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Remembering Amiri Baraka

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Portrait of Amiri Baraka by Billy Burgos

Amiri Baraka, the poet-activist-playwright-music critic and founder of the Black Arts Movement, died on January 9 at 79 years of age. Dating back to his earliest days, affiliated with the Beat Generation poets, to his time as New Jersey State Poet Laureate, Baraka's long, complicated career places him in the pantheon of most influential scribes of the last Century. This week L.A. Letters celebrates one of the greatest to ever pick up a pen, write a play or rip a poem. Long live Leroi Jones.

Born in 1934 in Newark, New Jersey, as Everett LeRoi Jones, his prolific career is too extensive to describe it all, but here are key particulars: he studied briefly at Rutgers and Howard before a quick stint in the U.S. Air Force in 1954. An anonymous letter to one of his commanding officers accused him of being a Communist, and when his journal writings were found in his personal belongings he was issued a dishonorable discharge by the authorities.

He took his potent words and landed in Greenwich Village soon after, where he collaborated with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in venues like the Living Theater. He married Hettie Cohen in 1958, and edited several literary journals, like Yugen, Kulchur, and The Floating Bear. His own writings began to be noticed as his first book of poems, "Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note," was published in 1961. He had an affair during this time with poet Diane Diprima; several books deal with this era and the women of the Beat Generation.

During this time Jones participated in the legendary "Umbra" Poetry workshop with Lorenzo Thomas, Ishmael Reed, and David Henderson. Still known as LeRoi Jones, his 1963 book, "Blues People" was described by Langston Hughes as "the first book on jazz by a Negro writer," shortly after it published. His insight into the ethos behind the music and its influence is why the book is still considered one of the greatest books on the development of Black Music in America. The 50th anniversary of its publication last year led to another reissue of the classic work.

The book explicates the history of African-American music, from its development 500 years back, all the way up to the mid-20th Century. He analyzes the path made from slavery to American citizenship, and how the social factors endured created new forms of music. The narrative differentiates different genres of jazz, and maps subcultures of the Blues scene in cities like Kansas City and Chicago. Another factor that makes the book great is that he intimately knew most of the contemporary musicians he mentions, like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, and Miles Davis.

One of the conclusions the book makes is that

the continuous re-emergence of strong Negro influences to revitalize American popular music should by now be pretty well understood. What usually happened [...] was that finally too much exposure to the debilitating qualities of popular expression tended to lessen the emotional validity of the Afro-American forms; then more or less violent reactions to this overexposure altered their overall shape [...] The result was a deliberately changing, constantly self-refining folk expression, the limbs of which grew so large that they extended into the wider emotional field to which all of Western art wants to constantly address itself.

What makes this comment even more prescient is that it was written in 1963. Motown had only just begun and the musical form known as Hip Hop was still a decade away from coming to rise in the South Bronx. Following those developments, this phenomenon he describes is even truer now than it was then, and the influence continues to grow as time goes on. In a larger context the appropriation of African-American culture he writes about in music is also true in other forms of art, as well as sports and other realms of popular culture. Jones' early jazz criticism also found a home in "Down Beat" magazine. Following "Blues People" was his play, "The Dutchmen," in 1964. Portraying an encounter between an interracial couple on the New York City train, the play received an Obie Award and incited controversy for the issues it raised.

In 1965, following the assassination of Malcolm X, LeRoi Jones changed his name and became known as Amiri Baraka. He left his wife Hettie Jones and their two children, and a few years later married Sylvia Robinson, now known as Amina Baraka; they have stayed together the last five decades. All the particulars are too much to get into here, but what's most significant is that in 1965 his poem "Black Art" launched the Black Arts Movement and the Black Arts Repertory Theatre School in Harlem.

He renounced his former interracial integrationist policies and became a "Black cultural nationalist." As most know, Baraka was not the only one politicized by the death of Malcolm X. As the Black Panthers were coming to rise, it was universally agreed that Baraka's poetry and the emerging Black Arts writers were the artistic branch of the Black Power Movement. Around the same time the Watts Writers Workshop came to rise in Los Angeles.

Baraka's poem was one of the manifestos of a movement that quickly went worldwide. Inspired by the Black Arts Movement, Kamau Brathwaite, John Larose, and Andrew Salkey cofounded the Caribbean Arts Movement in London in 1966. Guided by Black Self-Determination like the Black Arts Movement, the Caribbean Arts Movement also proposed a Caribbean-centric platform focused on creating and perfecting a Caribbean aesthetic representative of the islands rather than Europe.

There are few writers that can match the sheer productivity of Baraka. In addition to the 30-plus volumes of his poetry, drama, fiction, and cultural criticism are several anthologies he edited. Perhaps the most famous is 1968's seminal "Black Fire," the anthology he edited with Larry Neal. Among the many volumes from the Black Arts Movement, this collection is one of the undisputed definitive tomes with over 70 black writers, including Sonia Sanchez, Sun-Ra, Stokely Carmichael, A.B. Spellman, Reginald Lockett, Q.R. Hand, K. William Kgositile, Henry Dumas, Lorenzo Thomas, Victor Hernandez Cruz, and Ben Caldwell.

Baraka loved to engage crowds and never shied away from a literary festival, bookstore or major reading. He did a number of events in Southern California over the last five years, including the Leimert Park Book Fair where I last saw him in the Summer of 2012. His presentation was spirited as ever as he delivered his poem "Low Ku's".

I first saw him in Oakland in 1997 at the La Pena Cultural Center. The first question he asked the workshop was, "Why do you write?" He then asked, "What poets do you like and why?" I had just graduated from UCLA at the time and coincidentally was in the Bay Area when Baraka was reading. Somewhere lost in an old journal are notes from that late afternoon workshop/performance he gave.

A few years later I saw him read at USC in a big auditorium. An angry heckler in the corner of the room tried to interrupt him in the middle of the reading and Baraka yelled him down with no hesitation. His 2002 poem, "Somebody Blew Up America," eventually led him to losing the post as New Jersey Poet Laureate because he was accused of Anti-Semitism. Around the same time he recorded his poem, "Something in the Way of Things," with the Roots. The piece is well performed and as powerful as ever. The musical backdrop created by the Roots harnessed the poem's explosive quality, changing tones and tempos. Baraka delivers line after line: "I tried to put a spell on him but his spirit was illiterate."

Amiri Baraka with the Roots, "Something in the Way of Things":

In 2009 the University of California Press published a 400-page book of 85 of his essays, "Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music." In his John Coltrane essay he writes, "Trane's constant assaults on the given, the status quo, the tin pan alley of the soul, was what Malcolm attempted in our social life." Baraka's standard for writing about music equals the notoriety of his poetry. In May 2013 he reviewed a new anthology for Poetry, the influential Chicago-based literary magazine. The anthology "Angles of Ascent" is a collection of Contemporary African-American poetry. Titling his review, "A Post-Racial Anthology?" Baraka takes issue with the collection for several reasons. Baraka notes, "This is a bizarre collection. It seems that it has been pulled together as a relentless 'anti' to one thing: the Black Arts Movement." Baraka proceeds to take the editor, Charles Henry Rowell to task, taking the conversation back to 1966, Robert Hayden, and Fisk University. This is when Hayden and Baraka split over differences in opinion on the spirit of Black poetry. Baraka also name checks Rowell's literary magazine, Callaloo, and disputes the organization of the anthology and a few of the poets selected. The quote Poetry put on their back cover and one of the strongest sentiments in the article is: "Are we being faulted for 'hating' slavery, white supremacy, and racism?"

The entire review is filled with quotable blurbs charged with his patented wit. "This is poppycock at its poppiest and cockiest." Baraka also laments Rowell for ignoring spoken word and rap when he writes, "E.G. Bailey, Jessica Care More, Ras Baraka, Ewuare X. Osayaande, Zayid Muhammad, Taalam Acey, Rasim Allah, Black Thought, Daniel Beatty, Saul Williams, and Stacyann Chin are all missing." Around the same time Baraka's review published in Poetry he appeared at Cal State L.A. for a reading. Though I was unable to attend, I heard he was sharper than ever. Over the years he showed gradual signs of aging, but never slowed down his prolific rate of publishing and public readings. He was scheduled to appear at UC Merced in March 2014.

There are not enough words to eulogize Baraka and his influence on literature and contemporary culture. His own words from a poem on John Coltrane are a message I have often returned to in moments of uncertainty and question. In the poem "AM/Trak," reflecting on the death of his close friend John Coltrane, he closes with the following sublime series of lines:

    And yet last night I played Meditations
    & it told me what to do
    Live, you crazy mother
    & organize
    yr sh*t
    as rightly

Like Coltrane did for him, Amiri Baraka has inspired generations to organize their ish as rightly burning. Salute to Amiri Baraka's pioneering spirit and contribution to contemporary culture. He's an undisputed heavyweight champion in the realm of International and American letters.

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