‘It is Roi who is dead’: Remembering Amiri Baraka (1934-2014)

The rousing, polarizing poet had many selves.

Andrew EpsteinJanuary 27, 2014

Baraka addressing the Malcolm X Festival from the Black Dot Stage in San Antonio Park, Oakland, Calif., while performing with Marcel Diallo and his Electric Church Band. (David Sasaki/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Ear­li­er this month, the sad news spread that Amiri Bara­ka (LeRoi Jones) had passed away at the age of 79. There have already been a num­ber of sub­stan­tialobit­u­ar­iesand trib­utes, and sure­ly there will be more to come in the com­ing days and weeks.

In his poems, Baraka expressed the belief that his own identity—that any identity—was protean and plural, composed of different facets ('all / my faces turned up / to the sun,' one poem explains).

Like so many oth­ers, I’ve long been fas­ci­nat­ed by Baraka’s ground­break­ing and always-con­tro­ver­sial work, his immense influ­ence on mul­ti­ple fields (from music crit­i­cism to hiphop to dra­ma, from the New Amer­i­can poet­ry to the Black Arts move­ment), and his com­pli­cat­ed and often polar­iz­ing writ­ing, pol­i­tics and legacy.

In my first book, Beau­ti­ful Ene­mies (and else­where), I’ve argued that Baraka’s pow­er­ful, ago­nized ear­ly writ­ing emerges out of, and exerts a pro­found influ­ence on, the (large­ly white) post­war avant-garde, par­tic­u­lar­ly as it exist­ed in New York in the 1950s. The ear­ly LeRoi Jones was not only deeply con­nect­ed to the Beats, as one so often hears, but also to the poet­ry of the New York School — thanks in par­tic­u­lar to his close friend­ship with Frank O’Hara in the late 1950s and ear­ly 1960s. (If you’re inter­est­ed in hear­ing more about this, you can read one of the two Bara­ka chap­ters in my book here. I’ve also post­ed a bit about Bara­ka on my blog — for exam­ple, here, here, and here).

On a more per­son­al note, I was also for­tu­nate enough to meet Bara­ka a cou­ple of times in per­son. First, in 2000, at the Poet­ry of the 1960s” con­fer­ence held at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Maine (where he played a mem­o­rable and con­tro­ver­sial role in the con­fer­ence itself). Among oth­er things, I remem­ber a group of us stand­ing rather star-struck around Bara­ka in a semi-cir­cle one late night in Orono, lis­ten­ing to him telling fun­ny sto­ries over beers.

In 2003, I had anoth­er for­tu­itous encounter with Bara­ka when a stu­dent orga­ni­za­tion invit­ed him to vis­it Flori­da State Uni­ver­si­ty, where I teach. The stu­dent group hadn’t told the Eng­lish Depart­ment about his read­ing, and I only learned about it a day or two before he arrived when a stu­dent asked me if I’d be will­ing to shut­tle Bara­ka from the air­port to his hotel and to the read­ing. I jumped at the chance. I met Bara­ka as he got off the plane at the tiny Tal­la­has­see air­port and drove him around town for a very mem­o­rable after­noon and evening. As many oth­ers have said, in per­son, one on one, he was kind, gen­tle, down-to-earth and fun­ny. I told him about the book I was then com­plet­ing on his work and his ties to Frank O’Hara and the New York School. He lit up as he talked fond­ly about Frank” and his ear­ly days in Green­wich Vil­lage. We also talked about our shared Jer­sey roots, since I grew up in South Orange, one town over from his home­town of Newark.

When I dropped Bara­ka off at the hotel, I was a bit embar­rassed, because the stu­dents who orga­nized the vis­it had appar­ent­ly put him up at a hum­ble Best West­ern on a busy, unap­peal­ing high­way, rather than at one of the more high-end hotels where we usu­al­ly host vis­it­ing speak­ers. But he didn’t seem to mind in the least. I offered to take him to din­ner, but he declined and said he just want­ed to rest in the hotel before the read­ing. When I came to pick him up a cou­ple of hours lat­er, I remem­ber him say­ing, with plea­sure, that he’d just walked over and got­ten an egg sal­ad sand­wich for din­ner from the chain deli next to the Best Western.

I drove Bara­ka to cam­pus and deliv­ered him to the huge audi­to­ri­um on cam­pus. A few min­utes lat­er, I was struck by the trans­for­ma­tion when he appeared on stage. The qui­et, friend­ly, low-key 70-year old man I’d just spent a cou­ple hours dri­ving around was gone, and he sud­den­ly seemed larg­er than life — full of ener­gy, rage, and wicked humor, bristling with right­eous indig­na­tion at the sur­re­al and dis­turb­ing pol­i­tics of the moment (this was March 2003, after all). The crowd, most­ly made up of stu­dents, was riv­et­ed by his boom­ing voice, his angry elo­quence, and his inspir­ing calls for young peo­ple to learn about his­to­ry, art, and cul­ture, and to take action against racism, mil­i­tarism, igno­rance, and injustice. 

Baraka’s vis­it to Tal­la­has­see occurred at a very polit­i­cal­ly charged moment, both nation­al­ly and for Bara­ka him­self — this was only months after the con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing his poem Some­body Blew Up Amer­i­ca,” when the gov­er­nor tried, unsuc­cess­ful­ly, to remove him from the post of State Poet Lau­re­ate of New Jer­sey. But Bara­ka, true to form, didn’t shy away from that poem — instead, he defi­ant­ly per­formed it as the cen­ter­piece of the evening.

In short suc­ces­sion, I’d seen two sides of Bara­ka — the smil­ing, genial, egg-sal­ad sand­wich guy chat­ting about Frank O’Hara and north­ern New Jer­sey, and the dynam­ic and mas­ter­ful performer.

In his poems, Bara­ka expressed the belief that his own iden­ti­ty — that any iden­ti­ty — was pro­tean and plur­al, com­posed of dif­fer­ent facets (“all / my faces turned up / to the sun,” one poem explains, while anoth­er speaks of pub­licly redefin­ing / each change in my soul”). Rather than a fixed, sin­gle enti­ty, a self,” for Bara­ka, is a process in which many dif­fer­ent, chang­ing selves are con­stant­ly cre­at­ed, dis­solved, and then re-fashioned:

And let me once, create

myself. And let you, whoever

sits now breath­ing on my words

cre­ate a self of your own. One

that will love me.

Among his many dif­fer­ent selves, Bara­ka was an influ­en­tial, mov­ing, and rous­ing poet and play­wright, an inci­sive crit­ic, a rad­i­cal activist, but also, at least based on my own expe­ri­ence, a kind and gen­er­ous man. He will be missed.

When they say, It is Roi

who is dead?” I wonder

who will they mean?

Reprint­ed with per­mis­sion from Locus Solus: The New York School of Poets.

Andrew Epstein is an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Flori­da State Uni­ver­si­ty. He is the author of Beau­ti­ful Ene­mies: Friend­ship and Post­war Amer­i­can Poet­ry (Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press), and he blogs about the New York School of poet­ry at Locus Solus.
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