Dr. Joanne Gabbin remembers Amiri Baraka (1934-2014)


On Thursday, January 9, I received the news that Amiri Baraka was gone. Coming so soon on the heels of Alvin Aubert’s passing, my first thought was that it was all just too much. My second thought was to phone his dear friend and mine, Sonia Sanchez. Hearing her voice was some comfrot, a connection that allowed me to grieve communally.

Amiri Baraka at the 1994 Furious Flower Poetry ConferenceBaraka, a remarkable poet, activist, playwright, educator, and cultural intellectual, attended the first and—largely because of giants like him—historic Furious Flower Conference in 1994, delivering a memorable, musical reading and, as my daughter says, merging the funk with the fire.

In 2004, the second Furious Flower Poetry Conference was dedicated to him and Sanchez, which was fitting because these two people epitomized our theme, “Regenerating the Black Poetic Tradition,” in their roles as architects and visionaries of the Black Arts Movement. In my introduction of Baraka, I mentioned that courageous activists and intellectuals like himself, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and Malcolm X, had failed to receive the honors they were due from American society during their lifetimes because some people were uncomfortable with their bold and truth-telling voices. However, once these men were safely dead, many of these same people allowed that their heads should be placed upon a commemorative stamp. The truth of the matter is none of these men sought justice, pushed the boundaries of racial tolerance, revolutionized social transformation, or stood up for the humanity of the people of the world because they desired recognition. They did what they thought was right.

What Amiri Baraka thought was right leapt from his tongue like fire. Whether he attacked cultural chauvinism, or exposed predatory imperialists, or advocated the establishment of centers of knowledge and activism in black communities, Baraka’s poetic voice thundered and flashed light and urgency for change and for love.

He was the embodiment of Black Fire. It is appropriate that he and co-editor Larry Neal named the seminal anthology of the Black Arts Movement Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing. In this text that became my literary bible when I began teaching in 1971, Baraka and Neal collected poems, plays, essays, and short stories which kindled in me and my students a fierce pride in our African ancestry, a deep appreciation for Black cultural gifts of blues and jazz music, and an acknowledgement of the power of the word to transform lives.

In September 2014, Furious Flower will again honor Amiri Baraka at the upcoming conference, “Seeding the Future of African American Poetry,” with a Critic’s Roundtable led by Sanchez and titled “S.O.S./Calling All Black People.”

Until then, you won’t find much better than this: Amiri Baraka with Amy Goodman and company on “Democracy Now.”

Published: Monday, January 13, 2014

Last Updated: Monday, January 8, 2018

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