And when you consider the genius amid the mess; the definitive tome of music criticism, Blues People; three volumes of poetry published in the 1960s; the play (and, later, the film) Dutchman; and other works of theater and fiction, you’d be hard-pressed to think of another more productive literary figure in the United States during the period. And like those open spaces and gaps on the page of his poetry, Baraka continuously reworked, reimagined and edited his own life.
For those of us on college campuses in the 1970s and 1980s, Baraka was as accessible as a black intellectual could be. Raise your hand if you didn’t see or hear Baraka at least once during Black History Month. And it wasn’t unusual for figures like Baraka, Sonia Sanchez or Haki Madhubuti to spend more than a few hours, off the clock, to answer questions, as Baraka did with me when I was a young graduate student in the 1990s.
The tape recording of our session is long gone by, but there are so many gems from that conversation that stay with me to this day: how brilliant Toni Morrison was as a Howard University student, how important Sterling Brown’s mentorship was to Baraka’s own development, the significance of the last line of James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man: “I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.”
At the time of our conversation, Baraka was in the throes of a very public dispute with director Spike Lee about Lee’s depiction of pre-Nation of Islam Malcolm Little. It was in the context of that dispute that Baraka insisted that it was better for us to set up community theaters in our basements to present our art than to offer it up to the highest bidders.
It’s a theme that captures the most lasting legacy of Amiri Baraka: As one of the most visible figures of a generation of black radical artists—who did not have full access to mainstream publishers, venues, magazines, newspapers, film studios and television and radio airwaves—he still managed to create art and institutions that reflected the very black communities that were under siege during the period. It’s an example that we would do well to emulate now.
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter.