Amiri Baraka Tribute
B Y G A B R I E L C A B R E R A
When I was asked to come speak on behalf of such a prominent figure in the literary world, to speak on behalf of a man who never shied away from controversy, but embraced it, because he knew what he wrote needed to be said, we needed to have these conversations, these ideas, these feelings shared on topics no one was having, I was honored to share with you my admiration for Amiri Baraka. I want to share with you my take on what he has done for writers like myself and what his words will do for writers in future classrooms. I remember when I first read “Somebody Blew Up America,” my second year here at LaGuardia Community College:
Who define art Who define science/ Who made the bombs / Who made the guns/ Who bought the slaves, who sold them/ Who called you them names Who say Dahmer wasn’t insane/ Who? Who? Who? / Who stole Puerto Rico/ Who Stole the Indies, the Philippines, Manhattan Australia & The Hebrides Who forced opium on the Chinese/ Who own them buildings Who got the money Who think you funny Who locked you up Who own the papers/ Who owned the slave ship Who run the army/ Who the fake president Who the ruler Who the banker/ Who? Who? Who?
After reading this poem I finally understood his anger towards all things inhumane. I finally understood that he was reminding us to be present and question all things with a Socratic method of logical carping to expose (rather than to create) illusions about reality. As a Latino growing up in a predminately African American and Caribbean neighborhood I see first hand how working-class individuals, male and female, are so consumed and begin to believe this flawed ideology that they will never amount to anything so why try and why question and why write. But here we have Amiri Baraka telling us to ask questions, to write our words and by writing we can make a difference, we can make things change, we can find a voice and be heard instead of ignored. He gave me confidence to be a Latino writer and write down everything I believe in whether the majority agrees with it or not. He simply gave me hope to be who I always wanted to be without fear or intimidation.
It is still easy to be intimated in writing. You have to be completely candid with complete strangers, you worry your words won’t be appreciated, especially when what you write is not fulfilling traditional expectations. Amiri Baraka said in his Autobiography, after reading a poem in The New Yorker:
But I was crying because I realized that I could never write like that writer. Not that I had any real desire to, but I knew even if I had had the desire I could not do it. I realized that there was something in me so out, so unconnected with what this writer was and what that magazine was that what was in me that wanted to come out as poetry would never come out like that and be my poetry.
There was a time and still are times that I can not take myself seriously as a writer and I never could imagine having anyone listening to me, but poets like Amiri Baraka made the road, made the path that much easier to endure. Here that he gives artist like myself the confidence needed to be experimental and choose my own artistry. Though I must admit his impact and writing influence is still frightening to me. His mixture of art and politics is crafted to perfection, a blend that carries so much strength and power. It carries so much inspiration and his brilliance at this is something to admire—something to strive to keep going. Writers like myself and the rest of us can strive to make as strong an impact on future generations of writers and poets. He was once afraid but he overcame, as we have to overcome. We each have a voice and we each need to be heard.
Baraka’s struggle is our struggle as black and Latino writers. His struggle with writing in the looming violence of his day, trying to speak to a large diversity of people, is what makes his art that much more influential. His mixture of art and politics has become our inheritance—those of us who are striving to make it in this field as artists can understand how valuable the written word is because of Amiri Baraka. The younger generation of emerging writers, not of an affluent background, can read and understand Baraka’s struggle. We are inspired by it and we relate to it. His words are archetypes to a part of society that is angry from being made invisible, but it is that anger that drew Baraka intimately closer to his art. Amiri Baraka spoke on this anger when discussing Allen Ginsberg’s work “Howl”, he said:
I think Howl was closer to my own experience and kind of contemporary tone that I liked and it had that anger in it that attracted me even before I knew I was angry myself. I think that’s what tuned a lot of people to that voice, the voice of young people protesting a kind of disgusting antihuman culture that we were growing into adulthood in.
Amiri Baraka has become the voice of every young persons struggle, whether in poverty, forced silence or neocolonialism. It is up to us as young emerging writers to carry on this man’s legacy of that struggle, of art and politics, of humanity. Most of us here today have studied in the humanities not because of social status and money, but because of people like Amiri Baraka who taught it’s more important to be a fully alive human striving for something else—striving to get the silent voices heard from the ghettos, voices heard from intimated writers, and voices heard from the young and ignored others. And when Amiri Baraka says, “I believe you have to be true to people. You have to be writing something that people understand but, at the same time, something that’s profound enough to have meaning past, say, the six o’clock news,” you know we are inheriting something priceless—we as black and Latino emerging writers are inheriting a voice that reminds us every time we read “Ka’Ba” that “we are beautiful people.” ∞