I said, to myself, when I heard the death of Amiri Baraka, that it felt as if Frederick Douglass has died or something. It weighed that big on me. I had met Baraka years ago and he had befriended me so it was like a ton of bricks crashing down all at once.
And then later, as time passed I was convinced as we all paid tribute to our cultural and literary father, a race man of the modern world, that this had to be a Victor Hugo moment for Black America. This had to be a moment where we said we love this guy, because he loved us. And judging by the texts and messages from the service in Newark and from those watching it by stream like me, it was.
On May 22, 1885, 2 million people came out for Victor Hugo’s state funeral. It is the largest funeral in the history of France. For a writer. It is a message. We love this guy and what he gave us. Amiri Baraka didn’t get 2 million but he got just as much love. The message was clear.
I know it sounds strange to compare a country’s celebrated tribute to a beloved artist (Hugo) more than a century ago to a people’s tribute to an artist (Baraka) today but as Amiri Baraka once wrote in his book of essays, Home: “Black is a country.” I believe that. It isn’t our fault many Black Americans consider themselves Americans but also consider themselves part of something else, something outside of America though within it; it is what we are and it is what Amiri Baraka was. Amiri Baraka was an eternal figure for Black America just as Victor Hugo is for France.
Today was a Victor Hugo moment.
But Amiri Baraka had a wide reach. Poet Sonia Sanchez. Actor Danny Glover. Poet Haki Madhubuti. Jazz trombonist, Craig Harris. Dancer Savion Glover. Professor Michael Eric Dyson. Actor Glynn Turman. Poet Askia Muhammed Toure who called his long time friend – “comrade.” Even the Newark Fire Department entered and played bagpipes. Amiri Baraka’s son, Ras Baraka in his eulogy said that his father “effected us all” and to all who called him racist or an anti-Semite, that “every color in the world is represented here today” to pay tribute to him. And like his father, in a philosophical manner, Ras Baraka called our condition “imminent,” adding that “we have lived too long off the fumes of history.” It is time, he urged to “start history again.”
One could not ignore that refrain. It is time to start history again.
Amiri Baraka’s death is a beginning for poets and artists and people of goodwill who respected his tradition and politics. Those of us who believed in his ideals have to begin to fight for these ideals more forcefully in any and every way we can. On the page. In the schools. In the streets. In our homes with our children. In the hearts of men and women of good will. There are some things more sustaining and vital than more “things,” Amiri Baraka would likely say if he could. This is the message I took away from today’s tribute. History must begin again and fight for a people’s democracy. At some point, between here and there, we lost our way.
Photo Credit: Randall Horton