Lost in the political obscurity of Chris Christie and “Traffic-Gate” was the passing of one of our great literary, political, and cultural figures — Amiri Baraka.
Yesterday, Newark New Jersey lost a son. We lost a friend, a father, a husband, an uncle, a leader. His impact on Newark, and how we have all benefitted from his political activism and artistry have yet to be collectively realized.
We will remember Amiri Baraka for so many reasons but certain contributions stand out amongst the many others.
1) He was a keynote speaker and organizer of the 1972 Gary Convention, a black political convention, hosted by Mayor Richard Hatcher, one of the first black mayors of a major city. The Gary Convention was considered controversial for many reasons. It excluded whites; it worked deliberately to establish a national black political agenda, including: proper political representation, community control of schools and national health insurance. It was a progressive political movement built around getting black candidates elected to office – what today’s progressives argue is lacking in the Occupy movement.
2) He was one of the leading organizers of The Black and Puerto Rican convention in Newark in 1969 – responsible for supporting the political careers of Ken Gibson, Sharpe James, and others. This convention was a grassroots-organized effort between blacks and Puerto Ricans to put people in office. The convention led directly to the election of Ken Gibson, Newark’s first black mayor. Newark’s first Latino mayor, Louis Quintana was quoted as saying: “we’re going to remember him always for his contributions to Newark, New Jersey and America.” Baraka’s political leadership empowered blacks and Puerto Ricans to organize collaboratively in order to achieve equal representation in Newark city government.
3) Baraka’s consistent challenge to poets and artists was that their work be engaged in political activism. He was never rapping just to rap or make money. Baraka’s art was designed to exhort people to political action.
4) Baraka was a literary virtuoso; a poet, novelist, essayist and playwright. He wrote Blues People, Dutchman, The System of Dante’s Hell, The Slave and Somebody Blew Up America.
He was a leader in the Black Arts Movement, establishing the celebration of Kwanzaa in Newark, NJ. He was the “architect” of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem. He believed that artists had to be engaged in the community; he wanted art that would “help with the liberation of black people.” His was a life of political work and artistry that nearly always invited controversy and criticism.
He was the antithesis of artists and athletes who refuse to be political for material concerns. Yet he did not ultimately think of himself as some kind of righteous revolutionary, above reproach. In fact he distanced himself from some of his more controversial comments made about MLK, his homophobic comments about gays, and some of his attacks directed at whites in general. He made mistakes, he grew; he progressed and he evolved politically.
The hip-hop generation owes Amiri Baraka a debt in aesthetics and its artists need to acknowledge any shame associated with not marrying progressive politics with those aesthetics – and by progressive political aesthetics I mean poetry and music fused and formed for the people – popular culture – “let’s organize and let’s move” music; “I want poems that kill” music. Listen to him describe the roots of rap in 32 seconds here.
Amiri Baraka was a giant who remained true to his Newark roots. He was a political activist, poet, scholar, and more; and he was all of these things simultaneously and seamlessly. Is there anyone else that we can situate in the artistic, social, and political categories across and through which Amiri Baraka made his incredible impact on our lives?? There has been a lot of chatter recently on what constitutes a public intellectual or who are the black public intellectuals of the moment. Reflections on Baraka’s life and work will hopefully provide some deeper context to these discussions.
I am a black scholar from Newark, NJ. I walk in a path that Amiri Baraka has paved for me, and for so many others. In 2004 I was invited to share the stage with him at Malcolm X Shabazz High School. At the time Baraka was 70 years old. He was still putting in the work – with no bodyguards, no handlers, no green room, no car service, no checks – just Amiri Baraka speaking to an auditorium filled with black kids; just Amiri Baraka filling the room with black art. Lines from “Wise Why’s, Y’z” will always resonate with me: “At the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean there’s a railroad made of human bones” he said. “Black Ivory.”
It was an honor to be on that stage with him; it was the last time that I saw him in person. On the occasion of his passing please remember that we have yet to acknowledge Baraka’s full impact on black political life; his contributions were not and have not been duly or fully recognized. And remember this: Amiri Baraka is Newark’s quintessential figure — a political leader for the ages and a poet for eternity.
James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University and an MSNBC contributor. Follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson