photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr., taken by Dick DeMarsico via Wikipedia
Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
We need to keep on dreaming and keep on working for a better future. I was saddened and frustrated to hear about these two recent incidents:
- Why Tamera Mowry Cried to Oprah About Her Interracial Marriage
- Kim Kardashian Filing Police Report After ‘Receiving Death Threat’ During ‘Racist’ Altercation With Teen?
I don’t post a lot about pop culture, but these two headlines grabbed my attention. What is wrong with people? So hurtful and bigoted.
And this is why I felt uneasy about so much of the negativity I read after the passing of Amiri Baraka. The poet wasn’t one to mince words, and while I don’t agree with everything he said … neither did he: there were times he moved away from earlier statements. Yet one must think about the time period in which he grew up and was writing — the March on Washington, the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the assassination of Malcolm X, the publication of Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster” — and not be blind to the racism many people still face today. Sometimes strong rhetoric is needed to get one’s point across.
Stuart Mitchner’s “Looking for Amiri Baraka and LeRoi Jones on Martin Luther King’s Birthday” sheds some much-needed perspective on Baraka’s poetry and tells of Baraka’s tribute at the 2011 Community Celebration of King at the University of Virginia.
Baraka’s work through the Black Arts Movement gave others a voice.
We need writers to continue to challenge the status quo. We need writers to share their experience. We need writers to share their dreams. We need writers to share their nightmares. We need writers to be honest.
We cannot censor writers. We need to give writers a larger platform.
We need readers to read widely. We need readers to read outside of their personal experiences. We need readers to go straight to the source. We need readers who don’t rely on recaps, articles, blog entries, and soundbites. We need readers to speak up for the types of books they want to read.
This isn’t about school assemblies or having a day off of work. This isn’t even just about the facts. A study recently came out that said reading literary fiction improves compassion. We need to publish and promote more voices, and we need to read those voices.
Here’s a look at St. John’s Church, which is where more than 700 people met the day of his “I Have a Dream Speech”:
October 7, 1934 – January 9, 2014
If you follow the Burning Furiously Beautiful Facebook page, you know that Amiri Baraka‘s family recently reached out through social media to ask for prayers for the poet, who had gone into Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark. I have just learned of his passing. My condolences to his family and friends.
You may be interested in:
- My birthday post from October provides a short biography
- NPR’s article “Amiri Baraka’s Legacy Both Offensive and Achingly Beautiful“
- New York Times’ article “Amiri Baraka, Polarizing Poet and Playwright, Dies at 79“
- Poets.org is a good resource for finding out more about Baraka and his work
- Links to a few of his poems, perhaps the best way to celebrate his life and legacy
Happy birthday to the great poet, playwright, critic, and activist Amiri Baraka!
Baraka was born on this day in 1934 in Newark, the same New Jersey city where eight years earlier Allen Ginsberg had been born. His given name was Everett LeRoi Jones, and he went by LeRoi, eventually changing his name in the late 1960s to Amiri Baraka. Baraka had studied at Rutgers University and Howard University before, like Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, studying at Columbia University. Also like Kerouac, he took classes at The New School. However, while Ginsberg and Kerouac could be found in the English departments, Baraka’s major fields of study were philosophy and religion. It is not surprising, then, that he became known for his social criticism.
As his website states:
Baraka started his professional career by joining the US Air Force in the early fifties. Destined to be an accomplished author, he did not serve the military for long and switched to a completely different domain by opting to work in a warehouse for music records. This is where his social circle expanded and added the Black Mountain Poets, New York School Poets and the Beat Generation to it. Also, it developed his interest in Jazz music which later matured in making him one of the most sought after music critics.
Around that same time, in 1958, he married Hettie Cohen. Together they founded the short-lived lit mag Yugen. He also edited the lit mag Floating Bear with Diane DiPrima. His first book of poems, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, was published in 1961. Perhaps the book he is best known for is the 1963 jazz criticism Blues People: Negro Music in White America.
Baraka has gone on to receive the PEN Open Book Award, the James Weldon Johnson Medal for contributions to the arts, an Obie Award (for Dutchman), and the American Academy of Arts & Letters award, and become Professor Emeritus at the State university of New York at Stony Brook and the Poet Laureate of New Jersey.
This is barely even scraping the surface of who Baraka is and the importance of his work. My emphasis on his connection to Ginsberg, Kerouac, DiPrima, and the Beat Generation is an artificial construct, simply to navigate my usual Kerouac readers. Baraka’s literature and activism is integral to our nation’s history and development. The Poetry Foundation offers a more thorough biography.
Read an excerpt from Blues People on Barnes & Noble.
Find out more on Amiri Baraka’s website.
I’m super excited::: Roof Beam Reader invited me to participate in the Beats of Summer series!
The literary blog is named after a J. D. Salinger novella and is run by a cum laude graduate of California State University, who earned an MA in English with an emphasis on American lit. He is now an academic adviser for two universities while pursing a PhD in English.
The Beats of Summer series so far has included:
You can read my article — Jazz and the Beat Generation — here.
I caught the documentary Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder (2009) at Anthology Film Archives this past weekend. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is one of my favorite poets, for his use of language and whimsy. I’ve long appreciate his commitment to freedom of speech, and this documentary made me more aware of how he used his position as a poet and bookseller for activist purposes. Quirky fact: he uses the windows of his office at City Lights as a “blog,” writing his political thoughts for all who pass by to see.
Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder is star-studded, including informative interviews and clips with everyone from Amiri Baraka, David Amram, Jack Hirschman, Michael McClure, Anne Waldman, and George Whitman to Giada Diano, Bill Morgan, Dave Eggers, and Lorenzo Ferlinghetti. It impresses upon the viewer just how important Ferlinghetti is by indicating his support of Bob Dylan, his place in American poetry, awards given to him, and the naming of a street after him.
The biographical background information is fascinating, particularly when we hear about Ferlinghetti’s rearing in France, how his mother’s ineptitude at caring for him led to his being raised by the daughter of the founder of Sarah Lawrence College, and his service in World War II (spoiler alert: he saw Nagasaki right after the bomb dropped). There’s even a scene in which Ferlinghetti searches for his roots in Italy, where he was arrested for trespassing when he tried to get a sneak peek at where his father grew up! This of course is all balanced with his founding of City Lights, the Howl trial, and the Human Be-In.
All of it is wonderful, but its broad scope and pacing left the film falling flat in terms of its aesthetics. As a biographer, I understand how director/producer Christopher Felver must have struggled with the editing process. How could he cut anything out when it’s all so important? No one wants to see significant and appealing research fall on the cutting room floor. As a viewer, though, I would have preferred a more limited scope or narrative approach. It would have been a stronger film if Felver, who worked on the documentary for ten years, ruthlessly edited his work to give it a story arc. This film is best suited for those interested in learning more about the free speech movement, poetry in America, the Beat Generation (though Ferlinghetti adamantly declares in one scene “Don’t call me a Beat! I never was a Beat!”), San Francisco, and the 1950s and ‘60s. I’d recommend Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder for high-school English classes as well as for writers in general, as it motivates one to consider poetry as subversive action.
What mistakes of the Beat Generation would I most like to correct?
What role did Greek immigrants play in Jack Kerouac’s life?
How would I spend a day with Gregory Corso?
What does Greek philosophy have to do with Beat writing?
Am I a Beat??
Find out my answers at Blues.Gr!
Athens-based writer Michael Limnios has been interviewing people associated with the Beat Generation for Blues.Gr. He has an impressive catalog of interviews, featuring such names as Amiri Baraka, Helen Weaver, Levi Asher, Dennis McNally, and so many other fascinating figures. I don’t know how I ever got lucky enough to be even remotely associated with these people, but I’m honored. Michael asks unique questions so the interviews touch on aspects of the so-called Beat Generation that aren’t always addressed.
Next time I’m in Greece, I’ll have to see if he’s available to sit down in the platea and chat about the Beats and jazz and rembetiko over a glass of ouzo!