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Thinking About Amiri Baraka: Tributes/Resources/Remembrances/Video
In the series of alternating embraces and repudiations that would become an ideological hallmark, Mr. Baraka spent his early career as a beatnik, his middle years as a black nationalist and his later ones as a Marxist. His shifting stance was seen as either an accurate mirror of the changing times or an accurate barometer of his own quicksilver mien.
It’s impossible to find any one piece of work that illustrates the depth of Baraka’s work, but this video, in which Baraka reads “Dope,” gives us an idea of how Baraka was able to connect race, Christianity, economics, and domestic and foreign policy in a historical framework.
Baraka, who died yesterday at the age of 79, relocated from the Lower East Side to Harlem in 1965 shortly after the assassination of Malcolm X. Moving from his downtown digs, where he was a respected “Black beat writer” and music critic by the name of LeRoi Jones, to the fertile ground of Uptown, the then 31-year-old scribe decided to make several changes.
In the name of art and revolution, he shed his name, abandoned his family, and transformed his anger into literature. “After Malcolm’s death, Black artists met and decided we were gonna move into Harlem and bring our art, the most advanced art by Black artists, into the community,” Baraka told NPR in 2007.
Fellow writers Sonia Sanchez, Larry Neal, and many others of a new generation of wordsmiths created plays, prose and critical essays that were the textual equivalent of Molotov cocktails. “The Black Arts Movement is radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community,” poet Larry Neal proclaimed. “It speaks directly to Black people. [We are] the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power Movement.”
Later, Neal would add that the one of the prime reasons behind their renaissance was “…the destruction of the White ways of looking at the world.” With their powerful texts, including 1968’s Baraka/Neal co-edited collection Black Fire (which sparked my own interests in the movement when I discovered it as a teenager), the writers of BAM inspired many folks, not necessarily all Black.
Here’s Amiri Baraka in the film 1 P.M. It was directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Leacock, and D.A. Pennebaker in 1971; and also features Grace Slick and Rip Torn. Speaking of film, here’s his entire filmography.
Democracy Now spent an hour looking at the life and legacy. Transcript is also there. In 2007, Baraka talked to the show about his name change:
AMIRI BARAKA: I was Everett LeRoi Jones. My grandfather’s name was Everett. He was a politician in that town. My family came to Newark in the ’20s. We’ve been there a long, long time. My father’s name was LeRoi, the French-ified aspect of it, because his first name was Coyette, you see. They come from South Carolina. I changed my name when we became aware of the African revolution and the whole question of our African roots. I was named by the man who buried Malcolm X, Hesham Jabbar, who died last week. He named me Amir Barakat. But that’s Arabic. I brought it down into Swahililand, into Tanzania, which is an accent. So it’s Amiri, instead of Amir, and, you know, Baraka, rather than Barakat, you know, which is interesting. If it was Amir Barakat, I would probably have more difficulty flying these days.
Baraka’s work galvanized generations of younger artists, even as his stridency alienated him from the mainstream. But he managed to work in both worlds. He was a full professor for decades at SUNY Stony Brook, and he was recognized by the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. At the same time, he ran a community arts center in Newark with his second wife. Professor Kumozie Woodard says all these roles — teacher, activist, artist, leader — came together as soon as you walked into Baraka’s front door.
“One time I came to his house and there was all this noise downstairs, and I asked him what it was, and he said it was a group of junior high school students who had a jazz history class downstairs,” Woodard says. “And then I heard noise upstairs, and I said, ‘What’s that?” and he said, ‘Well, the kids have taken over my office, and they have a newspaper.'”
You might also be interested in his papers: “Cultural Revolution and The Literary Canon” (Winter, 1991); “‘The “Blues Aesthetic’ and the ‘Black Aesthetic’: Aesthetics as the Continuing Political History of a Culture” (1991); “Blank” from Callaloo, 1985; and “Afro-American Literature & Class Struggle” (Black American Literature Forum, 1980) are all at UbuWeb.
Amiri is the most effective when he is talking about things with passion and conviction. This is one of those rare moments when Baraka (speaking to a mostly white middle-class crowd of privleged Naropa students) can and does shine.
This year, the Christian right was gathering steam in the state of Colorado with another annual Boulder gathering – Promise Keepers, a men’s conference for “New Christian Leaders”. Up the hill, at CU, we could hear the howls of invigorated male testosterone driven energy. Another Kerouac School student and myself (Myshel Prasad) got inside the conference, where we saw Wellington Boone, an African American minister and rally-rouser (amongst the other X-ian Right disease) say to a crowd of thousands, “Brothers, we have to stop licking out wounds about slavery.. god put Israel into slavery.. God put YOU into slavery.. You must find your value in God.” Myshel and I came back shaken. the fist person we saw was Amiri. Amiri smiled and said:
“Did you tell them God was dead?”
Small Press Distribution is offering 40% off all Baraka titles, in honor of the poet.
Use the code “Baraka” when you checkout for 40% off, and remember this tremendous force in American literature through the power and challenge of his work.
Kristen Gallagher wrote about Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note for Jacket2 back in 2011. Gallagher provides great historical notation regarding Baraka’s political transformation and early writing. Here she is in video form.
And we’ll close with “Black Dada Nihilismus.”