culture Amiri Baraka: An Interview with Newark’s Favorite Son BY R.L. WITTER
verett LeRoi Jones better known as Amiri Baraka—poet, playwright, painter, author— a cultural icon in America, indeed around the world, and a native son of Newark, NJ turns 75 on October 7 and a week of celebration has been planned to honor him. The Positive Community took this occasion to talk with Mr. Baraka. I stood on the porch of his three-story Newark home, waiting for an answer to the doorbell, but I was taken aback when the door opened. There was no assistant, no lackey, not even one of his children. Amiri Baraka opened the door and invited me in smiling as he shook my hand. Jemal, my photographer for the day and I were ushered into what I deemed “the sun room,” off the kitchen with two walls of windows where the sun shone through on a crisp fall day. Mr. Baraka offered to take my jacket and then motioned for me to be seated at the table. He disappeared into the kitchen and I took the opportunity to eye the hundreds of books in and on top of bookcases in the room. There were books on the table where I sat. Amiri Baraka, a man of slight stature sat down beside me and I experienced the familiar feeling of sitting at my grandfather’s feet being granted pearls of wisdom. The nervousness and trepidation I felt about interviewing this cultural icon were allayed only by the fact that my trusty digital recorder would catch the pearls as they fell from his lips.
RLW: You’ve been all over the world and could realistically live wherever you’d like; what makes Newark home? AB: I was born here. That’s the overriding connection. I was born here. RLW: Is it really that simple? When you were studying at college or travelling in the Air force, did you always want to return to Newark? AB: At the time, home seemed the most comfortable place to go after all of that. I’d been through all kinds of turbulence in NY and it’s interesting that even the whole time I’d been in NY, I always had a big map of Newark on my wall. At the time I didn’t know what it meant, but it stayed there all the time, I just wanted it there. I saw Charlie Parker like four blocks from my house. Just as a teenager I could walk down there and walk in and see Charlie Parker play. Now you have to go to the high rent district. There was a lady across the street, Miss Miles. She was a friend of my mother—she was a fashion designer— a very sophisticated lady. In the 80s and 90s, when reporters and people with cameras would come to the house, she would come across the street and tell stories. “That was a bad boy there. He used to break up my furniture!” She would never miss an opportunity, but that is one of the legacies of being at home—you’ve got a real history. October 2009 The Positive Community
RLW: So the challenges facing the people of Newark are different today? AB: You have this nationalist view that it’s black versus white. That works when it is that and the community is more or less horizontal as Cabral said—the black people are about horizontal in terms of the class context. But once you get rid of the white element then you begin to see that in your own community there are classes and class struggle and there are clashes in the community that get more intense as years go by. So the difference now, between say 1970 & 2-0-0-9, is that now, in the community it is intense class struggle. RLW: We hear people use the phrase “post-racial America” constantly today and the president is held up as the proof. Do you think that is accurate? AB: Obviously, it’s not happening. I think that was a good projection of an ideal, but racism is deeply embedded in these people and Obama has tasted it really. Even that thing about Gates, which he quickly turned around—he only did that because of the pressure. And he is surrounded by people who are going to be even more sensitive to that kind of counterattack. Obama has on one hand a positive kind of vibe in that people understand almost universally that he is different from Bush, but those policies are going to have to be changed completely. I was in Europe during the election and people over there were universally in support of Obama. Oh yeah! And the colored people over there were saying ‘Hey Brother’ when I was walking through the airport. Africans, Indians, even Italians and French were very supportive because they hated Bush. White
people came up embracing me when I came back to this country. ‘We did it!’ Because they felt they were off the hook. But at the same time, six months later, he’s battling with these fools. But it’s the world as we know it and it has to be changed still and Obama represents a very positive move in that direction but the struggle continues. RLW: So, let’s talk about your work and your upcoming celebration. What do you consider your masterpiece, or do you feel you have yet to unveil it? AB: Oh, I don’t know. That’s difficult to say. I guess what I’m most known for is “Blues People.” It’s hard to critique my own works or choose just one. I don’t have a favorite. RLW: And what are your thoughts about celebrating your 75th birthday with friends, family and all of Newark? AB: People seem to want to know about me being 75 and it makes me very self conscious about it. What’s interesting is that so many people, my contemporaries, have gone on and that’s an unsettling idea. One of my best friends died last month. He had just left here—we used to go to NY and listen to music. He went home to mow his lawn and got sick and died. And this last month, we’ve been to at least six funerals. My wife’s sister, her brother died one week later, then my lawyer died, my bail bondsman died…They’re trying to tell me something! [Laughter] Now you don’t have a lawyer, you don’t have a bail bondsman or a best friend. Now I’m beginning to understand why old people are so grouchy. Because everybody they know has split! [Raucous laughter] No, it’s true! There used to be a time when you could confirm, “Remember that time we did so and so and such and such…” You can’t do that at a certain point, you know. You get to a certain point and it’s all in your head. But that’s the way it is. And this celebration— I don’t know. On one hand it’s positive to a certain extent and on another hand I just wish it was over with because it’s a whole lot of… It’s like Obama going to all those balls! You’ve got to get to this one, this one, this one and this one. It’s okay, but it probably is the last go round. I doubt if I’ll have a 95th one. This is—at 75—I guess this is some kind of landmark. I always felt that I would beat the odds. I guess that’s the Newark impulse. I always thought that whatever they did… My youngest son got shot in the head and he told his mother, “I’m not going to die.” It’s that spirit. I’ve always had that spirit and said, ‘No, that ain’t it!’ I got beat almost to death here in Newark. In 1967, after the rebellion, they split my head open, knocked my teeth out. But at the same time, I felt—even while they were doing it—‘Y’all ain’t doing nothing to me.’ It’s just a feeling that I’m gonna’ get out of this—I don’t care what Continued on next page
The Positive Community October 2009
BARAKA continued from previous page
Go down there and pig out on that stuff! But it’s true, that’s just home cooking.
you do. I guess that’s what you have to have. No, that don’t do nothing to me. I mean it hurt me—almost killed me. Locked me up—but I could still think. So I think that’s it in the end and I guess you get that from all the people that you love and study. ‘Whatever you do, I’m gonna’ beat that! Find a way to beat that.’ Nobody went to jail more than Martin Luther King—none of these thugs. They ain’t never been to jail as much as Martin. And he was still unscathed, talking about justice. When you think about that—black people—145 years after the end of chattel slavery there’s an Afro-American as the president of the United States. Whatever you want to say about that, what you must say about those people is there were no chumps, there were no punks. RLW: I’ve always theorized that the proof of the resilience and resourcefulness of us as black people is in our food. We took what others threw away and deemed inedible and made it taste better than what they considered the choice morsels. AB: I’ve travelled around the world, eaten all kinds of cuisines but you don’t really feel like you’re at home until you eat your own food. The best place for soul food in Newark—The best place was the Bridge Club, but that closed, unfortunately. Right now, I guess it’s John’s, and then there’s Je’s. Anyone who comes here visiting, they’ve got to go down to John’s, even just for breakfast.
RLW: Well, we’ve brought it back around to Newark and now I’m craving chicken and waffles from John’s! Do you have any sage parting words for our readers, anything else you’d like to impart to them? AB: Just that to think that we can survive all of these things… And to have questions from the next generation, about “Why y’all didn’t do nothing?” I say ‘Well if we didn’t do nothing you wouldn’t be here!’ You’ve got a bigger job, see? In a sense, because now the question is to change the whole thing. I mean, we had to always change, but now, being more inside it, you have the responsibility for it. We had the responsibility to change it so that it would stop oppressing at the level it was, but this is what now daunts a lot of us that we don’t understand. A colored guy is the president of the U.S. How are you going to handle that? It’s not the same as saying “We ain’t gone let you in a restaurant.” But that’s so quick. See, stuff turns around so quickly you don’t know. So that’s the way it is. You have a certain amount of time on the planet. You do what you’re supposed to do. Whatever happens, it don’t stop what you did to whatever extent that it’s positive. You just hope that unlike what Shakespeare said about Caesar—‘The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.’ You hope it ain’t like that. Read the entire interview online at www.thepositivecommunity.com
BOOKS BY AMIRI BARAKA Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music (Music of the African Diaspora, University of California Press, 2009 Tales of the Out & the Gone Akashic Books, 2006 Somebody Blew Up America House of Nehesi, 2004 The Essence of Reparations House of Nehesi, 2003
The Fiction of Amiri Baraka Lawrence Hill & Co, 2000
Transbluesency Marsilio Publishers, 1996
The Amiri Baraka Reader Thunder's Mouth Press, 1999
Funk Lore Sun & Moon Press, 1996
Blues People Harper Perennial, 1999
Autobiography of Leroi Jones Lawrence Hill & Co, 1995
Home Ecco Press, 1998
Dutchman + The Slave Harper Perennial, 1971
Black Music Da Capo Press, 1998
October 2009 The Positive Community
Our EXCLUSIVE interview with Amiri Baraka from his Newark home in October, 2009.