Ras Baraka reflects on the loss of his father and his ongoing legacy
By David Giambusso/The Star-Ledger
January 13, 2014
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
For decades, the stone, three-story home in Newark’s South Ward has been host to frenetic music, poetry, speeches and debate. On Friday, as family and friends crowded in to grieve with one of Newark’s most famous families, they quietly strove to absorb the loss of Newark poet, iconoclast and radical Amiri Baraka—and the world’s assessment of his legacy.
Reaction to Baraka’s death was as complex as the man himself. Many praised Baraka as a visionary who invented and advanced the Black Arts movement translating the history of black culture and oppression to a white audience. Others decried him as an anti-Semite and black nationalist who did more to inflame racial tensions than to ease them.
An artist at heart
Amiri Baraka’s political past in Newark adds a historic fold to his son’s political story.
In 1969, Amiri Baraka helped broker the black and Puerto Rican convention that would unite the city’s two most disenfranchised groups. A year later, Baraka would be instrumental in electing the city’s first black mayor, Ken Gibson.
But Baraka was at heart a poet, not a politician.
"He was much more artistic than political, and that was his nature," Gibson said last week.
Ras Baraka, a poet in his own right who is featured on Lauryn Hill’s 1998 record The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, said his father warned him off the political life.
"He knew the danger and the nastiness of it," Baraka said. "Out of protection for his son, he didn’t want me to be mixed up in all of that . . . He would always tell me, '"Don't lose your poetry license.'"
Still, by the time Ras Baraka’s mayoral campaign got rolling, his father was on board.
Before Christmas, the elder Baraka was hospitalized with complications from diabetes. He underwent surgery, but he did not respond well, family members said, and Baraka was placed in intensive care.
Baraka rallied for several days and on Christmas appeared in better spirits.
"Every nurse that would come in the room he said, 'Hey, my son is running for mayor,'" Ras Baraka recalled. "He came to the hospital with a bag of (political) literature."
A historical challenge
While his son’s political star may be rising, electoral politics could never hold Amiri Baraka for too long. His rebellious nature, his son said, led him to question every institution, every structure, making him a distinctly American writer.
"My father would always battle with academia because he would say what they’re teaching to us was not even American, it was European. People would think he was talking about James Baldwin, but he was also talking about Mark Twain," Ras Baraka said, before heading into the living room to greet a waiting crowd of friends and family.
A viewing for Amiri Baraka will be held from 4 to 9 p.m. Friday at Metropolitan Baptist Church in Newark. His funeral will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at Newark Symphony Hall.
Baraka said he hoped his father would be remembered as a poet and writer who believed "the job of art is to oppose what is ugly" and who never accepted the status quo.
"American history is not always as pretty as we want it to be," Baraka said. "But it shows a struggle for democracy—a country that’s challenging itself to get better and the people who wrote about it."
Ishmael Reed on Baraka's Satire
I published two of his books, “Sidney Poet Heroical,” a devastating satire about black Hollywood and “Un Poco Low Coup,” a book of his cartoons. Baraka’s work is considered “short lived” by some because he exposed the attitude of the mainstream toward black writers, that no matter how technically adept you may be with craft, it’s what you say that counts. What he said offended the members of what he would call “the ruling class.” He used his talent to write scathing indictments of racism and the capitalist system.
The Black Arts Movement, which he founded with poet Askia Touré and the late Larry Neal, was considered “short lived” because the media rely upon scouts to tell them what’s happening among blacks as though they were members of a nation that has its own ambassadors, whom the media rely upon to tell them what the drums they hear mean. Like the proletariat arts movement of the 1930s, the establishment wishes that the Black Arts movement would just get lost.—Ishmael Reed
Afaa Weaver on Baraka's Public Self
In the late 1970s, I drove to a reading Amiri Baraka gave in Washington, D.C. I took along my 35 mm camera. I wanted photos of the man who was already influencing my work as a young poet.
I had come to know the man a little in meeting him several times over the years, during conversations over meals. The influence of reading him became the influence of knowing him. Baraka, the poet, playwright, essayist, and activist who died last week at the age of 79, embodied one of the most important periods in the evolution of American literature: Civil Rights.
This was perhaps the most significant period since the post-Civil War era, when Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson laid the foundations of modern American poetry for the dominant culture while African-Americans fought to live in a time of horrific backlash during and after Reconstruction.
More so perhaps than any poet of his generation, Baraka was a public poet with a huge following, a poet whose influence transcended the barriers of race. He knew the major figures of his time intimately. The scenario of his youth in Greenwich Village, and later in Harlem and Newark, is a setting not unlike a grand opera in a time of tumultuous change.
He grew in the midst of it, struggling to define his own identity and, in doing so, influence the meditations of other cultural workers in America.—Afaa Michael Weaver 14 January 2014
E. Ethelbert on Mind Bandits!
I wonder who we will bury this weekend—-LeRoi Jones or Amiri Baraka? What do we want to remember about a person? What if like Malcolm, the man we bury this weekend is just a seed? What will come forth out of the winter(s) of America? What new generation will rise and take control? And control of what? What remains of our beauty today? We seem to want to avoid the hard facts. Then there are times when we won't let the old facts go. Our ignorance can reduce a person's life to one statement or poem.
Praise songs are not without holy piss. Poets are not saints even if now and then they might be prophets. We are not without sin. At the end of the day we are writers who simply come naked into the world and try to leave a few words behind to cover the ugliness that surrounds us still. When a man changes how do we measure that change?
Over the last few days and tributes to Baraka, I noticed little reference to his collection of essays—“Daggers and Javelins.” Here is his transitional work from 1974-1979. Here we find Amiri Baraka the Marxist-Leninist. Articles, speeches and lectures—some rejected by publishers are in this book.
Baraka writing at this time was a witness to a changing Africa and South America. Revolution was in the international air. It influenced his perspective on culture. We need to study the man in this moment with the understanding that the motion of history unlike death is not final.—Ethelbert Miller
Greg Tate on Baraka's Political Philosophy
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.)—Greg Tate