During the early hours of the afternoon of January 10th 2014 the news spread that Amiri Baraka had failed to recover from complications resulting from a medical procedure performed just a few weeks earlier. At the age of 79, one of the most extreme, controversial and piercingly stirring creators of the second half of the XX century had signed off and taken his leave—untimely and abruptly.
The story of Amiri Baraka is the story of a middle class child, Everett Leroy Jones with a love of music, navigating his way through the racially charged environment of his natal Newark, New Jersey in the 1930s and the 1940s. The story of Amiri Baraka is the story of a sharp young man, a brilliant student who earned a scholarship to attend Rutgers but who was too radical for this university, for any university, eventually dropping out of Howard to join the Air Force. The story of Amiri Baraka is the story of an acutely curious gunner, LeRoi Jones, an avid reader based in Puerto Rico who simply could not follow orders—certainly not from these people—which led to his dishonorable discharge in 1954.
The story of Amiri Baraka is the story of Greenwich Village in the mid ’50s, the story of the awakening of a generation, of the Beat Generation, the story of poetry as a form of radical distancing, of disapproving dissociation, the story of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the story of a young Jewish wife, Hettie Cohen, with whom he had two children before he turned 30 and with whom he founded Totem Press, a tremendously successful enterprise in artistic, if not commercial terms.
The story of Amiri Baraka is the story of the Cold War, of the emergence of Communism as an alternative worldview for those who, like Roi Jones, saw in the Cuban revolution all the potential of change. It is the story of the non-conformists, of those marginalized (willingly some, others not so much), of those who felt discontented on this side and were unable to distinguish where started the enemy lines, who was the enemy, who on your side.
The story of Amiri Baraka is the story of a successful playwright, of a sensitive citizen alerted to the realities of racial divide in America, who turned his personal list of experiences (of failures, you could say, if you looked at it from the mainstream) on its head when he penned the play Dutchman, a megahit off Broadway which earned him an Obie Award, which immediately turned him into a celebrity of sorts, which opened the gates of Hollywood to a kid who chose to teach instead. The story of Amiri Baraka is the story of a wonderful mind who was denied a degree, only to come back 15 years later to become a lecturer.
But there is more, of course. The story of Amiri Baraka is the story of the radicalization of the civil rights struggle in the United States in the 1960s; it’s a story of murder and violence and much much anger; it’s the story of the assassination of JFK, first, and critically, of Malcolm X, later. The story of Amiri Baraka is the story of Black Nationalism, of the transition from the introspective detachment of Beat to the call to arms of a virulent form of activism.
And thus, the story of Amiri Baraka is the story of a breakup, the story of a change of paths, perfectly, painfully but also beautifully illustrated in his own physical journey from Lower Manhattan to Harlem: one fine day Roi Jones (he still called himself so at the time) woke up to the reality that his life needed to mirror his ideals, that his struggle had to be conducted among his people, that his family and his values were incompatible. He had to choose, and Hattie Jones was left to raise two children on her own.
The story of Amiri Baraka is the story of the Black Arts Movement, it is the story of the unlikely rapprochement of Black Nationalism with Islamic beliefs, it is the story of the rise of the Nation of Islam in the United States as a viable alternative to the prevailing Christian teachings of the dominant white society. It is the story of yet another renaming, rebranding, from LeRoi Jones to Imamu Amear Baraka. Imamu: the spiritual leader; Amear: the prince. Baraka was the light and soul, force and inspiration of the Black Arts Movement. Until he grew disillusioned, and changed.
Because the story of Amiri Baraka is riddled with change: change is perhaps the running thread and the overriding principle in his dissent. Change as a creative energy, change as the vehicle for creation, change as the necessary purge of everything that is wrong. Hence, the story of Amiri Baraka is a story of constant motion, often in opposite directions but always with an insatiable curiosity for knowledge.
The story of Amiri Baraka is the story of American society on the eve of the Second World War and through the years that enshrined the country as the moral watchdog of the West. Hence, the story of Amiri Baraka is full of conflict and dissatisfaction, of trial and error, of fault starts and retractions. It is a story fuelled, primarily, by anger and hate—and anger and hate are seldom greeted kindly. Hence, Amiri Baraka is often vilified as an irresponsible disseminator of hate speech, as an apologist of violence.
Amiri Baraka always treaded the dangerous line of antagonism, and often ventured far into the realm of the foul. He was repeatedly accused, not without justification, of being a homophobe and an anti-Semite. Far from shying from such accusations, Baraka often recanted, contextualized, explained and acknowledged his earlier faults. Because the story of Amiri Baraka is a story of danger, and you can’t be a daredevil and err on the safe side at the same time.
The story of Amiri Baraka is also a story of violence. It is the story of an angry young man ready to fight for answers. A man who sometimes vented his anger in the wrong way—assaulting his second wife, Sylvia Robinson, aka Amina Baraka, in 1979—but who always was vociferous in his controversy. Never more, perhaps, than in 2002, when his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” accused the Bush administration of collusion with the Israeli government in failing to prevent the 9/11 attacks, of which, he claimed, they had full knowledge. The resulting dispute ended in the abrogation of the figure of Poet Laureate in the state of New Jersey altogether, a position held by Baraka at the time, which could not be stripped from him.
Perhaps most importantly, however, the story of Amiri Baraka is the story of music in America, of black music in America, of the appreciation of music in America, of the evolution—perhaps even creation—of a society through its music. As a poet, LeRoi Jones, Amiri Baraka, always remained keenly aware of the sonorous aspect of his production: they were poems to be recited more than read. And yet, it is his non-fiction work which most stands out as a tribute to the role of black music in the shaping of modern America: his 1963 book Blues Music and his 1968 collection of essays Black Music stand out as seminal contributions to understanding—no, that’s not the word—to the ecstatic enrapturing emanated by a form of music that is now, finally, widely accepted as an art form, highly regarded within intellectual circles (far away from where it emerged and developed) and often seen as one of the few uniquely forms of purely American expression. This, however, was not always so.
The story of Amiri Baraka, like that of his country, like that of his times, is incoherent and troubling, at times enthralling, some others disappointing—but always eventful, always discomforting. The story of Amiri Baraka came to an end unexpectedly, after he had gone to the Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark for a routine procedure on December 21st. I guess at 79 nothing is really routine anymore, and despite encouraging news toward the end of the year, he never made it out of the hospital. It was the final tragic twist in a story packed with raw, undiluted desire—anxiety, even—to improve. Quintessentially American, Baraka’s story was both visceral and gripping, and like so many good books now that it’s over the feeling it leaves behind is an overpowering sense of nostalgia, a longing for more, and an almost involuntary form of gratitude for having traveled a path many of us couldn’t or wouldn’t have traveled. We might not agree in everything Baraka ever said—who could?—but we are certainly all the wiser for him having said it.
Published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday, January 18, 2014.