My first encounter with LeRoi Jones was through the brother in law of Marzette Watts, Bobby Hamilton. He told me that Roi was organizing a meeting at his home on East 14th Street to discuss what was happening in terms of race relations at that time. This was back in the ‘60s around 1962 and 1963. The last time I ran into Baraka was here at Tribes when he came to read here from his latest book of short stories Out and Gone.
A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then and now.
The meetings were held at Roi’s apartment. At that time he was married to Hetti Jones and they two little girls. The sessions amounted to nothing more than bitching and complaining, ranting and raving. And the target of our art was discrimination, jobs and housing, etc. The in charge members of the group were writers, artists and a few musicians.
People who stand out in my mind are the likes of Archie Schepp, the saxophonist, Charles Charles, the writer, Joe Johnson the poet and many others. The group amounted to about twenty.
The idea of the sessions was not to bitch and complain, but to figure out what concrete actions could be taken by the group.
Unbeknownst to us, similar groups were being formed in major cities around the country.
Roi would hold court and all of our rage was aimed at the chair.
But on a personal note, I was homeless at the time and moved to Boston for a year and then returned to New York’s Lower East Side. By that time things had changed drastically.
I found myself involved with poets like Ishmal Reed, David Henderson, Tom Dent, Lorenzo Thomas-the umber group. On the sidelines were people like Calvin Hicks and his wife Nora. By that time Roi had formed something called The Black Arts Movement and was in transit up to Harlem from the Lower East Side.
Half the poets, because of ideological conflicts, joined forces with him and moved up to Harlem with his group, while others stayed on the Lower East Side. It was around that time that Roi issued The Black Arts Movement Manifesto, calling on Afro American artists to take political action. And it was at this same time that Ishmael Reed issued the Neo HooDoo Manifesto, calling on Afro American artists to adhere to their tradition-pre-dating the blues.
Roi, who by this time had changed his name to Baraka, and his group were labeled Black Nationalists (Separatists). And those in the downtown group were known as integrationists. For the most part they were focused on diversity and inclusivity.
By this time I had resettled in New York on East 10th street and Ave B and was working at a printing factory. The poet Larry Neal who was part of the up town group would come down from time to time and keep me up to date with the events of the black arts movement uptown.
From time to time I would go to their fundraisers where they would have the likes of Pharaoh Sanders and other musicians and poets to perform. At other times I would visit the Truth Coffee Shop in Harlem, one of their hangouts.
I was busy holding down a 9 to 5 and only free on the weekends. I only kept tabs on what they were doing from time to time and in bits and pieces. Larry Neal was my contact and he would come down to put everything into perspective. They would update me on the ins and outs of the Black Arts Movement. In other words, who was doing what to who, their conflict, etc.
But it was when Baraka published the essay On Revolutionary Writing and Afro American History that the shit hit the fan.
A forum was put together at Joel Over streets Gallery-Kenkeleba House on East 2nd Street. The members of the panel were asked to take positions as to whether they agreed or disagreed with Baraka's essay. The problem with this essay is that it left out such important writers like William Wells Brown and Ralph Ellison, among others. Then again, Roi did not think of these artists as revolutionary but rather too “conservative” for his tastes.
Keep in mind the ‘60s was a rather riotous and noisy era. A lot of shouting and screaming was going on at that time. There were folks people accused of not being revolutionary enough and assassinations happening across the board. Even Larry Neal ended up being fired upon.
This was years after Baraka had his play Dutchman produced downtown, which caused quite an up roar. He himself was always controversial and constantly ended up on the news. For example, his poem Arm Yourselves or Harm Yourselves, which he published in the Evergreen Review, got him into trouble with the authorities. And not mention his poem Who Blew Up America?, reflecting on the collapse of the twin towers, which caused a worldwide controversy.
Even the Jewish novelist Philip Roth made him one of his protagonists in the novel American Pastoral. In the novel he is the instigator of the riots in Newark at that time. If you were to ask Baraka about that period he would say they were busy going around picking up the wounded and taking them to the hospital. Baraka himself was beaten up by the cops as well.
The Black Arts Movement dissolved in the late ‘60’s, early ‘70’s and Roi hid himself away in Jersey, which is now the base of his operation.
I only see him from time to time. For the most part, I would go to Jersey for specific celebrations, poetry readings, and on evenings when we would celebrate his and other poets’ birthdays. Over the years I lost contact with Baraka and his group in Jersey.
It was at a birthday party for poet Cruz at Baraka’s house that I encountered Max Roach. After Larry Neal’s demise, Roi had taken it upon himself to write Max’s biography.
Those were great moments because being in that environment I was able to catch up on the gossip of what I was missing.
And it was the funeral for James Baldwin where Baraka was the keynote speaker that he blew the audience’s mind. Especially the part when he mentioned that James Baldwin was our man even with the knowledge of his sexual preferences.
The most important thing that I loved about Roi then and now was that he has always been true to his convictions. And has shown passion in his endeavors.
Thoroughly knowledgeable about Afro-American music and equally knowledgeable about contemporary American poetry, he’s never lagged or been sloppy in his analysis of the above.
Over the years, he’s proven himself to be a true poet who speaks the truth to power. He has never been afraid to say exactly what is on his mind.
He is one of our rare geniuses and should be celebrated for his accomplishments.
Happy 75th birthday!
- Steve Cannon (the blind guy)
- Executive Director of A Gathering of the Tribes