Amiri Baraka: Poet Laureate To the Ancestors
by Gloria Dulan-Wilson
It’s taken me five days to write this farewell to Amiri Baraka – longer than it’s ever taken me to write anything. It’s hard not to flash back over so many memories of the heart when it comes to writing about him. And also, when you’re commemorating one who is such a prodigious writer, a staunch advocate for Black people and one I choose to call friend, you want to make sure you do him justice.
Amina and Amiri Baraka
Amiri Baraka has been a part of my life in one way or another for over 45 years – whether he knew it or not, or whether he intended to or not. We ran in concentric circles – sometimes on the periphery, and sometimes right in the center.
I have so many memories of Amiri that I treasure. I suppose I could write about his place in history, his political activism. His volumes of books; his poetry, his militancy, his re-shaping NewArk, NJ into an World Wide Black cultural and political mecca. But I’ll save that for the newspaper articles. My thoughts and memories of Amiri Baraka are on a much more personal level. There definitely was a feeling of awe on my part for Amiri and his life mate and wife Amina.
When I first heard of Amiri Baraka, he was still LeRoi Jones – that “quirky” fire brand artist, actor, activist, whose play, the Dutchman, was breaking records in the Black art realm. I was a kid in high school when we first started reading his works. Of course, our Oklahoma teachers would be the ones to make sure we were exposed to all our Black writers – classic and contemporary. But little did I realize that this dynamic brother would be instrumental in my getting my first job!
Having graduated from Lincoln University in April, 1967, I walked into a world that was still trying to figure out how to dodge LBJ’s efforts to formulate a Great Society out of a nation that had predicated its entire ethos on walking up and down the spines of Black people, while continuing to benefit from and exploit our considerable skills. The undeclared “war” in Vietnam was raging. Black men were being snatched off the streets via the draft, and college classmates were being pulled into the fracas as well.
As an activist, I helped Black people to vote for the first time in Virginia; I had sat in, kneeled in, marched, all of the things that we did when were trying to equal rights for our people in Oklahoma. But in college, I had decided I would never march or sit in again, so I had whole souled embraced the tenents of BLACK POWER, which were first enunciated to us by Stokely Carmichael at Lincoln University. I sported a natural that made Foxxy Brown, Angela Davis, and Kathleen Cleaver look bald – you could see my natural before you saw me. But then, I was barely 99 pounds, and a lot of mouth, and definitely militant. Studying under Dr. Charles V. Hamilton, with a side of Sam Anderson and Tony Montiero to boot, I was definitely Black and Proud; especially since the book, “Black Power” was written at Lincoln U, I had plenty of time to practice my Blackness.
But, I needed to get a job, and unfortunately, those particular traits were antithetical to the proscribed persona most whites look for when selecting who to hire. I was living in Philadelphia at the time, and there was plenty going on in terms of Black consciousness. The Rev. Leon Sullivan had started the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) to train Black people to start their own businesses or qualify for jobs. Playthel Benjamin was one of the most erudite of Philly’s philosophers on Black pride. Naturals were everywhere – cultural activities were the norm. We had everything but jobs.
The Philadelphia Inquirer was full of job opportunities. So I naively responded to several of them. Everyone was very enthusiastic on the phone. But when I showed up, natural and all, the job was suddenly no longer available – or it had just been filled ten minutes before I arrived.
Such was the case when I applied for a position with the City of Philadelphia to work as a counselor to the “hard core unemployed.” I had spoken with a Mr. Neuhaus, who, after talking with me for less than five minutes, ascertained that I was just what they needed. He invited me to come down and interview with them for a position that would be jn Deputy City Manager, Richard Olanoff’s office.
I dressed in my best business attire – my natural gleaming in the sun from Afro Sheen; and went to the office at 13th and Arch Street, with resume in hand. I waited for over an hour, when finally Neuhaus came out and said the position was no longer available. To which I countered that having spoken with him the only day before, I found it difficult to believe that this was the case. He apologized, and ushered me to the door, promising to hold my resume on file for 6 months, and contact me the minute anything else suitable came up.
It was in July, 1967. I had been job hunting for nearly four months without success. I went back home and the TV news was flashing Newark, NJ “riot” reports. The following day the Inquirer had a huge picture of LeRoi Jones on the front page, he had a bloodsoaked bandage around his head, anger in his eyes, and that famous gap in his teeth. A huge caption read “WHAT DOES LEROI JONES WANT???”
My best friend, Maxine Stewart and I were cracking up. We put his picture on the wall and wrote under it LeRoi Jones– Black Power in Action.
Two days later I got a call from the City of Philadelphia’s Neuhaus asking me if I was still interested in the job I had applied for. It had suddenly become available again, at a slightly larger salary, with more benefits, if I could start immediately.
Of course I said yes. I started the following day. They placed my desk in the very front of the office so mine would be the first face you saw as you came in the door, as if to say “look, we have a Black person working for us. We’re the good guys.”
I teased Amiri about this for years, and told him had he not been instrumental in frightening the bejeebers out of the Philadelphia racists, who were fearful of the Camden and Newark unrest crossing over into Philly; I would still have been job hunting. It was our standing joke for decades.
Memories of Amiri have had me in a reverie for the last several days. I had been praying for his complete recovery, but knew as well that if it didn’t happen, it was because his mission on this side of the planet had been accomplished. So I felt, rather than heard, his transition. It was Thursday afternoon around two. I was boarding a bus to somewhere. My mind suddenly did a rewind to the story I just related you. At the same time, my friend Barbara Killens Rivera called me – I saw her name on my cell phone. I didn’t answer. I already knew what she was going to tell me: Amiri had made his transition. January 9, 2014, two days after the anniversary of Lou’s passing – and I was still dealing with those memories. I’ve been having Amiri Baraka memory flashbacks ever since.
I met Amiri in person for the first time the following year when the Black Power Conference of 1968 was held in Philadelphia. I wanted to thank him for being the catalyst in getting me employed in Philly. As it turned out Amina, his wife, and I were the only two women with young children at the conference. Obalaji, their newborn son, and my daughter Kira Malaika, were still wearing diapers, and needed a lot of attention. Care and feeding was an issue, while at the same time trying to be a part of the event. So Amina, who was still known as Sylvia at the time, stayed at my home for part of the conference. When Obalaji was younger, I used to tease him about changing his poopy diapers.
He had just changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka – amiri means “commander” and baraka means “blessing” in Swahili. During the Black Power Conference of 1968, Amina and I confabbed on the role of the Black woman and Black mothers in terms of raising conscientious and proud Black children. I attended the women’s workshop, the cultural and the educational workshops. Those were heady times, and Amiri and Ron Karenga were the fulcrum of all the activities.
But the biggest memory was watching the way Amina and Amiri worked together. It was like a well choreographed dance between two lovers, who, while they were in a world and realm of their own, were still unselfish enough to share that love they had for each other with those in the room. You fairly soaked it up like osmosis. They set such a great example for Black man and woman hood, Black marriage and family relationships. I have always admired them. It was great being around them. They were a dynamic pair. It was clear that they were made for each other. I was so impressed with Amina and the fact that she had drawn this dynamic brother, valiant, brave, creative, charismatic – a man of letters in more ways than one. The fact that they were together, earned my instant respect and friendship.
Amiri, Amina, Obalaji Baraka 1968
In 1968, having found myself among such Black heavy hitters as Max Stanford, of the Black United Front; Maulana Ron Karenga of US, H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, of SNCC, William “Bill” Sayles, Sam Anderson, among others, all I wanted to do is sit back and absorb the wisdom and energy, and play whatever small part I could. Amiri’s goal was to involve regular African Americans who had been disenfranchised into the nation building process; and make Black education and Black pride a practical, livable way of life. We began to rekindle interests in African history; the fact that we came from royalty and were descendants of the great kings and queens of Africa; and develop communalistic programs where Blacks shared responsibilities, profitabilities, etc.
Those were heady, heavy times, and Amiri was at the epicenter. There was a point when I had actually considered moving to New Ark to be part of their newly established Black cultural nationalist organization, work with the women and the educational system. But my path took me in a totally different direction. I moved to New York and became the director of student activities for the SEEK Program at City College. We had many militant students, and frequently I would bring either Amiri or the Last Poets come to address the Black and Puerto Rican student body, much to the annoyance of the white administration.
Then, in 1969 I was out of the country for the next two years – Haiti, Martinique, Guadalupe, St. Croix, St. Kitts, St. John, St. Lucia, St. Thomas, then to California on my own African cultural nationalist odyssey. Over the next few decades we continued to run in concentric circles – at Black cultural events in New York, New Jersey, DC or Philadelphia. The many conferences and workshops from DC to NYC.
In 1976, Lou and I were living in Altadena, California, and took a Black Music class at Pasadena City College. As it turned out, the required text books were Amiri Baraka’s “Blues People” and “Black Music. ” It was one of the best classes we ever had. We had a lot of fun with it, and it gave me an even greater level of respect for Amiri. I think one of the heaviest things we got out of it was the impact of timbre on the Black idiom in music and vocality that are unmistakable influences on how we do what we do. For us it took Amiri out of the realm of poet and activist, and placed him squarely in the realm of educator and sage.
When I returned to New York City in 1984, I had lost touch with what was happening in NYC and Newark. But it never takes long to get back in the swing of things. And they embraced me like I never left. I remember hanging out with Amiri and Amina at a favorite East Indian Restaurant in Manhattan following the funeral services for a friend whose name escapes me. Verta Mae Grovesnor and other friends were there, and we kicked it until well into the night.
When I was housing coordinator for the City of Jersey City, I was always running into Amiri at Newark’s Penn station when he was headed one way I was headed another – we’d stop hug, exchange greetings, and keep running to our respective trains. This happened on several occasions.
The deep and abiding horror and sadness we all felt when Amiri’s daughter, Shani. was found murdered; and how we wept for him, Amina and the whole family as they sat during the murder trial hearings as if being a watchdog for justice.
Sitting with him and Amina at the Harlem Book Fair; especially the one in 2012 when Amiri and Sonia Sanchez were both honored, and wowed us with their newest work. It was like being in a special privileged place.
At the African Voices Awards Ceremony in Harlem, shortly after McGreevey rescinded the accolade of Poet Laureate that had been accorded to Amiri, we all gathered to support him. I remember writing that perhaps McGreevey had rescinded the because of pillow talk with his closet paramour. It was a scathing article on the duplicitous manner with which he had treated Amiri; and the lack of courage of his convictions.
Amiri stood before a packed audience and spoke of the harassment, the fact that he had been branded anti-semitic, and that they had tried to put a gag order on him to not read or recite the poem again. And there had been threats of arrests and charges of treason for his accurately pinpointing issues the meanstream media had chosen to ignore. He related this with that great gapped-tooth smile of his, which meant that he was definitely not taking it seriously; nor was he phased by any of it. So in front of a packed audience, after having given us the full scope of what he had endured, Amiri Baraka proceeded to read “Somebody Blew Up America!” much to our thrill and delight. We half way expected the CIA or gestapo to come running in and grab him from the podium; but no – and as he delivered line after line, it became apparent why they did not want that poem read. So, the full poem is at the end of this blog tribute, for those of you who either didn’t read it, or don’t remember it.
Newark, NJ did a five-day tribute in honor of Amiri’s 75th Birthday Anniversary. I attended three of the events where he was feted by all of NewArk – including Jazz vespers performed by Randy Weston; a jazz performance and salute at WISOMMM – with Danny Glover giving the keynote salute. Not only was Newark honoring their favorite native son for having lead the city through major crises; but also for having never left or abandoned the city during its darkest days; and for trying to bring Black Cultural and Political control to New Jersey’s largest city.
In 2012, at the homegoing services for fellow poet/writer/activist Louis Reyes Rivera – Amiri stayed for the entire service and repast, and didn’t want to leave. He said “I don’t know if I said everything I needed to say to him.” Amina remarked to me, “This is really hard for him. He’s said to me ‘let’s go’ at least seven times, but then he keeps coming back in. I’m just going to sit until he really decides he’s ready to leave.”
The Late Louis Reyes Rivera
Sitting and talking with him at the homegoing services for our dear mutual friend, Jitu Weusi, back in May of 2013 at Jitu’s Jazz Club, For My Sweet. We all gathered for the final good byes to the gentle giant who had, like Amiri, dedicated his life to Black people. “There aren’t any more like him coming through,” he said to me very quietly, as we listened to jazz artists perform in tribute to his memory.
In speaking with Amiri after the tribute to Elombe Brath –a charismatic leader in his own right with whom Amiri had a long collaborative history; and another brother with whom I have had a long term friendship – the event was sponsored by New York State Senator Bill Perkins and held at the Harriet Tubman School in Harlem. Amiri and I were talking with Elombe’s wife Nomsa – reminiscing over all the things that had transpired from Black in the day. Amina had performed a song specifically dedicated to Elombe, and Amiri had performed a poem in his honor. It was the first time I noticed that he was wearing a hearing aid.
Amiri and Amina at tribute to Elombe Brath, 2013 – Photo by Gloria Dulan-Wilson
But one of the funniest memories I had was dancing with Amiri who had just turned 75. We were at a fund raiser for Felipe Luciano who was running for political office. I remembered thinking that I had to be real careful with Amiri. If something happened and he got hurt or something, Amina would never forgive me. I was looking at him from the standpoint of being 75 years old. And he got out there on that floor and blew me away. He could Latin as well as he did when he was younger!! He moved around that dance floor in a way that it put most guys half his age to shame. It was the first time I had seen him dance since the days of the Soul Sessions in New Ark Black in the day. He quipped, “Not bad for an old man, eh?”
There is no end when there are so many wonderful memories of this wonderful Fine Black Man. And there are no condolences deep enough to offer to Amina and the family. “Sorry for your loss” is trite, and definitely not true – because there is no such thing as “loss” when you consider that the very spirit of Amiri Baraka permeates Amina and each and every one of their children. They are indeed mini-clones of both their father and mother, with their own special individualization thrown in for good measure. There are so many moments of Amiri to treasure – indelibly implanted in our psyches. So instead of condolences, I offer congratulations because they got to live with, be raised by, and influenced by one of the finest minds on the planet.
And to my sister/friend Amina, his lifemate, how wonderful it is to have had the love of this great brother. And I know it wasn’t always moonlight and roses – but those thorny times were mitigated by all the other overriding blessings you two shared over the years. I fully admit, I loved your love for each other. In the face of all the negatives from outside forces and sources, and the meanstream media, with the invectives and epithets, you prevailed – and did it beautifully. My love, friendship/sisterhood and blessings go out to you and the entire family; and the city of NEW ARK.
Now, I would have ended this with “rest in peace” – but you and I know that now that you’ve got John Watusi Branch, Louis Reyes Rivera, Jitu Weusi and Amiri Baraka all back together again, if things aren’t right, by the time these guys get through with it, everything will be.
Stay Blessed &
bullet Columnist Gloria Dulan-Wilson Is a veteran New York City Journalist. Her experiences, perspective & sense of history are an invaluable combination. “check out my blog:” www.gloria-dulan-wilson.blogspot.com