In memoriam: Amiri Baraka

Herb Boyd | 1/16/2014, 3:12 p.m.
Amiri Baraka died Thursday afternoon in Newark, N.J., where he was born and lived most of his life.
Amiri Baraka

That same defiant attitude would color his stay in the Air Force. He was dismissed with a dishonorable discharge, accused of reading subversive literature.

Greenwich Village, with its abundance of free spirits, was a natural environment for his nonconformity, his radical penchant and for one who was always eager to think and act outside of the box.

While Baraka possessed a Midas touch when it came to the written word, his preference was poetry, and it’s hard to choose one poem that encapsulates his prowess, though, “We are unfair, and unfair/We are Black magicians, Black arts we make in Black labs of the heart. The fair are fair, and deathly white. The day will not save them/and we own the night,” provides a glimpse of his sentiments about racism and white supremacy during at least one stage of his ever-evolving life.

In a poetic homage to Baraka, esteemed poet and publisher Haki Madhubuti wrote a number of poems for his friend, and this excerpt is an expression of his respect and high regard: “Approaching him, I wondered why this genius of serious music and transcendent literature wasn’t surrounded by readers, fans, collectors of fine words on pages seeking instructions and autographs.”

His devotees may not have been as obvious and visible as warranted, but they were many, and you didn’t have to walk too far in Newark to bump into someone ready to spout about Baraka’s black magic and his relentless fight against forces of oppression.

Even into his 70s, his younger associates in Newark declared Baraka was still on the ramparts, despite all the controversy surrounding his poem about the bombing of the World Trade Center, despite being stripped of his laureate honor and despite the crippling challenges that came with age.

“Even though he was in his late 70s,” wrote anti-violence activist Bashir Akinyele, “he was with us on the streets at many of our most critical turns, like when we shut down Broad and Market the first time in 2009!”

And none of the late challenges in his life were as hurtful as losing his sister and his daughter Shani and to see the daily assaults targeting his sons as they fought to make their hometown a safe haven.

Two years ago, the ever-feisty Baraka expressed his derision over the publication of Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X. It was his opinion that Marable had assassinated Malcolm again, and he publicly denounced the book at several forums and in print, which he did with his typical sense of outrage and denunciation.

Still, there was Baraka the praise master too, as he illustrated at the funeral services for James Baldwin and at the more recent memorial for Jayne Cortez. A more extensive collection of his words can be found in a reader under his name, which resonates with much more conviction than even his autobiography. Baraka at one time referred to himself as “Imamu” and “Mwalimu,” and to a great extent, he was both priest and teacher, as the Swahili words designate, and there are thousands of his students able to attest to his profound wizardry in the classroom.