In the late 1970s, I drove to a reading Amiri Baraka gave in Washington, D.C. I took along my 35 mm camera. I wanted photos of the man who was already influencing my work as a young poet.
I had come to know the man a little in meeting him several times over the years, during conversations over meals. The influence of reading him became the influence of knowing him. Baraka, the poet, playwright, essayist, and activist who died last week at the age of 79, embodied one of the most important periods in the evolution of American literature: Civil Rights. This was perhaps the most significant period since the post-Civil War era, when Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson laid the foundations of modern American poetry for the dominant culture while African-Americans fought to live in a time of horrific backlash during and after Reconstruction.
More so perhaps than any poet of his generation, Baraka was a public poet with a huge following, a poet whose influence transcended the barriers of race. He knew the major figures of his time intimately. The scenario of his youth in Greenwich Village, and later in Harlem and Newark, is a setting not unlike a grand opera in a time of tumultuous change. He grew in the midst of it, struggling to define his own identity and, in doing so, influence the meditations of other cultural workers in America.
In our last email exchange a few months ago, I let him know I was sending him something special by way of an old-fashioned letter. I sent him some of my political poems, one of which was "American Income," and I urged him to take care of himself because he is so important to us. Baraka took care of many of us in ways he probably did not know.
Poets sometimes have poems that are their credo. Mine is one I first drafted on the inside back cover of my copy of the first collected edition of Baraka's work. It was 1980, and the poem is dedicated to Malcolm X, who in his death, inspired the Black Arts Movement, which Baraka helped establish. Malcolm X died in 1965, and immediately afterwards the Black Arts Movement arose from the grief and the call to courage on the part of American poets committed to social justice. Five years later in 1970, Malcolm X's autobiography inspired my decision to pursue the poet in me.
Baraka stood in the gateway to a pivotal moment in American history and helped hold open the gates with a voice of fire and determination that howled back at the resistance to change. He took great risks in his life and his art, and I count my study of his life and his work as fundamental to my growth.
I miss him, as is the way of saying such things in a time of loss, but perhaps more importantly, I feel galvanized now as much or more than I did when he was alive to stand in the space of pursuing art that has meaning, and is rooted, in a love of life.