by Maria Simon
Amiri Baraka was a giant to those who know him. And now that he is physically gone, his legend will only grow.
Baraka died this week at the age of 79. The Associated Press confirmed his death through his booking agent, Celeste Bateman. He had been in the hospital since last month.
Formerly known as LeRoi Jones, Baraka was a critical figure in bringing the civil rights struggle into the world of the arts. His work has inspired an entire generation of poets, playwrights and musicians. The FBI once identified him as “the person who will probably emerge as the leader of the pan-African movement in the United States.”
Baraka was a recognized and respected revolutionary, demanding equality for people of color and the teaching of Black history and various art forms.
“We want ‘poems that kill,’” Baraka wrote in the Black Arts Manifesto in 1965: “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.”
Of course he had his critics, Black, white and otherwise. But even those who critiqued him considered him to be brilliant, even referring to him as the Malcolm X of literature and spoken word. He pushed forth the Black Arts Movement, something that might be valuable in 2013 after most African American artistic expression has been warped for the pursuit of the corporate dollar.
“From Amiri Baraka, I learned that all art is political, although I don’t write political plays,” said August Wilson, who won the Pulitzer Prize.
May he rest in peace and may a thousand others take his place.
This story first appeared on KultureKritic.
The Malcolm X Commemoration Committee on Amiri Baraka
by Zayid Muhammad
While Newark has produced its share of stars who have left town for their special places on top of the world, only Amiri Baraka used his star status to bring the world to Newark to advance our struggle!
“On the cultural side, he accomplished more in a lifetime than most people could in five,” declared Lawrence Hamm, chairman of the Newark-based People’s Organization for Progress. “On the political side, he was really a foremost advocate and practitioner of Black self-determinism. A lot of people talked about Black power. Baraka was actually on the ground practicing Black power in Newark, and he ended having a tremendous amount of influence on the way people thought.”
Amiri Baraka was a prolific author. Only weeks ago, his highly celebrated cultural classic, “Blues People,” was celebrated for its 50th anniversary.
As an organizer, his Committee For a Unified Newark was key in securing the historic 1970 election of Ken Gibson as mayor, the first African American mayor on the East Coast. His Congress of Afrikan Peoples was a national effort to forge a Black United Front called for by his leader, the immortal Malcolm X.
He often said bluntly and yet humbly that “Malcolm X was my leader” in gatherings and discussions around our leader, and unlike many who made those claims with no practice to back that up, Amiri Baraka had plenty of groundbreaking practice to back that up.
Let the record reflect that Amiri Baraka was in a left-liberal place when he met and had a 12-hour session with our leader before his assassination. And after the assassination, Amiri left all things “liberal” and got busy!
That is the essence of Malcolm’s revolutionary legacy. When you came to Malcolm with sincerity, you would leave a changed person, in many cases, obsessed with making change! So it was with that great man who came to be called the Imamu, the leader.
He left the Village, as in Greenwich Village, for Harlem, and from the Afrikan world’s most famous village, he would set off our great Black Consciousness Movement better known as the Black Arts Movement.
He didn’t stop there. He soon returned to his beloved Newark, New Jersey and began to further that consciousness movement organizationally with the Spirit House Movers, the Temple of Mwalimu and more. He anchored Kawaida nationalism on its three branches of Black nationalism, pan-Afrikanism and revolutionary socialism in organization and institutions in practice like very few others.
He didn’t stop there. He then pushed our people in Newark to take that next step: To organize for power! Even though he was a real casualty of the Newark Rebellion, who probably would’ve been killed had not his friends and supporters from around the world embarrassed the pigfilthy Newark police, even though he survived that, he presided defiantly over the ‘67 Black Power Conference in his war torn city, healing cracked skull still bandaged, and then blazed into an organizing frenzy that would create the legendary Committee For a Unified Newark that led the drive to run gangster segregation out of City Hall!
Amiri Baraka put into practice what Malcolm taught him about cultural revolution and the revolutionary politics of engagement as spelled out in “The Ballot or the Bullet.”
And we can go on and on, as he did, because this awesome, tireless writer and revolutionary thinker continued to inspire minds from all quarters of the world long after those hot days of our golden age of struggle with his bursting pen and leaping revolutionary lyrics.
Kwame Ture said, “Malcolm’s blood fertilized the Black Revolution!”
The Malcolm X Commemoration Committee, now in our 20th year, gearing up for our 18th annual tribute to our freedom fighters whose eyes and hearts were fueled by Malcolm’s fertilizing blood to make that ultimate commitment, we proudly salute all of those warriors of that epic historical era who stepped up when Malcolm was cut down, and with all of our love from the deepest quarters of our hearts for his beloved wife and first comrade Amina Baraka, his valiant son Ras and all his children at this incredibly sensitive hour, we hold high to the sky the incredible enduring legacy of Amiri Baraka yielding forth the crop of so much revolutionary fruit for all of us to behold!
Baraka’s funeral will take place on Saturday, Jan. 18, 10 a.m., at Newark’s Symphony Hall, 1020 Broad St. His wake will take place on Friday, Jan. 17, 4-9 p.m., at Metropolitan Baptist Church, 149 Springfield Ave., Newark.
He leaves his wife, Amina Baraka, sons Ras, Obalaji, Amiri Jr. and Ahi; four daughters, Dominique DiPrima, Lisa Jones Brown, Kellie Jones and Maria Jones; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Ras Baraka is a member of the Newark Municipal Council and a candidate for mayor.
The New York Times obituary, headlined “Amiri Baraka, Polarizing Poet and Playwright, Dies at 79,” concludes: “Despite a half-century of accusations that he was a polarizing figure, Mr. Baraka described himself as an optimist, albeit one of a very particular sort.
“’I’d say I’m a revolutionary optimist,’ he told Newsday in 1990. ‘I believe that the good guys – the people – are going to win.’”
Long live the Imamu! Long live Amiri Baraka! Carry on the tradition! By any means necessary!
Zayid Muhammad, press officer of the Malcolm X Commemoration Committee, can be reached at email@example.com.