I stand on today. From there, I discovered Baraka’s poetry which then inspired me to write similar works of my own. The impact Baraka had on my life and many of peers was widespread, and it all began with the Black Arts Movement.
It was from there I began to dive in even further into his work, learning that he helped begin the Black Arts Movement (BAM) in Harlem in the 1960s. The significance of Baraka beginning this movement in Harlem is important, considering the Renaissance period happened decades prior and signaled a change in the African-American contribution to the arts.
During the time of BAM, Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones) had found fame as a poet, music critic and playwright. Scholars note that around the mid-1960s, Baraka was considered one of the most respected writers of his generation. Yet despite his time on the beat poetry scene and cavorting with the likes of Jack Kerouac, Baraka saw a need for galvanizing his people and art being created solely from the experiences of Black folks. In his 1965 poem, “Black Art,” the line “we want poems that kill” began to signify what BAM would be come.
Other powerful voices emerged from the formation of BAM, such as Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Maya Angelou, Hoyt Fuller, and David Henderson among many others. This collective of young Black writers offered a glimpse of Black America that was not typically afforded to many, sparking an evolution inside all that were involved including Baraka himself. While BAM only lasted about a decade, it helped bring about a deluge of quality work in both the literary world and theater. Black art became something to be revered and studied, instead of feared and misunderstood. Some would say that BAM is Baraka’s crowning achievement.
I would agree if it weren’t for my personal walks with Baraka’s poetry as I grew older. “The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader,” published in 1999, is definitely geared towards students who wish to study the works of Baraka, but I found something different in the book. It was the first time I was able to connect the growth of LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka, and really embracing the full scope of the man. I’ve always admired his ability to stick to his guns, even if I didn’t always side with him. But I never wavered in my support of that bold and outspoken voice. His passion as a writer, activist and conduit of ideas was always inspiring to me and my peers.
In 1996, I was part of a small collective of spoken word artists and poets steeped in the tradition of Hip-Hop culture. We were at a local cafe that held workshops and events in Washington, not even a mile from Howard University where Baraka briefly attended. When news spread that he would be coming to check out some performances, a lot of us had our chests puffed out to impress him.
While I don’t recall everything that happened on that day 18 years ago, I never forgot how intentional he was in how he addressed us. I remember asking him what he thought of about the parallels of Hip-Hop music and the work of his time and he said something I’ve seen written in later interviews. He said, and I’m paraphrasing a bit, “It’s all music, young brother. Can’t over-think it, it just has to mean something in the end.” That’s all I needed to hear, and my brief brush with Baraka has stayed with me to this day.
Like many who saw him as an artistic father, I was worried to read that Baraka had fallen ill last month although it appeared he was on the mend. It saddens me deeply to realize that Baraka wouldn’t live to see the milestone of his 80th birthday later this year.
I know that Baraka fell out of favor with many considering his stances on homosexuality and his controversial 2004 book of poetry, “Somebody Blew Up America & Other Poems.” Being willing to unwaver from his pointed political views may have lost him support from the academic community of New Jersey and abroad; but what couldn’t be questioned was that he was strong in his convictions despite the threat to his professional standing.
If there’s anything that Black America can take from Amiri Baraka as we continue to honor his life and legacy is this: we should never be afraid of speaking freely from the center of our souls, despite the continued attempts of those whose sole aim is to silence us. That is what brother Baraka gave Black America and if we are to ever become greater, we would be wise to always remember that fact.
Rest In Powerful Peace, Amiri Baraka. Thank you for what you’ve left behind.