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Amiri Baraka died last week at age 79. Across his long career, the poet and activist became a leading voice for black consciousness and a polarizing public intellectual, prone to incendiary and sometimes offensive statements. While his radicalism — including anti-Semitic essays and comments — will be part of his legacy, so too will the evolution of his views. Kojo revisits an interview with Baraka from 2000.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. The poet and activist Amiri Baraka died last week at the age of 79. Baraka went through many phases across his personal and professional life. Born Leroy Jones into a middle-class family from Newark, he adopted his African handle as a poet and founder of the Black Arts Movement. At different phases of his life he was a radical black militant and later a leftist activist and academic. You didn't have to agree with Amiri Baraka and his most ardent fans and friends certainly did not agree with him on many issues, but he was, above all else, honest about himself and about what believed.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThere were many facets to Amiri Baraka. He wrote poetry, essays, fiction. He was also an accomplished musician. He also antagonized and deeply offended many. It must be said his writings and statements on Jews from his 1980 essay, "Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite," to his claims that Israeli's knew in advance of the 9/11 attacks will continue to be a troublesome part of his legacy. But, as often was the case with Amiri Baraka's outspoken views, he evolved on that, too. And later came to renounce that perspective. Here's an interview that we did on this show, back when it was called "Public Interest," in April of the year 2000.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhen I was in college, I had a poster of you on one of the walls in my apartment. And the reason was because after founding the Black Arts Movement in Harlem in the mid-1960s, you became for me -- and a lot of other students at the time -- the personification of Black militancy, which is what we all considered ourselves at the time, a militancy that was forthright in its speech, that was angry, that was often loud.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd then in 1971 I was working in Drum & Spear Bookstore and you walked into Drum & Speak Bookstore and I expected what I thought of as your public persona to be reflected in your private behavior. And you turned out to be one of the most soft-spoken, mild-mannered people that I had met. And now that this new book of fiction is out, "The Fiction of Leroy Jones/Amiri Baraka," your fiction tends to be not only autobiographical, but to show a side of you that your essays and poems do not show. And that is the weaknesses, the failings, the misgivings that you have. Is that deliberate?
MR. AMIRI BARAKAWell, yes, very deliberate. It was actually, I think, an attempt to purge myself of one kind of -- what can you say -- one kind of reflection of a certain kind of failure, I thought, not just of myself. But, you know, when you're young you expect that what you have in your head will, of necessity, be completed because you thought it up.
BARAKAI mean no one is as subjective as youth. And it was an attempt just to say the various things and trends and subjectivism, metaphysics, incorrect ideas, you know, and as well as people's various kinds of weaknesses that led to what DuBois called a syndrome. We, you know, pushed a rock up the hill and then it comes rolling back on our heads. I mean they say the Gods -- I would say probably they mean by that the ruling class -- rolls it back down on our head. So I think we are about to turn it around, but for the last decade or so it's certainly been in the rock-rolling down period.
BARAKAAnd what this book was doing -- and I think I wrote it in the early '70s actually. And it's interesting because what I was saying in the '70s is why it was about to roll down. Do you understand what I'm saying?
BARAKAI was trying to say, "Well, all these things happen and here we are. And this will probably cause something else." And that's one of the problems of not being able to come into print as quickly as say the people who write novels, which are actually a reflection of American foreign policy.
NNAMDIAnd, indeed, one of the things you have said earlier is that there are a lot of things that you wrote in the '70s that you were tempted to change and make more politically correct. But you said, essentially, look, this is stuff that I was thinking at that point and they reflected the circumstances of our and my existence, so let it stay the way it is.
BARAKAWell, that, you see, because I know people who try to cover their tracks. You know I think W. H. Auden was somebody who was, I guess, well known for that.
BARAKAWell, he flirted with the left in the '30s and then in the '50s he altered some poetry in a very sharp way. I don't think that that's really, you know, I don't think that's actually principled to do that. I know you catch a lot of criticism because you say, well, that's, you know, that's what you got. But I thought that the things that I was saying, certainly as vile and backward as some of those things were, they certainly were coming out of my mouth. So to then reflect the things in your head shouldn't be such a shock.
NNAMDIAmiri Baraka was 79. You can find a link on our website, kojoshow.org, to the full interview. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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