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 substantial obituaries and tributes, and surely there will be more to come in the coming days and weeks.
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.