Monday, January 13, 2014

Amiri Baraka – A remembrance

Recently Amiri Baraka, the poet, playwright, and political activist, passed away.  I happened to read two tributes to Baraka from my former classmates of the 1971 class of Arts High in Newark, New Jersey.  One tribute was by Larry Hamm who is a political activist and a leader of the organization People Organized for Progress.  The other tribute was by Monica Hand who is a poet. 

While I never had a personal relationship with Baraka, I was always interested in his views.  Saying this, I must also say that I had serious political differences with many of his expressed ideas.  However, I’m writing this remembrance because Amiri Baraka influenced my life in spite of our disagreements.   

In order to appreciate how Amiri Baraka influenced my life, we first need to look at a bit of history.

Newark N.J. in 1967

Most histories of the Civil Rights movement follow this narrative.  Courageous individuals organized to overturn the hated Jim Crow laws that deprived Black people of citizenship rights in this country.  Then, in 1964 and 1965 the government passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act that effectively outlawed Jim Crow.  While all of this is true, I believe we need to add a bit of information.

The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act failed to make significant changes in the standard of living for most Black people who routinely experienced discrimination.  It was primarily the issue of police brutality that caused Black people in hundreds of cities across the United States to rise up in open rebellion.

However, the media in this country viewed these rebellions as “riots.”  The news media, as well as government officials, argued that these so-called “riots” were carried out by criminals who needed to be arrested and prosecuted. 

Larry Hamm reported that Amiri Baraka was the first person he knew of who called these uprisings rebellions.  When Baraka did this he, in effect, linked these rebellions to revolutionary movements that have erupted throughout the world.  This would include the revolution that established a nation called the United States of America.

This stance was particularly important because there was a vacuum of leadership in the Black community at this time.  Malcolm X had been assassinated in 1965.  Martin Luther King was alive at the beginning of these rebellions but he was out of step with what was happening, largely because of his advocacy of non-violent civil disobedience.

However, the owners of this country needed to take notice of these events.  They had huge investments in the cities that were in rebellion.  They also knew that suppressing these rebellions with the National Guard would only be a temporary fix.

So, after these rebellions some Black people began to have educational, employment, and housing opportunities they never had before.  This clearly did not end discrimination, but the standard of living improved for many.  These advances opened the door for the women’s movement, the movement for Latino Rights, as well as today’s movement in support of immigrant rights.

Arts High in 1967

We happened to start our first year of Arts High School the same year as the rebellions in Newark.  Looking back at that time, we can say that those rebellions had a tremendous impact on all our lives.  During our time at Arts we experienced the longest teachers strike in the history of the United States. 

While the teachers organized, the students also began to understand that we had the ability to wage demands that supported our interests.  Larry Hamm, Monica Hand, and I were some of the students who walked out of our music class demanding that the study of Jazz be included in our lessons.

During this time Amiri Baraka had a headquarters a block away from Arts High.  I remember the stunning large African sculptures that were in the front window of that building.  At the time, the only thing I knew of Africa was its place on a map.

Larry Hamm remembers that Amiri Baraka spoke to the students at Arts High.  At that time, I didn’t really understand his message.  One thing I began to understand was the fact that Baraka had a problem, not just with one or another issue, but with the entire political system in this country.  At that time, I was beginning to make these same conclusions.

Arts High was a run down school that was grossly underfunded.  However, there were several suburban schools in the area that looked more like country clubs.  Back in those days I began to think that this gross disparity in funding for education did not happen because of a mistake or a lack of sensitivity.  No, some schools were funded less than others because of a profound problem with this political system in this country.

A Black Writers conference

About ten years ago I attended a Black writers conference in Philadelphia.  At the end of the conference, Amiri Baraka participated in a panel discussion with several other writers.  He appeared to be at home and part of the family on the stage with these writers.

At that time, I had just read James Baldwin’s collection of nonfiction writings titled The Price of the Ticket.  This was one of the most insightful books I have ever read and I asked the panelists what they thought of Baldwin’s work.

Amiri Baraka spent some time in answering this question.  He was a close personal friend of Baldwin and called him Jimmy.  He not only read The Price of the Ticket, but he read it continuously looking for new ways to interpret Baldwin’s work.

No, I didn’t agree with Amiri Baraka on many questions.  However, I respect the fact that he continually searched for the truth.  In that journey, he influenced many to look at the world in a different way.