Monday, January 20, 2014

Thousands attend funeral for iconic writer and activist Amiri Baraka in his beloved hometown of Newark, New Jersey

The actor Danny Glover officiated the funeral for Amiri Baraka, a prolific poet and playwright who spent much of his life in Newark. Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Remembering Amiri Baraka With Politics and Poetry
January 18, 2014
New York Times

Amiri Baraka’s funeral began with a wordless tribute on Saturday morning: A procession of African drums and jazz trumpets followed the writer’s coffin through Newark Symphony Hall.

From that point, the words came copiously: rapid-fire riffs by poets and politicians that often rose to a shout or a song, in a poetic style Mr. Baraka helped shape.

The poet Tony Medina recited, slam-style: “Baraka spoke in a language of Bopulicitous intent / James Brown black Langston Hughes blue / Mouth of Malcolm Baldwin eyes / Big as suns & moons / Making sure we were never in the dark — / With ghosts!”

Mr. Baraka, a prolific poet and playwright who helped forge the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, died on Jan. 9, at 79. Around 3,000 people filled the grand, gold-leafed hall for the funeral services, which were officiated by the actor Danny Glover. The night before, nearly as many people attended a wake, where the Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke.

A photograph of Mr. Baraka sat on an easel beside a coffin on the stage; on the other side, a Greek fisherman’s cap and a scarf with an African print hung on a stand, as if the poet stood there, head turned down.

Among the dozens of speakers were the theorist Cornel West, the poet Sonia Sanchez, who read a poem Maya Angelou wrote for Mr. Baraka, Congressman Donald M. Payne Jr. and several community leaders and activists. The tap-dancer Savion Glover performed.

Mr. Baraka, born Everett LeRoy Jones, and later known as LeRoi Jones, was by turns a Beat poet, a fiery playwright, a strident follower of Malcolm X, a Muslim and a Marxist.

Those who spoke praised Mr. Baraka’s passion, his persistent vigilance over the politics of Newark, and his grit, even as they tried to reconcile his tumultuous past.

In his eulogy, Mr. West called Amiri Baraka “a literary genius,” who wrote his way into the mainstream yet, “at the same time, was willing to reject the white establishment and say, ‘I am going to raise my voice.’ ”

“ ‘If you reject me,’ ” he added, invoking Amiri Baraka, “ ’I’m going to be in solidarity with the wretched of the earth.’ ”

Mr. Baraka was widely praised for his work, notably “Blues People: Negro Music in White America,” a 1963 historical survey of black music, and the 1964 play, “Dutchman,” which won an Obie Award. However, in the course of his six-decade career, critics accused him of being homophobic, misogynistic and anti-Semitic.

In 2002, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, he performed a poem widely perceived as anti-Semitic, “Somebody Blew Up America,” in which he suggested Israeli leaders had prior knowledge of the attacks. To oust him as New Jersey poet laureate, state officials eliminated the post. His relationship with his birthplace was often a troubled one.

The former mayor of Newark, Sharpe James, said after the services, “He was our challenger in Newark. He was our agitator for progress.” Former Newark Mayor Cory Booker, of whom Mr. Baraka was outspokenly critical, did not attend the service.

At moments, the service became a political rally, as eulogizers endorsed Ras Baraka, a son of Mr. Baraka and member of the Newark municipal council who is running for mayor. In Ras Baraka’s eulogy, which was the capstone of the four-hour service, he said, “My father loved this city of violence. He was a Newarker to his core.” He added, “Because he chose to fight here, so do I.”

The quieter strain that ran throughout the service was the influence that Mr. Baraka had on the individual lives of black poets and performers.

Mr. Glover recalled an encounter with Mr. Baraka when he was a student in San Francisco. “It formed the framework of how I’ve tried to approach the idea of my work as a citizen artist,” he said. Mr. Baraka’s work, he said, influenced his decision to become an actor.

The solemnity of the services was broken up by musical interludes — free jazz and a crooning rendition of “Round Midnight” — and bursts of humor.

When Congressman Payne initially failed to appear onstage, an M.C. drew laughter when he said, “Congressman? I’m going to put this out in the universe, Baraka’s spirit is hard on politicians.”

The service moved the audience to its feet, and to tears, as when the poet Asha Bandele took the stage. “Amiri taught us, the world does belong to us, too.” She continued: “What a gift he gave us, to those who have had so much taken.”

Around 3,000 people filled Newark Symphony Hall for the four-hour service on Saturday. Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Funeral held for activist poet-writer Amiri Baraka
Saturday, January 18, 2014
Associated Press

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - January 18, 2014 (WPVI) -- A cacophony of bagpipes, African drums and jazz riffs creatively blended- much like the elements of an Amiri Baraka poem - at the Saturday funeral for the activist-writer and a founder of the Black Arts Movement, who died earlier this month.

The service, held at Newark Symphony Hall, featured poetry, music and tributes to a man several speakers hailed as a creative and committed revolutionary who had a profound influence both on American culture and on a generation of artists and activists.

The 79-year-old author died Jan. 9 in his native Newark of an undisclosed illness. Baraka wrote blues-based poetry, essays, plays, and books and operas - or "boperas" as he called them - mixing music, spoken word and rhythm in a signature style that many credit as an important precursor to hip-hop, rap and slam poetry. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1995.

Several of the speakers at Saturday's service read Baraka-style fist-shaking tone poems in tribute to a man, as poet Tony Medina described, who had "rolled a boulder uphill."
"Great spirits do not die, they are energy ... agitating our bones to move," Medina said, reading a poem he had written in tribute.

Actor Danny Glover, who officiated at the service with producer-director Woodie King, recalled Baraka's 1967 visit to San Francisco State University when Glover was a student. He said Baraka pushed him into acting, urging him to perform in a school production. He spoke of the profound influence Baraka had on the school founding the first Black Studies program in American higher education.

Baraka also helped found the Black Arts Movement in 1965 and left a legacy of community activism in Newark and elsewhere.

Several community activists spoke at the service, recounting how Baraka had urged them to work for change in their communities - especially in his beloved Newark - and to engage in social activism through art.

Musicians played jazz standards and original pieces written for the service. Tap dancer Savion Glover performed as poet Sonia Sanchez read a poem written by Maya Angelou as a tribute to Baraka.

Amiri Baraka was named New Jersey's poet laureate in 2002, but the position was eliminated following controversy over his poem, "Somebody Blew up America." The poem, alleging that some Israelis had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks, led to widespread outrage and added fuel to critics who had long denounced Baraka as homophobic and anti-Semitic.

Several of the speakers at his service alluded to Baraka's fiery, controversial public image, while hailing him as a man who had contributed greatly to the civil rights struggle.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who spoke at a wake for Baraka on Friday night in Newark, called Baraka "a curious, creative activist and change agent who never stopped fighting or working for the formula to create social justice."

Baraka is survived by his wife of 47 years, Amina Baraka, and nine children. One of his sons, Ras Baraka, who is running for mayor of Newark, was to give the eulogy at Saturday's service.

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