Poet, playwright, and political organizer Amiri Baraka died on Thursday. Democracy Now! spent most of their hour today eulogizing this great leader.
Baraka died in Newark at the age of 79, surrounded by his family. New Jersey’s The Star Ledger published a lengthy eulogy:
Amiri Baraka, the longtime activist and former poet laureate of New Jersey died today, officials confirmed. He was 79 years old. Baraka was placed in intensive care at Beth Israel Medical Center last month for an unknown reason, but a spokesman for his son’s mayoral campaign said his condition was improving late in December.
Newark Mayor Luis Quintana said Baraka will be sorely missed. ‘I went to visit him at the hospital about two weeks ago,’ Quintana said by phone. ‘He was more than poet he was a leader in his own right. He’s going to be missed and our condolences go out to his family today.’
Quintana recalled Baraka’s role in the 1969 Black and Puerto Rican convention, a landmark political meeting that resulted in the election of Ken Gibson, Newark’s first black mayor. ‘We’re going to remember him always for his contributions to Newark, New Jersey and America,” Quintana said. “In this time of pain, the citizens of Newark and I are with him.’
Baraka had long struggled with diabetes, but it was not immediately clear what the cause of death was.
Kenneth Gibson, Newark’s first African American mayor said Baraka was the spiritual leader that helped enfranchise Newark’s black and Hispanic community in the city. ‘He was really a man ahead of his time in many ways,’ Gibson said by phone. ‘He was a spiritual leader of the group that we put together to develop the black and Puerto Rican convention.’Gibson and Baraka were close allies when Gibson was elected mayor in 1970 but Gibson said governance was not something Baraka took to easily. ‘He was much more artistic than political and that was his nature,’ Gibson said. ‘But I never lost respect for him and he never lost respect for me.’
Gibson said despite his outspoken nature, Baraka ‘kept a lot of things internal,’ but added, ‘He was a visionary. A visionary is sometimes misunderstood and sometimes they are understood, but he was in a class by himself.’
Mainstrem media obituaries focus most on his earlier writing documenting black culture while glossing over his later, radical politics. SPIN urges those unfamiliar with Baraka’s work to “Go Beyond Blues People:”
Writer, poet, playwright, activist, music critic, and walking bullshit-detector Amiri Baraka died yesterday at the age of 79. Most of the cranked-out obituaries thus far feel comfortable appending backhanded compliments like ‘polarizing’ or ‘controversial’ or ‘embattled’ to their headlines, a glib misinterpretation of a complex and knowing artist. Perhaps he would have been bemused by these tricks (certainly he wouldn’t be surprised), but it’s heartening to imagine instead that he’ll return someday to drop some harsh words — inspired by both the poetic tradition and a game of dozens, which, as, Baraka himself showed us, was its own kind of poetic tradition — on a still-clueless mainstream.
Born Everett Leroy Jones in Newark, New Jersey, he began his career as in the beat poet mode (as Leroi Jones) and helped found the Black Arts movement, which was essentially the arts wing of Black Nationalism. He changed his name to Amiri Baraka in 1968; by 1974, frustrated by what he perceived as the limiting qualities of Black Nationalism, he’d embraced Marxism. These ideological shifts, used against him by those who preferred things to be just one way for all time (though nothing is), represent Baraka’s persistent search for truthfulness and accuracy — ideals that his work revealed to be always unstable and up for grabs.
When surveying Baraka’s career, things get tense once you move past his ‘greatest hits,’ so to speak: His most celebrated works tend to soothe conventional liberal and academic attitudes. … And I can’t be the first to have pointed this out, but it’s funny how the literary establishment was okay with something like his 1964 Obie-winning The Dutchman — a play about a white women slowly dissecting a black man’s ego on the subway, ending with the white woman stabbing the black man in the heart — but became far less comfortable with Baraka’s later work, which was more about the oppressed enacting violence on the oppressor. Think something like his 1965 poem ‘Black Arts,’ a staccato manifesto about what poems are (‘Poems are bullshit unless they are teeth’) and what he wants them to be: ‘Poems that wrestle cops into alleys and take their weapons leaving them dead with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.’
Baraka’s 2002 poem, ‘Somebody Blew Up America?,‘ about the September 11 attacks, was a rabbit hole dive into our nation’s ugly history of exploitation and abuse that located the United States’ culpability in so-called ‘terrorism,’ over and over again. A mobius strip of corruption and hate, it’s punctuated by the loaded question, ‘Who?’ which it never entirely answers, either because the answer is self-evident, or because it’s too knotty to fully extract and stick in everybody’s dumb, xenophobic faces. That it would be attacked for its supposed racism in the midst of real-life policies enforced to vilify brown people all around the globe is precisely why speaking one’s mind — and letting it all out via smart, fearless art, warts and all, racial epithets included, with iffy conspiracy-theorizing and then some — is vital. And given Baraka’s reputation as a rhetorician comfortable with violence and even hate, his life-long ideological searching suggests someone indefatigably optimistic about life’s possibilities. You don’t remain so razor-sharp and daring for so long if you’re cynical.
If you’ve got a favorite work by Baraka, or a favorite memory or moment from his life feel free to share it in the comments. And even if you don’t watch the whole thing, be sure to check out the Def Poetry performance about the 15 minute mark in the video up top.
Photo by MDCarchives released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.