Amiri Baraka, Co-Founder of the Black Arts Cultural Revolution (with his comrades, Larry Neal, Askia Touré, and Sonia Sanchez, created the largest cultural movement in U.S. history, according to Dr. James Edward Smethurst, in his seminal study, “The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s.”) was a major sage, Djali and visionary of Second Black Reconstruction in America, known officially as the “Black Arts/Black Liberation” Era.
In his life of perpetual Dialectical Transformation, he grew from Everett LeRoi Jones, gifted “Beat” poet-Jazz critic and dramatist, into one of the major cultural and political leaders of the late 20th/early 21st Centuries. Seldom has Black America produced an intellectual who excelled in most of the artistic/intellectual disciplines: a lyrical, Post-Modernist poet (whose peers included Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Frank O’Hara, Dianne DiPrima, Denise Levertov, Jack Kerouac, Ted Joans, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among others) and a major American dramatist, with his award-winning plays, “Dutchman,” “The Toilet,” and “The Slave,” which “shook up” the Square, buttoned-down Broadway Theater World of the mid-1960s, along with James Baldwin’s “Blues for Mr. Charlie,” and Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Additionally, as a music ethno-cultural critic, Amiri wrote “Blues People” and “Black Music,” in the critical tradition of W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neal Hurston, Alain Locke, Stephen Henderson, Patricia L. Hill, Sondra O’Neale, Ralph Ellison, and other stellar cultural critics.
In the midst of his promising career, 1960s Black America arose, en mass, and began to confront its oppressors, via the Southern-based, King-led, non-violent, mainly Middle Class, Civil Rights Movement. This transformed into the massive Black Power rebellion, with the Northern rise of Malcolm X, the self-defense campaigns of Robert F. Williams in Monroe, N.C., amid the dynamite murders of four little girls at 16th Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Alabama; amid massive Northern urban rebellions, a clandestine, guerilla movement, known as RAM (the Revolutionary Action Movement), arose in Philadelphia, and spread to New York City, Chicago, Detroit, and San Francisco. It was inspired by Robert Williams, who contacted LeRoi Jones in New York. Working with RAM activists, critics & poets, Askia Touré and Larry Neal, via Harlem’s “Liberator” magazine, LeRoi Jones began his transformation to Imamu Amiri Baraka.
After leaving Greenwich Village, after the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X, and breaking with his former wife, Hettie Cohen, LeRoi Jones established the Black Arts Repertory Theatre-School in Harlem. This was an important initial event, because it established the premier cultural organizations of the revolutionary 1960s and ’70s, a Black Arts theatre-school. Subsequently, this “model” was established throughout Black Urban America. Meanwhile in 1966 Harlem, backward, disruptive elements sabotaged the Harlem BAM, shot Larry Neal, attacked Amiri and me, and forced him to return to his natal Newark/New Ark, where he created Spirit House, and later CFUN (Committee for a Unified Newark), the massive, grassroots organization which led the campaign for the election of Kenneth Gibson as Newark’s first Black mayor. This was part of a national strategy to consolidate Urban Power in the mainly working-class Black and Latino Northern neighborhoods…
Imamu Amiri Baraka also married Newark cultural activist, Bibi Amina Baraka aka Sylvia Jones, and began what was to become his final transformation into: Comrade Amiri Baraka, Internationalist, Third World Marxist, Liberation Sage, and Human Rights Visionary.
It was an honor to work and struggle alongside Amiri, in arts and political/liberation struggles. I recall BAM poet Marvin X and I supported him, after the massive Newark rebellion, when he was physically assaulted by police officers, and the great “democratic” judge attempted to convict him of “criminal anarchy” by reading aloud one of his radical poems! Nevertheless, Amiri was found “Not Guilty” of all charges!
Throughout what has become Decades of Struggle, all of us now in our ‘Seventies, have continued the Great Fight. Recently, Sonia Sanchez and I spoke of our collective task, along with Amiri, in establishing Black/Africana Studies at San Francisco State University with Dr. Nathan Hare, Danny Glover, James Garret and other student-activists. After leaving Atlanta in the ‘Nineties, I returned North to Boston, MA, where I’ve worked with Prof. Tony Van Der Meer, his wife Clemencia, and L’Merchie Frazier, as part of AAMARP, African-American Master Artists in Residency Program at Northeastern University.
While we weren’t visual artists, we created the “Cultural Cafe,” for poets, dramatists, scholars, filmmakers and authors. We invited Amiri to Boston to speak at a major AAMARP program, and later hosted Amina Baraka, his talented wife. We’ve marched together in a myriad of political and cultural events: against Bush’s War in Iraq, for the Liberation of ex-Panther, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and fellow political prisoners. Amiri had remained constantly in touch on strategies, tactics via working class people, the Poor, Obama’s campaign, and various Liberation Projects. Amiri’s energy was stupendous!
When he died, he was working on two gatherings, one in California, the other at NYU which we are enjoined, with Marvin X and other comrades, to complete for him. He literally died with his boots on! As Sonia said, we hardly had time to mourn his passing! As Comandante Che Guevara has said, “when I fall, don’t waste your time mourning, pick up my rifle!” Amiri’s epic funeral and Memorial in New Ark was a testimony of national and international esteem he held as a leader and artist. Between 3,000 to 4,000 people turned out EACH DAY to honor him as Cultural Leader of Afro-America.
His passing marks the passing of the Greatest Generation in Black America, since Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Martin R. Delaney, Henry Highland Garnet, and the Civil War generation.
I end this Tribute with my Salute I wrote on Facebook: “Comrade Amiri Baraka, Presente!”
Askia Touré, poet, editor, political activist, worked closely with Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal & Sonia Sanchez in forming the 1960s Black Arts Cultural Revolution. He is a former member of SNCC, RAM, and a BAM co-founder. He co-wrote the SNCC “Black Power Position Paper” which appeared in the NY Times in 1966. He was a feature writer for Harlem’s Liberator Magazine, an editor of “Black Dialogue,” and Editor-at-Large of the “Journal of Black Poetry.” He is author of eight books, and winner of the 1989 American Book Award, for “From the Pyramids to the Projects,” and his Nile valley epic, “Dawn-Song!” won the 2003 Stephen Henderson Poetry Award from the American Literature Assoc. He lives in Boston and is a member of the African-American Master-Artist-in-Residency Program at Northeastern University. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org, and also on Facebook.