Somewhere between fire and ice, somewhere in Newark, New Jersey on October 7, 1934 — a star poet was born.
It was a month after the fire; the historic blaze at sea that left the passenger ship Morro Castle a burned-out hulk stranded off the Asbury Park boardwalk. And it was a month before the first icy reminders of a fast-approaching winter in the heart of the Great Depression; a time when radio listeners got their first cautionary “You better watch out,” in the lyric of a new ditty entitled “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
The young man born Everett LeRoi Jones would go on to unfinished stints in college and the military; would found literary journals and publishing houses; would become a leading critic and commentator on jazz music; would win an Obie for his play Dutchman — and, in the second half of the 1960s, would move to Harlem and adopt a new name.
As Amiri Baraka, he would publish Black Fire — an anthology of protest writing — in the same turbulent year that Eldridge Cleaver wrote his bestselling Soul on Ice. And he would adapt to fame, followers and fans as well as infamy, enemies and detractors in equal, conflicting measure.
Now a veteran professor at Rutgers University, Baraka remains a prolific author of verse, biography and nonfiction essays; a sought-after public speaker; a longtime Marxist and a man for whom the years have scarcely blunted his ability to thrive in a swirl of controversy.
You would only have needed to look in on the “Poetry and Politics” panel at the recent Long Branch Poetry Festival to intuit that in New Jersey, the entire topic can be summed up in two words: Amiri Baraka — specifically, the post-9/11 reaction to Baraka’s poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” and the subsequent effort by Governor Jim McGreevey to remove the professor from his ceremonial post as Poet Laureate of New Jersey (they had to create a new law to do it).
At age 75, Baraka is the Last of the Beats, the founder of the Black Arts Movementin 1960s Harlem, an iconic poet and political activist who has been the object recently of days-long public celebration in his beloved city of Newark. And on December 27, he’ll be taking a trip down to Red Bank, where Frank Talk founderGilda Rogers has invited Baraka to join her in the second annual celebration of Kwanzaa at the Art Bistro, bookstore and cultural center. The author will read from his latest nonfiction title, Digging: The Afro American Soul of American Classical Music, with a discussion to follow. Red Bank oRBit was able to speak with Professor Baraka in advance of Sunday’s event.
AMIRI BARAKA: Oh, are you a poet?
Well, I’m clearly not an interviewer! Your new book DIGGING includes 84 essays on music and culture written these past 20 years, and in the essay “Not the ‘Boss’” you write about Bruce Springsteen and commercialization:
“Springsteen is an American shouter, like the black Country Blues shouters, fromLeadbelly on… What is amazing however is the ease with which the commercial media can spread backwardness. The whole “Boss” naming, for instance, creates a relationship to traditional blues players that is false and obviously not even wanted by Springsteen.
But during the recent Kennedy Center Honors, Obama happily declared: “I’m the president, but he’s The Boss!”
Well, Springsteen is still not the boss. Maybe the President never heard of Big Joe Turner. He was already known as “the Boss” years before Springsteen. “The Boss of the Blues.” But, Springsteen makes very valid observations about America…his song about the Amadou Diallo shooting (”American Skin”); “Born In The USA.” But the “boss” title doesn’t indicate musical importance as much as it has to do with commerce.
In your lifetime you have lived and worked among legendary artists from revolutionary jazz musicians and Beat poets to political civil rights activists. There are several pages of your own personal photos in this book. Is any one more historically significant than the others?
The photo on the cover is historic. It shows me in front of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre, bringing a bag of refreshments, and that’s Sun Ra up on the top of the stairs on the left. That’s a photo of the beginning of the Black Arts Movement in 1965.
A theatre and a movement you founded. What about inside the book?
There is one photo I wish I had included in the book, but it didn’t get in. It’s of me with John Coltrane at the time I was writing liner notes for his album.
Coltrane was the inspiration for your poem “I Love Music” (A recording of Baraka performing “I Love Music” is available at the University of Pennsylvania archives). Why isn’t the photo in the book?
The publisher wanted me to package up the original in its frame and mail it to them, so it could be copied. But I wouldn’t mail it. It’s still hanging right here on my wall.
At one of your many 75th birthday celebrations in Newark, while talking about Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. you mentioned a photograph that has gone missing from Newark City Hall, taken a week before Dr. King was murdered. You answered a knock at your front door to find him standing there on the stoop, and someone snapped the picture of you with your mouth hanging open in surprise…
Oh, you’re talking about that photo that’s been hanging in City Hall since 1968. It was there so long it’s like a landmark. It was a New York Times reporter who actually tipped me off that it was gone. You’d have to ask the Mayor about that. I don’t know — maybe it was bothering him, hissing or something every time he walked past it…
I dig. And speaking of digging — in chapter one you talk about original meaning of words like “dig.” It’s actually a web application now that means “I like this” rather than “I understand this.” So is the original, musical meaning irretrievably lost?
Everything, even words can be appropriated. But dig: you can be about digging a ditch, but it means digging — getting down, finding out. The music is co-opted, but understanding where it comes from, you have to recognize the Afro American spirit that touches everything — all American “classical” music, like Cole Porter,Gershwin.
To be aware of the continuity, of the unbroken thread to the first music?
Yeah, that’s right. Why did they make the music they made; where do you come from; those connections — the inspiration, information, replication. Self-determination means people need to be aware and conscious.
Knowing your history in empowering. Self determination is a principle of Kwanzaa that is celebrated, coincidently, on the second day — if I’m not mistaken, the day you will be at Frank Talk. Will you be talking about the holiday?
Self-determination…that’s not something specific to Kwanzaa. That’s every day. I plan to read from Digging, and to read a couple of poems that are in the book.
Thank you for giving us your time. I hope everyone digs that this event is a gift, and make sure to reserve yourself a seat in Gilda Rogers’ lively and intimate shop, because the one and only Amiri Baraka is coming to town!