Amiri Baraka

Amiri Amour:
Baraka in Memorium

Author-bandleader Greg Tate reflects on the heroic icon of Black letters, poet Amiri Baraka (1934-2014)

Greg Tate

by Greg Tate, January 14, 2014

Amiri Baraka

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

new books by Baraka for another three decades. (Trust that Baraka’s literary executors will find piles of manuscripts, as the man wrote as prolifically as you or I exhale.)

The Black Arts Movement that Baraka godfathered (in ways alleged by some former da capo enforcers to be as Corleonean, and even Caligulan, as Conceptual) transformed the relationship between Black American society and its poets, painters, dancers, novelists and serious musicians. It challenged Black artists to be more accessible and engaged with grassroots folk; it raised esthetic, political and historical consciousness within Black America, rocked the bourgeoisie and the boulevard's working-class alike.

The Movement also fostered radioactive waves of self-love ethnic pride, tribal bonds and identity. Some commentators (like this reporter) believe Baraka’s rhetorically excessive brand of hyper-nationalism, while not immune to charges of Jewbaiting and whitey-hating, was a necessary counter-supremacist corrective: centuries of Black self-loathing, born of constitutionally and tacitly legal forms of American racism imposed on folk of African descent required extreme measures.  

Say this for Baraka—he gave back to White supremacy as good and bad as he got. My mother, who maintained a friendship with the Barakas for decades, always liked to say, “Ooh, that man has a wicked tongue. Glad he never put that tongue on me!” A now dearly departed D.C. co-worker, Harlee Little, often described Baraka as a “word magician” capable of casting linguistic spells on his enemies liable to hurt them bad. To Baraka, once a rabid fan of Mandrake the Magician, Black Arts had a meaning beyond the obvious: he dreamed of BAM’s expressions deposing pale skin-did demonic forces.

Some Baraka admirers, colleagues, cronies and debunkers (like the Panthers) found the cultural aspects of his nationalism a tad too cultish and indulgent in pseudo-African pageantry for their taste. The Movement’s near-blind idolatry of all things Black as more beautiful than anything White got parodied by genius Black comic minds like Richard Pryor and George Clinton as soon as they felt safe.

Yet without the precedent and rage of the Black Arts Movement, it’s doubtful that various Ivy League schools, and even many HBCUs, would’ve felt pressured by students to create African-American studies programs or die. Many currently-employed Black professors/celebrity-intellectuals at upper-echelon schools wouldn’t have jobs today, nor would such capitalized cultural touchstones as Soul Train, BET, Essence, the NEA Jazz Masters Program, or the Alvin Ailey Company have found the funding or the audience to exist. 

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—David Henderson, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Amus Mor, Jayne Cortez, the Last Poets, Carolyn Rodgers, Mari Evans, Gil Scott-Heron. The equation is simple: no Black Arts Movement, no lyrical precedents for Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Mos Def, Kanye or Jay Z. Without Baraka and other Black Arts movement, there’d have been no radicalizing or modernizing lyrical precedents for hiphop’s streetwise poesy to build upon. 

As the ’60s became the ’70s, those on the front lines of that ongoing Power Move we euphemistically call The Struggle (notably Baraka’s Congress for African People, the Black Panthers, Young Lords, etc.) raised the stakes by guiding their radical vision and agenda more concertedly towards seizing electoral power in urban America—rallying hard to see that Black faces got voted into high urban mayoral places. The former goal led to the first National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana circa 1972, which Baraka was instrumental in organizing and rousing with a speech. (One Mama Tate, who was there, still remembers his presence with passion. "Baraka was commanding—at one point the New York delegation rose up with ire over some point. Baraka looked over at them and said, 'New York, sit down!' And they all sat down.")

Within two years, the grassroots folk of Newark, Gary, Oakland, Detroit, and D.C. had their first Black mayors and Congresspeople. That time’s vanguard also aligned themselves with national liberation movements in Cuba, Vietnam, Algeria, Palestine, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola and South Africa. The turn towards identifying with the revolutions being waged by other peoples of color around the globe resurrected the inclinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. in this regard.

In 1974 though, Baraka made a swift left turn away from being Mr. Super Pro-Black to becoming an avowed Communist. (Under Baraka’s fast-moving, ideology-switching hand, the Congress of African People eventually became the Revolutionary Communist League [Marxist-Leninist-mao Tse-tung Thought], which later merged with some Pan-Asian, Chicano-Latino socialists to become the League of Revolutionary Struggle.)

The suddenness of Baraka’s move struck some devotees like an ambush in the night; other less invested Black radicals considered these exotic switcheroos hilariously routine for the mercurial Baraka. Many position papers and sloganeering poems soon followed, as did epiphanic apologies for early acts of anti-semitism by Baraka’s younger, class-struggle-clueless self.

Now our man declared himself to be an anti-Zionist. This distinction failed to stop then New Jersey governor Jim Greever from snatching back Baraka’s Poet Laureate of New Jersey gig after he dropped “Who Blew Up America?” This bromide insinuates various and sundry forces—George Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Ariel Sharon, CIA, State of Israel—all knew 9/11 was imminent, and took pains to insure all of Israel’s WTC-employed folk avoided the workplace that horrific day. From that meshuggeneh, our takeaway was that anyone who thought Amiri Baraka couldn’t still Set It Off didn’t know whom they were dealing with.

By 1980, Baraka had merged forces with the multicultural LORS-ML, while back in the post Civil Rights money jungle, the radical wing of Black American intellects had begun to come in from the cold at spots like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Brown and Columbia. Other old cells, like surviving members of the Black Liberation Army and Weather Underground who’d held tight to paramilitary dreams of plotting the Fall of America, got either killed or captured and sentenced to supermax federal prisons for forever and a day. For his part, Baraka would spend the next 25 years teaching literature at SUNY Stony Brook, with short stints at SUNY Buffalo, Rutgers, and his alma mater, Columbia, along the way. 

Baraka’s changes in political philosophy never took him far from The People he loved or from prolific writing. He returned to music writing, a rich gumbo of which was published as Digging a few years back and contains definitive, up close and personal writing on the only two figures, musical or otherwise, who Baraka ever insinuated intimidated him in print: Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln.

The Barakas’ family home in Newark became legendary in the ’80s and ’90s among younger artists and intellectuals of the funk and hiphop generations for the generous, open verbal jam sessions convened there. At these, one might walk in (as my drummer friend J. T. Lewis did) and find yourself irrevocably immersed in hours-long conversations with “Nikki Giovanni, Ishmael Reed, Sundiata (RIP) and Harry Belafonte all under one roof.”

In that same era, if one was engaged in social-justice movements against apartheid or gang-related violence in urban America or rallying for Run Jesse Run (and later Obama) or even conscious rap conferences at Howard University—all the forums in other words which defined The Struggle in the ’80s to the aughts—well, there you’d inevitably find a still physically vital, politically vigorous and satirically unsparing Amiri Baraka.

Furthermore, if you were in New York on the jazz club and concert sets, you’d see him still giving up the dap by his presence (worth way more than Jay Z’s to those in attendance) to the most advanced veteran musicians and young turks of our time. Baraka never stopped spitting lyrics with the world’s greatest players either—check YouTube for the vintage and recent clips of him holding down the bandstand with champs like David Murray, Henry Threadgill and William Parker. (Check as well for his appearances with the Roots, Boots Riley of the Coup, and on Def Poetry.)

At 79, our man Amiri refused all prognostications of him being anybody’s fossil. His out-the-blue jettisoning from the scene creates a power vacuum in our brainwaves. One of the many immeasurable losses of his absence is going to be those must-read memoriams Baraka wrote in bloodfire for our Struggle’s most vaunted fallen soldiers, like Mr. James Baldwin.

So many once-hot causes, personages and organizations dissolved around Baraka seemingly ages ago—as many of his most beloved younger comrades (notably filmmaker St. Clair Bourne and Sékou Sundiata) shocked him abruptly by transpiring long before he did. In their honor, one suspects bruh’s twinned passions for art and social justice sustained incendiary intensity. The poet and publisher Jessica care Moore recently broke how any event, poetical or political, always got more gangsta whenever Baraka shuffle-bopped into the room. 

To this, we can testify recalling a gathering of Black Arts veterans convened by the producers of the Eyes on the Prize series about Civil Rights. Speaking last, Baraka rose and let the producers know that if they couldn’t come correct in narrating the co-terminus histories Black Power and The Black Arts, “We will come find you.” Since that Eyes on

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