Notable Passings: Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka: 7 October 1934 – 9 January 2014

Author and activist Amiri Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones and Imamu Amear Baraka, passed away on Thursday, 9 January at the age of 79. He is described in some news stories as a “militant” and an “agitator” – loosely translated, this means that he was passionate about his beliefs and ideals, but because he was a Black man those beliefs and ideals caused discomfort to many whites. From Al-Jazeera:

“Amiri Baraka, a militant man of letters and tireless agitator whose blues-based, fist-shaking poems, plays and criticism made him a provocative and groundbreaking force in American culture, has died. He was 79.

His booking agent, Celeste Bateman, told The Associated Press that Baraka, who had been hospitalized since last month, died Thursday at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.

Few writers were as provocative or polarizing in the 1960s and ’70s than Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones, and no one did more to extend the political debates of the civil rights era to the world of the arts.

He inspired generations of poets, playwrights and musicians, and his immersion in spoken word traditions and raw street language anticipated rap, hip-hop and slam poetry. The FBI feared him to the point of flattery, identifying Baraka as “the person who will probably emerge as the leader of the Pan-African movement in the United States.”

Baraka transformed from one of the only African-Americans to join the Beat caravan of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac to a leader of the Black Arts movement, an ally of the Black Power movement, which rejected the liberal optimism of the early ’60s and intensified a divide over how and whether the black artist should take on social issues.”

I read his book, “Black Art,” and did a report on it in my 10th-grade English class. This was in Alaska, remember, and I believe that was the first year that I gained some grudging respect from my teachers and classmates. The things I’d held inside for years poured out in that report – believe it or not, I received an A+ on it! I had also read some books by Ginsberg and Kerouac, but the sheer power of Amiri’s words stirred something deep in my soul. This quote, specifically, sparked the flames of my resolve to escape from that shitty, isolated, inbred town:

“We want ‘poems that kill’ …assassin poems. Poems that shoot guns/Poems that wrestle cops into alleys/and take their weapons leaving them dead/with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.”

I think that was when I decided that I wanted to write, write, write – I’d kept journals for years, but only made entries in them if something was disturbing me. I started writing about anything and everything, no matter how minuscule, that occurred in my life. By 11th grade, I was making plans to leave the place I called home – there was nothing for me there anymore; my spirit was being stifled, and I knew that I would die (literally) if I remained much longer.
Back to the subject at hand: Amiri’s detractors resorted to childish name-calling, dismissing him as a “buffoonish demagogue.” His supporters called him a “genius, prophet, and the Malcolm X of literature.” More from Al-Jazeera:

“The Black Arts movement was essentially over by the mid-1970s, and Baraka distanced himself from some of his harsher comments — about King, about gays and about whites in general. But he kept making news. In the early 1990s, as Spike Lee was filming a biography of Malcolm X, Baraka ridiculed the director as “a petit bourgeois Negro” unworthy of his subject. In 2002, respected enough to be named New Jersey’s poet laureate, he shocked again with “Somebody Blew Up America,” a Sept. 11 poem with a jarring twist.

“Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed,” read a line from the poem. “Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day?”

Then-Gov. James McGreevey and others demanded his resignation. Baraka refused, denying that “Somebody Blew Up America” was anti-Semitic (the poem also attacks Hitler and the Holocaust) and condemning the “dishonest, consciously distorted and insulting noninterpretation of my poem.” Discovering he couldn’t be fired, the state eliminated the position altogether, in 2003.”

This is what happens to Black people who don’t “know their place” – we are lied about and dismissed!

R.I.P., Imamu Ameer Baraka. Your legacy should be an inspiration to new generations. If only they would get tired of the whitewashed, spoon-fed shite that is the popular fodder these days and cease consumption of same…I won’t hold my breath waiting for that.

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