Amiri Baraka (1934–2014 )

Amiri Baraka in his apartment in Harlem, New York, in 1966. Photo: Bob Adelman.


“If my letter re your poem sounded crusadery and contentious I’m sorry. But I have gone deep, and gotten caught with images of the world, that exists, or that will be here after we go. I have not the exquisite objectivity of circumstance. The calm precise mind of Luxury. . . . I can’t sleep. And I do not believe in all this relative shit. There is a right and a wrong. A good and a bad. And it’s up to me, you, all of the so called minds, to find out. It is only knowledge of things that will bring this ‘moral earnestness.’ ”

—Amiri Baraka to Edward Dorn, 1961

He shits
And doesn’t
Even notice

He has
His mind
On the stars

Let him
On your head

William J. Harris, “The Western Philosopher”

ON JANUARY 18, with bagpipes and African drums, singers, one tap dancer, and many speakers—including, poets, politicians, and community activists—the life and art of Amiri Baraka was celebrated at a four-hour funeral service at Symphony Hall in Newark; he died January 9 at the age of seventy-nine. It is hard to believe he has left us so soon. Each time I saw him he was so alive and vital, especially in performance. He was a fighter and an artist to the end. Since the mainstream never understood Amiri, it surprises me that there has been such a mainstream response to his death, including the front page of the New York Times. It seems like the cultural establishment realized something important had happened whether they understood it or not. But what really heartens me is the insightful comments by such people as Ishmael Reed, Questlove, Greg Tate, and Richard Brody, and in such strange places as Ebony, the New Yorker, and the Wall Street Journal. And Ish Reed is right in his Wall Street Journal post: The mainstream has ignored Baraka’s important work after the 1960s. In spite of the narrow-minded dumbness that has been floating around about Baraka, he has made his mark on our time.

Baraka was a great artist in many areas, including poetry, music criticism, the novel, and nonfiction. But I want to talk about him as an anti-colonial writer, a man who wanted to see the world from his point of view and not the master’s. What I have always loved about Amiri was his superiority to the white power structure, or any power structure. In short, he was doing the judging. As he says in Home: Social Essays, he refuses to “merely tag. . . along reciting white judgments of the world.”

To fully understand Baraka’s project, we need to revisit W. B. Du Bois’s key concept of the double consciousness. In his 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois famously observes: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” This is a profound insight into the minority mind—or perhaps any mind that does not control the world. Amiri’s art has tried to destroy the double consciousness, has tried to see the world through his own eyes—eyes embedded in a particular body and place (culture).

There is much of Baraka’s work that is not as well known as it should be and I would like to make a few suggestions. See his recent Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music (2009), where he continues to both write about music and use his words like music, and Tales of the Out & Gone, (2006), where he continues to write “gone” stories, relatives to free jazz. Also look at the finally released Amiri Baraka & Edward Dorn: The Collected Letters (2013), which lets the reader witness two American intellectuals, one black, one white, frankly discussing race and justice in our country at a crucial moment in the ’60s. On the Internet, check out Baraka in performance at PennSound, where you move from reading the score to listening to the music. A real treat.

Ah, after thinking about Amiri I feel he is right here in the room with me.

William J. Harris is creative writing director and associate professor of English at the University of Kansas and editor of The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (1991). You can listen to his talk “Amiri Baraka’s Blues People at Fifty” at the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University here.