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Amiri Baraka Passes
1/15/2014 4:16:14 PM

By Hakim Abdul-Ali

The worlds of literary arts and social activism lost one of its most poignant voices when Amiri Baraka died last week in Newark, New Jersey, after a short period of hospitalization. He was 79.

To call Mr. Baraka a legend in his time is really a gross understatement because he was an uncommon mover and shaker, unlike few people had heard or seen. He was a genuinely innovative playwright and a dynamically radical thinker in the fields of literature and theater.

Considered to be the most visible leader and one of the founders of the Black Arts Movement during the ’60s, Amiri Baraka chose poetry, drama, fiction, essays and music criticisms as flowing weapons of intellectual warnings and bombastic assaults on a governmental system that he felt was inherently flawed and stacked against freedom seeking people of color.

Born Everett LeRoi Jones, in Newark in 1934, this celebrated and artistic man of letters, who became initially famous in poetic circles simply as LeRoi Jones, had few peers in his revolutionary craft of telling it like it was (and is). Later on in his career, after legally becoming Amiri Baraka, he continually seemed to be at odds with “the system” in all facets as he wrote in his uniquely informative and agitated confrontational dimensions, campaigning for the causes of liberty and justice for all oppressed people of color, especially folk of African descent.

Never one to be second-guessed, the diminutive, but fiercely provocative Mr. Baraka always seemed to be at the forefront of challenging “the system” by his tenacious leadership in advocating against the decadent flaws of what he felt was an American apartheid racial structure. A brilliant scholar of the arts, he lectured and taught at many universities, most notably at State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Ever defiant, he seemed to score the ’60s and ’70s with a timely drumbeat of socially consciously literary writings and poetic messages that struck a nerve in the mind-sets of many freedom seeking people of color. To some he was considered to be militant as a persistently biased “select” fragment of White and Black America feared him and his powerful words and affecting thoughts.

Whatever your opinions of Mr. Baraka may have been, his life and contributions were multifaceted and substantial and few academics could or would fairly deny his stellar achievements. His undeniable bequest includes leaving the world such gems as the dramatic plays “Dutchman,” “The Slave,” “Four Black Revolutionary Plays,” “The Motion of History and Other Plays” and “The Baptism and The Toilet.”

Among his other works of literary genius are some jewels from his storied poetry catalogue like “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,” “The Dead Lecturer: Poems,” “Hard Facts,” “Slave Ship,” “Funk Lore: New Poems,” and one of my preferred,? “Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones.”

Mr. Baraka also wrote more than a dozen other fictional and non-fictional literary treasures that still implore and confound modern readers to explore life as oppressed people of color know it to be—both then and now. I’ve especially enjoyed the fictional piece “The System of Dante’s Hell” from his writings, but I also enjoyed the fictional highlights from Mr. Baraka’s stunning array of work, such as “Black Music” and another one of my favorite Baraka gem, “Blues People: Negro Music in White America.”

One of Mr. Baraka’s biggest supporters and longtime friend is the recognized California historian, eminent collector and “our-storial” exhibitor, Alden Kimbrough. From his home in Los Angeles, and via a telephone conversation with this reporter last week, as he was preparing to leave for Mr. Baraka’s funeral, Mr. Kimbrough shared his views of the renowned social activist and literary genius.

“I first met Amiri during the summer of 1966 when he came to San Diego for a presentation of one of his plays. He heard of my father’s outstanding African art collection and he wanted to check it out. This was before our family moved to L.A. when he visited us.

“My brother-in-law and I became friends with him, and I began to study his writings, even though I (initially) hadn’t been very familiar with his body of works. After reading his book, “Home Social Essays,” I was attracted to him from (then on) and to whatever he did because he clarified to me, as a Black activist, what social activism was all about.”

Mr. Kimbrough also stated that Mr. Baraka was one of the great book collectors of our time, a fact that most people may not have known. He said, “Amiri Baraka’s enduring legacy was and will be one which showed that he wrote prolifically about relevant and vital issues to Black people’s consciousness through and in the areas of poetry, aesthetics, drama, activism and music. He wrote more than Ralph Ellison’s, Richard Wright’s and James Baldwin’s combined bodies of work.”

As a point of information, this reporter lived in the next block from Mr. Baraka’s longtime Newark address, many times coming in contact with him and his Committee for a Unified Newark (CFUN) associates during the late ’70s and early ’80s. He was always gracious, refined and articulate, and he was a very outspoken celebrity in his hometown, never shying away from any in-your-face political dialogue with all who dared to challenge him.

Mr. Baraka won several prestigious awards, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation and an induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also received the Langston Hughes Award from the City College of New York and the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama.

Forever a lightning rod of “systematic consternation,” Mr. Baraka, after being named Poet Laureate of New Jersey in 2002, stirred up much controversy over his poem, “Somebody Blew Up America.” This poem drew the critical wraths of many political folk who considered Mr. Baraka’s poem as anti-semitic in tone.

It’s to be noted that after refusing to resign from the poet laureate position as result of the controversy, the position was abolished by New Jersey state officials. Going back to Newark’s infamous riots of 1967 and its tragic aftermath, Mr. Baraka remained forever a fighter for what he said and believed.

Acclaimed poet Horace Mungin, now living in the South Carolina Lowcountry, knew Mr. Baraka since 1970 when they met in Greenwich Village. Mr. Mungin, whose latest book, “Different Views,” published in 2013, was reviewed and endorsed by Mr. Baraka, said “Amiri was the embodiment of the Black Arts Movement. He was a genius and he will be missed, but fortunately his awesome resume remains intact for all to reflect upon.”

If you want to know firsthand about who and what this Newark son was all about, I suggest that you read his 1984 autobiography, “The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka.” It’s insightful and stimulating reading for anyone who wants to learn more about one of Black America’s most outspoken literary critics of all time.

Whether you respected and admired him, or, maybe, misunderstood and disliked his works, you’ll have to professionally and objectively agree that Amiri Baraka was a truly gifted writer, playwright, novelist, poet and committed social activist. To some he was even more that. For today and always, the struggle for “hue-man” justice continues just as it did during Amiri Baraka’s lifetime, and that’s, “As I See It.”

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