Dashiki Dialogues: A blessed prince, indeed

2014-01-22 10:00

There are a bunch of resilient old-timers and aunties who occupy a space of deep love in the hearts of black people across the world. The recently deceased Amiri Baraka is one of them.

Baraka made his transition to join the eternal part of our family on January 9 at a Medical Centre in New Jersey, US.

He had been hospitalised after being admitted to the facility’s intensive care unit since December for ailments connected to his long struggle with diabetes. Later, reports indicated that he died from complications after a recent surgery.

The love Baraka enjoys issues from the gifts he bestowed upon the people while he was still in command of his physical faculties.

It’s remarkable that Baraka (born LeRoi Jones) received his Arabic name, Ameer Barakat (meaning “blessed prince”) from Imam Heshaam Jaaber, the Sunni imam of Sudanese roots and confidant of Malcolm X.

Upon receiving his new faith, Ameer Barakat gave his name the Swahili accent of the black world.

It became Amiri Baraka and connected his faith with the black experience. In the 1960s, he would be a figurehead that founded the Black Arts Movement, the same movement that mastered community work which saw Kenneth Gibson elected as first black mayor of Newark in 1970.

About launching black literature at a time when it was thought to be nonexistent, Baraka had this to say: “In most cases, the blacks who found themselves in a position to pursue some art, especially the art of literature, have been members of the black middle class, a group that has always gone out of its way to cultivate any mediocrity, as long as that mediocrity was guaranteed to prove to America, and recently to the world at large, that they were not really who they were, i.e. black.”

He recently caused controversy over his poem Somebody Blew up America. Many felt this poem was anti-Semitic for questioning Israeli intelligence’s prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks.

As he was the poet laureate of New Jersey, the state governor had to intervene. He could not legally fire him so revoked the position of poet laureate in the state.

It was another man of letters, South Africa’s loved poet laureate, Keorapetse Kgositsile, who once wrote: “In a situation of oppression, there are no choices beyond didactic writing: either you are a tool of oppression or an instrument of liberation.”

Bra Willie, as Kgositsile is affectionately known, knew Baraka personally from his days in exile in the US, where he was active as an artist too.

Though he, like all of us, is alive and continues the march into the promises of democracy, our destination remains elusive – to paraphrase a dialogue Kgositsile launched in a defiant dashiki of a recent poem.

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