I took my son to hear Amiri Baraka speak at Dillard University back in 2010. I was excited. He was 7.
Before the event, I tried to pump him up about going to see Amiri. I told my son that he was a great writer who spoke his mind no matter what other people thought.
“This is a gift, you know,” I told my son from the back seat on the drive over to Dillard.
“Do I have to leave my DS in the car?” he asked.
I continued on about how Amiri had written award-winning poetry, prose and plays; a literary triple threat. I told him how he changed his named from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka a long time ago to reflect an evolution of his political and social beliefs.
“But can I bring my DS inside with me?” my son asked again.
“I want you to pay attention to what’s going on,” I told him.
I don’t know when or how I first discovered Amiri Baraka. His work and thought have always been a part of my creative repertoire. He’s been described over the years as controversial and angry. Living in the world and having the experiences that he has had as a black man in America, I imagine being “angry” doesn’t even come close to describing it, and controversial just seems dismissive.
When I first heard “Somebody Blew Up America,” the notorious piece that caused a big stink and ended his brief tenure (2002–2003) as Poet Laureate of New Jersey, his home state, I was speechless. It was – and is — so powerful and so well articulated, that I sat in awe: “Did he just say that?”
As problematic as he is brilliant, Amiri Baraka is the poet laureate for every curious creative bold enough to take a stance publicly, then take another stance denouncing that previous stance and then do it again — another time or two over the course of nearly eight decades. There was Beat Poetry. The Black Arts Movement. Black Nationalism. And Marxism. Amiri Baraka allowed himself to be vulnerable enough to molt right in front of the world.
We arrived at Dillard and had a hard time finding a spot to park. Seemingly everyone had come to see him too.
“You can bring it.” I told my son pointing to his handheld game, “But I really do want you to pay attention. Ok?”
We situated ourselves in the middle of Dillard’s Lawless Memorial Chapel. I was excited. My son looked up occasionally from his device to observe the people come in and fill in the pews around us and be shushed from getting too loud while playing Mario Kart. He lifted his head to catch a riff or two from saxophonist Kidd Jordan and the cats who played with him before Amiri Baraka took the podium.
Last week while sitting in a meeting, I received a text: “Our dude is gone.”
Amiri Baraka transitioned on January 9 due to complications from a recent surgery. He was 79 years old.
I felt like Amiri belonged to me. I’ve been digging him — regardless whether his name was in the headlines — and forgiving him all the while respecting him for being ballsy enough to express himself without fear of censure.
“Amiri Baraka was one of the first people to introduce to me [Kalamu ya Salaam] the possibility that you could write ‘Black’ and at the same time write anything you wanted – Blackness was not a formula. There was no specific mode you had to fit in,” from Kalamu ya Salaam’s introduction to an interview he conducted and published with Amiri Baraka on February 17, 1998 with the writers of NOMMO Literary Society, a New Orleans based writing workshop he founded.
That night at Dillard four years ago, Amiri Baraka spoke and joked. And Kidd Jordan backed him up while he performed his poetry and I sat — still excited. My son, still playing his video game, sat moving his thumbs really fast to get Mario to the finish line. From time to time, I would lean over and tell my son “Did you hear that?” He would smile politely. I was still excited. He was … there. I called out a few times as Amiri Baraka lifted up so much of how I personally felt with his poetic, political tongue. My son gave me the once-over whenever this happened.
“I thought we had to be quiet?” he said. “You told me to be quiet.”
Seeing Amiri Baraka at Dillard wasn’t only a gift for my son, to expose him and introduce him to our cultural forefathers and their ideals, but it was a gift for me as well.
When it was all over, on the walk to the car, I was still excited that I had the opportunity to hear Amiri Baraka speak in person. I turned to my son and asked him what did he think.
He asked, “Why did he have to curse so much?”
Sometimes, you just have to.
jewel bush, a New Orleans native, is a writer whose work has appeared in The (Houma) Courier, The Washington Post, The Times-Picayune, New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles Magazine, and El Tiempo, a bilingual Spanish newspaper. In 2010, she founded MelaNated Writers Collective, a multi-genre group for writers of color in New Orleans dedicated to cultivating the literary, artistic and professional growth of emerging writers. Her three favorite books are Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Catcher in the Rye, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.