So Kenneth Carroll, the Director of D.C. Writers Corps at the time, sent me to National Airport to pick up Amiri Baraka, the poet. Baraka (Amiri) was on his way to Washington D.C. to conduct a reading and do a workshop for poets teaching in WritersCorps Kenny had organized. It was easily 8:00 am in the morning and after his flight landed I waited patiently for him to arrive from the plane. Of course, he was the last one to emerge from the tunnel and he was walking slowly, hunched a bit in his stroll because his spine must have curved a bit from age, but he still moved softly through the space bopping a little bit, his briefcase in his hands full of his poems, and writings and writings in progress which protruded from his bag.
He had been sleep he told me; they even had to wake him up to tell him he was in Washington D.C. I had gotten to know him pretty well over the years so when he saw me he knew I was there for him and soon we were on our way to the city from the airport, to the Writers Corps offices downtown.
We stopped at his request for breakfast at the Waffle House right across from Ford’s Theater on 10th Street downtown and it was cool. It was a chance to talk to an elder poet who I respected and to just hang out beneath the fray of poetry performance and teaching, which is where I usually encountered him. I knew him for years but this was the first time I could just talk and get to know him as a person, a human being. He signed a bunch of books for me on the ride over that I had in my car, asked me about my writing, and when was I going to get another book out. That was Baraka, always pushing the poets to produce the work. I was even proud that he remembered I had a book which meant much to me back then and still does.
At the Waffle House, I remember I ordered a Belgian Waffle, and he ordered something which I don’t remember but he did order bacon. That is all he said when we sat down too, he wanted bacon.
“I am going to eat that pork,” he said. I understood totally his pause, pork being oftentimes political in Black America yet it was still quite funny as he seemingly talked himself into eating pork like he knew he shouldn’t have it.
We talked mostly politics that morning as we both barely ate our food. This did not surprise. He just wanted something to get the day going and I was just glad to have the moment. Baraka’s visit, as I recall, was not long after Newt Gingrich and the “Contract on America” and the triumph of the Republican right. The constant chatter around the country, and in the city of Washington D.C. for that matter, was how the so called “welfare state” would finally be dismantled and how the Democratic Party was defeated and dead as were progressives and liberals. Baraka, while not a Democrat or a liberal, was outraged that this group of politicians would gut “safety net” programs and programs for the poor, like food stamps and school lunch for children. He was completely disturbed by it all. He even pondered for a moment if Gingrich and his cohorts were just evil people who were subhuman or something.
“How can they take away food from babies?,” he even asked as we ate and talked. I had no answer. I felt the same way about the political developments. Maybe they were evil I remember thinking; I didn’t know enough about the mechanics of the ideological fight to reach any other conclusion back then.
Baraka also opened up a lot that day about getting some more books out. This was the mid 1990’s and many of his books had long since gone out of print. Some alleged that it was a deliberate attempt to quiet him down by forces beyond the publishers who would happily sell his works because he was a well known writer. The assertion in this instance was whether you liked Baraka or not and whether you liked his politics or not, he was a major writer of his time, a writer well deserving of having his books in print.
But back then, the writings were trickling out again. “Transblucency,” a collection of selected works was published by an Italian publisher who Baraka praised for publishing his work. Then “Funk Lore,” a collection of new poetry on a small press, Littoral Books, arrived as well. And as one might expect, if you attended one of his readings, he would often appear with stapled pages of chapbooks or mini-essay book offerings, trying to get the word out and trying to sell some product to the people. It is what he did: he wrote and produced works.
In the spirit of the intellectual, W.E.B. Dubois, a man Baraka constantly quoted and referenced because of Dubois’ output as a writer, and also for Dubois’ “double consciousness” ideal, Baraka wrote always when I saw him. He wanted to add daily to the discourse, to keep the discussion fresh and solid and challenging. The ultimate goal was always total freedom of African-American people and equal justice and freedom for all people.
I dropped Amiri Baraka off that day at the workshop. Kenny Carroll and I talked to him more that early morning before the workshop, something both of us probably would have done for hours if we had the time. It was one of many encounters with the master that I will never forget. Readings, performances, readings at his house in Newark, chance encounters in cities at conferences or at the late poet, Gaston Neal’s house before the Million Man March. It all sticks with me. Last year, when Norton released an anthology of modern African-American poetry, Baraka reviewed it and mentioned in his review (which was somewhat critical) that he thought I belonged in the anthology. As far as I was concerned right then, it didn’t matter where I had ever been published because one of my poetic heroes at least thought I was trying hard.
I feel extremely blessed to have shared space with Amiri Baraka over the years; it is as if I had met Frederick Douglass or something, a big part of human history that I can never forget. We all know, like all human beings, he was not perfect. But into time, I am also sure, history will absolve him of his flaws and celebrate an artistic legacy of a human being rare and special in our time. This is something I am quite sure will happen.