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!"
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, Baptism, The 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 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 More Inflammable Prizes never happened, assume some figured they couldn’t get it right—or Left—enough, and didn’t need Baraka coming after them.
That said, let none assume Baraka’s too far gone now not to suddenly jump up and roundhouse they petit-bourgeois comprador asses from beyond the grave with the quickness.
Greg Tate is a writer and musician who lives in Harlem. His books include Flyboy in the Buttermilk, Everything But the Burden and Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience.