Poet Amiri Baraka on the freedom movement and Black art
January 2007

Amiri Baraka, award winning poet, playwright, political activist and Africanist spoke at UF on Jan. 13th at the Reitz Union, sponsored by the Black Graduate Student Organization. Since 1985 he has been a professor of Africana Studies at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. He is the former Poet Laureate of New Jersey and co-director of Kimako's Blues People, a community arts space.

For over thirty years, no one has occupied as controversial a role in African-American letters as Amiri Baraka. His works have examined a variety of issues, including racism, poverty and political disillusionment, which concerns not only African-Americans, but all Americans.

As the times have changed, so has the character and voice of Baraka's work. The heavily Beat influenced poetry he produced in the late 1950's and early 60's; his more militant Black Nationalist works throughout the 60's; his present Marxist and multi-cultural offerings, Baraka has intrigued and enraged, but most importantly, fascinated readers with his direct, passionate and realistic evocations of the African-American experience.

What follows are excerpts from his talk.

When I was a young boy, I used to read Chinese and Japanese poetry, and I loved the form the Japanese created called the haiku. So I created an Afro-American form called the loku, which is just short. We don't have time to count the syllables.

Loku for Bush II

The main thing with you is
You ain't in jail.

[audience laughs] Don't get me started....

In the Funk World

If Elvis Presley is king,
Who is James Brown? God?

I was the New Jersey poet laureate, and I warned the governor that he was on dangerous ground. I'm not talking about that poem that they beat me up about, but the fact that even in 1967 when I was sentenced to three years in prison, they read the poem as evidence that I had started the rebellion in Newark. So I said, you mean before those people started burning up them buildings, they came in my house and said, "Let me read that poem, LeRoi!" (chuckles)

The irony is that, though they [a few years ago] tried to get rid of me as the poet laureate--which they could not do legally--they got rid of the poet laureate position. Now New Jersey has none; they want to declare their ignorance before the world. But even more ironic is that the governor had to resign. He called me and told me to apologize and resign. But actually, does anybody remember Governor McGreevey's story?

The idea of being assaulted because of what you write is not something new. I remember when I read David Walker's "The Appeal" [1829]. If you don't know that, and you claim to be an intellectual, particularly a Black one, you're in bad shape. He was born a free Black, lived in Boston. He published this appeal to the slaves and Black people of the United States. And he was poisoned of course. But the point was that they said that this poem could not be purchased or found anywhere in the US; otherwise, you would be killed if you were a slave or you would be locked up if you were just a regular Colored person. And I said to myself, "I wish I could write something like that." Something that would make the people that need to hear this, the people this needs to affect... So they would say, "We're gonna lock this Negro up for writing that." But little did I know that I could actually do that.

When we talk about the Black Arts Movement, what was that? In the late 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement had reached a new height of intensity. I guess the Civil Rights movement starts with what, the murder of Emmett Till? The picture in Jet Magazine that we all saw, passed around, and looked at, and said, "Well, that's the end of that. We'll never go back to that." In the '50s, when Dr. King came after Rosa Parks--remember Rosa Parks was the one who initiated, and she wasn't just a tired Black woman; she was an NAACP activist. Get that straight. She wasn't just a tired Black woman. She was a person who had done that before. Dr. King, a young minister, arrives in Montgomery and takes up that leadership. By 1957, '58, that bus boycott--remember, the Black people had to ride in the back of the bus. Here in Florida, y'all had to ride in the back of the bus. Now you're sitting in this college. How'd you get here? You need to understand that. You didn't just fly up out of Zeus's head because you're intelligent. People struggled to put you here. People died to put you here. If you turn your back on that legacy, you deserve to be cursed. People have suffered so that you could sit in these chairs and say you were educated.

They blew up Dr. King's house--because that's America's answer to anything you try to do to make equal rights and democracy and self-determination. "Now that you made equality here, Dr. King, we're gonna celebrate. We blew up your house." And so the black folks arrived there with pistols and rifles held up over their heads. "Dr. King, Dr. King, what should we do?" And he said, "If there be any blood shed, let it be ours." See, I was your age then. I said, "No good. That's not happening." I'm not going to shed my blood because some barbarian doesn't understand that all people are created human beings, because they suffer from a disease called white supremacy--which is why we're in Iraq, bringing people democracy with machine guns and bombs. Like somebody comes in your house to bring you democracy and shoot you to show you deserve it.

There was a generation of us then who loved Dr. King and respected Dr. King and would die for Dr. King, but who nevertheless said, "We will not turn the other cheek. We will not believe in passive resistance. We will resist." So when a man named Malcolm X came and said, "Treat people like they treat you. If they treat you with respect, treat them with respect. If they put their hands on you, send them to the cemetery." We said, "There's a wise brother right there." We knew he knew what was happening.

This was also the era when the Black student movement started. The 1960s, remember that, Greensboro, North Carolina? They wouldn't even let them eat in Woolworth's. Check this out, college students, because these were college students who did this, young Black college students in Greensboro. They would not let them eat a meal in nasty old Woolworths--how 'bout that, you have to go to jail for trying to eat one of them nasty hot dogs. That was the beginning of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, whose leaders were who? Somebody call out the leaders. Stokely Carmichael. His book is out now; you should read that: "Ready for Revolution," his autobiography. 800 pages, but it's worthwhile. So there were student sit-ins across the country. After the Black student sit-ins, then the white students began to pick it up, so the whole '60s began. People in turmoil. This was the era when Mao Tse-Tung said, "Countries want independence, nations want liberation, and the people want revolution." Remember that. For our generation, that was the cry. We used to say that all the time; we loved to hear that. We also used to quote him saying, "Revolution is the main trend in the world today." That's what we used to say. Revolution is not the main trend in the world today; fascism is. The reason you can sit in here and go to these schools is because revolution was the main trend in the world then. The people wanted to make revolution. They were willing in their millions to walk in the street. Imagine a whole city full of Black people forcing the bus company to make them sit in the bus. Not because they walked around and pouted. Because they boycotted, they acted. And that's what we hope you students will do. Come back home, come back with something in your mind. Don't lose your heart. Come back because we need you. We don't need you just to get into big corporations and die crazy. We need you to come back and help us, because we're in deep trouble these days.

When you see the results of the Civil Rights Movement, the results of the Black Liberation movement, you have to look at it like this. Even though there were some successes and advances (you're sitting here), remember what the people who control this country have done. I'm not talking about the feeble-minded president. I'm talking about the corporations. The imperialists. The people who invaded Afghanistan and created a civil war there. The people that supported Israeli imperialism in Palestine and now created a civil war there. The people who invaded Iraq and created a civil war there. The people who supported the invasion of Lebanon and made a civil war there. The people who now threaten Iran--somebody better tell them that's a dangerous idea. The people who want to threaten North Korea--tell them that's even more dangerous. If you can't beat Iraq, please stay out of Iran.

But the point is that you students are our future, and I'm talking now about not only the Afro-American people, but you certainly are our future. When it came to my consciousness that I was the son of Black people, that I was their child, that whatever consciousness I had, I owed to the people who had raised me, who kept me safe, who taught me at the dinner table every night--I owe my life to them. People say, "Why are you political?" Should I be less political than DuBois? Should I be less political than Paul Robeson? Should I know less than Margaret Walker? Do you understand what I'm saying? You are brought to this school by the struggle of the people, and the people depend on you to keep on struggling. Not just to be into luxury somewhere. They depend on you to lead. That's why you're here, to lead us. (applause) . . .

But now we're in a period when even people who are thought of as our greatest artists can put down the Malcolms, the Martin Luther Kings, the Nation of Islam. Even, what was that thing called "Barber Shop" where they put down Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Y'know, if it wasn't for those people, they would have been in a real barber shop, not in the movies. . .

The continuing task we face as revolutionary Black artists, now that we no longer have the Journal of Black Poetry, Black Nation, The Cricket, the Black Arts Movement, the Spirit House, the Black House, the New School... We would not have to worry about distortions by the terminally backward, black or white. We could define ourselves and speak for ourselves and carve up our enemies with the graceful ease of our high art. We could Duke Ellington and John Coltrane and Billie Holiday them to death. But our enemies have created our spokespersons, and they speak for us every day, covering and distorting reality. This is the state in which we exist, today.

In 1994 at a Black arts festival, the very people who even denied the existence of Black art were immediately given grants to claim it. Even in this festival, the Larry Neals, Henry Dumases, the Sonia Sanchezes, the Toures, the Madhubutis, and myself were packed into single readings, while opposition forces--and remember the name of the festival: the Black arts--are given full range now to claim what we so painfully struggled to bring into existence. The lesson: where are our institutions and organizations of the Black arts? Where are our theaters and newspapers and journals and truly independent film? Not skin-Black, but speaking from the essence of the most advanced consciousness of the Afro-American people. As my friend Nene Williams said, "Skin is thin; class will kick your ass."

But no one has the right to rule our lives for a second. The true self-consciousness: who we are, who we were, and who we will become. That is the continuing task we face as revolutionary Black artists and intellectuals. To make cultural revolution, to fight in the superstructure, in the realm of ideas, philosophies, the arts, academia, the class struggle between oppressed and oppressor, to recreate and maintain our voice as a truly self-conscious, self-determining entity, to interpret and focus our whole lives and history and create those organizations and institutions that will finally educate, employ, entertain, and liberate us.

Let me end with this poem that I got into trouble for, so that you can be the judge. [Begins speaking the poem.]

"Somebody Blew up America: A poem about 9/11" can be found at: [http://www.mindfully.org/Reform/2002/Amiri-Baraka-Somebody-Blew-Up.htm]

Transcribed by Chris Zurheide

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