Poet Amiri Baraka died yesterday at the age of 79. In my head, I have a vision of him from decades ago, young and angry and powerful. It's startling to me to realize how old he was. NPR offered an appreciation which seems fair and balanced to me; you can read or listen here. An article that is more critical of him, yet still fairly balanced, can be found here at the website of The Washington Post.
I must confess that he was not one of my influences. But he helped found the Black Arts movement, which shaped many of the poets whom I would count as an influence, writers like Nikki Giovanni and Alice Walker.
And the movement shaped my view of what art should be. Here's a quote from an article in The Chicago Tribune: "'[W]e wrote art that was, number one, identifiably Afro American according to our roots and our history and so forth. Secondly, we made art that was not contained in small venues,' Baraka said in a 2007 interview. 'The third thing we wanted was art that would help with the liberation of black people, and we didn’t think just writing a poem was sufficient. That poem had to have some kind of utilitarian use; it should help in liberating us. So that’s what we did. We consciously did that.'"
It's a question I've circled back to my whole life: what art liberates most effectively?
For a long time I'd have answered that poems or novels are best. Or I'd have argued for music. Much later, I might have offered some visual artists. Now I'm wondering if it's not art at all, but social media.
Some grad student somewhere is probably writing about Facebook as art form. That will not be my task.
If Amiri Baraka and his compatriots were forming their movement now, I wonder what they would stress. I wonder if their artistic approach would be different. Would they still coordinate with jazz musicians? Would they create programs for schools? Would they take busloads of artists into impoverished areas?
And a more important question: what should we be doing?
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