Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka: your favorite Black poet’s favorite Black poet

I think about a time when I will be relaxed.

When flames and non-specific passions wear themselves

away. And my eyes and hands and mind can turn

and soften and my songs will be softer

and lightly weight the air. —Amiri Baraka

Nabokov told us that all a writer has to leave behind is his or her style. Amiri Baraka, the swift raven of Black letters who left us behind forevermore on January 9, embodied this dicta, made the reading populace deal with a rowdy, robust gang of style. Miles Davis (whose powers of concentration, condensation and cool Baraka emulated in his poetics) once said he only had use for musicians who could play a style—stone-cold-bold originals. Originality, like style, is generally what’s left after artists eliminates all excess from their repertoire—all the corny stuff that seems better suited for some other joker.

Born October 7, 1934 in Newark, New Jersey, Everett Leroi Jones shed hosts of styles, skins, friends, foes and belief systems on the way to becoming Amiri Baraka, the iconic legend of literary and political lore. Like Miles, he got beaten bloody upside the head by upsouth redneck cops for being a model of uppity nigra defiance. Like Miles, Baraka walked away with brains, cojones and swagger intact… intensified, even.

I’m Everett LeRoi Jones 30 years old. A black nigger in the universe. A longer breath singer, wouldbe dancer, strong from years of fantasy and study.

LeRoi Jones is the byline the world first came to know him by, (simultaneously) as a poet, jazz critic, playwright, essayist and fiction writer. As Langston Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad, notes Baraka and Hughes are the only writers in the Black American canon to distinguish themselves in four genres of writing: poetry, fiction, drama and the essay. (Thulani Davis and Ntozake Shange belong on that list too in our humble—more fodder for diatribes to come.)

Every writer can tell you about the one book that changed their life, changed their mind, made becoming writer a fait accompli. For this writer here, that book was Baraka’s Black Music. His Blues People is standard reading for anyone wanting to know the history and socio-cultural-political significance of music to The Struggle, but Black Music is The One by freedom-swing musicologist Baraka that turned your boyee out. Made him leap overnight from 14-year-old Marvel Comics/sci-fi nerd to precocious warrior nerd for the cause of freakishly rad jazz improv.

Black Music introduced superheroic otherworldly entities calling themselves Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Pharaoh Sanders. And did so deploying a style that was as incandescent, indelible and whiplash smarting as the music itself. Laid down like grammatical law in Black Music is the mandate that music journalism seem as possessed by furies as The Music. Count this reporter among those writers who owe their adult vocation to being swept up by Baraka’s elegant prose juju at a tender, volatile age. Trumpeter Lewis Flip Banes, who frequently played with Baraka in William Parker's band, recently remarked, "The writing in that book was so visceral, you got excited about Wayne Shorter, Don Cherry and Archie Shepp before you'd even heard a note!"

Black Arts branded blackness in ways market-savvy, capitalist America could understand. Baraka’s own poetic dynamism also gave rise to the generation of movement poets who would ultimately lend hiphop its tongue-lashing voice.

The fledgling career of LeRoi Jones became noteworthy in 1959 with publication of his chapbook, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, which contains the poem of the same name now known as a much-anthologized classic. In a scant 18 lines, a gothic young Jones parses dissonant melody from his sorrows and hallucinations, confesses alienated harmony with everyday chaos, then achieves spiritual renewal observing the mysteries of infant curiosity.

At that moment, Euro-American poetry and fiction was being resuscitated by the bebop-inspired artistic offspring of the so-called Black Mountain and Beat Generations; Jones, then ensconced in Gotham’s East Village, swiftly bonded with the inner circle (Olson, Williams, Duncan, Creeley, Ginsburg, Burroughs, O’Hara, de Kooning, et al.) via books or bars. Jumped oboardn their drunken boat like twas lifesaver, barnacled their methods and milieu as his own.

Jones had arrived in the East a refugee of Howard University (where he served time with homecoming queen Toni Morrison, studied the blues with Sterling Brown, and Dante with the great Afro-Classicist Frank Snowden) and bombardier training in the Air Force (“Error Farce” in Jonesology). There, he became betrothed to the former Hettie Cohen, also a poet, editor and publisher, and became the father of two darling daughters, Kellie and Lisa—who rolling stonishly gained stepsister Dominique DiPrima in this period.

By the time Preface was published, Jones had become a promising fixture of the Village’s modern art-damaged bohemia. Hardly content simply hobnobbing with the Beats’ White male starchamber, an energetic and ambitious Jones read, wrote, and edited like a fiend. Thought very deeply upon all things poetical, personal and darkly sonorous, sipped cocktails, wrote down his jazz and what may come tales accordingly.

This proto-fly-brother in the ointment also devoted as much time as humanly possible going out to hear music of the great Black modernists who equally ignited his literary passions—John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor. These giants, among others, would provoke him to conjure his two aforementioned seminal classics of Black musicology.

By 1965, a barely 30-years old Jones had created the five now-canonical works that would forevermore insure his quothing on academic syllabi across the land and guarantee his dramas become mainstays of off-Broadway and regional theatre well into the 21st century: Blues People (once again, church sez Amen); The System of Dante’s Hell (a broken beat fictive odyssey through his childhood, adolescence and young manhood); The Dead Lecturer, his rapturously mordant second volume of death-obsessed née death-defying poems; Home, a book of cultural essays and belle lettres; and that first bevy of earth-scorching plays—Dutchman, BaptismThe Toilet and The Slave.

In 1959, the year 25-year-old Jones published …Suicide Note, a 33-year-old Fidel Castro and a 31-year-old Che Guevara took over Havana with a rebel army that overturned the U.S.-supported and Mafia-friendly Batista regime. In 1960, Jones accepts an invitation to join a delegation of upstart American artists for a visit to post-revolutionary Cuba, and gets to rap with Castro and Guevara. The Cuba voyage, essayed in Home, upstarts Jones’s turn away from poetic disengagement with tings politique—a 180 which will be propelled into r/evolutionary overdrive by the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965. 

This catastrophic event will provoke Jones’s 1966 exodus from the East Village (and his young family) up to Harlem, race-man re-purposing and action. Treating the end of Ellison’s Invisible Man like personal prologue, Jones had made the Village his underground asylum, tunneled his way out of existentialism, emerged as upright as pithecanthropus erectus atop the manholes of Lenox Ave, now learned in the ways of Western men and his own ’groidal Self, screaming his right to be Blacker Than Thou like a postgraduate King Kong.

MLK and the Civil Rights movement had never moved Jones the way Malcolm X had. But that movement, or at least a young firebrand faction led by Stokely Carmichael, was also moving X-ward since ’66, demanding Civil Rights now get down with some Black Power. In the years between 1965 and 1972, Jones will come under the sway of Kwanzaa creator Maulana Karenga, who’ll compel an epochal name change: Imamu Amiri Baraka (rough translation: the Wise Beloved Prince).

He shall also wed the woman who’ll become his 45-year life-partner, Amina Baraka, with whom he’ll embark on parenting six additions to the Barakas line—Ras, Shani (R.I.P.), Obalaji, Amiri Jr., Ahi, Maria Jones. He shall also transmogrify from heady Beat ingénue to the Father of the Black Arts Movement. Other milestone works of poetry, drama fiction and music criticism quickly follow—Black Magic Poetry, Black Fire, Tales of the Out & the Gone, Black Music, A Black Mass, Slave Ship. Read poems with the same jazz vanguard peers he’d written so exquisitely about earlier: Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Sunny Murray, Milford Graves.

In 1966 Harlem, he’ll obtain government funding (made available to stave off an eastward migration of the Watts Riots) to produce street concerts featuring Ayler, Graves and Sun Ra’s Cosmo-Drama Intergalactic Myth-Science Arkestra. Returning to Newark in 1967, he’ll form a performance group commune, Spirit House Movers; during that year’s riot/uprising, he’ll be held captive by a giddy gaggle of cops intent on death under the jail before Jean-Paul Sartre intervenes from Paris. (Another French Marxist icon, filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, will show up at Spirit House seemingly more in pursuit of irony than comradery.) Later in court, a Newark judge and D.A. will attempt to convict Baraka of inciting a riot with a poem.

By 1968, Baraka had become a resolute Kawaida-principles-following, Black Cultural Nationalist. The demands of all this newness meant rallying, conferencing, speechifying, etc. became as central to Baraka’s existence as the more lyrical aspects of his production. His writing didn’t go cold unattended (quite the opposite), but his writing career, as such, became enmeshed if not subordinate to his political fervor.

Since some of the fervor was expended in verbally assaulting White people in general, and occasionally Jews in particular, those in the commercial American publishing industry who fit those descriptions, or were empathetic to same, saw fit not to publish any