Monday, January 20, 2014

Tribute to Amiri Baraka

[By Gregg Murray]

I was assigned William J. Harris’s very well-organized The Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader for Maria Damon’s African-American Poetries class, and until that point his names meant nothing to me. Now, this is in some ways an indictment of my undergraduate coursework in English. But I was an undergrad after all, dogearing my way through the classics, the ‘important’ literature, literature with a seal of approval, the canons of centuries past, and stacking up what I thought I was supposed to read to be educated in this field. But please do not think I exaggerate when I say this: there is no poet more important than Amiri Baraka. It is counterproductive to create hierarchies of greatness, to claim one writer or thinker or visionary is better than another. So, I hope you’ll forgive my indulgence at this emotional time. Amiri Baraka is not only important; he is the very best we had.

This point is being made elsewhere, thankfully, so I will focus on the few personal memories. Maria helped bring Baraka to me, not just as an author but as a person. He was hosted by the Nommo series, sponsored by the Archie Givens Foundation, and he arrived at the University of Minnesota during Obama’s first run at the oval office. Let me tell you, he came STUMPING for Obama. It was in the wake of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright ‘scandal’, and that’s what the crowded auditorium wanted him to address—because everybody knows how Baraka keeps up and has something to say. Baraka told us, and I’m paraphrasing, “Well, of course it’s true what Rev. Wright was saying in church, but you gotta understand: Obama is playing a different room right now.” I tell that story to my class when I talk about the importance of audience to the study of Composition.

In that room, though, Baraka also read the controversial “Somebody Blew Up America.” I sat mystified as he thumped one of his trademark scats, pausing before the poem’s opening lines to attribute, “That was Monk.” Then my head exploded as he wove beats of his own, repeating, “Who? Who? Who?” and lobbing allegations: Who got fat from plantations Who genocided Indians Tried to waste the Black nation/Who live on Wall Street The first plantation.” While the “who” list just got longer and longer, I circled into my mind. I had to think. I was called out and made to think. Who? Who? Who? By the end of the poem this ‘who’ becomes “an Owl exploding In your life in your brain in your self.” Baraka is twenty feet away from me but he’s shaking me and screeching, “Who and Who and WHO who who Whoooo and Whooooooooooooooooooooo!” But when you wake up and study something, really study something—or, as Baraka would say, “When people tell you stupid shit, check it out!”—you take the time to figure out what stuff means. That poem may have lost Baraka his job as Poet Laureate of New Jersey, but it brags lustily as chanticleer in the morning. If you haven’t already, check it out. Check it out.

I was lucky enough to see Amiri Baraka again on a recent visit to Albany State University. My friend Jeff Mack had helped organize a truly special line-up of poets and a small reunion of NEH summer scholars from the Don’t Deny My Voice Institute at the University of Kansas. So, I took my Modern American literature class down there. We went in caravan three hours there and three hours back from Atlanta, Albany being somewhat in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by Waffle Houses. Baraka was so powerful, so in control. Even as I spied him slightly bent with a plaid flat cap, he cut a colossal figure. I excitedly walked over, seeing my chance to exchange a few words. He was leaning in the doorway of the huge Student Center Ballroom where Thomas Sayers Ellis had just broken some ankles and folks were still recovering. I went up to him and started small talk. But the last thing I said to him was “I got a chance to see you some years ago.” And he said, “Where was that?” And I said, “In Minnesota.” And he shook his head and said, “Jesus Christ.”

- Gregg Murray, Georgia Perimeter College

Amiri. "Somebody Blew Up America." » CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names.


1 comment:

  1. Let us hope that your students were inspired to begin reading the whole body of Amiri Baraka's works, so that they can make sense of the nation and the history in which he lived.