TRIBUTE: REMEMBERING OUR BLESSED PRINCE, AMIRI BARAKA
Amiri Baraka. Photo: Carl Nunn for The Black Star News
REMEMBERING AMIRI BARAKA 1934- 2014
"Each night I go out to count the stars,
And when they will not come out to be counted,
I count the holes they leave."-- Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka
He was our university without walls.
He was our "Oom boom ba boom!" Our Blessed Prince. Amiri Baraka, among the finest of poets that this world has known.
In the years following the assassination of Malcolm X, Baraka's voice gained full volume so that by the time he published Wise, Why's Y's, he would deliver in 132 pages a history that could occupy volumes. In a single page the poet brings the reader to a conscious understanding of the atrocities of American slavery which formally spanned two hundred and forty-six years.
Years ago, Kimako, his late sister, spoke of her brother is such a loving voice when introducing him at her establishment in Harlem which bore her name. That peaceful afternoon of poetry and tea permeates memory.
Throughout the years I have seen the continued kindness with which Baraka allowed my students to sit in on his classes and later, to interview and to take photographs with him. This consideration despite his demanding and busy schedule. With a larger understanding of the poet's work, students gained important insights. For the final presentation, one young woman trained in ballet effectively danced the part of Lula in Baraka's Dutchman.
When tragedy struck this gentle sister, Kimako, we sent our prayers of support to the bewildered and anguished brother.
The poet as activist-humanitarian is clearly seen in 1968, the same year that saw the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka appeared in the evening news with his head bandaged, injured and vilified for rescuing and transporting to the hospital those wounded during the Newark unrest. He was accused of having a gun; that fear of an African man with a gun echoed in Solomon Northup's narrative from 1853, Twelve Years a Slave. The medical doctor asked if he were the LeRoi Jones, and when the answer was yes, that doctor stitched his head without anesthesia.
I would witness the trial in Newark New Jersey, anxiously watching from the back as so much untruth was offered as testimony against the poet. But Baraka's lawyer, Mr. Raymon Brown, was up to the task, and he was acquitted.
Dutchman, would save my life. The play which I saw staged and on screen before I had knowledge of the ancient story of Set and Osiris, would awaken me to the deadly degrees of betrayal coming from someone who poses as knowing more about you than you know about yourself. At the theater in Jamaica, Queens, we laughed hard during the entire movie starring Robert Hooks, until the final moment when Lula turns the knife in Clay's belly. We exited the theater with our mouths still open in shock and in pain. It meant that the next time we encountered Lula, by another name and with another face, we would recognize the deadly negative energy.
The humor and cosmic dimension, and sheer scholastic knowledge, help to provide the beauty needed to balance the terror in literature that examines life with honesty and courage. The science was always there in Baraka's writings: stars, die, stars disappear. There are black holes, whether the poet can actually count them or not. Professor and poet Sterling A. Brown would bring Howard University students, including LeRoi Jones to his home where they would listen to music. We all benefit from that education as we read Baraka's Blues People and Black Music and purchase our first record by Thelonius Monk. Many contemporary scholars would earn degrees studying the insightful and provocative works of Amiri Baraka.
Almost forty years ago, seventeen poets gathered to celebrate the life of Leon Damas.
The ceremony lasted for a number of hours. Amiri Baraka was the last, the seventeenth poet. Of course, by that time, the audience was elated, but exhausted. Until the warrior-poet started speaking.... And the room was charged with solar energies.
"Who was your favorite poet?" I asked a young man, about 10 or 11 years old, who had been so patient and so attentive.
He smiled effusively. "That last man," he said.
Almost twenty years later, at the ceremony for James Baldwin, and again just last year, for Jayne Cortez, Baraka, Djeli, delivered the praise which transcends grief.
Poet of the academy. Poet of the people. We will listen for your voice more than ever in the days and years ahead. Amiri Baraka, Blessed Prince, thank you for all the lessons which we will continue to learn. Thank you for helping us to know ourselves.