Amiri Baraka’s luck

January 15, 2014

He must have been one of the most photographed – certainly in the 60s, and probably long after that. But the picture that’s most stuck in my head is actually one in USA Today, taken late in life by one of their photographers in his house in Newark.  An airy, light-filled room, almost all windows, lots of plants, big table, probably some kind of work space. Baraka is just sitting there, not doing anything in particular, just pondering, and, to my eyes, also looking slightly embarrassed.

As well he might be. The fact that USA Today sent a photographer specially to Newark was a statement in itself. And now at his death, the outpouring from all the mainstream media (including that long and surprisingly affirmative tribute in USA Today) made clear what Baraka must have known for some time: that, to anyone who had followed his career for the past 50 years, he represented a force that would always be a force. And not because he looked so striking in photographs. No, it was the fact that he managed to make what he was passionate about an intelligible passion to so many people, including many who had never read a word he wrote.

The New Yorker quoted Baraka on John Coltrane:  “Not only does one seem to hear each note and sub-tone of a chord being played, but also each one of those notes shattered into half and quarter tones…   It is like a painter who instead of painting a simple white, paints all the elemental pigments that the white contains, at the same time as the white itself.”

To be able to write like that, and to have music that answers to that description — Amiri Baraka was a lucky man.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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