With the purpose of celebrating the life of this African American poet, rebel and agent of change, who passed away this year, we study his life and his oeuvre.
Amiri Baraka and the power of the word /
The world has changed over and over again, and during one of its turns it marked the end of the life of one of the most important African American poets of the past century. Named LeRoi Jones by his parents, Amiri Baraka became one of the main proponents of the black dissidence movements and social struggles.
During the seventy-nine years of his life, Baraka wrote poetry about absolutely everything, and he established the foundations for the spoken word movement through the particular rhythm of his intonation (which, due to the emphasis placed on the syncope, led some critics to categorise his work as “jazz poetry”); he was also a poignant essayist and a brilliant dramatic writer.
For example, he wrote operas based on jazz music, which also heavily relied on the spoken word, that he called ‘boperas’ —these lay the ground and inspired the rhythms of rap music from the Eighties and the Nineties.
Together with Langston Hughes, this political poet was (according to Heriberto Yépez, a Mexican critic) one of the most influential African American poets ever: the notoriety of his political thought had a profound impact on the structure of the American artistic establishment merely because of the nature of Baraka’s work, which rejects a simple and unique categorisation: he does not belong to a single school or current; even if in the Fifties it was close to the work of Beat poets, namely Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara.
The radicalness of his political stances as a black dissident meant he was considered “aggressive” and a “provocateur” by the media and mainstream critics; or as Yépez writes, “History rules his poetry, not the emotions derived from ignoring it.”
Baraka’s political involvement grew even stronger after he visited Cuba in 1959, an event that transformed into important changes in his poetry and his role as a writer. On the island, Baraka met writers and artists who he felt were brothers sharing the same struggle against the oppressive social differences (present in all countries): poverty, hunger, and oppressive political regimes, elements that would be ever present in his work.
Let me sit and go blind in my dreaming
and be that dream in purpose and device.
A fantasy of defeat, a strong strong man
older, but no wiser than the defect of love.