Amiri Baraka did not mince words. He wrote words, he played with words, he even sang words. But mince? Never.
One of the founders of the Black Arts Movement, Baraka was known as a fiery, frenetic speaker, a firm believer in the insertion of Black music and culture into poetry, and an indefatigable advocate for free speech.
Here is an excerpt from “Home”, one of a series of his essays published in 1996: “The black artist’s role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it. His role is to report and reflect so precisely the nature of the society, and of himself in that society, that other men will be moved by the exactness of his rendering and, if they are black men, grow strong through this moving, having seen their own strength, and weakness; and if they are white men, tremble, curse, and go mad, because they will be drenched with the filth of their evil.”
Words were weapons for Baraka, and he was going to wield them as bravely as he could.
New readers are discovering his work, a good companion to the Black Lives Matter movement and the push for human rights in this country. His famous “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” was this summer the subject of a Poet’s House project, offering electronic access to the original 1961 chapbook, video about Baraka, and scholarship about the poet and his work.
After his death in January 2014, thousands of people watched our episode of The Writing Life featuring Baraka, interviewed by poet and activist E. Ethelbert Miller. One viewer wrote: “Be part of the struggle to transform reality. Legacy indeed.”
In this Poetry Moment, Baraka reads and croons a portion of his epic history poem, “In the Tradition,” in which he names Black people who added to American life—Sojourner Truth, Langston Hughes, W. E. B. DuBois, H. Rapp Brown, Thelonius Monk, and countless unnamed musicians, thinkers, and artists. He dedicated his book to saxophonist Arthur Blythe.
Critic William J. Harris wrote about the poem, “The black tradition Baraka affirms in this poem is more complex than any conception of black culture he had expressed in the past. It is a tradition of heroes … and it is a tradition of villains … . But while the poem is nationalist, affirming black people, it is revolutionary nationalist rather than culturalist.”
After Baraka died, The New Yorker’s Jellani Cobb penned a tribute with the headline, “The Path Cleared by Amiri Baraka.”
Cobb wrote, “His poetic voice, with its Ebonics conjugations and sly rhythms, was that of the man on the Newark boulevard or the Harlem avenue. If black people can exert a valid claim on American democracy, Baraka seemed to be saying, then there’s no reason for their language not to have equally powerful standing in American literature.”
Baraka has achieved that powerful standing in literature, and to get there, he never minced words.
— Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer