Soundtrack: Amiri Baraka “Somebody Blew Up America”
Soundtrack: Amiri Baraka and The Roots “Something in the Way of Things (In Town)”
Imamu Amiri Baraka joined the Ancestors today, January 9, 2014.
I was around Amiri in person once, in 2007, when he recited his poetry at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston. I didn’t know as much about him then as I would come to learn later on. I would’ve made sure to ask him much better questions if I had the same opportunity today.
While he sat in the hospital in late December, I had a discussion with my wife about the 1960’s and 70’s debate between revolutionary nationalism and cultural nationalism. Amiri was heavy on my heart. I was thinking about his impact on the world, and on me. The spokesperson for his son’s Newark, NJ mayoral campaign gave the statement about his recent illness and his status at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. Dig that picture.
The man born Everett Leroy Jones in 1934 in segregated New Jersey attended college briefly at Rutgers University before transferring to the historic Howard University in Washington, D.C. It was there that he received the initial stages of the education that would most prominently shape his thinking for the rest of his life. He had an English professor named Sterling Brown who taught him about Jazz, the history of it and the beauty of it. While he was at Howard Leroy changed his name to LeRoi, reflecting the French word for “the king”. He was forming his self identity as a leader, one who would shoulder the responsibility for changing the condition of his people.
LeRoi left Howard and joined the Air Force in 1954 as a gunner, reaching the rank of sergeant. He was dishonorably discharged two years later for having possession of “subversive literature”, which meant the writings of the famous Black communist Paul Robeson. After the Air Force he moved to New York City and became a rare black face among the “beatniks” of Greenwich Village in Manhattan. The beatniks were a social movement in the 50’s and 60’s which stressed artistic self-expression and the rejection of the mores of conventional society.
While in Greenwich Village he married a white woman named Hettie Cohen, the co-founder of ‘Yugen’, a literary magazine. LeRoi became the magazine’s editor. Later, they founded the ‘Totem Press’ that went on to publish works of famous ‘Beat writers’ like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. In 1961, his first volume of poetry, ‘Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note’ got published. From 1961-1963, he worked alongside Diane Di Prima as an editor of ‘The Floating Bear’, a literary newsletter. During this period, he also joined the ‘Umbra Poets Workshop’, a group of Black writers based in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Umbra was the first post-civil rights Black literary group to make an impact in the sense of establishing their own voice distinct from, and sometimes at odds with, the prevailing white literary establishment. The attempt to merge a Black-oriented activist thrust with a primarily artistic orientation produced a classic split in Umbra between those who wanted to be activists and those who thought of themselves as primarily writers, though to some extent all members shared both views. Black writers have always had to face the issue of whether their work was primarily political or aesthetic. Some of the members of Umbra would later go on to form the Black Arts Movement.
In 1963, LeRoi’s work as a musical critic and a historian of music climaxed in him publishing the book “Blues People (Negro Music in White America)”. In Blues People, LeRoi explores the possibility that the history of black Americans can be traced through the evolution of our music. It is considered a classic work on jazz and blues music in American culture. This book documents the effects jazz and blues had on America on an economic, musical, and social level. It chronicles the types of music dating back from the time of physical slavery up until the 1960s. The book posits that the music we have produced from our sojourn in America has come out of our collective character as a people who cannot be broken, who will always make something out of nothing, and make that something beautiful.
In 1964, Leroi’s first play, Dutchman, opened at the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village. The play was a one-act showdown between a middle class black man, Clay, and a sexually daring white woman, Lula, ending in a brawl of murderous taunts and confessions.
“Charlie Parker. All the hip white boys scream for Bird,” Clay says. “And they sit there talking about the tortured genius of Charlie Parker. Bird would’ve not played a note of music if he just walked up to East 67th Street and killed the first 10 white people he saw. Not a note!”
Less than a year after the March on Washington, Baraka pronounced the dream dead, a delusion. The war of words commenced. The Village Voice gave it an Obie award for the top off-Broadway show. Norman Mailer called it the “best play in America.” Jean-Luc Godard lifted some dialogue for his film Masculin Feminine. New York Times critic Howard Taubman was impressed, and, apparently, terrified.
“If this is the way the Negroes really feel about the white world around them, there’s more rancor buried in the breasts of colored conformists than anyone can imagine,” Taubman wrote in his review.
When Philip Roth, writing for The New York Review of Books, criticized the character development in Dutchman, the playwright answered: “Sir, it is not my fault that you are so feeble-minded you refuse to see any Negro as a man, but rather as the narrow product of your own sterile response.”
LeRoi had two turning points in his life in the 1960’s. The first was at the top of the decade when he visited Cuba as part of a delegation with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC). The FPCC’s purpose was to provide grassroots support for the Cuban Revolution against attacks by the United States government, once Fidel Castro began openly admitting his commitment to Marxism and began the expropriation and nationalization of Cuban assets belonging to U.S. corporations. The Committee opposed the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, the imposition of the United States embargo against Cuba, and was sympathetic to the Cuban view during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
In the Nov.-Dec. 1960 issue of the Evergreen Review, LeRoi wrote an award winning essay on his experiences called “Cuba Libre”. He was no longer able to be “just a writer” after that trip. His world had been forever stretched and widened and he saw life through a new lens.
The other 60’s turning point for LeRoi came on February 21, 1965. “Our shining black prince” Malcolm X was assassinated in Harlem. “After Malcolm X was assassinated we came to believe there really was a war against Black people and not just the work of some disconnected racist white folk,” Amiri explained in 2012. Malcolm’s assassination “drove us from Greenwich Village to Harlem.”
After that day LeRoi did three things that had been on his heart to do. First he left his white wife, and their children. He literally moved from Greenwhich Village to Harlem. Second, he changed his name to Amiri Baraka. And third, he started the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS) in Harlem. For the better part of a year they sent five trucks a day into the Harlem community promoting art shows, poetry readings, music, graphic illustrations and drama on vacant lots, playgrounds and in housing projects. They determined to make art that would intentionally raise the consciousness of Black people and recruit them into the Black Liberation Movement. And they took that art out of its traditional spaces and set it down right on the streets of Harlem.
After 1965 Amiri simultaneously became a pivotal leader in the movements for Black cultural nationalism as well as grassroots Black Power political organizing. He was Maulana Ron Karenga’s right-hand man in spreading the philosophy of Kawaida, out of which came the celebration of Kwanzaa. As second in command in Karenga’s organization, Amiri received the title of “Imamu”, Swahili for “spiritual leader”. Amiri’s work in the Black Arts movement was based on his belief that the Africans in America could only rise up and take their freedom once they had their African culture restored.
As the founder and leader of the Committee for Unified NewArk (CFUN), Baraka spearheaded a mass movement for democracy and self-government. He helped lay the foundation of a black and Puerto Rican political alliance that culminated in the 1970 election of Newark’s first African American mayor, who was also the first African American mayor of a major northeastern city.
In June 1968, one thousand people drafted a political agenda for municipal elections at the Newark Black Political Convention in New Jersey. By November 1969 hundreds of African American and Latino leaders joined at the Black and Puerto Rican Political Convention, selecting a slate of candidates for municipal offices in Newark. By June 1970 the Black and Puerto Rican Convention candidates won the Newark elections.
The Black Power movement entered the national political arena in 1972 with the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. Leading up to that Gary Convention to forge independent politics, the movement had generated a series of National Black Power Conferences in Newark in 1967 and in Philadelphia in 1968, culminating in Amiri’s new organization, the Congress of African People (CAP), in 1970. Unlike CFUN, CAP aspired to a national mass movement. The congress sponsored a series
of pan-African political conventions and helped organize the first African Liberation Day in 1972. Meanwhile, the Congressional Black Caucus formed. The convergence of CAP, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the black convention movement resulted in the Gary Convention in March 1972.
In the midst of the 1972 presidential campaigns, the Gary political convention drew eighteen hundred black elected officials within an assembly of somewhere between eight thousand and twelve thousand African Americans. The Gary Convention fashioned a National Black Political Agenda to guide black American development in seven major areas: human development, economics, communications and culture, rural development, environmental protection, politics, and international policy.
This movement generated many local organizations, schools, and community institutions, as well as county and state political organs and at least four national organizations: the CAP, the African Liberation Support Committee (ALSC), the Black Women’s United Front (BWUF), and the National Black Political Assembly. The CAP joined the Black Power politics with pan-Africanism; the ALSC structured African American efforts against colonialism on the continent; the BWUF mobilized communities and fashioned a political agenda joining the struggles against racism, imperialism, and sexism; and the National Black Political Assembly, created by the Gary Convention, charted the road to independent black politics.
Between 1974 and 1976, the Black Power movement became embroiled in ideological and political battles between black nationalists and black Marxists on the one hand, and between proponents of independent politics and party politics on the other. As the 1976 presidential races approached, the Black Power movement split into numerous factions, weakening the thrust of independent black politics.
Finally the CAP transformed itself from a Black Power organization into a Marxist-Leninist group and changed its name to the Revolutionary Communist League in May 1976. To reflect this new change to focusing on class struggle, Amiri no longer wore the title of Imamu, calling it a “bourgeois nationalist” thing.
Amiri’s fame declined after this time but he never stopped with his life’s work. He remained a world-class poet, playwright, and activist. His last bit of controversy surrounded his penning the poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” after the bombing of the New York World Trade Center in 2001.
“I could see the World Trade Center from the third floor of my house in Newark, New Jersey,” he offered. “We were particularly frightened by (then) President Bush’s statement that terrorists had blown up the World Trade Center because they hated us and our democracy. All I could think of was that the (Ku Klux) Klan was the terrorism that we knew and that Afro-Americans had gotten to this country through terrorism.”
After reading the poem at a Newark festival, Amiri was stripped of his honor as New Jersey’s Poet Laureate and the $10,000 stipend that went with it. He continued as Poet Laureate of the Newark Public Schools.
Amiri created numerous artistic expression spaces with his wife, Amina; and he served as Professor of Africana Studies at the State University of New York. His children continue his legacy, especially his son Ras who has served as Newark Deputy Mayor, City Council member, high school principal, and is now running for Mayor.
Amiri gave us the blueprint for making art that aids in liberation. I’m absolutely sure that the Ancestors are making a big ado about welcoming him into their realm. It is our duty now to properly canonize him as a Deity of Artistic Expression. Praise be to the God Amiri Baraka. Rest in Power.