Amiri Baraka – A Literary Hero

23 Jan

AMIRI BARAKA PORTRAIT AT HOME

Amiri Baraka will never be silenced. I suspect that he is still in the vanguard bombarding all souls within reach with poetic flash bombs in the afterlife where revolutionaries continue to insist on justice. In my pursuit of wielding culture and knowledge as an alternatively blunt and subtle implement for social change I find his voice ever present.

Baraka first erupted into my consciousness as Leroi Jones in the anthology 3000 Years of Black Poetry, a book I stole as a junior high school student in San Francisco. His presence in those pages, alongside Gwendolyn Brooks, Mari Evans, Nikki Giovanni, Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, Victor Hernandez Cruz, and other poets, pulled me into an inescapable creative orbit. I had the privilege of moving within Baraka’s gravitational pull on a few occasions since stealing that book.

One of my all-time favorite poetry readings, from the perspective of poet and audience member, was organized by poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan at the Poetry Center at Passaic Country Community Center in Paterson, NJ. The lineup was Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Luis Rodriguez, Patricia Smith, Leroy Quintana, Michael Weaver, Lamont Steptoe, Elmaz Abinader, and myself. I remember Amiri being as explosive on the stage at that reading as I had found him on the page. He lit up the room in more ways than one. I witnessed that same effect over and over again whether it was at a Guild Complex event at the Chopin Theater in Chicago, the Nuyorican Café in New York, the Fillmore Heritage Center in San Francisco, or his study in Newark.

After leaving the Baraka’s home in May 2013, where I’d set up a photo, video, and interview session with Amiri and Amina, I realized that I have been fortunate to meet most of my childhood literary heroes. I met many of those heroes for the first time in the pages of 3000 Years of Black Poetry. My unbreakable connection to the words and messages in that collection was a reflection of the times.  In many ways the times have not changed so much from when I first found Amiri. He remained committed to the ideals and practice of revolutionary change to the end. That well-chronicled commitment will ensure that his impact and influence continues even under the onslaught of slings and arrows.

I was in Newark as part of the crew working on the upcoming anthology Of Poetry & Protest: Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin. We set up a makeshift studio in Baraka’s backyard to take advantage of the natural light. The day before driving to Newark from Manhattan we were with Sonia Sanchez on the porch of her home (there was another camera crew in her living room). The day before that we were in Nikki Giovanni’s office at Virginia Tech. We began our photo sessions that week at the Harlem residence of Quincy Troupe and Margaret Porter Troupe. A few weeks before that we visited Mari Evans at her home in Indianapolis after a session in Chicago with Haki Madhubuti, Angela Jackson, Ed Robeson, Eugene B. Redmond, Sterling Plumpp and other literary luminaries. It was as if I was visiting my poetry family. Losing Amiri feels like the loss of one of that extended family of poets.

In Baraka’s final months we were in contact and conversation more frequently than normal because in addition to giving permission for the publication of his portrait, poem, and biographical statement in Of Poetry & Protest: Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, he also agreed to contribute an essay. My friend and poet-in-arms Bob Holman told me “If you want to reach Amiri call after midnight.” After that advice Amiri and I had many late night exchanges. For the second time I found myself in the outrageous position of editing work that he had generously agreed to include in one of the projects I was working on (In 1999 Tia Chucha Press published him in Power Lines: A Decade of Poetry from Chicago’s Guild Complex where I was a co-editor).

As we exchanged edits of his Of Poetry & Protest essay Amiri and I sometimes wrangled (I’d like to think as comrades) over form, content, intent, purpose, and the relationship of words and meaning to the greater community of poets. At one point, distressed by what he called the “formality” of some of my editorial requests and the “absurdity” of the project’s concern over a potential libel suit based on his verbal evisceration of a certain Editor who will remain un-named, Baraka evoked words similar to those in his response to New Jersey Governor James E. McGreevey’s call for his resignation as Poet Laureate. He had written to McGreevey “I WILL NOT RESIGN.” In response to a few of my editorial requests he wrote, “I will not.”

I was immediately struck by the similarity of the language and respectfully found his response priceless. I laughed – to myself. Then I let that exchange sit for a while, because I realized that Amiri knew that in the grand scheme of art and revolution that we were on the same side.  After some intentional (and temporary) silence and reflection we picked up where we had left off and found a solution to our different editorial perspectives. I think that part of Baraka gets lost in the fire-and-brimstone only sightings of the man. Ultimately he was committed to solutions as much as he was committed to ideals.

In our videotaped interview in his backyard Baraka retold the story of Martin Luther King visiting his Newark home. What seemed to have struck him most about their conversation was King’s statement that what the Black community needed at the time was a united front. He seemed to appreciate that tactical insight. Baraka was tuned into the reality of political practice just as much as the role of radical theory. He trained his always-analytical eye on the possibilities of action as much as the poetic line.

I love and respect Amiri Baraka’s conviction to the truth, his unflinching and intellectually rigorous defense of his interpretation of the world, and his life-long commitment to the liberation of the oppressed.

The attached photo is one of many taken by Victoria Smith, the photographer for Of Poetry & Protest: Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, during our visit to the Baraka’s home. Please contact her for permission to reproduce and obtain a high-res version of this image or others at https://www.facebook.com/bigvicsmith.

— michael warr

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2 Responses to “Amiri Baraka – A Literary Hero”

  1. Mike Puican January 23, 2014 at 8:58 pm #

    This is just great, Michael! Thanks!

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