Newark honors Amiri Baraka as son seeks to carry on his legacy

By Mark Bonamo | January 19th, 2014


NEWARK - Brick City poet and activist Amiri Baraka was remembered in front of more than 3,000 people at Newark's Symphony Hall on Saturday in a verbal whirl of bebop and hip-hop prosody. 

During his life, Baraka's work was often politicized. His performance of his poem "Somebody Blew Up America" in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks resulted in a controversy that led to New Jersey eliminating his position of state poet laureate. 

But on a day when praise, not scorn, aurally landed on Amiri Baraka's center-stage casket at his funeral, there were reminders that poetry and politics are inextricably linked. In Newark, the mayoral race is about to blow up, and Ras Baraka, Amiri's son and mayoral candidate, will help light the fuse.

There was much discussion of legacy politics during the memorial service, with mentions of African-American political heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Professor and prominent public intellectual Dr. Cornel West put Amiri Baraka's life in the context of a man who was a key civic figure at the time of the 1967 Newark riot, a man who for some was both a revolutionary political scientist as well as poet. 

"He never sold out. He was unbought. He was unbossed. And my God, he continued to affirm each and every one of us, whether you agreed with him or not," West said. "The Baraka family is revolutionary royalty and black nobility and they will never forget where they came from." 

Representatives of Newark's black political establishment also stepped forward to talk about the ties that bind.

"Amiri used to always ask me, "What are you going to do for my son Ras?" said State Sen. Ron Rice (D-28). "I said, 'Amiri, I'm going to do for your son what you've done for so many of us.'"

"We were both fortunate to have the fathers that we had that were from Newark," said U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, Jr. (D - 10), the son of the late U.S. Rep. Donald Payne. "We're losing our fathers, but the lessons that they taught us, and the men that they taught us to be, should serve us well." 

During his eulogy, Ras Baraka noted that his father was his greatest advocate, even when time was growing short.

"My father rose for a minute around Christmas Day, laughing and joking but always clear, introducing me to the nurses and doctors, saying 'You know my son? He's running for mayor,'" Baraka said. "He supported me, not just because I am his son, but because we are right. People want courageous, democratic leadership, not bullies and demagogues.

"My father loved this city of ours. He was a Newarker to his core," Baraka added. "Because he chose to fight here, so do I."

Regarding the mayoral campaign fight ahead, Columbia University visiting scholar Dr. Obery Hendricks, Jr. noted what Amiri Baraka's legacy might mean for the May election. 

"I think that it's going to determine the race, because folks know who Amiri is, they know who his son is, and they know what they stand for," Hendricks said. "His death is going to be a galvanizing force. You saw the way his son picked up the mantle." 

Rutgers professor Dr. Clement Price, vice chairman of President Barack Obama's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, took a more measured yet long-range view.

"It's too soon to tell. Grief is fleeting. Memories are transformational, but politics unfold in real time," Price said. "Newark, certainly black Newark, is seeking to establish a foundational experience with Amiri Baraka. Blacks have been in Newark since its inception, but they have largely been without a foundational family. I think that we have that now with the life, times and passing of Amiri Baraka." 

Former Newark Mayor Sharpe James assessed Amiri Baraka's impact on the current campaign.

"Amiri can only help his son. Ras has a greater challenge - to prove that like his father he can be an agent of change," James said. "I think poets' inspiration and words are more lethal and last longer. Politicians, I think we all need term limitations." 

Poet Jessica Care Moore asked a question while honoring Newark's greatest poet that all of the city's politicians and population have yet to answer.

"He created this fire," Moore said. "Who's going to keep it lit?"

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