Amiri Baraka! Not So Tender Arrivals
Updated: Feb 16
"We could see anything we wanted to. Be anything we knew how to be. Build
anything we needed. Arrive anywhere we should have to go. But time is as stubborn
as space, and they compose us with definition, time place and condition."
Amiri Baraka was known for his controversial poetry and political activism. The views he expressed in his poems were extreme; such as calls for violence against those responsible for the state of society. Amiri was prone to radicalism in his poetry and in private life. In this week ZiNger we will find out how exactly strong the poet's beliefs were that influenced his life and work.
Amiri Baraka, born Everett LeRoi Jones (October 7, 1934 - January 9, 2014) was an African-American poet and playwright. He is known for his provocative poetry, which he often used to describe the experiences of African Americans in America. During his fifty-year career, he has written numerous books, lectured at various universities, and received many accolades for his work.
"Želio sam razumjeti moju majku kad je sjedila/ tužno gledajući preko zemljišta kasnih dvadesetih/ u budućnost duše, svi anđeli bijahu/ razapeti iznad njene glave, prenosili su život naših/ pređa,/ znanje, i jaki crnački osjećaj..."
He was born in Newark, New Jersey. His father, Colt Leverette Jones, worked as a postal supervisor, and his mother, Anna Lois, was a social worker. After attending university, he joined the U.S. Air Force as a gunner and was given the rank of sergeant, but was “dishonorably discharged” from the military. Amiri regretted his decision to join the army, but something good came out of that seemingly negative military experience. While he was stationed in Puerto Rico, he had a lot of time to read because he worked in the library and he read beat poets. Amiri eventually moved to Greenwich Village, a neighborhood in Manhattan where beat poets and artists lived and worked in the late ’50s.
"Postao sam pjesnik/ Jer svaka stvar/ Lijepa činila se/ "pjesničkom" za me./ Mislio sam da su postojale stvari/ koje nisam razumio.."
He initially worked in a warehouse of music records and at that time became interested in jazz and came into contact with Black Mountain poets; a group of American progressive poets, also known as “projectivist poets,” who operated in the mid-twentieth century and were centered around Black Mountain College, one of the most important and influential institutions in art education and practice that launched a large number of avant-garde artists which lead the avant-gard movement in America in the 1960s. He also connected with the poets of the New York School; a group of American poets, painters, dancers and musicians active in the 1950s and 60s in New York whose leading figure was the poet Frank O’Hara, known for his collection of poetry Lunch Poems.
"Sve što ne razumijemo/ objašnjeno je/ u Umjetnosti/ Sunce/ kuca u nama/ Duh ulazi i izlazi iz nas"
In 1958, he married Hettie Cohen and the couple had two daughters, Kellie Jones and Lisau Jones. Amiri and Hettie founded the Totem Press, which published Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, as well as many others, including Frank O'Hara. With Hettie he started Yugen magazine in which he also published works by beat poets. He was also the editor and critic of the literary magazine Kulchner and edited the first twenty-five issues of The Floating Bear with the poet Dianne di Prima. Amiri had an extramarital affair with Dianne and in 1962 they had a daughter, Dominique di Prima.
After visiting Cuba in 1960 and being accused of being more focused on building his image than trying to help the oppressed, Amiri began to ardently support black nationalism; a social and political movement aimed at fostering a sense of community among blacks and creating a separate black nation. One of the slogans was black power and the movement was associated with Malcolm X and the Black Panthers organization that fought for black rights. Amiri also became a member of the Umbra Poet Workshop which allowed young black writers to showcase their talents by highlighting African-American history and experience. In 1961 he published a collection of poems Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note and in 1962 an article The Myth of a "Negro Literature" in which he spoke about black literature. Two years later he published a review of the development of black music Blues People: Negro Music in White America. "Pozovite sve crne ljude/ Pozovite sve crnce, muškarca ženu dijete/...dođite, gdje god se nalazili..."
After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Amiri left his wife and daughter. Years later, in the essay Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite, as the reason for his divorce from Hettie, who was a white woman of Jewish descent, he wrote that after the murder of Malcolm X as a black man married to a white woman, he "began to feel stranged from her" and he wondered "how could someone be married to the enemy". After leaving his wife and children, he moved to Harlem where he founded The Black Arts Repertory/Theater School.
"Osjećao sam da sam znao/ tko sam bio, ali morao sam se/ Boriti, nadoknaditi/ sa/ sobom."
He separated himself from predominantly white beat poets and became critical of the pacifist and integration civil rights movement. His poetry became controversial and through literature he expressed his increasingly radical views. His song Black Art became the main poetic manifesto of the Black Arts Movement, which sought to convey the message of black pride through art and activism and was founded by Amiri himself.
"Beatnici, kao Bohemiansi, izlaze smireno iz stila."
In 1966, he married Sylvia Robinson, who later took the name Amin Barak, and together they opened Spirit House as a kind of combination of theater and residence for artists. In 1967, he was arrested on charges of carrying a weapon during the Newark Riots (riots fueled by police brutality) and resisting arrest, for which he was sentenced to three years in prison but his sentence was eventually overturned. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Amiri wrote anti-Jewish poems and articles and from the mid-1970s he began to separate himself from black nationalism which he began to consider restrictive and Black Art Movements because he believed certain black writers were working against the movement he created. In 1979 he became a professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook’s Africana Studies and in June of that year he was arrested after an argument with his wife. The sentence of ninety days in prison was commuted to 48 weekends in a Harlem halfway house and Amiri wrote his autobiography while serving the sentence.
"Ja sam stvaran, i ne mogu reći tko/ sam ja. Pitajte me znadem li, reći ću/ Da, mogao bih reći ne. Ipak pitajte."
Amiri continued to teach, write and win awards for his work. In 2002, he became the Poet Laureate of New Jersey but due to various controversies, including the one around his song Somebody Blew Up America, he was eventually removed from that position. He passed away on January 9, 2014, complications after a recent operation were cited as the cause of death.
Instead of a pacifist approach as a way of solving social problems, Amiri Baraka proposed a more extreme, violent way. His view of the world and society and opinions he expressed through his works were shaped by the black experience in America, ie the years of oppression and discrimination. But what Amiri failed to see is that radicalism does not contribute to the solution of the problem but only deepens the gap that at certain stages of history seemed insurmountable and over which a bridge should be built. Despite this, Amiri managed to evoke a kind of collective cry of the black nation in his poetry and the need to sail to that fateful shore for the second time and this time without shackles, but free and equal. It is a cry that resonates and can be heard to this today.
"Gori stvar/ unutar njega. I ta stvar/ vrišti."
Source: Izabrane pjesme/Amiri Baraka (Baraka, A. (2016.) Izabrane pjesme / Amiri Baraka, prev. P. Opačić, Split: Naklada Bošković).