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.”
In other words, Black aesthetics made the dark and the dim as beautiful as light and brightness and asserted that whores on crack and bums on the street are as relevant to the imagery of Black art as the sun and the moon.
In literature, the movement Baraka helped to create has produced some of America’s best writers, such as Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks and Ishmael Reed. Moreover, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians and other ethnic groups have taken up the movement’s vitality and focused on politically relevant storytelling and poetry that shares with other Americans the greatness of their cultures.
In music, Baraka and the Black Arts Movement have virtually inspired hip-hop music and culture. From Grandmaster Flash to Mary J. Blige to Public Enemy to a whole host of other musicians and musical groups, rhythms and lyrics abound with feelings of Black love, thoughts on Black politics and visions of Black aspirations.
In TV and film, programming and movies on the Black experience flourish. “Being Mary Jane,” “Fatal Attraction,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Fruitvale Station” and others influence the market for Black entertainment that white producers squashed before the Black Arts Movement was conceived in the virgin womb of Black pride.
Whereas whites boldly stole creations from Black culture like the blues and jazz during Jim Crow years, now they integrate their culture with Black culture in ways America’s noble Black ancestors never thought would happen. Who ever thought that hip-hop would become such an international phenomenon that whites and other non-Blacks worldwide would imitate the culture without an ounce of shame?
We could mention other areas in which Baraka and the Black Arts Movement continue to spread their influence, such as in politics, economics, philosophy, psychology, religion and civil rights, but we don’t have time or space to delve into those areas.
Baraka and the Black Arts Movement’s influences continue despite lingering attacks and condemnations by whites and their Black doormats. Thus, even though Baraka was a Marxist and white conservatives love their capitalist Black critics of Black culture, Baraka is more influential in Black American culture as a Marxist than Stanley Crouch or Larry Elder are as capitalists.
Though we can’t call Baraka a great man—because greatness requires actions and visions so immense that they verge on divine inspiration—we can say that he was an exceptional man, because his influence has changed the minds and lives of so many. We cannot put Baraka in the same category as Nelson Mandela and Nelson Mandela. because he lacked their greatness. But we can place him slightly lower in stature than Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, because his accomplishments, though exceptional, were not extraordinary.
They who found movements that invigorate national and international culture should have an everlasting “thank you” inscribed on their wtombstones. Consequently, Baraka deserves to be richly remembered and honored for the lasting effect the Black Arts Movement has had on Black American culture and the world.
He plowed the field of Black culture with tractors of innovative rage and creative thought. Every hair on his head has made Black America the heir of timeless creations in the arts, creations by artists he inspired.
And unlike some Black journalists and painters and novelists, he died as he lived—a proud Black man unashamed to have lived as a proud Black man.