Amiri Baraka (1934-2014): Mean to Be Free

The life of Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) embodies the refusal to let others shape the memories, desires and destinies of African people, or to decide for us how to narrate or utilize our experiences in the long struggle for liberation and a fuller humanity beyond. In his physical absence, we are left to consider the creeping disappearance of first-rate Pan-African internationalist artists/organizers/thinkers as representative figures in Black (and non-Black) public spheres.  Baraka did not let oppression—including racial oppression—hide behind niceties and subterfuges, realizing that such cowardice allows it to harden into ideologies of power and cultural identity. Oppression has to be confronted, directly. This earned him the enmity of those who fear such exposure and the timid proximate solidarity of those who can tepidly acknowledge him now that he is safely dead.



Baraka’s gifts included the ability to produce a steady stream of texts (poetry, plays, essays, books, paintings, lyrics, et. al.), shaped by his considerable intellect and wedded to the difficult but necessary work of organizing communities.  He could say more in a word or phrase than others can say in volume(s).  He led, wed, divorced, shaped and/or joined a bevy of organizations and social movements, his intellectual DNA flowing through the Black Body Politic for over fifty years. Baraka’s voice anchored us, from the Black Arts Movement’s catalyzing of a “Black Value System” to the post-Gary 1972 acceleration of Black American electoral politics (that made possible, incidentally, the election of Barack Obama), to the revolutionary solidarity and internationalism of third world struggle to the local politics of his beloved New Ark and the current people’s campaign of his son, Ras, for its mayoralty.


Baraka’s passing has all of us revisiting the times we spent with him and his contemporaries. We are obliged to revisit and reflect on these times, share our memories with current and future generations, and use them to shape new vistas of creative purpose in our collective work. I encountered him, listened to him, talked, laughed, plotted with and observed him primarily in meeting places of struggle as much or more as in more select and intimate spaces. I always left him wondering how we could allow him (and those artist/warriors of his generation) to be so undervalued by our communities and the society that continues to hold us hostage to the figures they declare should be our icons. There is no one in a white world to compare him to. To call him a Renaissance Man would be to insult the struggle he waged to define ourselves on our terms, though it would evoke memories of two of his inspirations, Paul Robeson and Malcolm X.


Nearly three thousand people attended Amiri Baraka’s funeral last Saturday at Newark Symphony Hall.  No one there had to be told of his significance, to us and to the world he inhabited for 79 years. Danny Glover and Woodie King, Jr. presided over a flood of tributes from every ideological corner of the African world. A large contingent of Howard faculty, staff, students and alumni were present, bearing an official resolution from the Board of Trustees. This for a man who saw no contradiction in critiquing 1950s Howard as a place where “they teach you how to pretend to be white” as he drank from the genius of its resident Master Teacher in the ways of Black folk, Sterling Allen Brown. In a fitting closure of the Howard loop, one of Baraka’s mentees, the indomitable Tony Medina, opened the program with a magnificently Barakian poetic tribute/charge.


Many—including many in attendance in Newark on Saturday and many more now fitting essays, tributes and commentaries to the contortionists’ task of praise without damning proximity—are temporarily basking in Baraka's glow of radicalism while seeking to avoid any possible punishment from an American society that will never see him for who he was (or us for who we are, for that matter). Funerals are indeed for the living, and people who speak at them consistently reveal more about themselves than they do the departed. Saturday's ritual was no exception: The substratum of struggle was amply and beautifully represented. So too was the repurposing impulse, trending to downright comedy. I only wish that Baraka could have added one more piece to his 2002 collection of eulogies for his friends and comrades:  A loving, acerbic and insightful essay analyzing his own death ritual.


Even former Governor Jim McGreevy—whose 2002 attempt to “fire” Baraka from being New Jersey’s Poet Laureate led to the elimination of the position—was there, quietly in the crowd, a pre-Christie victim of gubernatorial hubris and American hypocrisy, present perhaps for a shot at redemption.  Corey Booker was safely absent, as was CNN, which had live broadcast the funeral of Baraka’s fellow New Jerseyian Whitney Houston two years earlier.  No need to let a speaking subaltern disturb the slumbering façade of the rest of America, after all.


There are those, however, who do speak usefully in the wake of Baraka’s passing. Amid the babbling river of reflections, there are those that merit particular attention, in my estimation. These include one by one of his closest friends and collaborators, our own Eleanor Traylor, and one by one of the most studied and natural extenders of his Afro-bricolage approach to cultural criticism, Howard alum Greg Tate.  I will not close this column by rehearsing the arc of Amiri Baraka’s experiences, education and achievement. That is for this young readership to respect themselves and him enough to do for themselves. Instead, I will close with a memory that contains a charge of its own. 


Shortly after the election of Barack Obama, Amiri and Amina Baraka and many of their contemporaries attended a conference at Temple University on Black Power and the importance of intergenerational linkages. Delivering the conference’s closing keynote address, I talked about the fact that these women and men, now being leveraged as cultural fodder for contorted academic monographs and pop culture posturing, had once been branded enemies of the American social order for their unapologetic, revolutionary efforts. Having survived and paved the way for us, so many of them, now elders, were owed the debt of being engaged, their unfinished work extended, the renewed battles joined. Afterward, Baraka pulled me close and needled me, as always, with what I always took as encouragement and gracious overstatement: The assurance that talk like that is what gets you fired.


Baba Amiri, as you well knew (and know as an Ancestor) and showed us every day, talk like that—and the actions that accompany it—is what gets you free.