A Tribute to Amiri Baraka (Aka LeRoi Jones)

By Walcott, Rinaldo | Canadian Dimension, September-October 2014 | Go to article overview

A Tribute to Amiri Baraka (Aka LeRoi Jones)


Walcott, Rinaldo, Canadian Dimension


IN THE MID-1990s I taught Blues People by Amiri Baraka repeatedly in two courses. Both courses attempted to think about the ways in which black cultures in the Americas were constituted by forms of resistance to slave and post-slave cultures. Both courses sought to demonstrate that when you enter the zone of the Americas you enter into the ongoing relations of freedom for some and unfreedom for others. But importantly, both courses demonstrated the creatively insubordinate ways in which black cultures in the Americas continually undermined and created new ways to experience lives others attempted to deny them. Black musics are one among many of the ways in which slave and post-slave cultures redefine what freedom might be, thus Blues People is one of its potent examples. My only relationship then to Amiri Baraka has been textual. But as such, the textual relation is meaningful in ways that one does not always expect when opening the pages of a book. Because the ideas in books can be self-fashioning, one can have an intimate relationship with a given writer without ever meeting him or her. Indeed Baraka looms large for me and black Canada in such ways.

I brought my first Baraka (originally called LeRoi Jones) book, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, at a used bookstore that existed slightly south of Dupont Street on Bathurst Street (Toronto) next door to a black barbershop, sometime in the mid-1980s. I had heard of Baraka, but did not remember if I had heard of LeRoi Jones. The thing is this: as a baby of Black Power, Baraka loomed large as the intellectual guide for a radical black aesthetics. I think I was too young to fully understand the transition from Jones to Baraka and might have missed the story of the transition in my Saturday classes at the Yoruba Center in Barbados in the 1970s. However, by my early 20s Baraka, or rather Jones, the Beat poet was fascinating to me, as I tried to perform a kind of black art intellectual sensibility that was outside of my understanding of what I thought was a then too "normal" and unhip blackness in 1980s Toronto. The Beats of the 50s seemed cooler than the Afrocentrics of the 80s. So Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note and all of the history surrounding it became a kind of cool for me. It is crucial that I (re)found LeRoi/ Amiri on Bathurst Street, a kind of spiritual street for black folks in Toronto, if not Canada, from the 1950s on. I found Baraka running from Third World Bookstore where his post-60s books took pride of place on the shelves.

Amiri Baraka shows up in black Canadian politics in the late 1960s and continuously after as a figure representing a black global consciousness concerned with producing freedom. In David Austin's Fear of a Black Nation, he states that Jones/ Baraka did not make it to the 1968 conference in Montreal sending regrets instead, but his name was still on the program. Indeed, figures like Austin Clarke recall how important Baraka was both in terms of his art and in terms of his intellectual leadership for a black Canadian politics of the time that identified heavily with African American freedom movements. …

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