Reflections: Amiri Baraka

January 10, 2014 at 5:08 PM

One of America's most important — and controversial — literary figures, Amiri Baraka, died on Thursday January 9, 2014. Baraka was well known for his strident social criticism, often writing in an incendiary style

A long term Newark resident, Baraka co-founded the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. His literary legacy is as complicated as the times he lived through, from his childhood — where he recalled not being allowed to enter a segregated library — to the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. His poem about that attack, "Somebody Blew Up America," quickly became infamous and is probably the first time that many people became aware of him.

Baraka served as the second Poet Laureate of New Jersey from July 2002 until the position was abolished on July 2, 2003. In response to the attempts to remove Baraka as the state's Poet Laureate, a nine-member advisory board named him the poet laureate of the Newark Public Schools in December 2002. Baraka received honors from a number of prestigious foundations, including: fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Langston Hughes Award from the City College of New York, the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, an induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Before Columbus Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.

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Our paths began to cross during those tumultuous times in the 1960’s.  Forty six years ago in 1967, Newark erupted and exploded as did many cities across the United States, in spontaneous uprisings by disaffected African American communities. These rebellions were met with brutal violence by police and National Guardsmen. In Newark, 26 people were killed and 43 in Detroit. Thousands more were injured.

My wife and I were married one month before that disturbance. I was a graduate student at the New School for Social Research in New York. Several months later I was a part of a joint team Federal-State Taskforce to enhance the employability of Newark male residents.

Ironically, Amiri and many others had been picketing a police station, the day before the Newark disturbances started. They were involved in civil disobedience because a black cab driver, named John Smith had been beaten up by local police. Also for the two months prior to that, many local activists were expressing contentions over the location and size of the projected new medical school. The state wanted 160 acres for a medical school. Amiri’s research group determined that the largest medical school in the United States, Johns Hopkins, only occupied one-and-a-half acres.
I became aware of him in 1967 several months after the Newark rebellion when he was leading a movement to bring decent and affordable housing to Newark through a proposal and model known as the Kawaida Project. The model involved a cultural paradigm at the heart of the housing development. I watched their protest from the windows of our taskforce operation.

I started employment at Seton Hall in 1978 and he was invited on several occasions to give lecture-performance type events by the Black Studies Center. These were powerful presentations and every student left his presentations transformed by his riveting insights and committed to do more work in the humanities.
During those presentations, at Seton Hall, I discovered that he and I had something else in common. We both had attended the New School for Social Research. We would spend lots of time comparing notes on how the New Schools’ environment shaped our intellectual analysis. We also discussed, as W.E.B. DuBois stated…” Americas persistent issues with the “color line.”

One statement that I heard him say once provoked an interest, within me for an understanding of the social context of and for the production of intellectual matter. The quote is below…
"Thought is more important than art. To revere art and have no understanding of the process that forces it into existence, is finally not even to understand what art is."

One of Amiri’s four sons Ras, is a politician and community activist who  currently serves on the Municipal Council of Newark, representing the South Ward and is principal of the city's Central High School. Seton Hall’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. scholars have designed and teamed up with Principal Baraka to facilitate an after school mentoring program, at Central High School, called “Skooled”.

From an the African cultural philosophical viewpoint, Amiri has simply transitioned to be with the ancestors, to dispense wisdom from the great beyond.

We extend our regards to the Baraka family for sharing his genius with the world.

--Rev. Dr. Forrest Pritchett, Sr. is the Program Director of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Program at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ.


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