Baseball is heavily and romantically played in American literature, from “Casey at the Bat” and Bernard Malamud’s The Natural through Gish Jen’s The Resisters. Martín Espada turns that beautiful green diamond on its head when he writes about brown people’s baseball experience in this week’s poem, “The Trouble Ball.”
At the moment, we are hip deep in the playoffs. The World Series starts Oct. 20, and the teams are sure to have men of many ethnic backgrounds rounding the bases. Jackie Robinson integrated the league when he started at first base for the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in April 1947, but before that day, baseball was lily white and aggressive about keeping it that way.
Espada’s poem, “The Trouble Ball,” tells the story his father told him, about going to his first American baseball game at Ebbets Field in 1941 as a new immigrant. Eleven-year-old Frank Espada had gotten off the boat from Puerto Rico not long before he and his father went to see the Brooklyn Dodgers. Little Frank wanted to be a professional baseball pitcher. In Puerto Rico, Frank and his family watched games with players from the minor leagues and the Negro leagues, and Frank idolized Satchel Paige. Paige named his pitches, one he called Bee-Ball because he said it was so fast it buzzed, and nicknames like Midnight Creeper and The Trouble Ball.
The Trouble Ball was a change-up, a pitch that looked for all the world like a fastball, but one that would stall and drop. “It makes the batter swing early and look like a fool,” Espada said on the full interview on The Writing Life. But he named his book after the pitch because “on a whole other level, it refers to other troubles. There was no greater trouble, at that time in history, and for that matter, there may not be today, than the trouble of race and the trouble of racism.”
Little Frank, sitting with his peanuts in the cheap seats at Ebbets Field in 1941, expected to see his hero Satchel Paige and the other great Negro Leaguers he’d watched in Puerto Rico. But when his father whispered to him in the stands that Black players weren’t allowed to play in the big leagues, it became a defining moment. “It was a discovery that resonated well beyond the ball field itself, and had implications for my father for the rest of his life,” Espada said.
While he did play pretty good baseball, his father instead made his living as a photographer who documented the Puerto Rican neighborhoods around him, and as a community organizer, to fight against predatory landlords, to lead marches for safer streets, to register voters. And his son, Martín, became a poet who documents trouble around the world, in hopes of changing it.
“I think memory is absolutely essential to us as a society, and poets have a role to play in restoring the collective memory and retaining the collective memory,” Espada told me in an interview.
And while many share a nostalgic fondness for baseball, Espada tells the field of dreams story from a different angle, so our collective memories also include the trouble in America.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
Watch this year’s Lucille Clifton reading, “Why We Can’t Wait: Poetry of History and Justice,” featuring Joseph Ross reading from his latest book Raising King. In this event, Mr. Ross is introduced by E. Ethelbert Miller. The reading is followed by a Q&A session hosted by HoCoPoLitSo board member Susan Thornton Hobby. Ninety minutes.
“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?” Emily Dickinson wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1870.
This week’s Poetry Moment resonates with Dickinson’s famous lines about the power of literature. Read by Baltimore’s own, the very proper Josephine Jacobsen, she titled her poem “Gentle Reader.” With a sly nod to the etiquette-wise mode of address in nineteenth-century novels–think Charlotte Bronté’s Jane Eyre—Jacobsen’s lines capture the shock of reading poetry in a way that is most ungentle.
With her cap of careful curls, her pastel jackets, and her soft tones, Jacobsen looked as ladylike as she acted, polite in a way that only native-born Canadians raised in Baltimore’s Roland Park are.
“I expect that if I look in the dictionary and see the word ‘lady,’ it will be Josephine’s picture,” said poet Lucille Clifton in the 2003 memorial tribute show from which this footage is taken. “She was always such a person who valued others and understood there were a lot of ways of being a good poet.
But this lady spoke about literature, particularly in ”Gentle Reader,” like a mystic, a lover, a cult leader.
In the first stanza, Jacobsen sets up a normal evening with city and stars, reading a poem. But by the end of the stanza, the poem’s speaker has encountered a poet, “dangerous and steep” and we’re about to head off the cliff with her. The poem “juices her like a press,” and eats her “gut and marrow.” Her ear’s lust, at the end of the poem, enthusiastically agrees with James Joyce’s Molly Bloom: “yes, yes, yes, O, yes.”
That ecstasy is not often equated with poetry. Sometimes it is necessary, however, to describe a visceral response to a good poem.
Not well recognized as a poet until she was in her 70s, and with no college education, Jacobsen wrote essays, op-ed pieces, poetry, and short stories most of her life. From 1973 to 1975, Jacobsen served as the Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, the position later renamed as the National Poet Laureate. In 1997, the Poetry Society of America gave her the Robert Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry.
Both joy and terror lived in Jacobsen’s poetry, and underneath lay a kind of mystery, which is likely the same source of Dickinson’s cold and Jacobsen’s “savage sight.” Jump off that steep and dangerous cliff with Jacobsen, and with HoCoPoLitSo.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Consultant and producer of The Writing Life
How we need this week’s poem, with its voice that calls for grace and saviors. Lucille Clifton, the Lilly Poetry Prizewinner and HoCoPoLitSo’s artistic advisor for decades, wrote “blake” and put it in her collection The Terrible Stories. But she didn’t read it to audiences very often, and HoCoPoLitSo recorded the only video of her reading this piece.
In the midst of the poems in The Terrible Stories, which address cancer, mastectomy, Biblical lust, and rage and despair over a history of slavery, this poem calls for a plume of hope.
Clifton said the poem was conceived after she had been living in the South for a while, remembering and living with its history of slavery and racist violence. She was being driven to her home in Columbia, watching out the car windows at the trees flashed by, and remembering William Blake and his visions.
Blake, a poet and artist who lived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, wrote that when he was 9, he saw angels in the trees. In fact, Blake said he had visions almost daily, and angels figured heavily in those mystical experiences. He often painted angels, especially in his illustrated Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Celestial beings fluttered through his poems, guarding him, surveying the world, watching over children. The world has made famous his line: “Cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.”
While Clifton didn’t often write about angels or visions directly, she always had her eyes open. In the same collection, Clifton writes about the female fox that often sat by her window, how they watched each other through the glass and acknowledged each others’ power.
“child I tell you now it was not/ the animal blood I was hiding from,/ it was the poet in her, the poet and /the terrible stories she could tell.”
“blake” is not an inspirational poem to be put on a flowery background and posted to Instagram. There are terrible stories in it, in the leaden way Clifton writes “the face/ of what we have become” and “this hunger entering our loneliness.”
But she ends the poem by coming home, “back north,” and searching the branches for poems.
Tonight, HoCoPoLitSo will host its tenth annual Lucille Clifton Reading on Friday, Oct. 2, featuring Joseph Ross reading his work based on the life of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It’s good to remember Clifton’s work this week and always. Her short lines and direct language could evoke whole other worlds, and her words both challenged and inspired readers.
Clifton’s line from “blake” about “the flutter that can save us” lingers with me. I’m watching the trees, waiting for poems or angels. Perhaps they are similar things.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
The Agony in the Garden is a small painting by William Blake, completed as part of his 1799–1800 series of Bible illustrations commissioned by his patron and friend Thomas Butts. The work illustrates a passage from the Gospel of Luke which describes Christ’s turmoil in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and Crucifixion following Judas’s betrayal. In Blake’s painting a brilliantly coloured and majestic angel breaks through the surrounding darkness and descends from a cloud to aid and physically support Jesus in his hour of agony. The work is dominated by vertical lines, formed both from the trees and from the two arms of the angel. Two inner lines converge on Christ’s palms, evoking the nails driven through him during his crucifixion.
The Agony in the Garden was bequeathed by Blake collector Graham Robertson to the National Trust in 1948. It was acquired by the Tate Gallery the following year.
George Floyd and Emmett Till had many things in common, but two similarities rise to the top. They were both killed by white men who believed they had power over Black bodies. And they both called for help from their mothers just before they died, Floyd on a Minneapolis street in May 2020, Till in a Mississippi barn in August 1955.
Willie Louis heard those cries that summer morning in 1955, and like the witnesses to Floyd’s death, he spoke up about the unjust death.
This week’s Poetry Moment recalls the courage of Willie Louis in a poem by Joseph Ross, “When Your Word Is a Match.” On Oct. 2, Ross will read from his new collection of poetry, Raising King, based on the writings of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The online event, HoCoPoLitSo’s annual Lucille Clifton Reading, commemorates the beloved poet and our artistic advisor, Lucille Clifton, who died in 2010.
The event, entitled “Why We Can’t Wait: Poetry of History and Justice,” continues a recurring theme in Ross’s poetry, the country’s history of racial injustice and the struggle against that injustice. Near the beginning of his poetry career, Ross won the Enoch Pratt/Little Patuxent Review Poetry Contest with his poem, “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God.”
In doing research for that poem, he came across the story of Willie Louis, a young Black man who grew up in the Jim Crow South, who was a witness in the trial of two white men accused of kidnapping and killing 14-year-old Emmett Till.
“I was just so moved by the decision an ordinary person made. He wasn’t an activist or a hero in some way, he wasn’t a policy-maker,” Ross tells The Writing Life host, poet E. Ethelbert Miller. Miller will introduce Ross at the Oct. 2 event.
In 1955 Louis was an 18-year-old sharecropper walking down a blazing Mississippi road on a summer morning, when he saw Emmett Till in the back of a green Chevrolet pickup truck. White men, related to the woman who said Emmett flirted with and whistled at her, were in the cab of the truck. Louis then saw the same truck parked outside a barn, and heard someone inside being hit, and calling for his mother to save him.
When a white man with a pistol walked out of the barn for a drink from the well, he asked Louis if he had seen anything. Louis said, “No sir.”
But later in 1955, in a Mississippi courthouse, Louis testified against the men who had kidnapped Till. Despite Louis’ testimony at two trials, the white men were acquitted of murder, and later kidnapping. In 1956, in an interview with Look Magazine, the men admitted they had shot Emmett, tied a cotton gin fan around his neck with barbed wire to weight him, and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River.
After having to hide until the trial, News reports said Louis spoke so softly at the trial that he was barely able to be heard. But when asked, he stood and pointed to the men he saw in the truck and outside the barn. The audience in the courtroom gasped when he did.
Black people just did not testify against white people at that time, in that place. Louis had to be convinced by civil rights workers to testify, and kept hidden until the trial to keep him safe. The evidence of what could happen to him was Emmett’s body at his Chicago funeral, a coffin that Till’s mother Mamie insisted stay open so that the world could see what the men did to her son.
According to The Washington Post, Wheeler Parker, one of Till’s relatives who was sleeping in the house when Emmett was kidnapped, said he assumed that Louis had been lynched after his testimony. Instead, Louis fled Mississippi to Chicago, changed his name, and stayed under police protection, living out his life quietly as a hospital orderly.
The Post quoted Parker as saying, “You have to live those times to understand what it was like, the pure terror. His stepping forward, his testifying, it was just a very courageous act on his part. It’s beyond words for me to explain.”
Research goes into many of Ross’s poems. The horrors of Till’s murder, the institutionalized racism that allowed his killers to go free, the agonizing injustice of the crime and the trial could have overpowered any poem written about the event.
“I felt so strongly about what he had to go through, but doing the research controls that a little bit, and lets the poem say it in a way that’s not just shrieking or screaming,” Ross explains in the episode of The Writing Life from which this video is excerpted. “The research provides a lane for the passion to go through, so it’s not an explosion of passion, which is sort of uncontrolled and not moderated.”
Louis lived out his life in secrecy and relative obscurity. In an interview in 2003, he told 60 Minutes, “I couldn’t have walked away from that like that … because Emmett was 14, probably never been to Mississippi in his life. And he come to visit his grandfather, and they killed him. That’s not right. When they had the pictures, when I saw his body and what it was like, I knew that I couldn’t say no.”
Speak softly. Don’t say no. Scream. Write a poem.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
Joseph Ross launches his new book of poems, Raising King, introduced by E. Ethelbert Miller in a virtual presentation.
Now available to watch online:
The 2020 Lucille Clifton Reading Series provides an opportunity to deepen and extend our understanding of the experiences of others and ourselves as Ross explores through verse the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ross based his poems on King’s own writing in Stride Toward Freedom, Why We Can’t Wait, and Where do We Go from Here. Ross will read and discuss his work beginning at 7:30 p.m. in a virtual presentation.
Ross says Raising King “invites readers to journey with Martin Luther King, Jr., from Montgomery to Memphis. These poems, some in Dr. King’s voice, some in other voices from his time, offer the reader a new way to understand the compassionate and prophetic life of Dr. King.” Joseph Peniel, author of The Sword and the Shield: Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. writes: “Raising King is a groundbreaking poetry collection that helps to rescue the radically compassionate legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Joseph Ross brilliantly reminds us that King’s power derived from the way in which he forced American and global citizens to confront uncomfortable truths about race, poverty, citizenship, war. A must read.”
Ross is the author of three books of poetry: Meeting Bone Man (2012), Gospel of Dust (2013) and Ache (2017). His poetry has appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Los Angeles Times, The Southern Quarterly, Xavier Review, Poet Lore, Tidal Basin Review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and Sojourners. His work appears in many anthologies including What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump, edited by Martín Espada. He served as the HoCoPoLitSo’s 23rd writer-in-residence and teaches high school English is Washington, D.C. He is a six-time Pushcart Prize nominee and his poem “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God” won the 2012 Pratt Library/Little Patuxent Review Poetry Prize. Raising King will be available from Willow Books in mid-September.
E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist and author of two memoirs and several poetry collections. He hosts the WPFW morning radio show On the Margin with E. Ethelbert Miller and hosts and produces The Scholars on UDC-TV which received a 2020 Telly Award. Miller’s latest book If God Invented Baseball (City Point Press) was awarded the 2019 Literary Award for poetry by the American Library Association’s Black Caucus. Click here to view the E. Ethebert Miller Collection at GWU.
Zoom attendance is limited to the first hundred registrants. Additional virtual attendance will be available through live streaming on Facebook.
Donate to HoCoPoLitSo to help make this and other events like this important discussion happen.
Fifteen years ago today, Hurricane Katrina blew apart the bayou.
While many people suffered in the storm and its aftermath, Black and brown people who lived in the path of that category 5 Atlantic hurricane were disproportionally traumatized.
New Orleans and its surrounding bayous were soon filled with the dead bodies of more than of its 1,200 citizens. Eighty percent of the city was under water and didn’t drain for weeks. Survivors waited on bridges and rooftops for days in the blistering sun. The Superdome shelter became a vision of hell—steaming hot and filled with thirsty, wounded, and moaning hurricane survivors. The government’s lackluster rescue operation, as well as the determination that the Army Corps of Engineers had built faulty levees that failed to protect the city’s residents, are the bitter pills that New Orleans had to swallow.
Poet Patricia Smith, like most of the rest of America, watched horrifying images on television of the storm and its aftermath. But Smith turned the horror into something beautiful, a collection of poems, Blood Dazzler.
In 2013, as part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, HoCoPoLitSo hosted Smith. She read her suite of poems about the hurricane as the Sage String Quartet played Wynton Marsalis’ “At the Octoroon Balls” for an audience that was struck silent and teary-eyed.
HoCoPoLitSo also produced a television interview that weekend. Poet Joseph Ross interviewed Smith for a conversation that touched on her origin as a writer listening to her father tell stories on their Chicago back porch, and her inspiration for Blood Dazzler. Ross describes the collection as coming from a choir of voices, including that of the hurricane herself. Smith explained that she’s not from New Orleans, she has no tether to the Gulf region.
“The primary role of a storyteller is as a witness,” Smith said. “And Katrina was not just a regional story, it was a national story. You’re seeing what your country is capable of. I watched Katrina unfold the way thousands of other people did. The difference is that in my role as witness, in my role as writer, I felt that I could use my writing to process that story. I’m trying to make the story makes sense–that’s how I approach a lot of stories–this can’t be possible, this can’t be true. Let me enter it through my writing and see if I can find something that I’m not seeing on the surface.”
This Poetry Moment’s poem, “8 a.m. Sunday, August 28, 2005”, is in Katrina’s commanding, menacing voice. Finding Katrina’s voice, Smith said, was easiest for her.“Persona allows me to enter a story in a way that is going to open up a lot of other avenues right away,” Smith said. “It never occurred to me not to give Katrina a voice. That also left me some touchstones – I tried to keep it roughly chronological and follow the development of the storm, but every once in a while, I’d say, “Now Katrina is feeling this. Now she’s angry, now she’s remorseful, now she’s saying ‘Maybe I overdid it.’ ”
Katrina, like one of the Greek goddesses spurred into destruction by humans’ blunders, came down hard on the planet. But she was fed with warm water from the oceans, growing warmer by the minute thanks to humans causing climate change.
This summer has been a hard one for so many. As I write, Hurricane Laura is barreling toward Category 4 status, with the Gulf Coast in its path. Wildfires are blazing in California, destroying homes and animals and redwoods and people’s lives. Death Valley hit 130 degrees, the highest temperature recorded since 1913 on this planet. Climate change isn’t in the distance. It’s here. And there is an intimate link between racial injustice and climate change, with communities of color disproportionately suffering as the world warms.
Poetry can tell stories, and it can bear witness. We’re going to need to witness much more in the coming years, as climate change whips up storms and harsh weather that will batter this country, and the world. Words can change the world, yes, but only if humans listen.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life
Students across the nation are returning to their studies this fall in a time of fear and in methods that are bizarre. Most of them won’t board buses with their parents sniffing back tears on the sidewalk. They won’t giggle in clusters or eat in cafeterias. College students won’t be packing stadiums or gathering on the quad. This fall, hardly any students need new backpacks full of crisp lined paper and pointy pencils.
Instead, there are masks outside their homes, and Zoom inside. Instead, students are learning on their own. They’re sharing computers or borrowing them from schools. And freshly reopened wounds of systemic violence and racism against Black Americans are compounding the pandemic pain. Students are suffering in ways that adults can’t begin to understand.
HoCoPoLitSo can’t fix things. But we can offer a token of our appreciation of the circumstances. This week’s Poetry Moment is a shot in the arm from Jason Reynolds, New York Times bestselling writer of books such as Long Way Down, Patina and the rest of his track series, All-American Boys, and the Marvel Comics graphic novel Miles Morales: Spider-Man.
Reynolds, who grew up in D.C. and Maryland and had never finished a complete book until he was 17, used the power of poetry, rap, and his own determination to become an author. He’s now won the Walter Dean Myers Award, a Newbery, a Kirkus Prize, the Coretta Scott King Award, and an NAACP Image Award.
In this Poetry Moment, Reynolds reads from his book For Every One, a sort of pep talk in verse, recorded in 2018, long before a pandemic was dreamt of.
“This is a pep talk for me,” Reynolds explains. “This isn’t a book of answers, I don’t know how to fix it, but I do know how it feels to have it feel broken.”
His book isn’t a self-help book, he explains, because he doesn’t feel qualified to assist. In fact, he tells young people, he needs help to get done the things he does. Writing is difficult, Reynolds says. Without editors, he says, he wouldn’t be able to get by. “I still don’t know how to use a comma,” he says.
In his writing, he says, he tries to show his characters’ vulnerability and the difficulties that they’re facing. Just like students, he says.
“I tell the teachers, you have no idea what some of your students had to do just to get there,” he says.
Named in January as the Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Reynolds is evangelizing words as a power to change the world.
“The truth is, if we’re looking at history as our compass, it will show us over and over again that the way to change is through children. The way to change is through youth,” he said, in an interview after his appointment as ambassador.
His new book, Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You, is a remix for young people of Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. In the first chapter, Reynolds explains what he’s hoping to talk about in the book: “This isn’t a history book. Or, at least, it’s not that kind of history book. Instead, what this is, is a book that contains history. A history directly connected to our lives as we live them right this minute. This is a present book. A book about the here and now.”
The here and now is pretty rough. And we don’t know how it’s going to turn out. But Reynolds is mindful of uncertainty. In fact, his books embrace an unconventional plot strategy. We never know whether Patina or any of the other characters from his series about a track team of runners, win their races. “They show up,” Reynolds says. And that’s enough.
Patina’s story, he explains, “doesn’t tie up in a neat bow, but none of my books do, only because I think life doesn’t do that. … I think it’s disrespectful of the reader to give away answers. I think our job is to lead them to the point where they can do the rest of the work themselves.”
Sending strength for the rest of the work to students, teachers, parents, and every one, from Jason Reynolds and HoCoPoLitSo.
— Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
This week’s poem contains a legacy.
Like a story told and retold on families’ front porches, this Poetry Moment features author Toi Derricotte reading a poem that changed her life, “Southern Road” by Sterling Allen Brown.
With colloquial rhymes and dialect, the poem’s haunting rhythms echo the stories and songs of chain gangs. Conceived during the Civil War to provide free labor, chain gangs proliferated in the South until the 1950s, when they were largely phased out in most of the nation. The practice lingered in Georgia and North Carolina until the 1970s, and was resurrected in the 1990s “tough on crime” era.
Prisoners, many of whom were Black and most of whom were convicted of minor crimes, were shackled together at the ankles to provide states free labor. They broke rocks, built the nation’s roads and highways, dug holes. Treated cruelly, prisoners were sometimes kept in cages, and usually fed little and beaten liberally. For photos and history of the chain gang, see this fascinating and horrifying history project by the University of North Carolina Greensboro.
Brown’s poem called forth the chain gang’s speech and song in a way that American readers had never seen. Poet Derricotte explained that besides Langston Hughes, she read no works by Black writers in grade school, in high school, or even in college. When she started reading Brown’s poems, “they blew my mind.” In this Poetry Moment, Derricotte reads only the last three stanzas of Brown’s iconic poem.
Brown was born on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C., attended Harvard, then returned to Howard to teach for more than 40 years until he retired in 1969. Brown, whose father was born into slavery and became a prominent minister and professor at Howard, became a bridge between the Harlem Renaissance and contemporary Black poets like Derricotte.
A 2019 finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry, Derricotte visited HoCoPoLitSo in November 2012 to read her own poetry and talk about the legacy of Lucille Clifton, our longtime artistic advisor and the nation’s beloved, award-winning poet. Before she read for our audience, Derricotte filmed an interview about her work with E. Ethelbert Miller, poet and activist from D.C. who knew Brown well. Miller asked her to read some poetry that inspired her. Derricotte chose a Sylvia Plath poem, and this work by Brown.
Derricotte has her own legacy to pass on. She and poet Cornelius Eady formed Cave Canem, a retreat and foundation to support and host African American poets. Cave Canem, which translates from Latin as “Beware the Dog,” was named after the mosaic of the protective dog at the entrance to the House of the Tragic Poet, preserved in Pompeii (see image below). Founded in 1996 to nurture Black poets, Cave Canem has supported thousands of Black poets with workshops, prizes, and readings. Fellows of the program have published more than 250 books.
Try one of their books, listen to “Southern Road” here, pick up The Collected Poems of Sterling Brown, read some of Derricotte’s confessional and personal work. Then sit on the porch with your family and tell these stories.
— Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life
Sterling Brown Photo: By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42296826
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