Poetry and its well-intentioned purveyors have long been stubbornly stereotyped as flowery, simple and unserious, even if their verses are brimming with double entendre and sly, subversive messages. For close to six decades, though, Amiri Baraka defied that narrow view. The crusading poet lobbed words and verses like hellfire, bent on a mission to upend oppression as he saw it in a country for which he fought and a world he desperately wanted to heal, beginning and ending in his own beloved birthplace of Newark, N.J., where he died on Jan. 9.
While he will be laid to rest there Saturday, after having spent many of his 79 years agitating for justice, fairness and love, his passions remain undying, for they lit embers across the globe.
“What you leave behind is one of the most important things you can do,” said Greg Corbin II, founder and executive director of the Philly Youth Poetry Movement. “The ability to create something that is powerful, not just in a poem, but something that is communal: It will be here after I leave this stage, after I leave this planet. He used his platform to speak what he felt. He definitely offended people, but he inspired a lot.”
Indeed, Baraka has been both hailed as a hero and derided as a demon, and, like many realities, the truth lay in the proverbial area between. Past incendiary comments toward the Jewish and LGBT populations have been trumpeted more than later reflections of regret and compassion, most probably because his ferocity made it difficult for anyone to believe he could truly recant, or even change.
Yet, Baraka was a man of constant evolution and evaluation, reshaping his perspective and approaches as he considered and incorporated new learning and shifted his worldview. He did this not for expediency, fortune or fame, but for the purpose of authenticity in his expression. Truth was his ultimate goal, his most desired fuel, and he pursued and espoused it with fearless fervor.
His criticisms and lamentations spared few among the powerful, his brethren or himself. He pushed the boundaries of literature from conventional niceties toward edgier socieo-political dispatches, observations and criticisms of the world in which he lived, all with the goal of creating what he wished would be. His methods of engagement stirred fear and discomfort, be it via his political activity, essays, fiction, plays, lectures or his most renowned mechanism: poetry.
“If you ever thought you were any kind of brazen public speaker-activist-artist ... you paled in comparison,” said Philadelphia-based poet and recording artist Ursula Rucker. “I pray that I can have that type of courage one day. To stand in front of a thousand people and simultaneously give a fuck, because that’s why I’m saying what I’m saying, and simultaneously not give a fuck—because that’s why I’m saying what I’m saying. To unapologetically press on, regardless of the chances you were taking of being uninvited to places ... Who does that now? Who steps out on limbs like that now?”
Baraka was the irresistible force that flung itself against the immovable objects of “isms”—ideologies that strive to repress various shades of our collective humanity. In the buttoned-down 1950s that marked his beginning, that was revolutionary in its own right. As the former LeRoi Jones, his name was often evoked alongside of fellow writers like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and the rest of the Beat Generation. By the ‘60s, a new consciousness and empowerment flowed even more freely from his verses as he, along with Sonia Sanchez, Askia M. Touré, Nikki Giovanni, Ishmael Reed, Rosa Guy and others, forged the Black Arts movement. From that arose black studies departments across the country—and new awakenings and reverence among generations since.
In ensuing years, Baraka would proclaim himself a Marxist, a socialist or just an adherent to any other philosophy that prized the virtue of struggle for freedom from imperialistic or jingoistic policies and mindsets. He lifted his pen like a battle flag, his art his field map, and he plunged into this war, one criticized as quixotic if not belligerent by people of all colors.
“The world will always remember him as a literary genius and iconoclast, but he wasn’t an angel,” said Wilma Grey, director of the Newark Public Library, who frequently ran into Baraka amid the stacks of books and public offerings there. “He may have been controversial, but many people who have that kind of mind end up thinking a way that is so different than everyone else. When you look back over your shoulder in history, it paints a different story then when they were alive. Look at Paul Robeson, how he was though of then, and now, posthumously.”
Fellow Newark native James Peterson, director of Africana studies at Lehigh University and an MSNBC contributor, said Baraka’s example pushed the bar for his own contributions toward scholar-activism skyward. Until the day he died, Peterson said, Baraka was about “the work.”
“The truth is too many scholars have a limited sense of what the work is,” he said. “The work has to be about marrying our efforts to intellectualize in the ivory tower with straight-up active work in our communities—mentoring, training teachers, sit-ins, marches, all of that. Baraka saw no distinction between his poetry, his playwriting, his scholarship and his political activism. And he was a family man—a father, an uncle, a husband, a community man—for sure. He was about all of the work for community.”
A figure whose notoriety could have demanded car service and specially-stocked green rooms eschewed such trappings of fame, Baraka preferred life on the frontlines, be that opening his home to teach kids the intricacies and importance of jazz music or denouncing slashed library budgets at an all-night City Hall protest.
“We don’t call him ‘Amiri;’ we call him ‘Mr. Baraka,’ and with reason,” said N.Y.-based author and activist Kevin Powell. “I interviewed him one time, and he told me, ‘Art is supposed to create order out of the chaos of this world.’ He tried to do that.”
“It’s easy to label someone as crazy and hateful, say he’s a ‘controversial’ figure,” said Powell. “He never committed any acts of violence. He talked about resisting forms of oppression. He challenged the injustices of this country, systemic racism and other forms of oppression. That is why his work is respected all over the world.”
Baraka’s year-long stint as New Jersey’s state poet laureate, cut short in 2003 on the wings of reaction to his volcanic post-9/11 screed “Somebody Blew Up America,” put the elder firebrand front-and-center nationally for the last time, exposing hungry young minds to his legendary life-long courage and firm commitment to creating art that is as enduring as it is provocative.
“How rare, how wondrous it is for a poet to get a rise out of our dozing populace!” said Rita Dove, former U.S. poet laureate and English professor at the University of Virginia. “Whether one agreed with Amiri Baraka’s politics, and often I did not, his ability to rouse the complacent and disgruntled alike from their respective torpor was as undeniable as his artistic fervor. It’s impossible to imagine the Black Arts movement without his fiery presence and piercing poems, which then, in turn, enabled so many younger poets. In my early days as a writer, he provoked me to wrestle with his powerful radical aesthetics and, in the process, to find my very own artistic perspective. I am grateful to him for this incitement.”
Nia Ngina Meeks is a Philadelphia-based writer. Follow her on Twitter @nmpurpose.