The sad news of the death of American poet and playwright Amiri Baraka on January 9, 2014, at the age of 79 in Newark, New Jersey is slowly beginning to filter across the airwaves; but his death is far more personal to the community that consists of Howard University former and present students, faculty, and alumni. For those who had the honor of knowing Baraka personally and even more so for the present writer, who was a professor to Baraka’s son, Amiri Baraka, Jr., and who taught his works in literature classes at Howard University for over a decade. The death of the great writer and poet is a great loss.
Baraka lived in a period were black men were being lynched and murdered for even looking at a white woman. His poetry of that period reflects the horror of Emmitt Till's murder. He married a white woman and was the subject of hatred and scorn for his refusal to give up his manhood and dignity in a racist society. Baraka was defiant and encouraged his readers to be defiant in a different time and a different age. As writers reflect on his life, no doubt, there will be an emphasis on his hatred and disdain for white racists; however, those images should not besmirch a reputation that must include the life of a loving father and family man.
For students of literature there will always be the work of Baraka who was known as LeRoi Jones in his early work. That work when read against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement and the racism in the South of the United States will not seem so hateful. Baraka was a voice crying out against injustice long before the laws were changed and the society apologized for the death and destruction wrought against so many innocent black people.
His death leaves the few great remaining black poets like Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni of his ear. Now there is one less voice to answer the cry for knowledge about the past before it is gone. Those born in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s will remember segregation and the white and colored water fountains as the new generation looks at the past and wonders why the images don’t just fade away.
In 1995 the present writer carried a 50 pound monitor up a flight of stairs in Just Hall at Howard University to show his poetry students video tapes of Amiri Baraka reading his poetry. The strain of carrying the monitor up and done the stairs for an entire semester led to the development of an inguinal hernia that was repaired in surgery by Dr. William Moore in 1996. Watching the students as they looked at the monitor of Amiri Baraka reading his poetry was worth the agony and pain.
Rest in Peace Amiri Baraka and sleep on angel’s wings.
Professor Metze taught literature and poetry at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Africa and Howard University from 1984 until 2000. His Ph.D dissertation included some of the works of Amiri Baraka and other African-American writers.