Above: Amiri Baraka in 2007 (image via the Wiki).
When the email arrived yesterday, it hit me in the chest like a brick: Amiri Baraka, poet, scholar, musicologist, dramatist, and one of the greatest artists of our generation, died yesterday in New Jersey.
I had the opportunity to hear him speak and recite his works on many occasions. He was a close friend of my dissertation advisor Luigi Ballerini.
The two met in New York in the 1960s, during a golden age of experimental poetry in the U.S. and Luigi has translated many of Amiri’s poems, including them in English- and Italian-language anthologies published on both sides of the Atlantic.
His work and his charismatic presence as a performer had a profound effect on me.
Please read his obituary in the New York Times and the Wiki entry devoted to his life and work. The title of this post is taken from his brilliant work of musicology, Blues People, published in 1963.
In recent decades, controversy often eclipsed his legacy as one of the great literary figures of our times.
In fact, he was a gentle person who always had a kind word and an open, generous spirit when we all sat down for dinner after one of his readings in New York or Los Angeles.
Amiri, thank you… You taught me so much about words and rhythm. And my heart skips a beat knowing that you are gone…
Baraka wrote, “Smile, jew. Dance, jew. Tell me you love me, jew,” and, “I got the extermination blues, jewboys. I got the hitler syndrome figured.”
He also believed Israel brought down the twin towers.
Controversy – something of an understatement
Mark, thanks for reading and for sharing your views here. By the time Amiri wrote those lines, my grad school days were far behind me and I never had any contact with him after finishing my studies. I recognize (and was well aware of) how inflammatory and, frankly, racist his poem was (and is). But I also wanted to share my insights into Amiri, perhaps from a time when his work had yet to be overshadowed by his egregious racially charged attitudes (which I do not share, of course). Thanks again for being here.