Amiri Baraka, previously known as LeRoi Jones, is a rare breed of poet and playwright: an activist. His work is controversial, but how could it not be? As a critic, Baraka engaged the institutions of cultural production from the 1950s onward. To change minds, to free worlds: not with the ballot, not with the bullet, not even with the rock thrown from the occupied territory; but with words.
Born, bred and based in Newark, NJ, Baraka founded the Black Arts Movement, arguably the most important American artistic and political expression of cultural self-determination and sovereignty in the latter half of the twentieth century. It’s no exaggeration to say that students of the black literary tradition talk about before-Baraka and after-Baraka; no other figure changed the direction of American literature — especially poetry — more.
Without Baraka, we wouldn’t have Sonia Sanchez, the award-winning poet and scholar who joins him for a reading Thursday, April 1 at 7PM in Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium at Goldwin Smith Hall, Cornell University. Also, we might not have Maya Angelou, Ishmael Reed, and many others. Baraka’s legacy on American theater and poetry is immense: in addition to his own writing, he co-founded and directed with his wife Amina the small multimedia arts space Kimako’s Blues People, and founded the jazz and poetry ensemble Blue Ark, which has played at the Berlin Festival and throughout the US.
Moreover, we wouldn’t have “The Vagina Monologues,” “Angels in America” or the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. Baraka planted the seeds for the flowering of chapbooks (self-published works of poetry), and theater troupes and works that reclaim a place in Culture outside of the capitalist means of production. Baraka challenged individuals and groups to stand up for themselves, and share their work with others.
Baraka turns 76 later this year, and his list of published work currently hovers around 53 works. His own work has always been influenced by music: though he was inspired by Malcolm X and the Cuban Revolution, his words channel artists he admired: John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, and his works rings as true the great new song W.E.B. DuBois alludes to in “Black Reconstruction in America.” In 2009, in an introduction to “Black Music,” required reading for citizens, Baraka recalled:
“The specific revolution these musicians were making was against the Tin Pan Alley prison of American commercial mediocrity…. They would play free! Free? You bet, it has been our philosophy, our ideology, our aesthetic, since slavery began. And at this point in our history, we shouted it again. Free Jazz! Freedom Suite! Freedom Now!”
It is this freedom that came to be known as the Black Arts Movement, the cultural corollary to Black Nationalism.
Meanwhile, Baraka has held himself to the highest standard of all: that of a writer, and of a constant producer of work. Of James Baldwin, Baraka said in 1987: “He lived his life as a witness. He wrote until the end. We hear of the writers’ blocks of celebrated Americans, how great they are so great indeed that their writing fingers have been turned to checks, but Jimmy wrote. He produced. He spoke. He sang, no matter the odds. He remained man, and spirit and voice. Ever expanding, ever more conscious!” As lived the eulogized, so lives the eulogizer.
Towards the very end of Baraka’s most recent collection, “Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music” (What a title!), Baraka eulogizes the great jazz musician Jackie McLean. In about 4 ½ pages he encapsulates the project of artistic self-determination circa 1963. “When ‘Let Freedom Ring’ came out, the world was rocking to an anti-imperialist antiracist beat, though John Kennedy would be murdered by that November and Malcolm X a couple of years later to try to turn the beat around.”
“In other words it was not possible merely to talk about the music, the world itself was included,” Baraka continues. Like James Baldwin before him, and the countless who came after him, Baraka is still living that conversation.
His conversations are not always comfortable ones. Addressing the current political landscape, Baraka wrote in late 2009:
“It was the SNCC that popularized the Black panthers, with their creation of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization to register people to vote in Alabama. Malcolm called out, ‘the Ballot or the Bullet,’ which should still resonate today, after two stolen elections and the Democratic presidential nomination of a colored guy named Obama. From Alabama to Barack Obama, ‘The Ballot or the Bullet” still makes great sense.”
These are not the words of a coalition builder. America has plenty of those. These are the words of an activist. And any country, certainly one as great as our own, will always benefit from a critic as great as Amiri Baraka.
On Thursday, April 1 at 7pm in Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium at Goldwin Smith Hall, Cornell University, Baraka will join award-winning poet, activist, scholar Sonia Sanchez for a free reading, presented by the Africana Studies and Research Center. A book signing and reception with Baraka and Sanchez will be held April 1 at 4:30 p.m. at the Africana Center, 310 Triphammer Road with the authors’ work provided by Buffalo Street Books.