I met Amiri Baraka last year at the Leimert Park Book Festival. It was the first and only time I saw him; he had come here to anchor a panel about the legacy of the '60s, the festival's headliner event. It hardly seemed possible to me that such a giant of black letters would grace this well-regarded but still modest event, in Los Angeles no less.
I was impressed, almost incredulous. Of course the movement happened all over the country, including here, but the ground zero of black activism is the South and the east coast -- the South for obvious reasons, the Midwest and east coast because of their big-city black ghettoes that in many ways replicated the segregated conditions of the South, but also produced great writers and creative agitators like Richard Wright, James Baldwin.
From his native and distinctly unglamorous Newark, Baraka built the Black Arts Movement and, among other things, tried to remake local politics so that it was accountable to the people. He was interesting that way, at least in that phase of his life -- an unapologetic black nationalist who yet saw the potential for racial justice in mainstream electoral politics and civic participation. To me, that's pretty much the definition of a patriot.
I didn't think I'd actually see Baraka at the festival, assuming he'd be sequestered somewhere until the moment he came onto stage, delivered by his handlers in the manner of a celebrity. I could not have been more wrong. Just before I was introduced, he was milling around with a bunch of other people around the rows of folding chairs arranged under a big canopy that served as the event's auditorium. Far from acting the celebrity, Baraka was one of the crowd and seemed to prefer it that way.
When we shook hands, I was overwhelmed but could see right away that he was not well: He was thin, slow-moving and stooped over. He looked slightly bewildered to be here. But he had a keen gaze that he fixed on me, a gaze accentuated by arched eyebrows that made him look querulous, or skeptical, or both things at once. Not knowing what else to say or do, I told him I was a big fan (true enough, though that always sounds so insincerely Hollywood, like "I love your work").
I gave him a copy of my book, which raised his eyebrows even more. He took it in his thin hands and said thanks, and that was it -- no words of wisdom from an elder, no inquiries about my career, or what I thought about the state of blackness now. But his reticence didn't feel like disinterest. It merely felt like who he was, a lifetime seeker who was still seeking, still taking things in and considering what they meant. He was still studying, sifting, assessing. He was not done.
I didn't attend Baraka's panel. I had another engagement that day that I frankly can't even remember now, but I have to confess that I was not-so-subconsciously thinking: I don't need to go. For what? I've been talking exhaustively about the '60s with other black people pretty much all my adult life, and I was sure I wouldn't miss anything by missing the panel.
Of course what I missed was invaluable, something I will never have the opportunity to see again as he passed away earlier this month. One of the most vexing legacies of the '60s is that what it started remains so unfinished for black people, it's sometimes hard for us to see that decade as history or a legacy at all. We take its heroes and innovators for granted; we assume that those indignant voices will always speak for us, even when we don't listen or show up to hear them.
Baraka said and experienced much in his life, but he took nothing for granted. Like the bluesman he was, he sang of hope and struggle and even triumph, but the lines he sang never resolved. He knew better. That's a legacy that belongs to us all.