Amiri Baraka: Black Leader And Poet Laureate To The ancestors
BY Gloria Dulan-Wilson
One of the greatest icons of the Black Power and Black Arts Movement has made his transition to the ancestors – Brother Amiri Baraka – who was born Everett Leroy Jones and later changed his name to LeRoi Jones, made his transition on January 9, 2014.
Born October 7, 1934 in Newark, NJ, he would have been 80 this year had the Infinite not decided that it was time for him to come Home. By most accounts, he was a prodigy, having graduated from high school at the age of 16. He entered Rutgers, and finding it not to his liking or mind-set, and later transferred to Howard University. Ironically, though, Howard, considered a leading Black college, was even less to his liking because of the bourgeois mind-set of the students of the day. As a result, he dropped out and entered the services. A choice which also proved disastrous because he was dishonorably discharged for reading Communist literature while on the base.
Whether he knew it or not, all these incidences led up to his becoming the militant leader and the progenitor of the Black Arts Movement for which he is so widely known, loved and appreciated. All these involvements, the Beatnik era with Ginsberg in Greenwich Village where you dropped out, tuned out and became anticultural, pointed more to what was absent in his life – and it led to his discovering that he was the answer he was looking for; and by extension, the answer that the rest of us were looking for as well – our BLACKNESS.
For all intents and purposes, LeRoi Jones started out to be a poet and playwright, having started as a Beatnik in the 50’s with some of the luminaries of that era. He originally aspired to be heralded by such literary tomes as the New Yorker Magazine, but according to sources, realized that he could or would never write in their nomenclature because it did not adequately express what he felt as a Black man in America – of course, at that time we were still “Negroes” – nevertheless, the Blackness that was the essential Baraka was slowly rising to the surface.
Even his involvement in the “Beat Generation Movement” was more because of the paucity of authenticity in what was then marginalized Black society. He was trying to find a culture in a subculture whites had carved out for themselves in rebellion to mainstream 50’s and early 60’s.
The major turning point for Baraka was the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, which apparently had a profound affect on him, though at the time he was married to a Jewish woman, had two children and they were co-editors of a magazine. The catalyst of Malcolm’s assassination catapulted him from marginality to full involvement in the Black community.
He moved to Harlem – the Mecca for Black people–divorced his former wife, rolled up his cultural sleeves and began the work that was really already in his heart and genetic code – his calling – the establishment and nurturing of a Black Cultural Artistic and Nationalistic Movement. A movement that evolved into an ethos, a society, a way of life that impacted Black people (we were no longer Negroes by that time either) nationally and internationally.
Of course, the fact that he had penned the play, Dutchman (1964), which garnered many awards, including an Obie (Off-Broadway Award), was yet another clear indication that his Blackness was just waiting for a catalyst to catapult him from the periphery into the very center, the heart of Blackness, where he has remained from that day forward.
Historically speaking, Amiri Baraka – which is the name he adopted in 1967, shedding forever the LeRoi Jones appellation, was co-founder of the Black Arts Repertory Theater in Harlem, along with Larry Neal (Lincoln University alumni) and Askia Muhammad Toure. He gave voice and texture to a host of Black artists-in-waiting – including Nikki Giovanni, Gil Scott-Heron, Haki Madhubuti, Gwendolyn Brooks and others – by defining that Black art and writing needed to be relevant to Black people. It could not be just pretty words that rhymed. It could not just be idyllic concepts of sweetness and light. It had to be liberating. It had to evoke action, release the residual slave mentality so many of us were still laboring under during those bad old days (and some of us still are during the contemporary times; and still, even more sadly, some of us have reverted to, finding it too hard to maintain Blackness in the realities of the meanstream mainstream).
An additional historical fact was that Newark, NJ, Amiri’s hometown, exploded into full rebellion (which whites call “riot”) in July 1967 – which, of course any Black person worth his salt knows, never just happens – but is the result of decades of abuse, insults, racist policies and deprivation. Hugh Addonizzio, mayor at that time, was probably as egregious in these policies as any Bull Conner down south – and even more so, given the fact that this was the “North”, the land to which many Blacks had emigrated to get away from just the very same treatments.
Whatever it was, it was the next catalyst that made “LeRoi Jones” a household name for decades to come, because suddenly his face was on the cover of many newspapers with a blood-soaked bandage around his head, flaming eyes and that famous gap in his teeth as he flared at the cameras of the reporters who were there to “cover” the events. It was my first recognition of his as anything other than a poet – when the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local papers had his face front and center with the headlines: “WHAT DOES LEROY JONES WANT??”
It changed the way many other contemporaries viewed him as well – as evidenced by the subsequent Black Power Conferences that were convened and held across the country to try to get a handle on the direction the movement suddenly saw itself going. Amiri made it more than just a movement, and codified the principles by which Black people could inculcate this newfound freedom and way of life in a form of self-liberation from their post-slavery mentalities that they had been laboring under.
SNCC had been likewise instrumental in liberation movements, so there was a strong affiliation with Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown and others who had sought to help Black people disassociate themselves from the negative brainwashing of 400 years of enslavement; and Maulana Ron Karenga’s Kawaida Movement, which also saw it as a cultural nationalistic move that could, given the right context, help Black people become self-sufficient in a society bent on keeping them subservient. Under the mentorship of Karenga, Baraka rose to become the central focus in terms of how it should be and could be – and in the case of New Ark – was done.
Efforts to involve the Black Panther Movement proved too risky because of their philosophy of armed confrontation – highly dangerous in a society that thought nothing of blowing Black people away on a regular basis.
Baraka involved time-honored organizations like the Urban League and NAACP as well, rather than ignore their impact and influence on large populations of African-Americans. So Whitney M. Young, Jr. was as critical a factor in the Black Power Conference of 1968 as Max Stanford of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM). (NOTE: it’s a Libran trait to try to bring balance to all sides and Baraka – like Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton – all Librans have the capacity to see both sides of a question or problem and want it to the most positive extent possible, amalgamate the positives while eliminating or neutralizing the negatives – it’s what they do.)
When Amiri married the beautiful Amina (formerly Sylvia Robinson) in 1967, he found a soul mate and an equal. She was/is as talented and creative as she was/is beautiful. Theirs was a 46-year marriage, partnership, kinship admired, envied by many of their contemporaries. It was also an example of what happens when Black men and women get it right – mutual love, respect, values, interests, dedication. They had five children* who, each in his or her own right, are offshoots of that considerable talent in their home (Shani, their youngest daughter, was murdered in 2003).
At the 1968 Black Power Conference in Philadelphia, PA, he, along with the team of Carmichael, Brown, Karenga, Jesse Jackson, Milton Henry and others, formulated a protocol that would make it possible for African-Americans across the spectrum of economic and educational status to come together under a consolidated cultural national ethos. In 1967-68, he moved back to New Ark to set up his own center and begin the task of training his community – where he felt he was needed the most – in the rebuilding and development of their own Black-owned, Black-run and Black-educated society.
Interestingly enough, as far as I’m concerned, Amiri Baraka could and should have been the mayor of Newark, NJ – he certainly was the head of New Ark, the society within the city. I’m almost sure, with the influence he exercised over the city at that time, through the 21st century, that if he had at any time expressed the slightest interest in becoming mayor, he would have won with a landslide of votes.
As it was, he so transformed the city during his initial impact that CFUN (Committee for a Unified New Ark) became the national and international model for Black self-empowerment. Under the mentorhsip of Maulana Karenga, Stokely Carmichael and in conjunction with his wife/life mate/partner, Amina Baraka, organized transformation throughout the communities saw the rise of the Spirit House Movers and Players; weekly programs called Soul Sessions – which included originally composed music, interspersed with speeches and lessons on Black history; cooperative educational and child care programs coordinated by Amina Baraka, making it possible for the other women to attend classes, have full- or part-time jobs without exposing their children to the hostile brainwashing of the meanstream educational programs; cooperative housekeeping, cooking and shopping among the women – also coordinated by the women.
Via New Ark, the Barakas had established an example of coordinated, cooperative equality between men and women that had been lacking in most other Black political organizations which either marginalized women or left them out altogether. Subliminally, Amiri may have absorbed much of what he learned from his mother, a social worker, who worked in the community and was well aware of the difficulties many of the families faced in terms of employment, living conditions, educational challenges. Among the many systems established under CFUN were the National Black Leadership Council, Congress of African People, National Black Assembly, African Liberation Support Committee, Black Women’s United Front.
However, by 1974, Baraka had declared the Black Liberation Movement DOA – as the advent of drugs and Blaxploitation movies began to permeate the communities, effectively undermining and supplanting all that had been accomplished – eroding at the effect of Black education in schools, which had become passe’ (now that we were acceptable, we were no longer fashionable). His Marxist period did not mean that he no longer had an interest in Black Nationalism, but that he no longer found the so-called practitioners of cultural nationalism to be as genuine or dedicated as the original founders. Many had become little more than poverty pimps, pretending to be part of a movement to garner whatever funding available – little of which found its way into the Black community or Black institutions.
In the captions of the meanstream press when speaking of Amiri Baraka’s passing, he’s been called “polarizing,” “embattled,” “controversial;” as opposed to “GENIUS”, or “ICONIC”. For us, he was right up there with other Black writers who have made a difference – Frederick Douglass, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Frantz Fanon, Leopold Sedar Senghor and others.
Baraka took no middle path. His phrasing was to be felt as much as read. He was evocative and clarifying at the same time. He made his words leap off the page by the very way in which he placed them. Never meant to be just read as a rhyme – art and poetry were for him a weapon in the battle for the mind, hearts and souls of Black people. He may have made mid-course corrections in his trajectory towards Black Empowerment, but he never stopped being Black – not even for one second of his life.
This could become a very long article if I attempt to write all that Amiri Baraka has done for Black people over the past 50+ years. But now that I’ve laid the groundwork for the context of the contemporary Baraka, it’s important to note that while the meanstream press tried to write him off after he became and was fired as Poet Laureate of New Jersey, so named by former Mayor McGreevey, it shined a light on the fact that he had been busy as ever as professor of African-American Studies at Stony Brook University in Long Island, NY; professor at Rutgers University (which refused to grant him tenure – yet another racist move which let’s you know that it was still alive and well and existing in New Jersey); had authored more books and poems than the white realm could either fathom or keep pace with. A partial list of publications include the following: Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note; Blues People: Negro Music in White America; The Dead Lecturer; Dutchman and The Slave; The System of Dante’s Hell; Black Music; Black Magic; In Our Terribleness; It’s Nation Time; Spirit Reach; The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader; Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones; Wise, Why’s Y’s; Funk Lore: New Poems
Of course, his relevance to us had never waned. To have Amiri Baraka as a keynote speaker, a panelist or even an attendee was to us a major coup. It meant what you were doing (or trying to do) had merit and worth. So when he was accorded the title of Poet Laureate, we basically felt it was about time he garnered the recognition in the mainstream he already had with us. He was already always legitimately a Poet Laureate as far as we were concerned. Nine/Eleven notwithstanding, the relevance of the poem that caused all the fracas was true with or without the destruction of the World Trade Center, the attack on America, the toppling of the Twin Towers. The pseudo accusation of “anti-Semitism” to most of us was a coverup for the glaring and still unanswered questions that were brought to the forefront in that poem.
It is also why, for the celebration of his 75th Birthday, the City of Newark saw fit to have a five-day celebration instead of a single event. He had more than earned and deserved their/our gratitude and respect for not only staying the course, walking the walk and talking the talk, but showing us the true dimension of who we can be if we’re not afraid to be who we really are. While there are modern efforts on the part of many groups to return to Blackness and empowerment, all that is really necessary is to revisit what has already been set out by Amiri and Amina Baraka and re-inculcate those principles and institutions into modern times. It’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel. What’s really needed is to not drop the ball this time and carry it forward to the intended goal.
The magnitude of his contribution to Black people is the gift that keeps on giving for generations to come. It was not now, nor ever intended to be a one-shot deal. He is at one and the same time history and future – prophet and soothsayer and visionary and architect rolled into one.
While his leaving may have been called a “Loss.” It’s more like a legacy that we are yet again charged with the responsibility of carrying forward. And he definitely left several blueprints, so no one can say they don’t know where to start or how to proceed. Amiri Baraka stood only 5’7”, but he left such huge footprints to step in. We just need to read the many instruction manuals he’s penned down through the ages, we’ll have more than enough training and information to go forward to empowerment.
Love, honor, respect and condolences to the Baraka family and to Black people everywhere.
January 14, 2014