H. Rambsy has posted an extensive, if not exhaustive, list of YouTube videos featuring poetry readings by the late Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) over at Cultural Front. The list includes links to 50 videos of Baraka reading, as well as links to the tracks from William Parker’s I Plan to Stay a Believer: The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield (2010) that feature Baraka.
For decades Baraka was one of the most prominent voices of politically radical avant-garde poetry, fiction, and theatre. He was born Everett LeRoi Jones but later changed his name to Imamu Amear Baraka and then, finally, Amiri Baraka. His literary career began in the 1950s when he lived in Greenwich Village and became friends with Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and Gilbert Sorrentino.
“The white avant-garde—primarily Ginsberg, O’Hara, and leader of the Black Mountain poets Charles Olson—and Baraka believed in poetry as a process of discovery rather than an exercise in fulfilling traditional expectations,” reads Baraka’s biography at the Poetry Foundation’s website. “Baraka, like the projectivist poets, believed that a poem’s form should follow the shape determined by the poet’s own breath and intensity of feeling.”
Baraka founded Yugen magazine and Totem Press in 1958, which the Poetry Foundation describes as “important forums for new verse.” He married his co-editor, Hettie Cohen, in 1960 but they separated in 1965. Baraka’s first poetry collection, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, was published in 1961 and his first play, A Good Girl Is Hard to Find, was produced at Sterington House in Montclair, New Jersey, in 1965.
Cuban Revolution and Civil Rights Movement Led to Political Awaking for Baraka
In 1959 Baraka travelled to Cuba, soon after Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s rebel forces had seized power from the dictator Fulgencio Batista. That trip, coupled with the growth of the Civil Rights Movement, radicalized Baraka and his work took a sharp turn to the political left.
Baraka became a leader of the new Black Arts Movement and an influential voice in leftist and Black liberation politics and avant-garde poetry and theatre. His poem “Black People!,” a response to the 1967 riots in Newark, New Jersey, served as an anthem for a frustrated community mired in economic and racial oppression. Baraka was also a respected critic. His book Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963) is considered a seminal text on the history of African American music from the slavery-era through the rise of blues and jazz.
A Politics at Times Progressive, at Times Problematic
Baraka’s politics were progressive, even radical, in many regards. But they were far from perfect at times. Early in his career he was accused of being misogynistic, homophobic, and anti-semitic. The accusations are hard to deny, and even more difficult to defend (so we won’t). By the 70s, however, his politics had shifted once again. He moved away from Black nationalism to focus more on international liberation movements. He also repudiated the misogynistic, homophobic, and anti-semitic statements of his past.
Accusations of anti-semitism would surface again, however, when Baraka wrote his angst-filled response to the 9-11 attacks, “Somebody Blew Up America.” The poems is, primarily, a catalogue of Western transgressions against the poor and oppressed peoples of the world. In it, Baraka refers to disputed reports that five Israeli’s filmed the attacks on the World Trade Center, seemingly with advanced knowledge, and that Jewish employees received advanced warning not to enter the WTC that day.
The poem, along with Baraka’s refusal to apologize for it and to continue publicly reading it, ultimately cost him his position as poet laureate of New Jersey.
Baraka’s Lasting Legacy
Amiri Baraka’s obituaries were full of debate over his controversial and evolving views. His early mistakes should not be ignored, but neither should his influence on writers or his work as an activists over his decades-long career. A week after Baraka’s death, Jelani Cobb wrote in The New Yorker:
“Baraka was foundational for a generation of writers who emerged in his wake, a singular figure whose work laid down the terms of engagement for many, if not most, of us who came to the craft after him. In his poems, plays, essays, criticism, and fiction, he achieved an absolute democracy of language—a poetry forged in the crucible of a collective experience, a musical fusion of history, irony, and art. His artistic forebears, like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and Sterling Brown, had combed the black vernacular for literary value. In Baraka’s hands, that undertaking pitched in a new direction, equal parts hood and haute. 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.”
The below video was recorded at The Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, New York. It’s a powerful yet playful reading of “Somebody Blew Up America” accompanied by a jazz saxophonist. To view Culture Front’s list of links to 50 videos of Baraka reading, click here.
Featured image: Amiri Baraka addressing the Malcolm X Festival from the Black Dot Stage in San Antonio Park, Oakland, California while performing with Marcel Diallo and his Electric Church Band, courtesy of David Sasaski and Wikimedia Commons.