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Death of a Black man who refused to live as a Negro

JAMES STRONG | 1/16/2014, 4:23 p.m.
Ellis Haizlip (left) and Amiri Baraka (right).

Most of the obituaries written about Amiri Baraka in the white mainstream media focus on the poet and playwright’s misdeeds or ordinary actions rather than his outstanding accomplishments.

They note his rage and not his common sense. They obsess over his controversial politics rather than his important ideas. They fixate on his Blackness and Black activism instead of his overwhelming influence on the arts and people’s minds.

Certainly, we understand their need to downplay the significance of a man who attacked the white media as if it were a grizzly bear on dope, as if it were a hateful eel hungry to catch and devour all the pure and free fish in the sea of humanity. I guess if we were spit on as much as Baraka spit on the integrity of the white media, we would seek to diminish his significance too.

It’s left to the Black artists, Black philosophers, Black politicians and Black journalists who are clothed in the royalty of Baraka’s sentiments and seasoned with the herbs of his reasoned intellect to switch on the floodlights in the stadium of universal attention and showcase the influence this wonderful man has had on American society.

To have met Baraka is a privilege; to have been influenced by him is divine. Why? Because Baraka was an exceptional man who influenced American and Black American culture in a supreme way by conceiving, or at least helping to conceive, the Black Arts Movement.

The Black Arts Movement is the main reason why many in the white mainstream media want to silence Baraka’s achievements. That movement—its ideas, its impulses, its anger—not only transformed Black American culture, but white American culture as well. In fact, all of ethnic America benefited from the summer of that movement’s ideas.

The Black Arts Movement aimed to encourage Black writers and artists to create politically charged works that explored African-American culture, history and experience. Two words in that definition make the movement, which served as the Eve to the serpent of traditional white notions of art up to that time: “Black” damned the vision of those with white-based opposition to the movement, and “politically” choked the very life out of the idea that art should separate itself from politics. Yet, unlike the Eve in the Garden of Eden, this Eve has continued without the corrupt consequences of having been seduced by the whispers of the serpent.

Though the Black Arts Movement only lasted formally for about 10 years, from 1960 to 1970, its influence still remains, as if its veins contained eternal blood. Its reach is universal, as though nations worldwide kidnapped its principles and made them their own.

Baraka and the Black Arts Movement created a new aesthetic called the “Black aesthetic.” Like the commander of a militia, this aesthetic gave a revolutionary order to Black art through Baraka’s words: “Reflect the Black experience, not white experience or white views on Black experience.” It also commanded its troops even more forcefully: “Do not flee like a fox from the hounds of white aesthetics. Instead, include political language and imagery in your masterpieces.”