Poet jessica Care moore remembers Amiri Baraka, 1934-2014
By Steve Furay with Phreddy Wischusen
Special to the Michigan Citizen
Poet revolutionary Amiri Baraka joined the ancestors Jan. 9. Baraka was a writer who expanded Black American consciousness and influenced multiple generations of artists, teachers, activists, intellectuals and leaders. Baraka resided in his hometown and birthplace Newark, N.J., when he passed. He was 79.
“He’s essential for American literature,” says jessica Care moore, Detroit’s beloved poet and friend of Baraka. “He’s been a heavy influence in my life personally. His family means a lot to me.” She will be speaking on behalf of Baraka’s legacy at his memorial service Jan.18 at the Newark Symphony Hall.
“When he stepped into the room, you knew that all the bullshit just went out the window and the real poetry was about to begin,” moore told the Michigan Citizen. “You can’t be pretentious around Amiri Baraka; you have to show up.”
Over the years, Baraka offered his mentorship to many great young poets of the era, including moore. While earning her own celebrity as a poet in New York City during the 90s, she had the pleasure of knowing Baraka. Through his guidance she learned her own poetry to be in the same lineage as his, a responsibility she carries to this day.
does not know me. Their steps, in sands
of their own
land. A country
in black & white, newspapers
blown down pavements
of the world. Does
what I am.
— Amiri Baraka, “Notes for a Speech”
Amiri Baraka’s impact on modern poetry is immeasurable, having established his reputation under his given name LeRoi Jones in the 50s and early 60s. He attended Rutgers and Howard University and served in the U.S. Air Force from 1954-1957, after which he moved to Greenwich Village where he befriended the Beat Generation poets. His 1964 play “Dutchman” won an Obie Award for Best American Play, earning him international fame. Baraka was a husband, father and a voice for workers and Black America during the Civil Rights era. He inspired writers, musicians, journalists and filmmakers with his truth of the human experience, no matter the receiver’s race, creed or nationality.
“He was very, very popular within the Beat culture movement and definitely within the Black culture movement. That’s what’s very interesting about Amiri — he’s affected so many different circles,” said moore, reflecting on the numerous phone calls she has shared with contemporary poets around the world in the days since Baraka’s passing.
Following the assassination of Malcolm X, Baraka founded the Black Arts Movement in Harlem in 1965 with cooperation from writers like Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez and Maya Angelou. “The Black Arts Movement of the 60s basically wanted to reflect the rise of the militancy of the Black masses as represented by Malcolm X,” said Baraka in his book “Daggers and Javelins” published in 1984. “Its political line, at its most positive, was that literature must be a weapon of revolutionary struggle, that it must serve the black revolution.”
Let there be no love poems written
until love can exist freely and
cleanly. Let Black people understand
that they are the lovers and the sons
of warriors and sons
of warriors Are poems & poets &
all the loveliness here in the world
— Amiri Baraka, “Black Art”
In July 1967, Newark was the next city to erupt in the Black urban uprisings. The rebellion flooded the streets for a week. Baraka was beaten by a policeman and arrested. A photograph from the riot surfaced of him dazed and bloodied. He became more impassioned against the systemic white supremacy within the country, and his focus evolved toward Black Nationalism followed by “Third World Marxism.”
Emboldened in his African identity, he changed his name from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka in 1968 and aligned himself and his poetry more strongly with the global anti-colonial rebellions of the era. The FBI identified Baraka as “the person who will probably emerge as the leader of the Pan-African movement in the United States.” He would consistently evolve ahead of the mainstream cultural movements of his generation, challenging everyone to move past their own ideology.
“On the negative side,” Baraka wrote, “the Black Arts Movement … became embroiled in cultural nationalism, bourgeois nationalism, substituting mistrust and hatred of white people for scientific analysis of the real enemies of black people, until by the middle seventies a dead end had been reached that could only be surmounted by a complete change of worldview, ideology.”
Baraka would become a prolific writer and speaker, publishing and reading for audiences worldwide. He offered his mentorship to today’s younger poets including Care moore and her contemporaries like Saul Williams and Ursula Rucker. Each gained their own celebrity in New York City during the 90s.
“I got to know him in a more tangible way in New York City, and got to go to his house and do work. To be able to share a drink with him at a local bar in Newark,” said moore. “He looked up at me and said ‘where is you from jessica, where is you from?’ And I was like ‘I’m from Detroit, Amiri, I’m from Detroit.’ My daddy comes from the working class Detroit, I’m from that working class city. I’m trying to explain myself to this legend.»
Baraka’s son, Ras Baraka, now a top candidate in 2014 Newark mayoral campaign, is also a friend of moore. Her company, Moore Black Press, published his book “Black Girls Learn Love Hard” in 2006. Her book “God is not an American,” self published in 2009, features poems dedicated to Baraka.
“It’s funny because people describe (Amiri) kind of like this grumpy old man, but he was always so tender with me, always very sweet,” she said. “In Atlanta, we were working the National Black Arts Festival in August (2013). I walked into the hotel and he was sitting in the lobby. I said ‘oh perfect, what are you doing?’ and he said ‘I’m waiting on my room, my room is not ready.’ So we got to sit there and talk, and got to talk for like an hour about everything under the sun. And it just so happened, I thought, in my carry-on was the book ‘Razor’ that he gave to me as a gift in Detroit. It was the one book I was carrying. I said ‘guess what I’ve got on me?’ He said ‘my work?’ I said ‘yup.’ He said ‘is it signed?’ I said ‘nope.’ So I pulled it out, he signed it the way he always signs it, ‘The World Belongs To Us.’ And he tore it down at the National Black Arts Festival; it was amazing.
“Amiri was one of the most warm, beautiful people I’ve ever met in my life,” said moore.
In eulogy to James Baldwin in 1987, Baraka delivered words fitting of his own legacy. “He was in the truest tradition of the great artists of all times. Those who understand it is beauty and truth we seek, and that indeed one cannot exist without and as an extension of the other.”
Said moore, “There’s some of us who know we’re directly the metaphorical daughters and sons of Amiri and Sonia (Sanchez) and (Jayne) Cortez and Gil Scott (Heron) and the Last Poets, that we literally come from them and feel connected to them in a very deep way. So this thing that I do has never been a game for me, like they talk about the hip hop game. No, I’m not that hip hop, I come from a tradition of something. I’ve always been in line with tradition, and everything that’s comes with that.
“That’s what Amiri is, it’s like a big hole in the universe right now.”
The memorial service on Saturday in Newark will draw literary and political dignitaries from across the globe, and jessica Care moore will share words with her friends and beloved peers. Amiri Baraka evolved with every new era— his love overcoming any harbored bitterness for America’s most wicked paradox of oppression of Black and native peoples. As the unraveling of this paradox continues, a new generation of poets and politicians are responsible for narrating the evolution in the place of Amiri Baraka.
When I die, the consciousness I carry I will to
black people. May they pick me apart and take the
useful parts, the sweet meat of my feelings. And leave
the bitter bullshit rotten white parts
— Amiri Baraka, “leroy”