I still hear those songs, and cries
of the sons and sons and daughters and daughters
I still bear that weeping in my heart
that bleeding in my memory
from “Wise 2”
It is with great sadness that we at the Dodge Foundation recognize the passing of Amiri Baraka, one of our most influential poets. He’d been to the Festival many times, starting with the first in 1986. He will be missed.
We knew him as far more than the controversial New Jersey Poet Laureate whose reading of “Somebody Blew Up America” at the 2002 Festival led to the dissolution of that position. We knew him as a riveting, powerful reader who, in his late seventies could still bring the audience at NJPAC’s Prudential Hall to its feet for the kind of ovations usually equated with rock stars. We knew him as someone who loved talking to young people. In his conversations with students at the Festival he was open, warm and generous with advice and encouragement. We knew him as someone intensely devoted to the idea that as an artist he had a responsibility to his community, and as someone who possessed a questing, relentless curiosity, a staggering erudition (his essays on the history of jazz and blues are essential reading for anyone who wants to understand American music), and a wicked sense of humor and wit.
Whether or not you agreed with his politics or opinions, you had to respect the integrity with which he lived in accordance with them. Baraka was already an acclaimed poet and Obie-award-winning playwright in 1965 when Malcolm X was assassinated. His move in the aftermath from Greenwich Village to Harlem was far more than a symbolic gesture. It marked his departure from the aesthetics and politics of the Beat generation, of which he’d become an integral member, to the forming of the Black Arts Movement—the major force in shaping the multiculturalism that transformed the arts and arts education during the latter half of the twentieth century.
In the decades that followed, Baraka dedicated much of his art and life to speaking out against inequality and oppression. Although he identified himself first as poet, “activist” was a close second. His place in his hometown was unique among artists of his international stature. For decades he remained engaged in his community, supporting Newark’s artistic, cultural, social and political life, and earned the respect and gratitude of the many artists he mentored there.
Like many poets in the Black Arts Movement, Baraka was influenced by the “oralizing” tradition of the ancient griots of Africa. Jazz and blues were also a major influence, and he and his peers were the precursors of the rap, hip hop and spoken word artists who have since emerged.
He had already accepted our invitation to appear at the 2014 Festival, and his absence will be deeply felt by the Festival staff, the many young poets he has influenced, and the Newark community he loved and served for so many years. He would have turned eighty just before the 2014 Festival, and we will program a special tribute to honor him. Our sincere condolences go out to his family and his many friends and admirers.
Martin Farawell, Director
Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival