In Memory of Amiri Baraka
This is part of a series of tributes for Amiri Baraka (1934-2014), poet, playwright, novelist, music critic, and political activist.
I have had many artistic mentors: forebears whose voices leapt off the page and into my consciousness to help form the artist I am today and the one I will become tomorrow. Artists who excited, cajoled, indicted, or knocked me in the teeth to take notice and listen. One of them was Amiri Baraka aka LeRoi Jones.
My early exposure to literature and theater, as most students of America, was of the old dead white male variety. I had teachers that extolled the virtues of Shakespeare, O’Neill, Shaw, Beckett, and I even had an A.P. English teacher obsessed with Kit Marlowe. Although I gobbled down these works diligently and appreciated their amazing qualities, these were not the artists that spoke to my spirit or made me soar.
I was more interested in writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and his brand of South American magical realism. It was Tennessee Williams that instilled in me a love for the poetic and lyrical elements of our world. I fell head over heels for Sam Shepard’s grit. But, it was Baraka’s Dutchman that kicked me square between the eyes and changed my entire perspective on the possibilities of being an artist.
His work taught me that as an artist you could be brash, political, irreverent, and even obnoxious if you liked.
I remember reading the Dutchman and being totally floored that Baraka could say and do those types of things on stage. His play about a chance encounter between a young black man and a white woman in a subway compartment that ends in unexpected tragedy and violence struck a chord in me. His work taught me that as an artist you could be brash, political, irreverent, and even obnoxious if you liked. Baraka’s words could take the audience by the throat, pour gasoline down their gullet, and laugh while striking a match. Dutchman is raw, violent, earth shattering, controversial, and politically arresting.
Although I personally identified more with the work of artist like Sonia Sanchez and Ntozake Shange, who spoke more directly to the triple plight I personally faced being black in America, female, and poor, Baraka’s explosive and raw writings always resonated with me. Not because I could agree with it all but, because I understood where it came from. I could sympathize and appreciate it because it was his generation’s anger, resolve, hard work, and unwillingness to compromise that created a sea of change in America that afforded me and future generations the civil rights we sometimes take for granted.
I’ve read Dutchman many times over the years. One memorable occasion was for Beth Turner’s Theater of the Black Diaspora class at Tisch in New York University. I had just moved to New York and it was my very first time on the East Coast. I had no friends and family there as I’m from California. I was exploring the city mostly alone either walking or on the subway. My mother was calling daily with some horrible tale she heard from friends or on the news of people getting mugged, pushed in front of taxis, or some other form of tragedy in the “big bad city.” I also had yet to perfect my “subway face” so often random people would sit next to me and strike up conversations, a scenario which instantly reminded me of the Dutchman.
It was probably my third or fourth time reading the play when a handsome young white man sat next to me and started flirting. I couldn’t help questioning if I had inadvertently wandered into a Baraka-esque scene. Had I suddenly found myself in a conversation like the one between the Dutchman’s Clay, a young studious black man, and Lula, an enigmatic young white woman? Could what began as a playful and sexually charged exchange of words between two strangers quickly build into a volatile confrontation about race, class, gender, and violence? It was highly unlikely, but Baraka had planted that seed in my head.
Furthermore, I couldn’t imagine what I'd do if in fact I had found myself in circumstances like the play. For instance no one has ever used the “N” word to my face or said half the things Lula says to Clay. Granted I have faced my share of racism, classism, and sexism but of the more latent variety. For instance, I have been told a version of “you’re smart/pretty/talented etc., for a Black girl,” but I’ve learned to sidestep these comments. Yet, when I read the play that time I placed myself more squarely in the shoes of the character of Clay. This experience drove home the point that Baraka had me right where he wanted me. He had written a play that had arrested me. Dutchman had left its mark on my spirit and mind.
Baraka was one of the many artists that created work that has profoundly affected me. I am grateful for their words, bravery, and to have come behind a generation of political leaders, artist, and everyday people that marched, sang, wrote, and went to jail so that I didn’t have to face the same world they did.
My work as an artist is not that of Baraka’s but it is indebted to great artists like him that came before me. There would be no Bianca Sams if there weren’t trailblazers like LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Richard Wesley, Ntozake Shange, George C. Wolfe, or August Wilson who kicked down doors of the American theater, busted heads first and took names later. They lit the night on fire for decades to blaze a trail I’m honored and humbled to stride upon. So to them I must give thanks.
Moreover, today I must give a special thanks to the dynamic and controversial man that was Amiri Baraka. Reading the Dutchman was the first time I realized that I could be politically minded and artistically inclined. His work lit a fire in me to write and perform pieces that meant something to me personally and that might also have an impact on the world. He was a complicated and passionate voice that will be greatly missed. Rest in peace, Amiri Baraka.