Amiri Baraka, the poet, playwright, and activist, died last week at the age of 79. Befitting a man with such a long, complicated and controversial career, not even his obituaries could agree. The New York Times calls him “polarizing,” while the Jerusalem Post opted, among other qualifiers, for “hateful.” The Anti-Defamation League, which once said his work had “a long history of hostility to Judaism and Jewish concerns,” didn’t weigh in on his passing. And the Washington Post noted: “Perhaps no writer of the 1960s and ’70s was more radical or polarizing than the former LeRoi Jones, and no one did more to extend the political debates of the civil rights era to the world of the arts.”
For Eugene B. Redmond, the famous East St. Louis poet and academic, Baraka’s death was the end of a 53-year friendship. On a recent afternoon, Redmond’s mind was on everything Baraka gave up to become a leader of the Black Arts Movement, black power’s cultural and artistic twin.
“LeRoi Jones was poised to become the first black playwright or screenwriter that would’ve gone onto just unlimited success,” Redmond says, using Baraka’s former name (he was born Everett Leroy Jones in Newark in 1934). But instead, “He gave it all up and went into the movement. He went from a larger white bohemian world into the black world.”
In 1965, following the assassination of Malcolm X, Baraka’s life changed forever. He’d been married to Hettie Jones, a white Jewish writer, living in Greenwich Village with their daughters Kellie and Lisa (the latter wrote for the Village Voice for 15 years, writing the critically acclaimed “Skin Trade” column). But soon after X was killed, Baraka’s first marriage ended; he moved to Harlem and became a black nationalist. He married Sylvia Robinson, who became Amina Baraka, and had five more children, one of whom, Ras Baraka, is now running for mayor of Newark.
That moment in 1965, Redmond says, in both Baraka’s life and in black power, represented a whole series of social movements coming together: “free speech, the anti-poverty program, the death of Kennedy, and the death of so many activists around the country — it all sort of boiled over.”
From the mid ’60s to the mid ’70s, Baraka’s focus was on Black Arts, before that movement, too, began to splinter and he became a Marxist-Leninist. (“He’d gone through a number of conversions,” Redmond says, with a little laugh.)
Throughout his many names and political transfigurations, Amiri Baraka appeared in the pages of the Village Voice, as both a subject and writer. He appeared here especially frequently from the mid ’70s through the late ’80s, writing about everything from Miles Davis to Abbie Hoffman to his own arrest for allegedly battering his second wife, a charge they both denied, saying the arrest was politically motivated and meant to intimidate him into silence.
Throughout Baraka’s artistic, political and academic lives, Redmond says, his searing intelligence remained the same, as did his knack for inciting controversy: “One thing about Amiri, a one-word phrase is cutting edge. Harbinger. Foreshadower….The thing is, you couldn’t be asleep around him. You couldn’t be intellectually lazy. You couldn’t just be normally conscious.” He laughs. “Oh yeah, you couldn’t have an average consciousness. If you wanted to stay in his presence and have an exchange with him, you had to do some work. You had to bone up.”
One year in the mid 1990s, Redmond came to visit Baraka while he was teaching at the University of Stony Brook, and watched as Baraka participated in a PhD student’s dissertation defense. The young man was getting his doctorate in 19th century social movements, but had somehow neglected to mention any black writers in his thesis; not Sojourner Truth or Frederick Douglass or Nat Turner, omissions which Baraka was quick to point out, to the student and to the other professors, who were all white.
“Everybody else had a PhD and he just ripped them apart,” Redmond says. “He ate them alive. I was so embarassed, I had to get up and get some water. He probed that guy and probed them. It was embarrassing.” It made him think of a book they’d put together for Baraka’s 75 birthday in 2009, called Let Loose on the World.
“Can you think of a better title for Amiri?” Redmond says, cackling with delight.
On the following pages are a few of Baraka’s many contributions to the Voice: a poem for Malcolm X, two personal essays (one on being accused of anti-Semitism, a charge he denied, although he did allow that he was “anti-Zionist,” and another on his arrest). There’s also a takedown of longtime Voice writer Stanley Crouch, who Baraka referred to disdainfully as this newspaper’s “most visible Negro,” and who he accused of supporting “U.S. imperialism, oppression, and the exploitation of the Afro-American nation.” Crouch responded in a column on the same page, part of Voice writers’ long history of merrily feuding in print. He noted that he’d recently thought about punching Baraka at a party, before maturity won out. The two men never did reconcile, sniping at each other for the next 30 or 40 years.
The wake for Baraka will be held on Friday, January 17, 2014 from 4:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. at the Metropolitan Baptist Church, 149 Springfield Avenue, Newark, NJ. The funeral is Saturday, January 18 at 10 a.m. at Newark Symphony Hall, 1020 Broad Street, Newark.
Note: Portions of these pieces are hard to read, due entirely to this reporter’s technical ineptitude at scanning documents.
First, from 1979, the Crouch takedown:
Also from 1979, on being arrested for domestic violence and held at Rikers Island for several days.
And Crouch’s report on the same event:
From 1980, on embracing and then rejecting anti-Semitism.
And from 1985, a poem for Malcolm X, on the 20th anniversary of his death:
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 13, 2014