It was during the winter of ’58 and all of ’59 that I got used to seeing then LeRoi Jones, the black writer white intellectuals blabbed about as part of the “beat generation poets.”
As artists (I had been an art major and musician), we were forced out of New York’s high school system, like many budding black artists before and since, through the realization that we were totally on our own, not welcome and nowhere to go.
After classes, we would walk down to the Jazz Gallery and the Five Spot and catch Dizzy or ’Trane and end the night with Monk. Then LeRoi Jones was always on the scene. We never checked him out, we just saw him a lot. Like us, he was seriously into the music.
In ’64, some brothers I knew were trying to get the now very famous poet and author of Blues People out of “the Village” and up to Harlem to do a total black cultural thing. My friend and his, writer Larry Neal, got the brother and me together while I was developing the Truth Coffeehouse, Harlem’s first espresso house and art gallery. Amiri Baraka (then still LeRoi Jones) and his group got a building around the corner and created The Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School.
The Black Arts movement did Baraka’s and other artists’ revolutionary plays and poetry readings in the streets of Harlem during the summer and had live jazz concerts in the parks and art exhibits and dance performances. The movement also loudly challenged Harlem’s bourgeois leaders and their accommodating ideology. (Harlem was [is] controlled by white nationalist liberal democrats and the underworld.)
Illustrative of “the white supremacy/system culture” is the Obie Award Baraka won for his groundbreaking play The Dutchman that was performed downtown. However, when performed on stage in the streets of Harlem it was denounced as “racist.” Native so-called Americans were first to correctly announce that “white man speaks with forked tongue.”
As an activist artist, Imamu Amiri Baraka came to the realization that art and politics go together like the fingers to the hand in 1960, during an international writer’s conference in Cuba, a year after Fidel Castro took power. Art must be mass-based and revolutionary and taken to the people became an action agenda.
By 1966, the Black Arts dissolved through internal and external attacks in which black FBI agents were excoriated on flyers distributed with their photographs. My Truth Coffeehouse was also variously attacked and I split back to Atlanta and Baraka went home to Newark, New Jersey.
Back in Newark, Amiri Baraka married Amina Baraka, with whom he enjoyed his last 47 years, until Jan. 9, when he left us in the body at 79 years of age (born Oct. 7, 1934). From that union came five children. One of four boys, all grown, is Newark, N.J., Councilman Ras Baraka, who is campaigning for mayor. There are also two stepdaughters and Amiri’s four daughters from previous relationships.
Always working together as community organizers, Amiri and Amina Baraka inaugurated, founded and spearheaded many groups and activities in Newark and elsewhere. They arranged for great poetry, drama and music from across the country with the creation of Spirit House and the Spirit House Movers and also the Committee for Unified Newark and the Congress of Afrikan People.
Through arts and political organization, Kenneth A. Gibson became the first black mayor of Newark. In fact, Gibson became the first black mayor of any major northeastern city. Baraka also was instrumental in creating the 1972 Black Power Convention in Gary, Ind., that launched Gibson. Hundreds of us braved the cold to be there.
Amiri Baraka’s achievements are extraordinary and voluminous and we convened at his wake Friday afternoon into night at the huge Metropolitan Baptist Church of Newark, in the thousands. Last to speak was the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Saturday morning’s celebration of life took place at the massive Symphony Hall on Broad Street, just up from City Hall. A huge American flag hung across Broad Street as thousands of people occupied every seat and hundreds more crowded the lobby. Drummers and a New Orleans-type funeral brass band preceded the pallbearers who placed Baraka’s casket on the stage.
Actor Danny Glover and longtime stage director Woodie King officiated at the affair which included Jessica Care Moore, Askia M. Toure and other poets, a performance by tap dancer Savion Glover, a full jazz orchestra and vocalists, Congressman Donald M. Payne, actor Glynn Turman, Sista Souljah, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Akbar Muhammad, Dr. Cornel West and others.
Amiri’s son who would be mayor, Ras Baraka, reading his own writings about his father and the work to be done, in strong voice like ’Trane blowing Ascension, brought everybody to their feet with his stirring eulogy.
Obama ain’t got nothin’ on this brother. He’s ready, y’all!
Al Calloway is a longtime journalist who began his career with the Atlanta Inquirer during the early 1960s civil rights struggle. He may be reached at Al_Calloway@verizon.net