“If you know where the light is and it goes out it frightens and pours ice through you. Like somehow you got put out in the cold and the darkness. There is no one I fear losing like the poets.” -Amiri Baraka (from his eulogy for Louis Reyes Rivera)
Dear Amiri Baraka:
You told me not to work too hard. And because you were here, I didn’t have to. Now “you split.” And “the world is less safe.” So me and Jessica and Tony and asha and Thomas and Ahi and Bonafide and Willie and Dominique–all of your children, blood and not, find ourselves working double time. Triple time trying to do what you made look so easy.
You said “nothing dies but that which never lived.” And so you are live as live can be and always will be
we miss you.
January 7th, 2014 was one of the coldest days on record in New York City. I had to go out. I was the only person in my house who wasn’t laid out with the flu and I was trying my best to take care of everyone. Chicken soup, I told myself. Chicken soup will take care of everything. I bundled up and went outside.
-wide egg noodles
-chicken stock (I didn’t have all day to make stock)
I got home, started the soup and received a message that said that Amiri Baraka was being given days to live. I finished the soup, put it in bowls, ate and then I got into bed with fever, pain in my head, my ears, my wrists, my hips, my left breast too. My husband will tell you that I moaned I’m going to die over and over.
I did not get back up for four days. From my bed I called the poets I knew who loved Amiri Baraka. No one knew what to say. I was coughing and feverish. Some of my friends made me laugh by reminding me of funny things Mr. Baraka had done or said. Fuck what you heard, Amiri Baraka was hilarious.
“Kanye West’s next big hit/needs to be upside his head!”-AB
“If Elvis Presley/ is
Who is James Brown,
“Remember the party where the Barakas were beating the metal chairs?”
When I was in Albany, Georgia with Amiri Baraka, Thomas Sayers Ellis and Pearl Cleage for the Transcendence Poetry Festival there were times I had to make sure I didn’t choke on my shrimp and grits I was laughing so hard. Thomas and Baraka kept me, Ahi, Jeff Mack and Andre in stitches. Between stories about the sixties, Smokey Robinson concerts and a little talk about poetry (“These people write like there never was a struggle”-AB), we were raucous with joy.
I never imagined that two months later I’d be in Newark at Mr. Baraka’s wake and funeral. Be at his house, which was full of folks, where Baraka seemed to look at us from a large photograph
he was and he wasn’t all at once. We were and we weren’t all at once.
How can I explain what Amiri Baraka meant to my generation of poets? We who call ourselves children of the Black Arts Movement? We feminist, activist, writing for justice poets?
Baraka was there. More than there. He was available and deeply present. He was as committed to us as he was to his craft. Baraka built institutions, created safe spaces where we could share our work, called out those folks who didn’t have our best interests at heart, he lived in the Black community and organized. He could have just published his books and created a comfortable life for himself but he was too dedicated to truth to do that. He was too dedicated to us to do that.
Last year when Amiri Baraka saw that many of my peers–such as Jessica Care Moore and Saul Williams–were left out of an anthology on Black poetry, he challenged the editor publically on it. Baraka was in the anthology but he championed our work. He paid attention. He took us seriously. He loved us and he made it plain. He ain’t give a damn about where we got our degrees or if we even had them, he wanted us to contribute to our communities and make art that is useful.
That’s why his death cuts so deep. That’s why we’re scarred. That is why we work so damn hard.
During my almost twenty years of sharing poetry I’d encountered Mr. Baraka a number of times. Each time was special in its own way.
The first was in 95’ as an undergraduate student at Clark Atlanta University. “Baraka is going to say something to cause trouble.” My friend Seitu said with twinkling eyes. Of course we were at that 2 pm program with bells on. I’m sure Mr. Baraka called somebody out but what I remember was crowding around him after he had spoken. I think this was when he gave out copies of his speeches on “Revolutionary Art.”
In July 1996 my work with African Voices literary journal would land me in the Barakas’ basement reading poetry at “Kimako’s Blues People.” Then I saw the Barakas partied as hard as they organized and wrote. The reading, live music and joyous shouts were still going on when we left the house at about 2am. I bought a copy of the chapbook Bop Trees and after he signed it, I looked at the inscription again and again. “unity and struggle” he’d written as he often did. He told me poets should not be afraid to publish their own work. Eventually, I would take his advice and create two chapbooks.
My involvement with Felipe Luciano’s Wordchestra, which Tony Medina used to jokingly call the “We are the World” of poetry, meant that I also rehearsed with Amina and Amiri Baraka practically every week for a few months as part of a poetry chorus. We young poets knew we’d hit the jackpot! Practicing poems every week with folks like Louis Reyes Rivera, Sandra Maria Esteves, Pedro Pietri and Safiya Henderson-Holmes, and the Barakas. Every week we’d practice a poem that had been broken up into main parts, read by the author, and lines which we’d say as a group. I most remember practicing Louis Reyes Rivera’s “Bullet Cry”, Halim Suliman’s “Couldn’t Stop Bebop,” and Amina Baraka’s “Slave Legacy.” My shyness often got the best of me in that environment and I’d simply do the work and observe people.
Years would pass before I’d see Amiri Baraka again. I’d had children, lived on two other continents, left the stage and poetry and returned to it. It was 2012. Mr. Baraka was reading a eulogy at the funeral of his close friend Louis Reyes Rivera. Baraka’s words stirred me on a deeper level than they had when I was younger. It was hard to stop my tears.
The next time I saw Mr. Baraka was March 2013 at the Afrikan Poetry theater. I had the fortune of being one of four poets who opened his program. Talk about nervous. It had been years since I’d seen him last and I knew he would not remember me but I hoped he’d see I was trying to carry on the work he did. When I read my poem “Forced Entry” which is about date rape, I introduced the piece by thanking him for his work and saying “Amiri Baraka taught us that we have to use our words to help fight all the wars being waged against us.” After the reading, Mr Baraka studied me and said “That was a strong poem.”
And you wanna ask me if the man was sexist? Homophobic? Please go read a book. Try one after the 1970’s. Don’t you see all the transformation, self-reflection and struggle on those pages?
“You have to criticize yourself for the errors you’ve made because that’s the only way you can break with them.”
“My wife, Amina, waged a constant struggle against my personal and organizational male chauvinism”
“All the black women in those militant black organizations deserve the highest praise. Not only did they stand with us shoulder to shoulder against black people’s enemies, they also had to go toe to toe with us, battling day after day against our insufferable male chauvinism.”
Read Amiri Baraka’s devastating piece about his daughter Shani Baraka’s murder. He names the sickness that killed his child: homophobia and woman hating.
Most people never examine the ways they oppress others but Amiri Baraka dared to check himself again and again and he did it in public!
Take a glance at Baraka’s comrades, friends, the artists he supported and mentored and inspired. Look at them. They are gay and straight and women and men and they are from all over the globe.
(Is it just easier to say the man was anti something? He was love and pro us, so ever evolving, so fierce in protecting us and resisting everything bent on our deaths. Is it easier to freeze him in earlier positions that even he had moved far from because he was more dangerous when he loved us ALL?)
(oh you, you want to write lies about Baraka, I hope your pens explode, I hope your computers regurgitate, I hope your administrative assistants go on strike, and your email accounts get hacked, and your tenure tracks derail.)
(And while I’m at it, American poetry is just a mirror of America itself: segregated, classist, run by a network of good ol boys who shut out voices like mine by pretending that we don’t exist. Being spiritual kin to Zora and Langston and Baraka means speaking anyway and taking pride in the poetry communities that raised and continue to nurture me. I’m steeped in the life-affirming brews my cultural working comrades write and be. I had no idea anyone could react with anything but grief at news of Baraka’s death. There were grumblings about the obituaries written in large publications but my center of gravity is such that I read those with handfuls of salt. What Fanon termed “combat breathing” becomes second nature in an occupied literary territory, you know?)
Meanwhile people everywhere know where Baraka stands. That is why we came from all over to mourn and celebrate on January 17th and 18th. That’s why there are tributes to him across the globe. That’s why riding the packed bus to the wake I heard a teenager say softly That’s where they are having the wake for Baraka and the sounds of drums filled the air. That’s why the community of Newark came out en mass. Did you hear the fire department play their bagpipes at the funeral? Person after person stood up in the church at the wake and testified, yes testified, about who Amiri Baraka was and how he had changed them, supported them, loved them.
What I’ll remember most was probably eating breakfast with Mr. Baraka. He was concerned that his son Ahi wouldn’t have time to eat breakfast. And when I told him that I had to pack and get ready for my reading and Thomas rushed into the dining room scrambling to get breakfast before his workshop, Mr Baraka who was packed and ready for a flight that would not be leaving for hours, said “you young people always wait until the last minute.” (To this day, when I am rushing around in a hotel room trying to get ready for a reading, I hear Mr. Baraka saying this.)
And I’ll remember that he talked to us the night before about the murders of his sister Kimako and his daughter Shani. “You women have it tough” he said. His face held an expression I had not seen over the years I’d encountered him. Devastation lay heavy in his voice. We talked about sexual assault and violence against women. That was the only time I’d seen Mr. Baraka look puzzled. He loved all of us. I can tell you that.
I was just getting to know the man. I’m going to miss him. That’s what I’m saying. That’s all I’m saying. And when I said good-bye to Amiri Baraka and hugged him in Georgia, for some reason, I decided to turn back around and hug him again. “Just one more” I said.
“With the deaths of great poets like Jayne Cortez, Sekou Sundiata, Louis Reyes Rivera the world is much less safe.” -Amiri Baraka
Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie’s first book of poetry Karma’s Footsteps was published in 2011 (flipped eye publishing). She is the poetry editor of the literary magazine African Voices. Her work and creative life are the subject of the short film I Leave My Colors Everywhere. She is widely published in anthologies and journals including North American Review, Specter Magazine, Bomb, Crab Orchard Review, Oya N’ Soro, Role Call, and Revenge and Forgiveness. Tallie earned an MFA from Mills College in 2002 and has taught composition and literature courses at Medgar Evers College and York College in New York City. She is one half of the recording duo The Quiet Onez. www.ekeretallie.com