Amiri Baraka 7 Oct 1934 – 9 Jan 2014

Amiri Baraka – The  Man Who Blew Our Minds

Amiri Baraka


We were preparing ourselves, but not preparing ourselves, when we received the news that Amiri Baraka was admitted into hospital over Christmas and as Hank Williams said in the Africana lissterv that informed us on 26 December:


While I’ve prepared myself as much as I can for his transition, I’m hopeful that it’s still a ways off.


I know that he’s an elder and at the age where health and life are fragile. Many people know him on different levels and for different things. I know him as someone who’s always been approachable, supportive, encouraging, generous with his time, and always remembered me. He didn’t have to take time for a random young brother like me, but he did. I’ve seen him be like this with almost everyone. This, to me, is one of the true tests of a person’s politics: he didn’t think he was too big or important to give his time or only deal with someone who has a name.


I just sent out my newsletter on Monday 6 January – in Celebration and Remembrance of those we had lost in the past 12 months and thinking – thank goodness Amiri Baraka, born LeRoi Jones, published several books of poetry, dramafictionessays and music criticism.  An activist with a capital A.

isn’t on this list.


Thoughts are with his family at this time especially his wife, Amina – when I think of Amiri and Amina, I think of Jessica and Eric (Huntley)  – and vice versa  ‘twin’ couples you cannot think or mention of one, without the other.


When elders continue to give so much, it is even harder for us to let them go – we lean on them more than we realise  – do people like him ever really ‘retire’?


Nine years ago, November 2005, he and Amina hosted an intimate event at his home – a reading to celebrate the life and work of Ken Saro-Wiwa with readings from the book that I co-edited with Nii Parkes  Dance the Guns to Silence; 100 poems for Ken Saro-Wiwa – the launch had been at Busboys and Poets in DC, then we embarked on a ‘ mini tour’  which included from the UK, Rommi Smith to Philadelphia (Robin’s Bookstore) and New Jersey. We were accompanied by one of his ‘son’s’ Theodore Harris, whose amazing artwork provided the cover image for the book. It was combined with a talk from Ras Baraka when he first ran for Councillor in the city of Newark. Next year, that anniversary too… 25 years since the ‘Ogoni 9’ were executed.


This is the kind of activism that Sonia Sanchez, late Jayne Cortez, late Dennis Brutus  and now also late,  Amiri Baraka, you can always count on to put their names to,  still teaching us what it is to be an activist (without the hype); what it is to serve community; what it is to speak and be damned; what it is to make those links between diaspora in Africa, the Caribbean and throughout the US.


In 2013, after a reading I did in Philadelphia with Trapeta B. Mayson, bookseller Larry Robin (bless him) drove some of us, including poet Lamont Steptoe to the World Café to listen to Amiri on stage, in an event that was part of his latest gig as Artist in Residence at U Penn.

I write about that event on my blog, subsequently bumping in to him at abar in the train station as I sat with Theodore Harris and Lamont Steptoe.


Here is a snippet from that that very cool, Philly gig  – when I  can get the whole thing off my iphone, I’ll share it!.


(It may also still be on the world café site).


But my most time honoured, was when I was asked to interview Amiri Barak on stage at the Ilkley Literature Festival  in 2012. Me? Interview Amiri!!


We chatted beforehand in the green room “You married?” he asked me. “Not any more…” My mouth stumbled with different reasons of why my marriage hadn’t worked. He stopped me. His advice    “You have to WANT to be married to make it work.” He’d been married to Amina for 47 years…


“What do you want to talk about (on stage) I asked him. He simply said ‘What do you want to know? Ask me whatever you want to know…”


I had so many questions – could I be that selfish?  I had planned to interview both he and Amina for a SABLE cover, so I thought, if I get this right, he’ll be cool for me to do the interview – “‘but I have to ask Amina “ he added. I knew that an audience member would ask about his controversial poem ‘Someobody Blew Up America’ so I crossed that one out  – and someone did –from Leeds Young Authors. He blessed us by finishing the evening with the full length reading of the poem. I had signals from the back to cut –I ignored them – just a few minutes to run overtime meant a lifetime treat – I felt that the people wanted it, even if they had to run for their train afterwards.


Correspondingly, Baraka revealed his commitment and selfless side of his character. as he was there at the Ilkley Festival the day after his birthday.   I thought, 47 years married and this man – instead of spending his birthday with his wife and family at home was travelling around England, had landed in freezing cold Yorkshire (he hadn’t realised it would be so cold and had travelled without an overcoat) to share his work, and his philosophy.

Black History: Embodied in a Body


As my friend, radio presenter Musufing Whyles, said to me this morning, this isn’t a mourning – it is to remind us that the work carries on. Amiri’s work is done. Yet in the same way that Amiri and others made that step in the 60’s to move from Greenwich Village to Harlem, we have to make that move, from the North to the South from the host continents to our home continent – there is still so much work to be done but are there people behind them? Sometimes I think I’m doing enough – I’m probably not.


By Kadija Sesay

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