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Remembering Activist Poet Amiri Baraka

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Remembering Activist Poet Amiri Baraka

Remembrances

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

The influential and controversial poet, playwright and essayist Amiri Baraka died yesterday in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey. He was 79. Baraka, who was formerly known as LeRoi Jones, was one of the leading black literary voices that emerged in the '60s. The political and social views that inspired his writing changed over the years. He started out as a young bohemian in Greenwich Village. He became more radical after the death of Malcolm X. And in his later years, he saw himself as a Marxist.

Baraka was a prominent cultural figure in the black nationalist movement of the '60s and '70s. His play the "Dutchman," which won the Obie Award in 1964, gripped audiences with its explicit language and rage against the oppression of blacks in America. His writing about jazz and African-American culture, most notably, "Blues People: Negro Music In White America," was highly regarded.

But his detractors accused him at various times of being racist, dangerously militant, homophobic and anti-Semitic. His infamous 2002 poem about the September 11th attacks contained lines that suggested Israeli involvement in the attack on the World Trade Center. But, as "The New York Times"' Margalit Fox, wrote in Baraka's obituary: His champions and detractors agreed that at his finest he was a powerful voice on the printed page, a riveting orator in person and an enduring presence on the international literary scene whom - whether one loved him or hated him - was seldom possible to ignore.

Terry Gross spoke to Amiri Baraka in 1986 about his formative years in the early part of his career, starting with his days as a young writer living in Greenwich Village and getting to know Beat writers, like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

AMIRI BARAKA: I got to meet Ginsberg when I first came down to the village because "Hell" had come out, you know, and I read it and I think between "Hell" and James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son," which I had read the year before I got out of the service, I thought those were the two books and the two authors that most turn me on at that time - Jimmy Baldwin and Allen Ginsberg. And so I wrote Ginsburg a letter - he was living in Paris. I wrote it on a piece of toilet paper; I guess to be dramatic and asked him, you know, was he for real. You know, what is this, is this for real? Or what is this, is this a game? And he brought me back a letter. We started correspondence, you know.

But I think in the main, it was, there were who were sincere who were really trying to do something. I know we had come from different places and because of that we have different ideas, different aesthetics, even. But I think in that circle, those people generally were fighting against the academic life, academic poetry of the '50s. Whether you were talking about Ginsberg and the Beats, or you're talking about Creeley and Olson and the Black Mountain School, or you're talking about Frank O'Hara and the New York School as all these so-called schools, they were all I think, aligned in the kind of united front against the dullness of the new critics and the dullness of the kind of poetry they're now trying to bring back.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Your play, the "Dutchman," was produced off-Broadway in 1964, I think it was.

BARAKA: Sixty-four, yeah.

GROSS: And it won an Obie Award.

BARAKA: Yeah.

GROSS: It's very controversial.

BARAKA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: People were acting very shocked at the sentiments being expressed...

BARAKA: Yeah.

GROSS: ...also some of the language being used. And it's about a white woman who provokes and finally kills a black man.

BARAKA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And at the time, you were married to a white woman.

BARAKA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And how do you think that that affected the fact that this was a white woman and a black man and that you were married to a white woman? How low did that affect the way the way you were seen and the way your play was received?

BARAKA: Well, I think actually, I can tell you, I can give you a for instance that will clarify. Now, when I wrote that play "Dutchman," which is really, you know, coming to consciousness, you know, what are the dangers to the middle-class, but particularly, the black middle class intellectual? That is that the contradiction between seduction - which is did, you know, the woman - I mean because America advertises everything with the white woman. It could be peas or, you know, automobiles, but that is America, the seductive. So the intellectual is always first, the intended seduction - come with me, you know, we're going to have a good time, you know we're going to be together. But then if you refuse to do that, you are killed. That is, if you try to get off the train, if you say no, I'm not going to do it.

Now, black people to me, it's obvious, you know. But I think intellectuals in general it's also obvious. But I think the thing with me being married to a white woman at the time was that that made it OK, I think, in the kind of that sector of the establishment that deals with down. I think it made it OK. I think the next year, after I had gotten a divorce and moved up to Harlem and we did the play up in Harlem, the play was termed racist, where in 1964, it won Obie Award, best American play. I don't know how a play can change just because you take the A Train to present it, but it did.

GROSS: When you left the bohemian life and living in Greenwich Village, you moved up to Harlem.

BARAKA: Harlem. Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: That was shortly after the assassination of Malcolm X.

BARAKA: Absolutely. Yeah.

GROSS: What did that move to you symbolize from going from the village up to Harlem?

BARAKA: Well, first of all as young, you know, as intellectuals, we took that very seriously. I mean the question of them, of murdering Malcolm was not just a public figure being killed; it was like somebody that who we were sworn to be involved with and who had actually shaped our thinking. You know, I met Malcolm the month before he was killed. I mean that was the second time I had seen him. But I mean I talked to Malcolm one night with a brother named Mohammed Babu from Tanzania all night. And, you know, that added to what Malcolm had, the things he'd been saying throughout his brief, you know, kind of appearance as a leader in America. I mean it deeply changed my mind about America. It made me see America in a way that I had never. It made me see myself in the way I had never. And then for them to kill him, for a lot of us it represented a declaration of war. And I think, you know, the very idea that, you know, here you are down in Greenwich Village fooling around, you know, I think I was at a book party that afternoon, you know, I mean, you know, just jiving around. Although, I guess I was as more active than most, but still, I mean the thing is what does this mean? I mean what is this is a commitment to, you know, the people themselves?

And you see, I think one thing about the "Dutchman" thing itself that people never really understand is when that came out and I discovered that they were want to make me famous, it changed my whole personality - or it began to emphasize another aspect of the personality because until then I thought it was all right for me just hang out and do anything that I want. Because after all, you know, it was, I didn't feel any sense of responsibility - I guess that's what it was. But I mean the sense of responsibility, that is if somebody's going to stand you up in front of a microphone or a TV - you see what I mean - then they say what are you going to say? Then I have to remember what my grandmother told me about, you know, how they killed this little boy, you know, at 16 and cut off his genitals and stuffed it in his mouth and made all the little girls - black girls in town - come to watch that. And, you know, why she told me that when I was 10 years old because she wanted me to know where I was, then I have to remember that. I can't waste that. You know, I had to remember what happened to my grandfather, you know, how my mother and father struggled. I can't waste that, you know what I mean? I can't be a person who is now going to pretend that those things didn't really shape me in some kind of profound way, you see? So I have to say - I have to talk about those things. And to talk about those things in America is to be radical - just to talk about them.

GROSS: After living in Harlem for a while, you moved to Newark, which is where you grew up.

BARAKA: Yeah. Sure.

GROSS: Did that feel like going home again?

BARAKA: Yeah. I mean I was born in Newark. I left, you know, like I said to go away to college. But I came back to Newark because I knew that that was where I began and New York for me had, you know, had got old, suddenly. There was nothing really I could do there. I mean I could not see myself doing anything more in New York except, you know, laying back and cooling out. And so I went back really to Newark because I thought it any place I could get some kind of, you know, readdress with myself - if you would, you know?

GROSS: Can you explain the reasons for your name change from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka?

BARAKA: Well, I tell you, it had to do with why should I be an American? Why should I be identified - well, even a Frenchman. But why should I be identified with that when I should do something to identify with my own real roots? And so the man who buried Malcolm X - this, you know, my Muslim imam, priest. He - after I had gotten beat up by the police during the rebellion, he came to me and he said you need - you don't need this American name. And I was susceptible to it at the time because god knows, I mean I'd just gotten whipped near to death. And so he gave me an Arab name. He gave me the name Amear Barakat. But I didn't want an Arab name.

And because we began to go into Kawaida, the kind of cultural value system organization that Ron Karenga was pushing on the West Coast, then I took that name and Swahili-ized it, or Bantu-ized it and changed it from Amear to Amiri and from Barakat to Baraka to make it a Swahili name, the same kind of name you'd find in Tanzania, Uganda or Kenya.

But now, of course, I'm not longer in the culture nationalist movement but I'd be the only one in my family with an American name. All my kids, my five kids, you know, Obalaji, Ras, Shani, Amiri, and Ahi, I mean I'd be a sap to be walking around still a LeRoi.

GROSS: Your life has changed many different times over the years. The circle you've traveled in has changed. Your location has changed. Your ideology has changed.

BARAKA: Yeah.

GROSS: But one thing that's really remained a constant, I think, throughout your life is the power of music and the importance of it to you, ever since you were young. Can you just explain, you know, the importance of music in your life?

BARAKA: Well, you grow up - you know, in the black community you grow up surrounded by music. I mean because African-American people, because they are repressed on so many areas - music has been one area, and athletics, as we see, that they've been allowed to develop to a certain extent. And so you grow up with that kind of context of all kinds of music.

My parents loved Nat King Cole. We had all his albums. Before he started singing. I'm not talking about Nat King Cole the singer; I'm talking about when he had the Nat King Cole Trio. They were great, you know, Count Basie fans. And then the blues, which is constant. I mean Diana Washington, Ruth Brown.

And then my grandfather and grandmother, they liked the older blues even, you know, and you've got to - and then, of course, being a teenager, the blues was our language. I mean, the rhythm and blues, all those bird quartets - the Ravens, the Orioles, you know, and all those, the Dominos.

So you grow up in a world of black music but at the same time, I mean you're in America, you see? So you're going to get all of that. See what I'm saying?

GROSS: Did you ever take music lessons or learn an instrument?

BARAKA: Oh, constantly. Constantly. I was always taking music lessons. I did piano lessons I didn't like. I took - what else? Drumming lessons, which I didn't like, and I took trumpet lessons which I liked, but then at the time when I could've blossomed, I guess, into a trumpet player, I stopped playing the trumpet for some reason.

When I went away to college I stopped playing the trumpet for some reason. I don't know why. But I liked the trumpet at the time because my heroes then were trumpet players. You know, I had just begun to - you know, Dizzy Gillespie, of course, was my first hero and then Miles Davis. And they were trumpet players, you know, so I identified with them very heavily.

GROSS: Did your teachers, the people who you were studying with, know about jazz and rhythm and blues or were they teaching you music you didn't much like?

BARAKA: Well, they would teach - you know, I had this Italian trumpet - he was a great trumpet teacher but he wanted you to play like you were playing, you know, Verdi or something like that, you know? And I'd - he gave me this Rudy Muck mouthpiece. I'd be making this C above high C, you know, bat-bat-bat-bat-bat-bat-bat. And I didn't really want to play like that.

So he had fixed me up so I had to play like that. So in order to play like Miles I had to slide the horn around to the side of my mouth, which probably ruined my armature forever.

GROSS: Did you ever wish you were a musician?

BARAKA: All the time. All the time. I always wanted to be a musician. I mean, growing up I really was drawn to the music. I think the only thing that stopped me from becoming a musician was the fact that - the fact that I didn't do it. And I didn't do it because I knew there was something else I wanted to do, which was write, apparently.

GROSS: We've talked a little bit about how you've gone through different stages in your life and you've even gone through different names in your life. How do you feel about the work that you've written in earlier periods? The work I'm thinking that was written under your first name of LeRoi Jones. Do you feel alienated from that work or do you still feel connected to it?

BARAKA: No. You see, I don't get uptight about it because I'm not him anymore. You know what I mean? I look at it very - try to look at it objectively. Obviously, some stuff I wish I hadn't done, some stuff I'm embarrassed by because I am LeRoi Jones. But I think the - I tend to approach it as an artifact. I did that then. I try to understand what I was doing, why I thought what I thought, why I wrote what I wrote.

And you know, keep stepping.

DAVIES: Amiri Baraka speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1986. Baraka died yesterday at the age of 79. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new album from Rosanne Cash. This is FRESH AIR.

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