If you are lucky, or blessed, you will meet someone of such wisdom, courage, creativity and conviction that their influence, the very force of their spirit, will abide with you for the rest of your life. If you are particularly blessed, their presence will inspire you to be your best and strongest self. Other than my own forebears, Amiri Baraka was that person for me, as he was for so many others.
I met Amiri at the age of fifteen at 502 High Street, the headquarters of the Committee for Unified Newark. I was a wide-eyed, gung-ho street soldier. Amiri Baraka was our leader. He was also the first truly free Black man I’d ever met. And he lived it with the combination of style and swagger that only he could pull off.
His gifts were prodigious, and so was his capacity for inspiration. That is because he walked his talk. His every word and breath was for liberationist revolution. He was the very embodiment of a committed, self-sacrificing revolutionary. And he did it with eloquence of pen and tongue, unerring courage and principles he refused to compromise, even when his wellbeing was at stake.
Amiri was my first intellectual model. His extraordinary powers of analysis, his stirring oratory, the great breadth of his learning, his magical way with words and images all conspired to give me a new appreciation for the value of dictionaries and inspired me to read widely and eclectically. I found myself ensconced in Lao Tze, Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah, James Baldwin, the Qur’an, the Egyptian Book of the Dead. And, of course, the works of Baraka. Because of him, myself and every brother I knew fancied ourselves to be wordsmiths. For us it was hip to be a poet and a “deep” thinker. We’d recite and pontificate wherever we were, stretching and testing our powers of rhyme, reasoning and recollection. By the strength of his example and his luminous literary countenance, Amiri gave birth to a whole generation of street corner intellectuals, writers and political strategists, some of whom went on to become exceptional writers and thinkers in their own right.
My life-long love affair with jazz also began under Baraka’s tutelage. He brought to our weekly “Soul Session” gatherings musical geniuses like Sun Ra, Gary Bartz, Hamiett Bluiett, Grachan Moncur, the great John Hicks, Pharoah Sanders and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It was under Amiri’s musical wing that I fell in love with Trane’s “Giant Steps” and learned to appreciate what he called the “out cats,” like Ra, Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman.
But Amiri’s influence on me was more than cultural. My political consciousness was raised to center stage during those years under him. I’d had a smoldering sense of racial outrage since childhood, but under Amiri’s white-hot oratory it burst into flame. His words gave shape and coherence to my swirling political thoughts and feelings. Amiri’s disquisitions on the implications of political events, both national and international, were my first lessons in political analysis. Watching him channel his righteous anger, outrage and boldness into political action was my second lesson. He did not seem to stew over anything. Either he’d act on it, or he’d leave it alone. In that sense he was the archetypical activist intellectual.
His political brilliance notwithstanding, I think what was most remarkable about Amiri, and what impacted me most, was his political courage. He exemplified it, embodied it. He was almost recklessly unafraid to speak his truth wherever, whenever and to whomever he thought it necessary. His willingness to stand up to the forces of white supremacy stripped it of its mystique and gave to me, and to untold numbers of black people, a sense of power over our own political destinies that might have been unthinkable before.
Who Amiri Baraka was, what he did and what he represented challenged me to stretch myself, to believe in my own power, in my ability to change the world. By example he gave me and so many other young people a sense of mission and meaning for our lives.
What I gained from the blessing of knowing Amiri Baraka, from learning from him in the crucial formative time of my youth, is precious beyond words. I’ve had many important influences in my life. Yet I have no doubt that without the presence of Amiri Baraka in it I would not be the person I am today. And everyone in my world would be poorer for it.
Obery M. Hendricks, Jr., Ph.D. is the author of The Universe Bends Toward Justice: Radical Reflections on the Bible, the Church, and the Body Politic (Orbis, 2011). A former Wall Street investment executive, Dr. Hendrick is also past president of Payne Theological Seminary (the oldest African American theological seminary in the United States and a Professor of Biblical Interpretation at New York Theological Seminary and a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Religion as well as the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University.