Amiri Baraka: The Last Griot

A man is either free or he is not. There cannot be any apprenticeship for freedomAmiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka was easily the single remaining vestige of the artistic and academic offspring of the Black Nationalist movement that was spawned in the 1960s. His talents were celebrated as revealing the hypocritical under-belly of the American experiment as it concerned race, gender and class. Baraka traveled throughout the world during his illustrious literary career but maintained a home in Newark, New Jersey throughout his life.

Born Everrett LeRoi Jones, the man we would come to know as Amiri Baraka adopted the Muslin name Imanu Amear Baraka in 1967 and later changed it to the moniker that is familiar to us all today. After finishing high school two years early, Amiri would attend Rutgers University in 1951 on an academic scholarship but would eventually transfer to Howard University the following year because he felt a cultural disconnect at the New Jersey institution. But the spirit of the genius is a restless one, indeed. Baraka would attend Columbia University and the New School for Social Research without earning a degree from either institution.

Amiri Baraka joined the US Air Force as a gunner in 1954. He obtained the rank of sergeant before an anonymous letter accusing him of being a communist found its way to his commanding officer. A search of Baraka’s belongings revealed a book of Soviet writings. Baraka was placed on gardening duty and later given a dishonorable discharge for violation of his oath of duty. It is apparent that Baba Amiri was experiencing the common struggle of all men and finding himself.

His wanderings led him to Greenwich Village, New York in 1954 – a hotbed of music and philosophy then as it is today. It is there where Baraka's lifelong love of jazz began to ferment. After coming into contact with such poetic contemporaries as Beat Generation, Black Mountain poets and New York Poets, Amiri founded Totem Press and published works from Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

Though his literary magazine Yugen only lasted eight issues, he continued his work as an editor and critic for a multitude of publications afterwards.

In 1960 Baraka visited Cuba with a delegation from the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. This visit is what inspired his essay "Cuba Libre." He co-authored Declaration of Conscience in support of Fidel Castro’s regime in 1961.

 Baraka was a member of several writing and poetry collectives early on, including the Umbra Poets Workshop, and the Lower East Side poets. His catalog of literary works include Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note and a multitude of essays. Despite being a prolific writer himself, Baraka was critical of black writers in the mainstream. Amiri embodied the stance taken in the essay Myth of a Negro Literature penned in 1962.

In most cases the Negroes who found themselves in a position to pursue some art, especially the art of literature, have been members of the Negro middle class, a group that has always gone out of its way to cultivate any mediocrity, as long as that mediocrity was guaranteed to prove to America, and recently to the world at large, that they were not really who they were, i.e., Negroes.

His contributions to literature, Black Nationalism, academia, counter-culturalism and activism make him an individual whose combined works are without peer in his genre. Baraka fearlessly challenged the status quo without failing. His enemies called him an anti-Semite, a demagogue and a subversive socialist. He's the contemporary, and philosophical opposite of, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, and a colleague in arms to the late James Baldwin. He's a brave man among apologist sheep and pseudo revolutionaries.

Not perfect, but full of fierce conviction, women’s rights groups, jewish organizations, gay rights and government agencies all criticized his works and resolve at one point or another.

But in July 2002, Baraka was named Poet Laureate of New Jersey.  Amiri penned the poem Somebody Blew Up America, which implied Israeli and American complicity in the September 11th attacks, the same month. When then New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey asked him to apologize for the poem and resign as poet laureate, Baraka refused. There was no legal precedent for Amiri’s removal and in October 2002, legislation was introduced in the state Senate eliminating the post. It was signed into law in July of the following year. He was the second and last poet laureate of New Jersey.

Baraka would remain active in the community until his passing on January 9 at the age of 79-years-old. Prolific, fiery and inspiring, Amiri Baraka defended the rights of African Americans and other disenfranchised groups until the very end.

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