The poet, jazz critic, activist and playwright Amiri Baraka was a man of letters — which, for him, meant being a man of action.
Baraka, who died on Jan. 9, began his writing career as a student a Howard University, when he was known as LeRoi Jones; studying under the radical poet and folklorist Sterling Brown, he imbibed a vision of Black identity that tied the cultural triumphs of the past with a will to outwit and outclass oppression from the grassroots level. The lessons he garnered as a college student and an avid listener on D.C.’s pulsating jazz scene would inform his landmark ethnomusicological book, 1963′s Blues People, which gave voice to the African roots of jazz music and its extensions.
Baraka moved to New York City in the 1950s without graduating, and became a young figurehead of the beatnik scene. He earned the admiration of poets ranging from Allen Ginsberg to Langston Hughes, then moved to Harlem and helped to found the Black Arts Movement. Baraka began to treat all of his work — poetry, playwriting and criticism — as a form of activism on behalf of Black self-advancement, in the United States and abroad. He later moved back to his hometown of Newark, N.J., and assisted in the campaign of Kenneth A. Gibson, who became the city’s first Black mayor. Baraka continued to maintain a connection to D.C., then very rightly known as Chocolate City, performing his spoken-word poetry and fostering relationships with younger voices.
The week after his passing, I spoke about Baraka’s legacy with two of his D.C.-based protégés, the poets Kenneth Carroll and Tony Medina, during “On the Margin,” a radio show I co-host on WPFW 89.3 FM. The following week, my co-host Josephine Reed and I continued the Baraka-inspired conversation with his longtime friend and collaborator A.B. Spellman, himself a noteworthy poet and critic. This time the emphasis fell more broadly on the Black Arts Movement — its radical context and continuing influence. Both of these episodes (the first of which includes clips of Baraka reading his poetry) are available for streaming below.