All the loveliness here in the world: Amiri Baraka 1934-2014

11 Jan

Amiri Baraka joined the ancestors yesterday. Ashé, Amiri Baraka.

I had been thinking of Baraka’s beautiful eulogy for James Baldwin, especially his description of Baldwin:

This man traveled the earth like its history and its biographer. He reported, criticized, made beautiful, analyzed, cajoled, lyricized, attacked, sang, made us better, made us consciously human or perhaps more acidly pre human.

In his writing, Baraka approaches the world in a way that recalls his description of Baldwin, for he did all of those things with a passion that made one wonder how one could love the world that much. He asked questions, challenged, mocked, criticized, and restructured the world, using language, the printed word and the black vernacular as a blacksmith’s tool to pound the world into shape, like John Henry or Ogoun. He was fearlessly, openly, beautifully black in his concern. He was the first person I encountered who made me feel that loving blackness could be a way of loving the world. He was the first person who made me think that self-love was a way of being closer to the world. That to accept the world was to reject and re-create it. That the place of hurt could be so near the place of pleasure. To read him is to see that challenge, the challenge of the ancestors to redeem their dreams rather than simply avenge their suffering.

He hoped we would “one day be able to celebrate [Baldwin] like we must be celebrated if we are ever to be truly self-determining.” If “Jimmy was God’s black revolutionary mouth,” then surely Baraka was God’s black revolutionary hammer and axe–tenor saxophone or hatchet–“If there is a God, and revolution his righteous natural expression. And elegant song the deepest and most fundamental commonplace of being alive.” Like Baldwin, Baraka demanded that we listen to song and hear in it our salvation, our future, our revolution, our everyday life.

His genius in part lay in his ability and willingness to make us uncomfortable if only with the depth of his love and passion. When he wrote on what he loved, that love can be infectious. That love also made both his political enemies and would-be allies uncomfortable. If there was a truth that needed expression, he was not afraid to say it. That makes him rare among intellectuals of any period, and if he was “polarizing” it was because he sought clarity about the parameters and gravity of any topic he was going to address, insisted on setting those parameters, and remained unapologetically black. In some circles, he was unforgivably black, as Du Bois said of Jack Johnson–and he never let you forget it. He probed, pulled, poked, prodded, and made tangible the labor of thought, in his public reversals and changes of course, and in more subtle shifts in emphasis and focus throughout his long career.

For me, and for many other writers and scholars, his very presence gave permission to do and be better, to tell the uncomfortable truth and the let the truth be discomfiting. But he also gave us the demand to contribute to something, to understand we were part of something bigger. Avoid, but also be liberated from that sense of working in isolation. Avoid, but also be liberated from that sense that blackness was a disadvantage. Beyond the easy consolations of the phrase black is beautiful, or claims for blackness as an avant-garde, though both of those can open the way if we are not afraid to follow where the thought might lead. He gave the sense that you belong to a tradition whether you claim it or not, but took for granted that you would claim it because there is so much that is beautiful here, waiting to be discovered, known and transmitted. We still search for that beauty, as we still search for the sacred words he asked us about at the end of “Ka ‘Ba,” but now we will have to search on our own, without him.

We have been captured,
brothers. And we labor
to make our getaway, into
the ancient image, into a new

correspondence with ourselves
and our black family. We read magic
now we need the spells, to rise up
return, destroy, and create. What will be

the sacred words?

His call that we create a new correspondence with ourselves remains unanswered.

His influence is immense. Those of us who work on twentieth century American poetry, African American poetry, African diaspora poetry, transnational or diasporic ways of imagining a body politic, and many other fields, must thank Amiri Baraka. He has earned his place among Du Bois, CLR James, Frantz Fanon, Claudia Jones, Angela Davis, and others as titans of a radical black intellectual tradition. It is hard to imagine an aspect of the humanities, especially in the American academy, that Baraka did not at least help open, or hold open. It is hard to imagine a more restless, fierce, engaging intellectual. Imagining such an intellectual who was also such an important, difficult and necessary writer, he is a rarefied league with Baldwin, Aimé Césaire or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

Those of us who feel the analysis of black literature is incomplete without serious, sustained attention to its interaction with black music, must thank Amiri Baraka. Those of us who feel authorized to use the vernacular as a particular language of thought–the language of the thought of particularity–must thank Amiri Baraka. We must also thank him for the important model he provided for thinking about music, which on some fundamental level we all remain responsible for, even when it makes us uncomfortable, challenges our assumptions and claims to being radical, challenges our analyses of the world that somehow neglected the formative place of black people.

In the coming days, months and years, there will be inevitable commentary, appraisals, reassessments, reviews, and all kinds of attempts to reduce the man to slogans like “We want ‘poems that kill.'” Most of those commentaries will not address the end of the poem, and so will miss the point. They will not address or take seriously the call to

Clean out the world for virtue and love,

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

The poem prepares the world for, and participates in, virtue and love. It clears a space for black love and unencumbered being. It is a poetry of getting and being free, a poetry that risks defining freedom. We can revise–black people are the sons and daughters of warriors, but who will take seriously the idea that black people are poems?

My heart is with his family and friends, and all of us who feel the world is a little darker, a little colder, who feel there is a little less love in the world now that Baraka has left us. I always thought I would have a chance to meet him, to argue with him, to learn from him. I am grateful for all the work, all the love that he leaves behind. It seemed that he would always be with us, holding us accountable, challenging us. It seemed that he would outlive us all. There will never be another like him. I am still shocked that he is no longer with us. He seemed certain to outlive us all. We still have his work to read and, in a broader sense to add to. Let him continue to challenge us, continue to teach us to think, and to love. Let us continue to learn from him to be free.

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