Akashic Loves Amiri Baraka
Akashic Books deeply mourns the loss of Amiri Baraka (1934–2014), one of the truly great American writers of the twentieth century. Beyond his tremendous talents as a poet, playwright, essayist, fiction writer, and political activist, he was a relentless warrior in pursuit of truth and meaning. His body of work, spanning the 1950s till the end of 2013, is an arousing and inspiring chart of dedication, fearlessness, and personal growth. Despite his elevated stature, he never sold out to anyone or anything; he stayed his own course and always did so with verve, passion, and fury.
Amiri has been a figurehead for us here at Akashic Books since 2007 when he agreed to publish his story collection Tales of the Out & the Gone with us. When that signed contract arrived, we knew we were doing something right. The book was a hit, and working with Amiri was a profoundly positive experience. In subsequent years we reissued his 1960s essay collections Home: Social Essays and Black Music, to which he contributed brand-new introductions.
For those remaining vindictive critics of Amiri (and there aren’t many of you left), who argue that he was anti-Semitic, or homophobic, etc., you obviously never knew of the man’s relentless self-critiquing and his commitment to knowledge. In his introduction to our reissue of Home, for example, he wrote the following:
One heavy and aggravating problem with these early writings is that I’ve long since changed my views on some topics. There is a neophyte Black Nationalist tag to this book, yet I have been a Marxist since the middle ’70s. For instance, the homophobic language in several of the essays, including “American Sexual Reference: Black Male,” using the word “fag” homeboy style to refer to the right-leaning liberalism of too many Americans, males as well as females, is wrongheaded and unscientific.
In actuality, the attack was on a social class made comfortable from the super-profits bombed and machine-gunned out of the Third World (and it should be obvious that there has grown a whole sector of Negroes participating in this as well). The sexual reference comes from a ghetto language which used homosexuality as a metaphor for weakness, when in all truth, physically, there were even in my own youthful experience very open homosexuals who could kick most of the straight dudes’ behinds. Not to mention the homosexual giants we all have known, who have always been out front sexually and politically. Now I must openly regret and apologize for the use of that metaphorically abusive term that was then part of my vocabulary.
Amiri was a truth seeker, and an artist who grasped the purpose of art—the imperative of art—better than anyone else I’ve known. As the New York Times aptly printed in 2007, “The writer formerly known as LeRoi Jones possesses an outtelligence of a high order. Baraka is such a provocateur, so skilled at prodding his perceived enemies (who are legion) in their tender underbellies, that it becomes easy to overlook that he is first and foremost a writer . . .”
Amiri, who will prod those tender underbellies now that you are gone? We will try to follow in your footsteps, but we also know that your shoes are still way too big for us. Let your memory and your words and your books ring, so that we can all strive to dodge apathy and passivity every day of our lives, like you did. Amiri, we miss you and hold you in our hearts.
Posted: Jan 10, 2014
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