(October 7, 1934 – January 9, 2014)
A Black Scholar
Amiri Baraka’s death on January 9, 2014, caused the Black ecosystem of institutions, intellectuals, artists and activists committed to our century’s long fight for human rights to stagger under the weight of the loss and its possible meanings. Even as we gathered ourselves to publicly mourn and honor him, to write and read our thoughts and feelings, there was a sense that a significant change had occurred in our world of resistance and struggle. In the weeks after his death, when we had not quite found our footing, our brother–Jackson, Mississippi Mayor Chokwe Lumumba–transitioned suddenly, followed by one of our great historians Vincent Harding, our beautiful storyteller Maya Angelou and the relentless advocate for African people Elombe Brath. It was as if Baraka’s death was not enough to force us to see we are reaching the end of the era of the Warrior Generation.
Imamu Amiri Baraka was many things to our people, we collectively and us individually. He was an artist with exceptionally deep perception and talent, an educator, a political and spiritual leader, a revolutionary strategist and institution builder, a fearless warrior against all who would diminish black people, an insightful teacher, a scholar of African American history and culture, a determined advocate for Black self-determination, a husband and father, and a prolific writer who created a significant body of work that included poetry, plays, essays, fiction, music and scholarly articles. The many forms in which he came to us were the result of his never ending quest to find a way to give everything he had in service of the people he loved, Black people and humanity. Even his names reminded us of his changes: LeRoi Jones, Ameer Baraka, Imamu Baraka, and Amiri Baraka. We were inspired and sometimes confused by his shape shifting. Sometimes we were angered by it and in opposition to it. But we never doubted it was him. We were never unsure of his voice or that he was our warrior, that all of his prodigious gifts were focused on and fueled by our demand for self-determination and justice.
Amiri Baraka was one of many intellectuals of his generation whose scholarly research and study, writing, teaching and work actually influenced the political struggle of African Americans and called countless young artists, activists and scholars to work on behalf of our people. But Baraka’s political influence is extraordinary in his generation of exceptional thinkers and workers because of his direct involvement and leadership of significant historical events in the Black Liberation Movement. That leadership grew from an underlying principle that remained consistent in his activism. Baraka’s work has always been based on building institutions that would engage greater numbers of people in an organized effort to advance the struggle. Some of these institutions were local, community-based organizations and some also had national and international scope and impact. He believed that where ever we are it is necessary to build, strengthen or expand structures that will help us wage and sustain our efforts.
Throughout his public life he founded or co-founded newspapers, theatre companies, cultural centers, community organizations, national liberation organizations and numerous coalitions and united fronts. While he is widely acknowledged as the most influential artist of the Black Arts Movement, for the past 50 years he also built cultural institutions including The Black Arts Repertory Theatre, Spirit House, Kimako’s Blues People and Blue Ark as platforms to nurture, engage and organize actors, writers, directors, poets, musicians and cultural workers. The political formations he co-founded and played significant leadership roles in included the Committee for Unified Newark, Congress of African People, National Black Political Convention, National Black Assembly, African Liberation Support Committee and many others. He also formed and supported several publications including Black NewArk, Unity and Struggle and Black Nation Magazine. In the days preceding his death Baraka was still organizing, supporting and building another political formation, the mayoral campaign of his son, Ras Baraka. Ras won the election and is now the Mayor of Newark 44 years after his father organized the first Black Nationalist led electoral movement in a major city that succeeded in electing Newark’s first Black mayorm Ken Gibson.
Amiri Baraka left more than forty published works as a record of his research, thought, and constantly developing consciousness. It is evidence of his dedication and seemingly boundless capacity for productivity. It is also evidence of his understanding that we, the writers and artists, the intellectual warriors, the scholars and teachers, have a sacred, crucial role in our people’s history and future. There are many pages of his writings that have never been published and hopefully will begin to make their way to us in the near future so we may further benefit from his thought and work and a life of struggle that is worthy of the ancestors who inspired him to give his life and gifts to us.
“When I die, the consciousness I carry I will to black people.”–Amiri Baraka
Michael Simanga is author of Amiri Baraka and the Congress of African People: History and Memory (Palgrave Press, 2015 and co-editor of Brilliant Fire! Amiri Baraka: Poetry, Plays, Politics for the People (Third World Press, 2015). He is a Visiting Lecturer at Georgia State University in the Department of African American Studies.