An AM Think Piece
A Brief Recount of Growing Up with a Legend
OXOSI's resident photographer and content manager Amandla Baraka reflects on her grandfather, former New Jersey poet laureate and legendary novelist Amiri Baraka.
Who is Amiri Baraka? One of the most controversial playwrights, poets, and activists of our lifetime. Early in his career, he was still going by his given name, Leroi Jones. He was a beat poet, going to Jazz clubs in West Village and exploring the era of Avant Garde poetry. He moved to Harlem and founded the Black Arts Movement — a time where black people established their own publishing houses, magazines, and art institutions. As time went on, his work became distinctly political and confrontational. He used gripping language to tie up the emotional journey his poetry led you on. It was honesty, his truth, bubbled wrapped and thrown at your face.
But before anything else, he was my grandfather. He took me to see my first play. He showed me how to use my wit. He helped me to understand humility and its depth. He gave me $100 every time I’d visit home from college.
I was a privileged child. There are some children who have great minds in their family and they don’t get to experience them. I got to see him shine. I was there to see him perform and watch the audience react. The respect people had for him was unmatched. And through it all he maintained this hunched posture and powered through the accolades.
There had never been a point where I could bare witness to exactly the way my grandfather found his inspiration, up until this point.
My grandmother picked me up early from school, hair tied and slippers on. She thought, ‘If anything were to happen, let me make sure my granddaughter is safe.’ In fact, many parents went to pick up their children. All of the radio stations and news outlets were airing - live - what was happening at the Twin Towers. The weirdest part of it all is that I had just been there for the first time two weeks earlier.
On one side of the family, everyone was talking about how devastating this was. How afraid they were.
On the other side:
There it was. Just between 5:34 and 5:55 — his true self. Imagine being an 11 year-old and watching your grandfather go at it with Connie Chung on the news. It was quite mind bending. That is when I experienced pride consciously, for the first time in my life.
His convictions were so true to who he was. It wasn’t an act. He was who he said he was. But he was also my grandfather. When we’d walk to the store, he’d be picking up the trash on the streets of Newark. He made little rhymes on the way, “Stop, Bop” — if I tried to cross to early / “Wait, Gate” — if I was moving too fast. That was the sort of man he was. Even when no one was watching, he remained tied to his convictions. His poetry wasn’t ever merely art. It was a weapon. And from him, from his convictions, from his unbought anger, I learned about the humility of art. The artist does not exist. It is the truth that remains beautiful.