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Amiri Baraka’s son becomes mayor of Newark by earning it: An election analysis

By TODD STEVEN BURROUGHS | 6/5/2014, 4:21 p.m.

Jeffries may have been born in Newark, but he appeared from Seton Hall University Law School fully formed and fully funded—by anonymous donors. Jeffries served on the Newark Advisory School Board and was president of the Newark Boys and Girls Club, two very important city positions.

But that just doesn’t carry the same juice as being on the City Council, where a council member is directly responsible for Newarkers’ lives and where people test his or her power and commitment to the city’s decaying working-class neighborhoods and the people who live in them.

The campaign had the atmosphere of history around it because of the obvious question: Could the son of Amiri Baraka, a Black communist poet and playwright who was beaten by police during the 1967 Newark insurrection, be elected Newark mayor?

Until his transition into ancestry this past January, Amiri Baraka was known as a living legend in Black literature and an historic figure in 20th century Black politics. But to many Newarkers on the street for decades, he was known as “that Black radical” and that old, cranky guy who sponsored poetry and jazz concerts in the basement of his home or in downtown city parks.

The question became less significant the more time spent on the Newark streets. Baraka received no “sympathy vote” because of his father (or his slain sister Shani, for that matter). Newarkers who were interviewed kept mentioning that they knew, or knew of, Baraka and didn’t know Jeffries.

Baraka, the city’s South Ward council member until Tuesday night, got the support of the people because of his consistent commitment to them for 23 years.

As a deputy mayor, he accepted only a salary of $1, rejecting the doubling of his school district income. At the last debate, he said that as mayor, he will actually receive a pay cut from his combined council and high school principal posts.

People on the street notice things like that. They also know well their elected representatives, children’s teachers and principals, and the principles all hold.

The radical Howard University student activist who returned to Newark and became a city schoolteacher, and later vice principal and principal, taught outsiders and reminded returning sons that many, many Newarkers are actually committed to living here.

That radical faith in maintaining and renovating the old bricks of his city, like Ras Baraka’s ability as a poet, may be partly hereditary, but, in the end, he earned every vote he got every day between his 1991 Howard graduation and Tuesday night.

Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D., an independent researcher and writer based in Hyattsville, Md., is writing a small, self-published book on Amiri Baraka and Ras Baraka through the eyes of the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign. A native of Newark, he has taught at Morgan State and Howard universities. He is the co-editor, along with Jared Ball, of “A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marble’s Malcolm X” and is the co-author, with Herb Boyd, of “Civil Rights: Yesterday and Today.” He can be reached at toddpanther@gmail.com.