Strong Points: Death of a Black Man Who Refused to Live as a Negro

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By James Strong

Editorial Columnist

New Journal and Guide

 

Most of the obituaries written about Amiri Baraka in the white mainstream media focus on the poet and playwright’s misdeeds or ordinary actions rather than his outstanding accomplishments.

They note his rage and not his common sense. They obsess over his controversial politics rather than his important ideas. They fixate on his blackness and black activism instead of his overwhelming influence on the arts and the mind. 

 

Certainly, we understand their need to downplay the significance of a man who attacked the white media as if it were a grizzly bear on dope, as if it were a hateful eel hungry to catch and devour all the pure and free fish in the sea of humanity. I guess if we were spit on as much as Baraka spit on the integrity of the white media, we would seek to diminish his significance too.

 

And so it’s left to black artists and black philosophers and black politicians and black journalists clothed in the royalty of Baraka’s sentiments, seasoned with the herbs of his reasoned intellect, to switch on the floodlights in the stadium of universal attention and showcase the influence this wonderful man has had on American society.

 

To have met Amiri Baraka is a privilege; to have been influenced by him is divine. Why? Because Baraka was an exceptional man who influenced American and black American culture in a supreme way by conceiving, or at least helping to conceive, the Black Arts Movement.

The Black Arts Movement, that’s the main reason why many in the white mainstream media want to silence Baraka’s achievements even beyond the grave. That movement – its ideas, its impulses, its anger – not only transformed black American culture, but white American culture as well. In fact, all ethnic America benefited from the summer of that movement’s ideas.

 

The Black Arts Movement aimed to encourage black writers and artists to create politically charged works that explored African-American culture, history and experience. Two words in that definition make the movement the Eve to the serpent of traditional white notions of art up to that time.

“Black” damned the vision of those opposed to the movement as white based. And “politically” choked the very life out of the idea that art should separate itself from politics. Yet, unlike the Eve in the Garden of Eden, this Eve has continued without the corrupt consequences of having been seduced by the whispers of the serpent.

 

Though the Black Arts Movement only lasted formally for about 10 years, from 1960 to 1970, its influence still remains, as if its veins contained eternal blood, and its borders are universal, as if nations worldwide kidnapped its principles and made them their own.

In aesthetics, Baraka and the Black Arts Movement created a new aesthetics called the Black Aesthetics. Like the commander of a militia, she gave a revolutionary order to black art: “Reflect the black experience, not white experience or white views on black experience.” She also commanded her troops even more forcefully: “Do not flee like a fox from the hounds of White Aesthetics. Instead, include political language and imagery in your masterpieces.”

 

In other words, Black Aesthetics made the dark and the dim as beautiful as light and brightness, and asserted that whores on crack and bums on the street are as relevant to the imagery of black art as the sun and the moon.

In literature, the movement Baraka helped to create has produced some of America’s best writers, such as Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks and Ishmael Reed. Moreover, Latino, native, Asian and other ethnic groups have taken up the movement’s vitality and focused on politically relevant story-telling and poetry that shares with other Americans the greatness of their cultures.

 

In music, Baraka and the Black Arts Movement have virtually inspired hip hop culture and music associated with hip hop. From Grand Master Flash to Mary J. Blige to Public Enemy to a whole host of other musicians and musical groups, rhythms and lyrics abound with feelings of black love, thoughts on black politics and visions of black aspirations.

In TV and film, programming and movies on the black experience flourish like sermons. “Being Mary Jane,” “Fatal Attraction,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Fruitvale” and others influence the market for black entertainment that white producers squashed before the Black Arts Movement was conceived in the virgin womb of black pride.

 

On white culture, whereas whites during the Jim Crow years boldly stole creations from black culture, such as the blues and jazz, now they integrate with black culture in ways America’s noble black ancestors never thought would happen. Who ever thought that hip hop would become an international phenomenon so that whites and other non-blacks worldwide imitate the culture without an ounce of shame?

 

We could mention others areas in which Baraka and the Black Arts Movement continue a presence as enjoyable as sweet iced tea, such as politics, economics, philosophy, psychology, religion and civil rights. But we don’t have time or space to delve into those areas. 

Yet, as you can see, Baraka and the Black Arts Movement’s influences continue despite lingering attacks and condemnations by whites and their black doormats. Thus, even though Baraka was a Marxist and white conservatives love their capitalist black critics of black culture, Baraka is more influential in black American culture as a Marxist than Stanley Crouch or Larry Elder as capitalists.

 

And though we can’t call Baraka a great man, because greatness requires actions and visions so immense they verge on divine inspiration, we can say that he was an exceptional man, because his influence has changed the minds and lives of so many.

Hence, we cannot put Baraka in the same category as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr., because he lacked their greatness. But we can place him slightly lower in stature than Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, because his accomplishments, though exceptional, were not extraordinary.

 

They who found movements that invigorate national and international culture should have an everlasting “Thank You” inscribed on their tombstones. Consequently, Baraka richly deserves to be remembered and honored for the lasting effect the Black Arts Movement has had on black American culture and the world.

 

He plowed the field of black culture with tractors of innovative rage and creative thought. Every hair on his head has made black America the heir of timeless creations in the arts, creations by artists he inspired.

And unlike some black journalists and painters and novelists, he died as he lived: A proud black man unashamed to have lived as a proud black man.

 

Copyright © 2014 by James Strong. All rights reserved. Reproduction or translation of this column, or any part of this column, without permission of the copyright owner is unlawful. Send your comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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