Amiri Baraka, poet, writer, and longtime activist, dead at 79

NEWARK, NJ—Amiri Baraka, most noted for the founding of the Black Arts Movement inside the U.S., died in a New Jersey hospital on January 9, 2013. Baraka was 79 years old.
Throughout Baraka’s activist life, despite what one might have disagreed with him on, one thing was certain, and that was he would be in the trenches through organization and through his pen working for African self-determination and his anti-imperialist worldview.
From his signature work “Blues People,” published in 1964, to his 2001 “Somebody Blew Up America,” he was in a constant search for the anti-imperialist truth.
In fact, Amiri was New Jersey’s Poet Laureate when the Twin Towers went down and he wrote the poem “Somebody Blew Up America.”
The State of New Jersey demanded that he resign the post. After his refusal to, the State nullified the position and wouldn’t honor his salary.
When asked during a National Public Radio interview whether he regretted writing the poem, Amiri responded, “No. I have regrets they didn’t pay me my money—cheap criminals. I have regrets about that. But I don’t have regrets about writing the poem, because the poem was true.”
Born October 7, 1934 in Newark from parents who had migrated from down south in the 1920’s, Baraka was probably the most influential figure in the African cultural movement at a time when black people in the U.S. were desperately struggling to define our identity.
His works helped us to define our African identity. Although a professor and academic, his political views were always put to test through organization and activism.
He didn’t have too much of a problem backing off when he was wrong. Starting with the Beatnik–Greenwich Village American counter-culture movement of mostly dissatisfied young white people, he came to edit the movement’s journal, Totem Press, and ended up publishing the likes of Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac.
In the midst of this work, Malcolm was assassinated in Harlem and Baraka moved with other African artists to come to Harlem and work in the black community creating the Black Arts Movement.
While it is true that some backwards reactionary politics with respect to the Cultural Nationalist tendency of open oppression of African women and non-struggle came from this movement, it is equally true that the question of African identity, pride, dignity, and self-determination was also given much life through this movement.
Although many of his years were spent working as a professor in different universities in the New York-New Jersey area, unlike most of academia, his best efforts were in the streets with the people.
This can be clearly seen in Baraka’s stance during the Newark rebellions of 1968 where, through his militancy, he was nearly beaten to death by New Jersey police.
Baraka had organized the African/Puerto Rican coalition that would elect Kenneth Gibson as Newark’s first black mayor. He stood up to right-wing Newark city councilman and George Wallace campaign organizer Anthony Imperiale during the 1970s when Imperiale was running a mayoral campaign on “We will support the police right or wrong.”
He launched a campaign against police violence and terror.
Later during Baraka’s struggle to build Kawaida Towers, Imperiale put mobs of white citizens on the site to block its construction. Mayor Gibson would become silent on the question.
This was Baraka’s first experience with neocolonialism, although he might not have known it.
Through Amiri Baraka’s long and productive life, one could say it provides a mirror of the Black Liberation Movement since the 1950s.
We know that he was a believer in Civil Rights because Martin Luther King Jr. was a guest at his home despite what struggles he might have had with King. He left the convenience of the Beat Poets to venture into Harlem and work to contribute to the freedom movement of his people.
After having virtual undisputed leadership of the Cultural Nationalist movement through his Congress of African People (CAP) organization, he renounced that leadership from the podium at the 1974 African Liberation Day activities in Washington, D.C.
Amiri and his Congress of African People was one of the original organizers of African Liberation Day in the United States.
Amiri was also co-author of the Gary Declaration from the National Black Power Convention held in Gary, Indiana in March of 1972. He played a leading role in that convention.
He was also mentor and inspiration to many, including Newark’s own Lawrence Hamm, Chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress (POP).
Hamm, Amiri and Amina Baraka, Amiri’s wife, were in attendance at the National Black is Back Coalition meeting held in Newark in 2012. Baraka was to keep his legacy of activism.
In Baraka’s abandonment of the Cultural Nationalists, the mantle of Marxist-Leninist-Maoism came to the fore. But true to his beliefs, he tried to make it work.
Professor Anthony Monteiro of Temple University, in an article which appeared on Black Agenda Report, had this to say about Baraka’s life and conversion to Marxism: “His Black Arts praxis morphed into cultural nationalism and his becoming a follower of Kawaida philosophy and Maulana Karenga. The democratic and revolutionary possibilities of black art were trumped by the sexism, and homophobia of cultural nationalism…“His wife, Amina Baraka, challenges the misogyny of the Kawaida doctrine. She points out the inconsistency of fighting for black liberation but oppressing women. Baraka was also aware of the left and revolutionary trend within the liberation movements in southern Africa. The Marxism of Amilcar Cabral and the socialism of Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere particularly influenced him. “Amina Baraka insists that they make a complete break with cultural nationalism.”
CAP would later become the Revolutionary Communist League; just one more of the many formations that were rushing to build the new multi-nationalist communist party that would lead the revolution in the U.S.
Amiri Baraka would have made a great African Internationalist.
Long Live Amiri Baraka!!


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