Amiri Baraka: Poet Laureate

Saul Williams on Amiri Baraka, the great American poet who passed away today at 79.

Photographer NITIN VADUKUL
January 09, 2014

Amiri Baraka is the father of bastard literature

January 2014: Amiri Baraka, the poet and playwright who gave Black arts a capital B, died today. He was 79. Today, we look back at his life and legacy with a 2004 FADER feature on Baraka, written by poet and musician Saul Williams.

From the magazine: ISSUE 25, November 2004

When I die, the consciousness I carry I will to black
people. May they pick me apart and take the useful parts,
the sweet meat of my feelings. And leave the bitter bullshit
rotten white parts alone. — "leroy" (1969)

It is easy to mistake Amiri Baraka for a bitter old man. He grimaces a lot. He hisses when he laughs. He doesn’t hide his anger. Nor does he hide his love. Amiri Baraka loves Black people. The art. The history. The struggle. The musicality. The perseverance. In that sense, he is no different than many across the world who sometimes romanticize the artistic merit of Africans/African-Americans and the struggle from which it arises. Yet, within that love there is a far greater struggle, sometimes called “intellectual rationalization,” where one fights to justify a love being given where very little is given back in return. Amiri Baraka is our greatest living American poet. In this, the hip-hop era, one might expect that to amount to something. In our glorification of original gangstas and rebels how could we ever forget to glorify one of the most original voices of Black anger? The man who turned the New York theatre scene on its head 40 years ago with his play Dutchman. The man who spearheaded the Black Arts Movement of the late ’60s and early seventies, catapulting artists into capital-B, Black artists who flaunted their blackness like custom made bling. The man who, after a generation of horn blowers, dared to use his own baritone as his instrument. What Malcolm was to Islam, Amiri was to art. And art is culture.

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
— “We Own The Night” (1961)

Baraka has gone through phases. A downtown Beat poet who kicked it with Ginsberg, married a white Jewish woman (Hettie Cohen), danced to bebop, and visited Castro. A Black Nationalist who abandoned his white wife, moved to Harlem, studied Malcolm, and paraded with Sun Ra. A Third World Marxist who studied Mao, abandoned Black Nationalism, embraced the struggle of poor people around the world, and moved back to his hometown of Newark, New Jersey. Through it all he has remained a literary genius who has been loved and revered as one of America’s most original writers by Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Toni Morrison, and a generation of contemporaries.

At 70 years old, he is the same fiery cannon that blasted through my childhood every February alongside names like Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, WEB Dubois, and Paul Robeson, obliterating the idea of art for art’s sake and replacing it with the fundamental principles of the Black Arts Movement: art that serves a function. To uplift. To incite. To engage.

As a lover of theater, the first thing that enters my mind upon mention of Amiri Baraka is his OBIE award-winning play, Dutchman, which he penned when he still went by his birth name, LeRoi Jones. Dutchman was first presented at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City on March 24, 1964. Baraka had just published his now classic book Blues People: Negro Music in White America and won a Whitney Fellowship. So, he then turned to theater to offer a dramatic interpretation of his music text in one of the most famous monologues ever written:

“…They say, ‘I love Bessie Smith.’ And don’t even understand that Bessie Smith is saying, ‘Kiss my ass, kiss my black unruly ass.’ Before love, suffering, desire, anything you can explain, she’s saying, and very plainly, ‘Kiss my black ass.’ And if you don’t know that, it’s you that’s doing the kissing… And I’m the great would be poet. Yes, that’s right. Poet. Some kind of bastard literature… all it needs is a simple knife thrust. Just let me bleed you, you loud whore, and one poem vanished. A whole people of neurotics, struggling to keep from being sane. And the only thing that would cure the neurosis would be your murder… If Bessie Smith had murdered some white people she wouldn’t have needed that music. She could have talked very straight and plain about the world. No metaphors. No grunts. No wiggles in the dark of her soul. Just straight two and two are four.”

Amiri Baraka and Saul Williams

Can you imagine?! Well, about 30 books and 20 odd plays later, imagine how it feels to be sitting in his Newark home as he delights in showing us the high craftsmanship of a CD box set of a late jazz musician that includes his liner notes. He’s excited. Happy. It’s obvious that even Amiri Baraka, who I have heard scream at Gen-Xers, “You are Black, first!”, he is an artist at heart. An artist who still gets excited at the prospect of being able to share his art with the people it was intended for. This is something I can relate to, deeply. It is one thing to be able to create, it is another thing, entirely, to be blessed with the opportunity to share that creation with others. And then, it is a completely different thing to have that creation be well received. Some artists gauge their entire careers on how the audience responds. Whether the audience realizes it or not, they are an essential part of the creative process. Baraka recalls the press after the opening night of Dutchman, saying, “I go down to the newsstand that night. All these papers. I look at all the papers, ‘Crazy nigga,’ ‘Nigga talk bad,’ ‘Nigga hate white people,’ and it became clear to me that they [white people] were gonna make me famous. So then, this thing came down to my head. This startling wave of responsibility that I had never had before… ‘oh, so you’re gonna permit me to speak?’” Yes Amiri Baraka was permitted to speak for an entire generation of frustrated black artists during the Black Arts Movement of the early ’70s. Poets took to cafes, open mics, and rallies and added their voices to the telling of his-story which was once singular and exclusive but was now becoming inclusive of greater truths and new realities. Playwrights took to the stage. Fashion took to the streets: dashikis, afros, head wraps. Get it? Art yields influence. (Shout out to Michael Moore)! And Amiri Baraka influenced the Black Panthers, The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan, you name it. The real power of influence occurs when you influence people who don’t even realize that they’ve been influenced by you. They may not even know who you are. This mainly happens when your art is so deeply embedded with love and your desire to see change in the world that the message becomes detached from the author and travels on its own. From heart to heart. We felt Amiri Baraka. I wasn’t even born yet and I felt him. I felt my mamma feeling him. He was part of the reason my mom turned to my dad, after having already birthed two mid-complexioned daughters, and said, “I just want a dark, dark boy with curly, curly hair.” Presto. Black Magic.

In our glorification of original gangstas and rebels how could we ever forget to glorify one of the most original voices of Black anger?

Perhaps, by now, you’re realizing that if you have not studied Amiri Baraka and the Black Arts Movement and you have been schooled in America, then you have been mis-educated. Perhaps you are beginning to question whether the backlash of his post 9/11 poem, “Somebody Blew Up America”, where he questioned why 4,000 Israelis did not show up for work on that fated day, after the same topic had already been addressed in Israeli newspapers and prime time American periodicals, was really worth him losing his position as Poet Laureate of the State of New Jersey. Especially when that question was only one of 200 questions (Literally. I counted them. And you can, too. You know how keywords go. Look it up!) raised in the poem. Perhaps someone knows just how powerful poetry is. Maybe that’s why Laura Bush cancelled that poetry reading that was scheduled at the White House 2 years ago, just as the war on Iraq was beginning, saying that she feared it would become a political forum and that politics had no place in poetry. Maybe she had been reading Keats when he said, “Poets are the midwives of reality.” Maybe she saw that statement as anti-Bush and wanted to insure that her husband’s spell lasted just a little while longer.

I ask Baraka about the function of the artist and he says, “I believe what Keats and DuBois believed: Truth and beauty... There’s no sense in being an artist except to tell the truth and to make the world more beautiful than it is. Now, the problem is that there are a lot of obstacles in the way of that. First of all, you can’t make a living off truth and beauty, but actually you can make a living by defying them. But in terms of my own view, it has broadened since the ’60s. Then it was Black Nationalist struggle and I felt that was necessary. You know, the whole domination of those folks, not merely for us to tell them but to regard them as being the standard above which we must measure ourselves? That’s bullshit. Don’t tell me how to write a poem… Our art has to be the refining sensibility of our own selves. Not somebody else’s soul. Certainly not our enemies’ soul. It has to refine and define our own lives and history.” And our future.

Amiri Baraka excuses himself from our short interview. He has to attend a basketball game that was organized by his son, in memory of his daughter Shani Baraka, the victim of a hate crime in Newark last year. His sister was murdered in the same way, years ago. He ponders out loud about what he is supposed to learn from these two tragedies in his life. Both sister and daughter victims of the clenched black fist once raised as a symbol of power. Black Power. But we seem to find our greatest strength when our fists clench pens, horns, drumsticks, microphones, balls, and other hands. And even Amiri Baraka, whose lifelong work could practically be described as a treatise on Black Anger, whose fist pounds podiums as he recites his poems, the most beautiful thing about this man is his smile.

Amiri Baraka: Poet Laureate