Newark Symphony Hall in New Jersey turned into a space of mournful celebration on Saturday for Amiri Baraka, the poet, activist and playwright. In many ways the event represented at once a moratorium and requiem for the Black Arts Movement.
Actor Danny Glover and professors Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson headlined a star-studded lineup that included poets, politicians and civil rights leaders. Their presence simultaneously acknowledged both Baraka’s individual humanity and served as a testament to a movement that culled beauty for the extraordinary pain wrought by racial slavery and oppression.
This was, in many respects, a celebration, a brother’s homecoming and a community-wide appreciation rolled into one.
A jazz band provided a soundtrack to the early part of the service, a fitting accompaniment for the author of the indispensable history Blues People. Both Newark Police and the Fruit of Islam were on hand for security, a tribute to Baraka’s uncanny knack for garnering the attention of governments and grassroots representatives.
It was a ceremony befitting familial royalty. Baraka’s life and death, in many instances, illustrated novel points of convergence from a racially divided America. Both blacks and whites agreed that Baraka was an important artist, but they remained divided over his ultimate significance and legacy. Whereas whites were often mystified by his various ideological transformations, the black community embraced him as their own irascible genius, a fearless avatar of a new and bold reimagining of blackness that sought to do nothing less than shake off slavery’s residual psychic scars. Still, despite the roiling controversy that surrounded his life, “the world came out to pay their respects” to Baraka, observed former Newark Mayor Sharpe James.
Described by one eulogizer as “Old Man River,” Baraka’s homecoming featured almost 3,000 who came to pay their respects to the man who, in so many and vital ways, redefined 20th-century black identity. A portrait of Baraka and a stand bearing his trademark wool cap draped by kente cloth framed either side of his coffin.
Poet Tony Medina started things off with a bracing roll call of Baraka’s cultural significance in life and death. Baraka’s words haunted minds and hearts during the 1960s and beyond, he pointed out, a ghostly apparition whose clenched-teeth, rapid-fire pronouncements left a trail of those he once described as “revenge-filled guilty bystanders” in their wake.
Danny Glover, who co-convened the service alongside Black Arts pioneer Woodie King, recalled first meeting Baraka as a young student at San Francisco State. Baraka’s time as a visiting black studies professor (along with poet Sonia Sanchez) transformed Glover, who acted in black power plays. He powerfully reminisced on Baraka’s vital role in inspiring San Francisco State’s Black Student Union (which would lead a campus-wide strike in 1968) and helping elect Newark’s first black mayor in 1970.
“Baraka’s spirit is hard on politicians” quipped Woodie King at one point, acknowledging the formerly named LeRoi Jones’ star-crossed relationship with elected officials.
Rep. Donald Payne Jr. called him one of “Newark’s greatest leaders,” someone who made him a proud son of this working-class city. “He had a thing about politicians,” someone said, “but he made politicians.”
Aisha Bandele described him as “openly imperfect,” perhaps the most memorably succinct characterization of the service.
Poet Jessica Care Moore provided what seemed like a universal lament: “Whose gonna tell the ignorant they ignorant to their faces on national television?”
Saul Williams said that “Amiri Baraka was no centrist, unless you count right between the eyes” and noted the irony of attending politicians and the fact that it seemed that “America was waiting for you to die so” they could read his work. “This has to be the beginning of something,” said Williams, “the birth of something.”
Indeed, a rousing dance performance by Savion Glover seemed to speak of a new day and rebirth of a spirit that animated so much of Baraka’s activism.
Cornel West called him a “literary genius” whose work was “grounded in the best voice” of the black community as a way of answering his revolutionary vocation. West noted that despite their divergent religious beliefs, they found common ground in speaking truth to power against American racial and economic injustice. The Barakas, were, said West, “revolutionary royalty and nobility,” recognized as part of black America’s first families, alongside the kin of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
For actor Glynn Turman, Baraka’s words and life offered ammunition for his professional and personal struggles. Reading Baraka’s play was “like a fix,” according to Turman. “I had to be here. You are part of my foundation. It ain’t over.”
Haki Madhubuti referred to him as a combination of John Coltrane, painter Romaire Beardon, dancer Katherine Dunham, Langston Hughes and many other black luminaries. “He was our ultimate artist,” one who “saved us from being ghosts.”
Sonia Sanchez, the poet and human rights activist who was very close to Baraka, announced the gathering a “celebration of life.” Which in fact it was, filled with laughter, standing ovations, cascading waves of applause and public and private tears.
Obery Hendricks recalled his days as a Simba Wachanga, Young Lion, under Baraka’s leadership effort to transform Newark into a “New Ark” during the black power era. Hendricks’ personal narrative of learning to love jazz and becoming a street-corner intellectual (and later a religious scholar) served as a stand-in for an entire generation of young people Baraka mentored.
Michael Eric Dyson praised Baraka’s honesty and willingness to speak truth to power. Moving from “Afro-Bohemian base” to Marxism due to his “relentless” self-evaluation and interrogation, Baraka served as “both a key and song. His very language was music” and a “gift to those who felt that the universe did not respect and dehumanized them.” Finally, he was “a bridge” between the streets and the academy. “One of our most incredible literary creators,” explained Dyson, a fact made even more incredible by the traditions Baraka mastered and embodied, “linking together traditions of intellectual and literary engagement and political and social activism.”
Hip-hop activist Sista Souljah described meeting Baraka’s son, Ras, as a student activist, and being surprised that his father, Amiri, played such an active role in his life. She remembered the open policy at Baraka’s Newark home, a house the community respected and protected. It was a space where intellectual conversation, debates and arguments flourished. “Never forget,” she reminded Ras, who is running for Newark’s mayor, “that your father was a political strategist. He laid down now for a purpose.”
Near the close of the service, the Newark Fire Department played “Amazing Grace,” almost as if to officially acknowledge the contributions of a native son who loved his city enough to demand it do more for all of its citizens.
Ras Baraka eulogized his father with unsentimental remarks that looked toward the future. Quoting from a melody of Amiri’s poems, Ras “wailed” on about injustice, racism and histories of oppression. He characterized his father’s work as a clarifying tonic that allowed blacks to see both their African side and what made them uniquely American, progenitors of a hybrid culture left for dead, an original people who required new eyes to see themselves.
“Every mistake he made brought us closer to the truth,” explained Ras.
Baraka may now reside with the ancestors, his powerful legacy abounds and resides in all of us.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published in 2014 by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.