Thursday, December 14, 2017

Remembering Amiri Baraka

 I was walking on High Street in San Fernando when I got the news that Amiri Baraka had passed away. I recalled walking on another street, in downtown New York, with Amiri and my late husband, Bill McAdoo, who was one of Amiri’s closest friends.  As we walked, Amiri talked about the way African-American and Native American histories were deliberately concealed in New York City and in modern configurations of urban US spaces.

Countering the historical amnesia and mis-education required for global capitalism to flourish, Amiri’s poetry, fiction, essays and plays would uncover the suppressed histories of masses of people who fought against imperialism and its devastating social and cultural effects. His writing celebrated freedom struggles in the Americas, Africa and Asia, and elevated the aesthetics born of these struggles, especially blues and jazz.

In the early 60s Amiri, who was born Everett Leroi Jones, was part of the Beat poets and then embraced black nationalist ideas. He founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem in 1965. His name-change to Amiri Baraka in 1968 signalled a change in his political outlook, influenced by his trip to Cuba and his involvement in the Civil Rights movement. 

In the 70s Amiri became a Communist in the tradition of WEB DuBois and Langston Hughes, and from this radical position he never departed. Unlike many Marxists in the United States only familiar with European revolutionary thought, Amiri was one of the few intellectuals I have ever met who possessed a vast knowledge of radical philosophies. He could, in one fiery conversation, brilliantly connect the writings of Marx, Lenin, Mao, Cabral, Fanon and Césaire. Creating similar philosophical connections in his poetry, he would assume the poet’s responsibility, in WB Yeats’ words, to “murmur name upon name” of the slain revolutionaries of the 20th century, so that future generations would not forget who Patrice Lumumba, Che Guevera and Mahatma Gandhi were and, more importantly, what they fought for. 

Amiri’s poem, “Somebody Blew Up America,” written shortly after the 9/11 attacks, generated controversy in the mainstream US media. Implicating US imperialism for creating a cycle of violence, the poem really questioned the global acceptance of “Who created everything/ Who the smartest/ Who the greatest/ Who the richest/ Who say you ugly and they the good lookingest.” The poem speculates about the real terrorists who terrorise our sanity by dictating to us certain standards of art, literature, beauty, morals and self-respect. When Amiri was interviewed on television about this poem, he drew upon the classics and John Keats, pointing out the poet’s obligation to define truth and beauty. His poetry was for the millions of people who must redefine truth and beauty in order to leave behind their oppressed past and create, in Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire’s words, “a higher, sweeter, broader tomorrow’’.

I am currently visiting my family in Trinidad and don’t have with me Amiri’s books and pamphlets from which I could have quoted more of his work, so I share below an excerpt from my novel Jouvert (2006). Here, the main protagonist of the novel, a visual artist, describes a visit to Amiri and Amina Baraka’s home. It was a piece that Amiri appreciated: 

“We drove to Newark to the poet Amiri Baraka’s house for an evening of jazz and blues and spoken-word poetry, sessions called Kimako’s Blues People, named for Baraka’s slain sister. Amiri’s wife, Amina, was arranging a bunch of tropical flowers in a vase, and the fragrance of jasmine immediately transported me back to my mother’s lunar garden. Amina hugged me warmly and invited us down to their basement, a simple uncluttered room. When the session began Amiri went up to the front of the room to perform with his band, Blue Ark: the Wordship. My pores rose when I heard Amiri’s lyrics; they were powerful and fearless and sang of freedom struggles in Africa, Asia and the Americas. We shouted and whistled when Amiri finished. Then Kevin and his band started playing their blues. Their rhythms were at times tightly structured, at times wild and free.  As the uplifting melodies filled the room, I realised that this basement was a fragile space of art, and that radical African-Americans had forged these spaces for hundreds of years: spaces of marronage and alternative culture, grounded in the earth, hidden from Babylon.  When the performances were over, no one wanted to leave. During conversations with the people gathered I noted that they were mainly artists and activists. I appreciated the deep acceptance they had for all who shared their radical values, regardless of race. I was at home in this space, more comfortable here than in the Queens roti shop where there were still boundaries that Indian women could not cross; more at home in Amiri and Amina Baraka’s home than in the Trinidadian Brooklyn mas camp where I was always reminded in blatant and subtle ways that I was an Indian and therefore, at certain moments, an outsider. I thought about the many lessons that progressive African-Americans could teach those Caribbean people who still enacted so many varieties of division and hatred.” (pages 155-156) 

• Dr Joy Mahabir is Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York