We spend the hour looking at the life and legacy of Amiri Baraka, the poet, playwright and political organizer who died Thursday at the age of 79. Baraka was a leading force in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1963 he published "Blues People: Negro Music in White America," known as the first major history of black music to be written by an African American. A year later he published a collection of poetry titled "The Dead Lecturer" and won an Obie Award for his play, “Dutchman." After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, he moved to Harlem and founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre. In the late 1960s, Baraka moved back to his hometown of Newark and began focusing more on political organizing, prompting the FBI to identify him as "the person who will probably emerge as the leader of the pan-African movement in the United States." Baraka continued writing and performing poetry up until his hospitalization late last year, leaving behind a body of work that greatly influenced a younger generation of hip-hop artists and slam poets. We are joined by four of Baraka’s longtime comrades and friends: Sonia Sanchez, a renowned writer, poet, playwright and activist; Felipe Luciano, a poet, activist, journalist and writer who was an original member of the poetry and musical group The Last Poets; Komozi Woodard, a professor of history at Sarah Lawrence College and author of "A Nation Within a Nation: Amiri Baraka and Black Power Politics"; and Larry Hamm, chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress in Newark, New Jersey. Watch Part 2 of this interview.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We will spend the rest of the hour remembering the life and legacy of the poet, playwright and political organizer Amiri Baraka. He died on Thursday in Newark, New Jersey, at the age of 79. Baraka was a leading force in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, but he first came to prominence as a Beat Generation poet when he co-founded the journal Yugen and published the works of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso.
At the time, he was known as LeRoi Jones. In 1963, he published Blues People: Negro Music in White America. The book has been called the first major history of black music to be written by an African American. A year later he published a collection of poetry titled The Dead Lecturer and won an Obie Award for his play, Dutchman.
AMY GOODMAN: Dutchman was the last play he published under his birth name, LeRoi Jones. After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, he moved to Harlem and founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre. He soon became a leader of what was known as the Black Arts Movement. In 2007, he appeared on Democracy Now! and talked about his name change.
AMIRI BARAKA: I was Everett LeRoi Jones. My grandfather’s name was Everett. He was a politician in that town. My family came to Newark in the '20s. We've been there a long, long time. My father’s name was LeRoi, the French-ified aspect of it, because his first name was Coyette, you see. They come from South Carolina. I changed my name when we became aware of the African revolution and the whole question of our African roots. I was named by the man who buried Malcolm X, Hesham Jabbar, who died last week. He named me Amir Barakat. But that’s Arabic. I brought it down into Swahililand, into Tanzania, which is an accent. So it’s Amiri, instead of Amir, and, you know, Baraka, rather than Barakat, you know, which is interesting. If it was Amir Barakat, I would probably have more difficulty flying these days.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In the late 1960s, Amiri Baraka moved back to his home town of Newark and began focusing more on political organizing. In 1967, he was nearly beaten to death by police during the urban uprising in Newark. The FBI once identified Baraka as, quote, "the person who will probably emerge as the leader of the pan-African movement in the United States." Three years later, in 1970, he formed the Congress of African People and spoke at the Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, two years later.
Amiri Baraka continued writing and performing poetry up until he was hospitalized late last year. In 2002, he was named poet laureate of New Jersey, a post that was eliminated after a poem he wrote about the September 11th attacks turned out to create a firestorm throughout the country and the state.
AMY GOODMAN: Amiri Baraka’s work also greatly influenced a younger generation of hip-hop artists and slam poets. In a moment, we’ll be joined by four guests to talk more about Amiri’s life and legacy, but first let’s turn to a performance of his on the program Def Poetry Jam on HBO.
AMIRI BARAKA: This is an excerpt from a poem called "Why is We Americans?" But reality is an excerpt on television.
Why is we Americans?
Why is we Americans?
what i want is me. for real. i want me and my self. and what that is is what i be and what i see and feel and who is me in the . what it is, is who it is, and when it me its what is be....i’m gone be here, if i want, like i said, self determination, but i aint come from a foolish tribe, we wants the mule the land, you can make it three hundred years of blue chip stock in the entire operation. We want to be paid, in a central bank the average worker farmer wage for all those years we gave it free. Plus we want damages, for all the killings and the fraud, the lynchings, the missing justice, the lies and frame-ups, the unwarranted jailings, the tar and featherings, the character and race assassinations. historical slander, ugly caricatures, for every sambo, step and fechit flick, we want to be paid, for every hurtful thing you did or said. for all the land you took, for all the rapes, all the rosewoods and black wall streets you destroyed. all the mis-education, jobs loss, segregated shacks we lived in, the disease that ate and killed us, for all the mad police that drilled us. For all the music and dances you stole. The styles. the language. the hip clothes you copped. the careers you stopped. All these are suits, specific litigation, as represent we be like we, for reparations for damages paid to the Afro-American nation.
we want education for all of us and anyone else in the black belt hurt by slavery. for all the native peoples even them poor white people you show all the time as funny, all them abners and daisy maes, them beverly hill billies who never got to no beverly hills. who never got to harvard on they grandfathers wills. we want reparations for them, right on, for the Mexicans whose land you stole. for all of north Mexico you call Texas, Arizona, California, New Mexico, Colorado, all that, all that, all that, all that, all that you gotta give up, autonomy and reparations. to the Chicanos, and the Native Americans, who souls you ripped out with their land, give Self-Determination, Regional autonomy, that’s what my we is askin, and they gon do the same. when they demand it, like us again, in they own exploited name.
Yeh the education that’s right two hundred...years. We want a central stash, a central bank, with democratically elected trustees, and a board elected by us all, to map out, from the referendum we set up, what we want to spend it on. To build that Malcolm sense Self-Determination as Self-Reliance and Self Respect and Self Defense, the will of what the good Dr. Du Bois beat on — true self consciousness. Simply the psychology of Freedom.
Then we can talk about bein american. then we can listen without the undercurrent of desire to first set your [bleep] on fire. We will only talk of voluntary unity, of autonomy, as vective arms of self-determination. If there is democracy in you that is where it will be shown. this is the only way we is americans. this is the only truth that can be told. otherwise there is no future between us but war. and we is rather lovers and singers and dancers and poets and drummers and actors and runners and elegant heartbeats of the suns flame....but we is also to the end of our silence and sitdown. we is at the end of being under your ignorant smell your intentional hell. either give us our lives or plan to forfeit your own.
AMY GOODMAN: Amiri Baraka, performing his poem "Why is We Americans?" on the HBO series Def Poetry Jam. Amiri Baraka died Thursday. He was 79 years old. In a moment, we’ll be joined by four guests, by fellow poet Sonia Sanchez; Felipe Luciano, the former chair of the Young Lords; as well as Newark community organizer Larry Hamm; and historian Komozi Woodard, author of A Nation Within a Nation: Amiri Baraka and Black Power Politics. Stay with us.
AMIRI BARAKA: Wailers are we
We are Wailers. Don’t get scared.
Nothing happening but out and way out.
Nothing happening but the positive.
(Unless you the negative.)
Wailers. We wailers. Yeh, Wailers.
We wail, we wail.
We could dig Melville on his ship
confronting the huge white mad beast
speeding death cross the sea to we.
But we whalers. We can kill whales.
We could get on top of a whale
and wail. Wailers. Undersea defense hot folk
Blues babies humming when we arrive.
Boogie ladies strumming our black violet souls.
Rag daddies come from the land of never say die.
Reggae workers bringing the funk to the people of I. We wailers all right.
Hail to you Bob, man! We will ask your question all our lives.
Could You Be Loved? I and I understand.
We see the world. Eyes and eyes say Yes to transformation. Wailers. Aye, Wailers.
Subterranean night color Magis, working inside the soul of the world Wailers.
AMY GOODMAN: Amiri Baraka, reading his poem "Wailers" with David Murray on saxophone, the poem dedicated to Bob Marley and Larry Neal. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We’re spending the hour remembering the life and legacy of the poet, playwright and political organizer Amiri Baraka. He died on Thursday in Newark, New Jersey, at the age of 79. Baraka was a leading force in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
To talk more about Amiri Baraka’s legacy, we’re joined by four guests. In Philadelphia, there’s Sonia Sanchez. She joins us. She’s a renowned writer, poet and playwright, activist and one of the foremost leaders of the black studies movement. She’s the author of over a dozen books, including Morning Haiku, Shake Loose My Skin and Homegirls and Handgrenades. Sanchez is a poet laureate of Philadelphia and a longtime friend and colleague of Amiri Baraka.
And here in New York, we’re joined by three people: Felipe Luciano, my longtime comrade, poet, activist, journalist and writer. He knew Amiri Baraka for 43 years, a former chairman of the Young Lords and was an original group of the poetry and musical group The Last Poets.
Komozi Woodard is a professor of history at Sarah Lawrence College. He’s the author of A Nation Within a Nation: Amiri Baraka and Black Power Politics.
And Larry Hamm is with us, chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress. He was named Adhimu by Amiri Baraka.
I want to start with Sonia Sanchez. Your reaction to the word—the news of Amiri Baraka’s death.
SONIA SANCHEZ: Good morning to you, my dear brother, and the rest of the brothers and Sister Amy. How are you doing this morning?
KOMOZI WOODARD: Very well, Sonia.
SONIA SANCHEZ: Yeah, it is good hearing all of you. My dear Brother Juan, like everyone else, we were more than shocked, because we always could never imagine ourselves on this earth without dear Brother Amiri and his family. Every time you started out during the day, you would say hello to him and his family in Newark. You would say hello to all those brothers and sisters who were part of what I call that magnificent generation of the ’60s, these men and women who proceeded to change the world. They came out, and they decided very much to change the world.
And so, when I heard from Sister Amina in Newark, when she called and told us he had made transition, you know, your first response is verte y no verte, you know, to have seen you and to see you no more. But then, after you say that and after you move and go outside and walk 12 blocks, you come back and realize, simply, that he lives. He lives. He will always live. He will always live in the hearts of all of us, in the hearts of young people and young poets and people who have some kind of moral grounding, because this man moved in such a large way to effect change in this place called America and in the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Komozi Woodard, you wrote a biography of Amiri Baraka. You’re a professor of history at Sarah Lawrence College. The title of your book, A Nation Within a Nation: Amiri Baraka and Black Power Politics. Give us a thumbnail sketch of Amiri’s life.
KOMOZI WOODARD: Well, he was born in Newark, New Jersey, during the Great Depression in 1934, LeRoi Jones, kind of named after his father. And he went to Howard University, where he met Toni Morrison, Andy Young and people like that, that generation. He dropped out of—you know, people think he graduated from Howard, but he dropped out in his last semester of his senior year, and he joined—in disgrace, he joined the Air Force. And he got kicked out of the Air Force.
And then he became—he joined the Beat Poets down in Greenwich Village, where he began to—it’s kind of phenomenal. He became an editor of the Beat poetry. He just took it upon himself that—took that agency that he could take all the great poets and begin to collect that new American poetry.
He went to Cuba in 1960 at the invitation of Fidel Castro and with a delegation of black writers. He met Robert Williams there, who was a famous NAACP activist for self-defense. When he got back, he hooked up with Malcolm X. There’s a famous meeting late January 1965 between Malcolm X, Abdulrahman Babu and Amiri Baraka that lasted all night, where they discussed the international strategy for black liberation. Malcolm X is killed a few weeks later.
Baraka leaves Greenwich Village and goes to Harlem to found the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School 1965. Jazz musicians held a concert to raise the money for that new school and theater. Baraka had already written Blues People, which is an important work for him, because I think he found his poetic voice by studying the blues. And the rest is history. You know, he formed many Black Power organizations.
At his 75th birthday celebration, he and Sonia celebrated their 75th birthday a few years ago, and there were perhaps a thousand artists and actors there. And it occurred to me in the middle of that celebration that all of those people were his former students. So I think his—like his mentor, Sterling Brown, was asked, "What is your greatest work?" Brown said, "My students." And I think Baraka would say the same thing.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Felipe, you were one of those students, and you met him in that period of the Black Arts Movement. You, yourself, were a member of The Last Poets. Talk about first meeting Amiri and his influence on your life.
FELIPE LUCIANO: 1967, we had started a group called The Last Poets, and it was Gylan Kain, Abiodun Oyewole and David Nelson. And they introduced me—it was the first black and Puerto Rican aggregation. It had not happened before. And I met him with an enormous amount of trepidation. He started the Black Arts Movement, as our esteemed professor said, and we followed in that tradition four years later. And immediately he embraced me.
Amiri was the only intellectual, black intellectual, intellectual that I’ve met, who was able to bring together militancy with intellect; militancy, aggressive action, with scholarship. He was an incredibly learned man. He could quote Tennyson, Yeats, Wordsworth, Walt Whitman. He knew Ginsberg, introduced me to Allen Ginsberg. I feel—so I was in awe.
He always told me it’s important to read and write, write and read. And he said, "What is the use?" This is the first thing he told me: "What is the use of being ethereal and being escapist and romantic? Take the words and make them into bullets. Take the words and make them do something." In fact, it was his poetry, his motivation, that led me from The Last Poets into the Young Lords.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of poetry, I’d like, before we go to Adhimu, as we’re sort of chronologically—the people who met him through their lives, all of you—most have known him for over 40 years. Adhimu, your name is Adhimu because of Amiri. But, Komozi Woodard, would you set up this poem for us, Amiri Baraka reading the poem "It’s Nation Time"? This is 1970. It’s right before, Adhimu, you met him, at the founding conference of the Congress of African People. Now, a warning: the N-word is repeated numerous times during this reading. Give us context.
KOMOZI WOODARD: Well, we were in a political campaign in 1970 to elect the first black mayor of Newark, and the workload was heavy. One person late at night said, "What time is it?" as if they wanted to go home and quit the detail. And an old man named Baba Mshauri said, "It’s nation time." Baraka heard the story, and as he did with many of his poems, that story turned into this epic poem.
AMY GOODMAN: "It’s Nation Time," Amiri Baraka.
AMIRI BARAKA: come out niggers niggers niggers niggers come out
help us stop the devil
help us build a new world
niggers come out, brothers are we
with you and your sons your daughters are ours
and we are the same, all the blackness from one black allah
when the world is clear you’ll be with us
come out niggers come out
come out niggers come out
It’s nation time eye ime
It’s nation ti eye ime
It’s nation ti eye ime
It’s nation ti eye ime
chant with bells and drum
it’s nation time
It’s nation time, get up santa claus
get up roy wilkins, get up diana ross, get up jimmy brown
it’s nation time, build it
get up muffet dragger
get up rastus for real to be rasta farari
get up nigger get up nigger
come over here nigger
take a bow nigger
It’s Nation Time!
AMY GOODMAN: That was Amiri Baraka reading his poem "It’s Nation Time" in 1970 in Atlanta. In fact, that was the year, Larry Hamm, that you first met Amiri Baraka. Where?
LARRY HAMM: Yes. Amiri Baraka came and spoke at my school, Arts High School, in 1970.
AMY GOODMAN: That was where?
LARRY HAMM: That was in Newark, New Jersey. That was our first encounter. But our actual first meeting was in August of 1971. I had been appointed to the Newark Board of Education at age of 17.
AMY GOODMAN: You were the youngest person ever.
LARRY HAMM: Youngest school board member in the country. I wasn’t even old enough to vote yet. But I was appointed by Mayor Gibson, whose election as the first African-American mayor of Newark was in part made possible by Amiri Baraka. So our meeting, our first meeting, was in August of 1971.
And then, you mentioned my name, Adhimu Chunga. He gave me that name. I requested an African name after being a delegate to the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, in March of 1972. I came out of the ghetto, off of 12th Street, off of Ridgewood Avenue, and going to the National Black Political Convention in Gary was an epiphany for me. It was my revolutionary transformation. And then, after that, I asked Baraka for an African name, and he gave me the name Adhimu Chunga in 1972, in March of 1972.
Amiri Baraka, I believe, was a great American revolutionary. And whatever desire I have in me for revolutionary social transformation comes from him.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You mentioned meeting him in Newark, and I want to talk about Newark, to turn to another clip of Amiri Baraka. He appeared on Democracy Now! in 2007 on the 40th anniversary of the Newark rebellion, and I asked him to talk about why the uprising began.
AMIRI BARAKA: You have to start with slavery, because those abuses have never been eradicated. You know, people are not living in slums because they voted to. You know, their children are not in jail because they wanted them to. You know, these are the results of a people who have been oppressed and suffer national oppression, you know. And so, in a city like Newark, which is the third oldest city in the United States, by the way, where all these kind of abuses sort of converge, you know, and the racism on top of that—I mean, one absurd example is, one time I was directing a play, and the police rushed into the loft and the man actually took the script out of my hand, you know, as if it was some kind of a volatile weapon, you know.
So that day we had been picketing, because they had beaten up a black cab driver, a guy named John Smith. ... And so, people gathered at that precinct, and then that was very explosive that night. That was the night before. That was, say, the 11th. So the next day, we were picketing that precinct, because that’s where it happened. And that was the day, by the time the sun started going down is when it broke out.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We saw a clip of Mayor Addonizio, but could you talk a little bit about the political climate, the mayor’s regime, as well as Anthony Imperiale was running around then in those days? What was the climate that the majority population, the black community, in Newark was feeling then?
AMIRI BARAKA: Well, see, first of all, when you say Addonizio, who was indicted and, you know—what was it? He was giving 1 percent of the city’s budget to the Mob.
AMY GOODMAN: He was the mayor.
AMIRI BARAKA: He was the mayor, Addonizio, "No Neck" Addonizio. And his Spina, OK, was the—it was interesting that Spina, who was the police chief, when they beat me up, they didn’t take me to prison or to the—they took me to Spina’s office, you know, and threw me on the floor. And he says, you know, just like I’m right out of the movies, "They got you," you know. And I said, "But I ain’t dead."
AMY GOODMAN: He was head of police?
AMIRI BARAKA: Yeah, yeah. He was the police chief, you know.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And they brought you to his office.
AMIRI BARAKA: To his office, not to jail. But since I had given my given name, Everett L. Jones, laborer, you know, then they could deny, until my wife got hold of Ginsberg, Allen Ginsberg—
AMY GOODMAN: The poet.
AMIRI BARAKA: —and he had gotten a hold of Jean-Paul Sartre. And Sartre called the police station.
AMY GOODMAN: From France?
AMIRI BARAKA: Yeah, called the police station. Sartre and Ginsberg and those people started, you know—and then, the only reason I got my life saved is the people in the apartment building where they were beating me started throwing things out of the window at them. Otherwise, I would be gone, you know. But it was a very, very—the racism that existed there—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Because by then you were already a very well-known poet and published author.
AMIRI BARAKA: Yeah, and harassing them, you know, in that town. See, the town is too small for you to be doing something. And they actually had policemen stop a poetry reading. I mean, that’s how wild it was getting. They would ride up and down the street and make remarks at my wife and the other ladies in that block, calling them all kinds of slurs. I mean, this was a daily, a nightly thing. And so, it became like, you know, back and forth, back and forth, you know. And finally, it just erupted.
We were trying to do things—we were putting out literature suggesting that we could have a mayor, we could have a city council. You know, that’s—Stokely had come out with "Black Power," and I would staple that—not staple, what do you call it?—spray-paint "Black Power" on all these buildings in the city, you know. So they knew who it was.
And once I got arrested, they ran in my house to destroy all the leaflets and stuff that we were—but my wife was smart enough to get that stuff out of there and move it to somebody else’s house down the street. But they destroyed our mimeograph machines and stuff like that. They destroyed my car, you know. I mean, it was, you know, a search-and-destroy mission, because they knew who it was, you know, in that little context.
But the whole city, you know, as Harper’s magazine said, the worst city in the United States was Newark, 18,000-people density in one square-mile. You know, talking about the project. So it was a city that was always on the verge, you know.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Amiri Baraka in an interview in 2007. Felipe, even in those days in Newark, there was a significant Puerto Rican, Latino community and budding unity and cooperation between the two communities. Could you talk about that relationship and Amiri’s stance as, at that time, a black nationalist, reaching out to create a broader front of people who were suffering discrimination and oppression?
FELIPE LUCIANO: His evolution amazed me. He went from Beat poetry to cultural nationalism to revolutionary nationalism to socialism and then to communism. He calls me one day, and he says, "Why don’t you come over?" I had been working with him at the Committee for Unified NewArk, where we were trying to get Ken Gibson elected.
AMY GOODMAN: The mayor of Newark.
FELIPE LUCIANO: The mayor, the first black mayor of Newark. And I was working with him assiduously. We were working with him, working within the Puerto Rican community, the black community. And when I—when we started the Lords, Juan, he said, "Why don’t"—we sat together one night. He said, "Why don’t we start a mutual defense pact?" I said, "Amiri, are you serious?" He said, "Why not?" I said, "It’s difficult enough dealing with black folk within Newark," because Newark was up south, as we called it. It was like Baltimore. He said, "Let’s try to put together a black and Puerto Rican pact." And believe it or not, it was the first mutual defense pact between African Americans and Puerto Ricans. His evolution, his foresight was astounding.
He loved Latino culture. To see him and Amina dance mambo, I mean, was a trip. He embraced Pedro Pietri. He embraced Miguel Piñero. He embraced Victor Hernández Cruz. He embraced every Puerto—we, as Nuyorican poets, the post-colonial, modern—the new urban Négritude movement was in fact started by Amiri Baraka and the Black Arts Movement in 1964.
LARRY HAMM: And it’s also important—
AMY GOODMAN: Larry Hamm.
LARRY HAMM: —to add, along those lines, that Mayor Gibson was elected because Amiri Baraka—
KOMOZI WOODARD: That’s right.
LARRY HAMM: —and the Committee for a Unified NewArk organized the Black and Puerto Rican Convention, and that took place at what is today University High School, then was Clinton Place Junior High School. That alliance—Gibson was not elected just by the black vote in Newark.
FELIPE LUCIANO: No, he wasn’t. The swing vote was Puerto Rican.
LARRY HAMM: That’s right. It was an alliance—
FELIPE LUCIANO: Along with Ramon Rivera, who helped him.
LARRY HAMM: That’s right, an alliance between African Americans and Puerto Ricans. And this continued. It wasn’t just—you mention Ramon Rivera, who continued to be an activist in Newark during those days. He and Amiri had a very close relationship.
FELIPE LUCIANO: Yes, they did.
AMY GOODMAN: Komozi Woodard, Maya Angelou called Amiri Baraka the greatest living poet. Talk about that and his relationship with her, with Toni Morrison. And we’re going to go to break and then come back to Sonia Sanchez.
KOMOZI WOODARD: Well, Baraka was a poet. And Maya Angelou and Abbey Lincoln called a demonstration to protest the death of Lumumba at the United Nations. And Baraka had gotten arrested, like many other people. The police were beating people up. And so, he got arrested. And in jail, he realized that Askia Muhammad Touré and the other people he was demonstrating with were poets. So his politics and his poetry kind of ran together. But they were just experimenting with poetry. And he had a—I think Blues People was him finding his poetic voice. If you listen to his poetry before Blues People and after Blues People, you kind of hear that blues ethos and jazz aesthetic that, in much of it, he got from Langston Hughes.
AMY GOODMAN: We have this great picture of Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka dancing. We’re going to go to break, and then we’re going to come back to this discussion. We’re talking about the life and legacy of Amiri Baraka. He died yesterday, on Thursday, at the age of 79, a founder of the Black Arts Movement, a poet, an activist, an organizer, being hailed in this country and around the world. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
AMIRI BARAKA: Beautiful black women, fail, they act. Stop them, raining.
They are so beautiful, we want them with us. Stop them, raining.
Beautiful, stop raining, they fail. We fail them and their lips
stick out perpetually, at our weakness. Raining. Stop them. Black
queens. Ruby Dee weeps at the window, raining, being lost in her
life, being what we all will be, sentimental bitter frustrated
deprived of her fullest light. Beautiful black women, it is
still raining in this terrible land. We need you. We flex our
muscles, turn to stare at our tormentor, we need you. Raining.
We need you, reigning, black queen.
AMY GOODMAN: "Beautiful Black Women" by Amiri Baraka. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we remember Amiri Baraka. He died in Newark surrounded by family yesterday, on Thursday. He was 79 years old, the poet, the activist, the organizer. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In December of 1987, Amiri Baraka delivered a eulogy at James Baldwin’s funeral. Let’s listen to a clip.
AMIRI BARAKA: And it is he, this Jimmy of whom I will continue to speak. It is this Jimmy, this glorious, elegant griot of our oppressed African-American nation who I am eulogizing. So let the butchering copy editors of our captivity stay for an eternal moment their dead eraser fingers from our celebration.
There will be, and should be, reams and reams of analysis, even praise, for our friend but also even larger measures of non-analysis and certainly condemnation for James Baldwin, the Negro writer. Alas we have not yet the power to render completely sterile or make impossible the errors and lies which will merely be America being itself rather than its unconvincing promise.
But the wide gap, the world spanning abyss, between the James Baldwin of yellow journalism and English departments (and here we thought this was America), and the Jimmy Baldwin of our real lives is stunning! When he told us Nobody Knows My (he meant Our) Name, he was trying to get you ready for it even then!
For one thing, no matter the piles of deathly prose citing influences, relationships, metaphor and criticisms that will attempt to tell us about our older brother, most will miss the mark simply because for the most part they will be retelling old lies or making up new ones, or shaping yet another black life to fit the great white stomach which yet rules and tries to digest the world!
AMY GOODMAN: That was Amiri Baraka in December 1987 remembering the great essayist, novelist, playwright, poet, social critic, James Baldwin. And this was played on Gil Noble’s show, Like It Is, talking about the greats that we have lost over time. Today, we are remembering Amiri Baraka, because he died yesterday at 79 years old. And our guests are Adhimu Chunga, Larry Hamm—he’s the chair of the People’s Organization for Progress. Komozi Woodard is a professor of history at Sarah Lawrence College and wrote a book, a biography, about Amiri Baraka called A Nation Within a Nation: Amiri Baraka and Black Power Politics. We’re also joined by Felipe Luciano, who was in some ways politically raised by Amiri Baraka, a poet, activist, journalist, writer, co-founder of the Young Lords. And in Philadelphia, out of sight, but not out of mind, is Sonia Sanchez. We’re all in New York City; she’s in the studio alone, but not alone, in Philadelphia, Sonia, the great poet, renowned writer, playwright and activist, a dear friend and colleague of Amiri Baraka.
As you listen to his poetry, talk more about your relationship with him and his effect on your work and the work of so many in this country and around the world. What most influenced him?
SONIA SANCHEZ: Well, I’m glad you played that speech that he gave, the eulogy for Brother Jimmy, because in that eulogy, Baraka called Baldwin God’s black revolutionary mouth. And, you know, our dear Brother Baraka was indeed also God’s black revolutionary mouth, if we understand that. He also said in that eulogy that Jimmy Baldwin was not only a writer, an international literary figure, but he was also man, spirit, voice, and black and terrible in—as that first ancestor. And all of that is our dear brother.
You know, Sister Toni Morrison, you mentioned her and Sister Maya, said, "We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives." And the measure of our dear brother’s life was the language that he did, you know? You know, how he took that language, how he crossed the cities and countries, and how he helped us document our bones, how he stood tall as lightning, heard the trumpeters’ tears of death called segregation and racism and colonialism and greed, how he—his tongue caught fire at all of those things, and he moved us all away from the graveyards here in this place called America. His poems exploded from clouds, I say, and intestines. And he embroidered his tongue with pyramids.
Can you hear me?
AMY GOODMAN: We hear you perfectly. You write a haiku every morning just to wake yourself up.
SONIA SANCHEZ: And I wrote one for him. I wrote one for him.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you share it with us?
SONIA SANCHEZ: The one that I wrote for him, my dear sister, is: Your words carry the spirit of creation, I say. I say, your words carry the spirit of creation. Isn’t that so, my dear sister and my dear brothers? I mean, his words carried the spirit of creation. You know, he sewed himselves into the sleeves of history and change, and he turned around and said, "Come on, hey, come on, keep up with me. I’ve got some words. I’m saying some words. You’ve got to learn from these words. You’ve got to come out here and do this thing called language, do this thing called freedom, do this thing called change." And we listened, and we smiled, and we did this thing called change with that dear brother and with all the brothers sitting in the studio also, too.
AMY GOODMAN: Amiri Baraka was almost killed by the police in 1967. Komozi Woodard, can you talk about what happened? And then, the—what is known by some who call the Newark riots, others who talk about them as the Newark rebellion, which is certainly how Amiri described it, but what happened to him?
KOMOZI WOODARD: Well, he was nearly beaten to death by the police. They pulled him out of his van, and several other people, and began—I guess they knew who he was. So they surrounded him and beat him. One black cop stood on the side and assumed that they were going to beat him to death. And apparently the people from the community saw what was going on and began to throw litter and bottles at the police, and they had to take him to the jail. And then they lost him, as he said, and Sartre helped them find him. So, it took Paris to find him.
But Baraka is interesting. One of the people who saved his life was this wino named Rabbit. So, one day Rabbit walked into our headquarters, and I said, "What is this wino coming into the thing there?" And he said, "Where’s LeRoi?" And I said, "This must—this is crazy. What are you talking about?" "Where’s LeRoi?"
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean? What headquarters?
KOMOZI WOODARD: We had the Committee for a Unified Newark at the time, in Newark, I’m sorry.
FELIPE LUCIANO: CFUN, we called it.
KOMOZI WOODARD: And Baraka comes down in his suit and talked to the wino for about five minutes and gave him $5. So I said, "What’s going on here?" And everyone said, "That’s the guy who saved his life. He was the one that testified at the trial and said that he was beaten by the police and what happened." So, he knew—Baraka had a thousand different faces, and he knew all kinds of people. And that was one of his lessons to us, I think, was to treat everyone equally and the same.
LARRY HAMM: I just want to add that—
AMY GOODMAN: Adhimu.
LARRY HAMM: Amiri Baraka was the first one that I heard call the Newark riots a rebellion and place those riots in the context of the black freedom struggle, that it was not simply a riot, a momentary occurrence that could easily be put down by a handful of police. Newark had a police force at that time of close to 1,500. They couldn’t stop it. They brought in 700 state troopers. They couldn’t stop it. They brought in, what, 3,000 National Guard. Fifteen hundred people were wounded, 27 or more people were killed. And it was Baraka who helped me to understand that this was part of black people’s struggle for liberation, that it was more than simply a riot, that it was part of a continuum of collective struggle in this country.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the interesting thing, it seems to me, about him is that he was constantly pushing the edges of what—of political thought, in the African-American as well as the mainstream community. I remember back in 1984, as a reporter covering the Democratic National Convention, and by that time, of course, Amiri had moved much more in a radical direction and much more to socialism and Marxism. And there was Amiri in the hotel room in San Francisco essentially holding court, as one after another establishment black political figure came up to meet with him. Obviously he was not a part of the Democratic Party, but they felt a need to discuss and talk with him about what they were doing within the convention. But could you talk about, as he turned more from national—from revolutionary nationalism into Marxism, how he was—
LARRY HAMM: Yes.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: —how other leaders in the black community responded to him?
LARRY HAMM: Well, first of all, it’s important for people to understand that Baraka did not make this change suddenly. First and foremost, Baraka pointed young people like me to Africa and to African leaders, revolutionary leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, like Amílcar Cabral in Guinea-Bissau, like Samora Machel in Mozambique, like Mwalimu Julius Nyerere in Tanzania. You cannot read these people and not eventually move to the left, because many of them either call themselves socialists, Marxists or Marxist-Leninists. So, Baraka and the members of the Committee for a Unified Newark, members of the Congress of African People, were studying these people. So, for me, from an intellectual point of view, it’s almost inevitable that they would move in that direction. And early on, I can remember, you know, Baraka followed a brand of black nationalism called Kawaida. But I can remember when the poster came out that condensed Kawaida down to the three cutting edges: black nationalism, pan-Africanism and revolutionary socialism. And that was as early as 1972, I believe.
KOMOZI WOODARD: He was way ahead. He was way ahead.
LARRY HAMM: That’s right. So he was way ahead. Or maybe he was really in his time. Maybe we were behind, and he was on point, and we were trying to catch up to him.
FELIPE LUCIANO: There it is. In 1960, after Fidel moves into Havana, it was Amiri Baraka who, with a group of 350 or more black intellectuals, starts a Fair Play for Cuba Committee—who would have done that?—and decried the blockade. He was the first one who said, "Let’s bring together these communities." The man was into Sékou Touré. He was into Kwame Nkrumah. I hadn’t read Sékou Touré’s poetry. I had never read it. This guy brought an African socialist to our shows and had us meet him. So, for a black Puerto Rican to sit and understand that a black intellectual was sitting down and discussing global socialism was, for me, mind-boggling. So, he introduced—he said, "It’s not enough to write the stuff. It’s not enough to sit there and be an armchair liberal." That’s why he loved Ginsberg so much, because Ginsberg was about doing stuff.
AMY GOODMAN: Allen Ginsberg, the poet.
FELIPE LUCIANO: Allen Ginsberg, forgive me. He said—and Ginsberg told me, "This is the guy." After Whitman, after Robert Frost, after Ginsberg, there is Amiri Baraka.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip of Amiri Baraka. This is June 2004, the first National Hip-Hop Political Convention that took place in Newark, New Jersey.
AMIRI BARAKA: Just like Malcolm X told me the month before he died, and just like Martin Luther King told me the week before he died, in my house, said, "What we must have, Brother Baraka, is a united front." We must build that united front, no matter whether you’re the Panthers, the cultural nationalists, whether you believe in rap or whether you believe in hip-hop, whether you’re a Muslim or a Christian, or a vegetarian, or you don’t even know what you is. You understand what I’m saying? We have got to put that together first to do what? To beat Bush. That’s the key link. But the overall theme has to be to fight for a people’s democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Amiri Baraka speaking June 2004. Sonia Sanchez, I want you to pick this up from here. It might surprise people to know, for all his radical politics, he was out there getting people to vote.
SONIA SANCHEZ: Oh, yes. Isn’t that wonderful? And his son is running for mayor. And Brother Baraka would call people and say, "Hey, come, come. Come help me. Help us with this campaign." We did a fundraiser for him here in Philadelphia, for Brother Ras.
But talking about socialism and talking about communism, the left, I mean, one of the things that Brother Baraka told me is that how he really became very much involved with that was through Amina. Sister Amina began to question where they were with their politics. She began a very involved study in terms of communism.
AMY GOODMAN: His wife.
SONIA SANCHEZ: And he said—yeah, Brother Baraka’s wife, Sister Amina, you know. And we began to understand that it was not just his movement by himself, but it was that move with the two of them, that movement with the two of them to begin to move towards the left. You know, Fanon said, simply, "What is needed is to hold oneself, like a sliver, to the heart of the world, to interrupt if necessary the rhythm of the world, to upset, if necessary, the chain of command, but ... to stand up to the world." This brother, this brother, you know, stood up to the world. This brother stood up to the world, you know, because he said, "I am doing battle for the creation of a human world." We must never forget that, that he was doing battle for a human world, as Fanon said.
AMY GOODMAN: On that note—
SONIA SANCHEZ: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: On that note, we have to wrap up the show, but we won’t wrap up the conversation. We’ll continue it, and we’ll put it online at democracynow.org. Sonia Sanchez, renowned writer, poet, playwright and activist, thank you for joining us. Larry Hamm, chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress; Komozi Woodard, the author of A Nation Within a Nation: Amiri Baraka and Black Power Politics; Larry Hamm, chair of the People’s Organization for Progress; and Felipe Luciano, poet, activist, journalist, writer, co-founder of the Young Lords.