Friday, January 10, 2014

Louder Than a Bomb: On Amiri Baraka and the Black Arts Movement

Photo: Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal

Yesterday afternoon writer Amiri Baraka died at the age of 79. This past summer, while attending a uptown party for my friend Florence Tate at Graham Court, I had the pleasure of meeting him in person for the first time. Over the years, we'd been in the same room together, and I even interviewed him (thank you Fayemi Shakur) when I wrote about Nina Simone for Wax Poetics. 
As a music critic, at least most of the time, I'd devoured not just Baraka's classic Blues People (1963), but also his plays, poems and sometimes wild ramblings.  
      When my editor Miles at first proposed that I write about the Black Arts Movement, I thought about those long ago days when I was a messenger in 1982 and found a copy of the collection Black Fire, which Baraka edited with poet/critic Larry Neal. While I had spent my youth reading Marvel comics and Harlan Ellison/Kurt Vonnegut paperbacks, at nineteen I was rediscovering my Blackness through music and books. Discovering Black Fire at some used book store, this tome included the works of Ed Bullins, Stanley Crouch and Sonia Sanchez. Without a doubt, the writings in Black Fire put me on a completely different path of literary communication. 
      Their's was writing that wasn't afraid to scream or explode like textual time bombs. Absorbed by the funk and fury of the contributors, I carried that thick ass book around for months. When I put out the call yesterday to my writer friends that I was penning a piece on the Black Arts Movement, my buddy Robert Fleming sent me a passionate statement that expressed how many of us felt about the elders that paved the way for us to do our thang.  I
      "One of the reasons I went into writing was the Black Arts Movement, especially the work of Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Larry Neal, David Henderson, Calvin Hernton, Don L. Lee, Ish Reed, Tom Dent, Broadside Press and Third World. I still have some of the publications and magazines from that time. They inspired me to write poems and short stories. As I got older, I came to know some of the writers and artists. 
      "I spent time with Herndon in Ohio and Dent in New Orleans. Larry Neal was a favorite of mine. I worked with Nikki Giovanni as an editor on the news magazine, Encore. I corresponded with Baraka and later got him to sit for a fully length interview for a magazine, Black Issues Book Review. We'll miss his vision and fury. I don't think that period, the Black Arts Movement, is well represented in the libraries or the book stores because of the politics, emphasis on nationalism, and the anti-minstrel aspects of our culture. We were proud to be black then.
    "Now, we chase the dollar will do anything to get it. We are not afraid to shame or humiliate ourselves. The young folks could learn a lot from that era and the work that represented it. We should revisit the books and art from the Black Arts Movement." 
      Indeed, I couldn't agree more. While there are thousands of books about the Beats or all the folks who chilled at Gertrude Stein's, the Black Arts Movement gets little love.  Yet, even if the literary world chooses to act as though the Black Arts Movement wasn't worthy, for some of us that black fire is still burning.

Baraka and the Black Arts Movement