The controversial poet and playwright's work in Newark still offers inspiration to those who would speak truth to local power.
As I watched artists, activists, public intellectuals, and dignitaries from around the world converge on Newark this weekend for the funeral of poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, I was reminded just how much Baraka’s other life, that of an urban activist and advocate for the not-at-all-powerful, still offers instruction and inspiration to young, frustrated urban activists engaged in their own Sisyphean fights.
In 1969, long before terms like "multicultural" had become fixed and sometimes cloying parts of the political lexicon, Baraka helped to convene the Black and Puerto Rican Convention. The convention, a gathering of Newark’s most vocal black and Latino activists, heralded not just a new era of cross-ethnic political cooperation. It managed to make real the expansive landscape of the two group’s shared political needs. Their coalition contained the seeds of an utterly democratic but nonetheless unprecedented revolution in Newark.
Prior to the convention — and subsequent black political gatherings in Gary and Philadelphia and Chicago— Newark’s largely black and brown majority had not managed to wrest political control or even much in the way of influence from the city’s still overwhelmingly white local government. Although an organized, year-long voter registration drive had managed to recall one powerful white city councilman, Newark’s mobbed-up establishment had little to fear in individual complaints and single-group voting blocks with control of just two of the city's five wards. The Black and Puerto Rican Convention brought together a voting block large and powerful enough to put the outsiders’ insider, Ken Gibson, inside city hall.
Gibson became Newark’s first black mayor and Baraka continued his life-long vocation as a local gadfly and voice for the city’s disadvantaged. As director and producer Woodie King described it Saturday during Baraka's full-to-capacity funeral at Newark’s 2,800-seat Symphony Space, Baraka was unfailingly “hard on politicians.”
Black voters put black mayors in office in Gary, Indiana, and Cleveland, Ohio, in 1968. But it was a black-brown coalition that altered the political landscape in cities such as Newark, spurring the ascent of black mayors around the country. Reasonable people can argue that what followed was no golden age for urban politics. But even those critics can admit that the first generation of black mayors came to power at a time of crumbling infrastructure, already failing schools, white and later middle-class black flight, and declining federal spending inside America's cities. What the Black and Puerto Rican Convention unquestionably put in place was a pathway for getting the shared interests of minority voters into the mainstream and an identifiable route into office for black and Latino politicians. Today, that list includes Baraka's son, an early frontrunner for mayor who currently represents the South Ward on Newark's Municipal Council, as well as those whose loyalties have, at times, been revealed to lie more with a monied and already empowered elite or their own bank accounts.
A key architect of identity politics, Baraka was no advocate of identity-based political loyalty. He never stopped deploying his only weapons: his organizing skills, his mouth, his mind, and his pen. He bore the weight of the often fitting labels placed on his art, which sometimes overshadowed his activism: anti-Semite, sexist, racist, anachronistic. He never stopped advocating for the disempowered segments of Newark. And when he felt compelled to rage against the machine, Baraka the activist never limited himself to his allotted two minutes on the establishment’s mic.
It's no coincidence that at the funeral, it was former Newark Mayor Sharpe James — a beneficiary of Baraka's black and brown Newark revolution and later a frequent subject of the activist's most biting critiques — who described Baraka best: as the Newark establishment's "competition and our conscience ... our agitator for progress.”
Baraka's work in Newark provided a functional template for urban activists fighting to empower communities transformed by immigration but crippled by the combination of poverty, joblessness, low-quality education and municipal officials willing to dismiss them all as intractable problems.
At the funeral, a poem written for Baraka by the Detroit-born poet jessica Care moore made the political meaning of his death plain.
"He created this fire, who gon' keep it lit?"
Top image: Newark, N.J. poet and social activist Amiri Baraka speaks during the Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind., March 12, 1972. (AP Photo/Julian C. Wilson)