Amiri Baraka, the controversial firebrand poet/playwright/author who died Thursday at 79, helped originate and define the Black Arts Movement of the mid-1960s as an arts adjunct to the decade’s black power movement.
His contributions included his first major work, Blues People: Negro Music In White America (1963). Published under his name LeRoi Jones (born Everett Leroy Jones, he changed his name to Imamu Ameer Baraka after converting to Islam, and later shortened it), Blues People traced the development of black music in America from slavery through emancipation, mainly via blues and jazz (“the music that is most closely associated with [the slave-citizen]") within the context of “the path the slave took to ‘citizenship’,” as he stated in his introduction.
His work had enormous impact.
“Of course I know of LeRoi Jones from literature in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” says Carol Maillard, a founding member of the celebrated African-American female a cappella vocal group Sweet Honey In The Rock. Sweet Honey itself grew out of the ‘60s civil rights movement, having been founded in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon, who had been a member of The Freedom Singers, the movement’s paramount African-American singing group.
“I was studying theater at Catholic University [in Washington, D.C.], and I made sure I did my final paper on black theater,” recalls Maillard. “I included him in my thesis--but who would have thought that he would show up in my world in so many places?”
Maillard’s first theatrical performance at the DC Black Repertory Company feature the words and ideas of Baraka.
“Imamu was the name of our first show there. His play Black Mass was performed. We did his poetry. Bernice put his words to music. It was an Imamu feast. Of course it was a bit intense for D.C. theater folks as an opening show!”
But Baraka’s “thoughts, writings and musings were part of our learning process at the theater,” Maillard continues, “and we were all better for it.”
In the early ‘80s, Maillard met novelist Toni Morrison.
“I was blessed to spend time with her, and she invited me to one of her Fourth of July parties at her home,” says Maillard. “So many writers were there! Gloria Naylor and Amiri were there--more folks than I could even remember to take notes on. I was truly overwhelmed but felt so at home. Nobody talked politics too much or about cultural nationalism or writing. We had a good time just being together. I wish I had one photo of that gathering.”
She met Baraka again, “big time,” at an audition for a play he wrote about legendary Harlem mob boss Bumpy Johnson.
“His buddy Max Roach was doing the music,” she says. “I remember going to a small theater in Newark to audition. Amiri was there, quiet but present. I reminded him of where we first met. I sang ‘What A Diff’rence A Day Makes.’ He and Max told me later they were blown away! I cannot express what that meant to me and still means to me. I got in the show. It was presented by San Diego Rep in 1991. I felt it forged a great relationship with those two [the Rep hosted an artist residency by Baraka].”
"Each time I would see him at various events, I always spoke to him and [Baraka’s wife]Amina,” Maillard relates. “He was always aware of my association with Sweet Honey and expressed how much he loved the group.”
She concludes: “Sometimes, you look back on the amazing people you have had a brush with, a relationship with, a conversation. You know it's special when it's alive and vital, but when these beloved people go on to the ancestors you thank the gods and goddesses that they were a part of your life in whatever way you experienced them.”
“I have been truly blessed in that regard. Honored to have known Amiri Baraka and to know that he knew me.”
[The Examiner has written liner notes for Sweet Honey In The Rock albums.]
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