Remembering Amiri Baraka: my encounter with “the great one”


Photo: Gary Settle/The New York Times

Amiri Baraka, formally known as Everett LeRoi Jones, was born in Newark, New Jersey on October 7, 1934.  He grew up in an era where racism and violence against blacks was the horrendous reality.  Therefore, it can be assumed that over the span of his lifetime his eyes have seen much injustice and that he yearned to make a difference.  With a resume that consists of over 40 books of essays, poems, music history and criticism pieces, as well as being known as a poetic icon and revolutionary political activist who recited poetry and lectured on cultural and political issues extensively in the USA, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe, it can easily be said that Baraka truly did make a difference in the personal and intellectual lives of many individuals including me.

When I first saw Amiri Baraka, I could not believe my eyes. He was sitting in front of me at the annual W.E.B. Dubois conference at Clark Atlanta University.  All I could do was simply look with amazement. This was a man who had such a great part in my journey towards studying Africana Studies, indirectly of course.  I was introduced to Blues People, which is possibly Baraka’s most famous work, my final year of studying at Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana through my Black Revolution course which was taught by my mentor, Dr. Alan Colon.  Now, let us be clear, any work by Baraka is a difficult read; one must be able to analyze and critically view the meaning of each work he uses, so as an undergraduate student, I found his work challenging to say the least. However, Dr. Colon ensured that by the end of the semester we would be able to deconstruct some of his most powerful works; he was right.  This was when I found my love for Baraka and his work.  I loved him because he inspired me to become the scholar I am today.  I loved his work because it showed me how to reach those who needed help the most—disenfranchised blacks that did not recognize their own subjugation and oppression that America forced into their lives.

My first time hearing Baraka speak at Clark Atlanta University was an experience of euphoria.   He spoke with such greatness and class. He recited a poem that he had written to honor the life and legacy of Dr. W.E.B. Dubois; he also stated how it had yet to be published, but that he hoped it would be soon.  Unfortunately, this piece was not published during his life due to his untimely passing a few weeks ago.   This leaves a symbolic message for me that brought me back to my first encounter with Baraka as I sat in that course years ago. The message being, the struggle continues.  The voices of those who cannot speak for themselves must continue to be heard through those of us who are capable and not afraid to speak for them.  The poem he recited at Clark Atlanta University will be published; it will be published because we have a responsibility.  We MUST continue the legacy that Amiri Baraka left here with us. Just as we have continued to honor those such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X., Marcus Garvey, Ella Baker, W.E.B. Dubois, and Ida B. Wells we must ensure that we honor Amiri Baraka and remember to mention his name when we discuss those named before him.

I will forever cherish the moments I experienced in his presence. If you have not gotten a chance to meet Baraka, please pick up one of his works and get to know him. Once you encounter his genius, you will forever be in love with him and his work.

In love and respect, I say to “the great” Amiri Baraka well done my ancestor…well done!

alicia baraka

Photo: Courtesy of Alicia Fontnette

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