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Amiri Baraka

When the poet and writer Amiri Baraka passed away last week after a short illness, obituaries in mainstream papers frequently used descriptions such as controversial and polarizing. But among African Americans, the memories and impact of his works were more affirming.

During his lifetime, the former Leroi Jones represented all the extremes inherent in the racial, political and cultural upheavals so prevalent in the 60s and early 70s.

Through the written word Baraka, the co-founder of what became known as the Black Arts Movement, fought for the same righteousness and equality that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr did. Like King during his lifetime, Baraka’s actions were often met with ambivalence especially from the White community. Representing a group who acknowledged but had to contain their anger, Baraka was much more unapologetic and in your face than King with his depictions of black anger and truth seeking. His language had neither the gentleness nor whimsicality most Americans prefer from African American poets. He also demonstrated little patience for civil right leaders such as King whom he characterized as a brainwashed Negro. (In later years, Baraka would distance himself from his earlier comments.)

Known as much for his race and later class politics as his poetry, Baraka’s philosophies changed over time. Initially an integrationist, Baraka later became a Black Nationalist and later still a Marxist. Later after moving back to his hometown of Newark, New Jersey, Baraka took on several mayors and the corruption that infiltrated the city’s political corridors.

Baraka could understandably be described as messy. Like Malcolm X before him, he lacked the apparent trait or desire to make the larger part of society comfortable so he could be more acceptable. At various points of his life Baraka was accused of being anti-White and anti-Semitic although he fathered two daughters with his Jewish former wife, the writer Hettie Cohen Jones. Critics also accused him of being homophobic despite his late daughter reportedly being a lesbian. Like many of us, Baraka was both more complex and complicated than his critics or admirers believed.

As we prepare to celebrate the achievements and philosophies of King, it’s important to remember that for many people Baraka’s work and positions were influential. One only has to look at any number of African Americans with Twitter and Facebook accounts singing his praises. They know that Baraka recognized that at times anger has to be expressed and progress is not always achieved gently or without rancor.

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