More and more I am beginning to feel an unraveling, a lost of connectedness to my literary and histrionic past. The deaths of Tom Dent, Ossie Davis, Ron Milner, Barbara Ann Teer, Judi Ann Mason and now Amiri Baraka have served as a wake-up call that at some point this novel called life will come to an end and for certain this theatrical production by the same name must lower its curtain to kiss the floor for the very last time.
More than anything else, the deaths of these great ones help me to truly understand that just as "Trouble Don't Last Always" neither do artists, although their works may.
Upon learning of Baraka's demise on Thursday (Jan. 9th), I had to pause for a moment and contemplate my next breath...savor it as if I were pouring out libations to a dear friend, elder, and mentor. Although I only met Baraka, the man formerly known as LeRoi Jones, once at an African-American Literary Conference at Ole Miss almost 30 years ago, I felt like he was an older brother, a running buddy.
Maybe it was because Baraka's works ran like water through the formative years of my life as a writer. "Slave Ship," "The Dutchman" and "The Toilet" were plays my peers and I discussed, performed and directed when no other shows would do. Not only was the author my creativity mentor, he was also my literary Hard Rock that Etheridge Knight spoke about in his poem with the same name:
"He had been our Destroyer, the doer of things
"We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do..."
Jazz critic, playwright, essayist, polarizing poet, and shaman, I understood his anger, which provided more than enough fuel for our creativity in the Black Arts Movement. In Langston Hughes' essay "That Boy Leroy," which I remember reading many years ago, The Poet offered some fatherly criticism and advice to The Ascending Poet – a blazing new star singeing everything in its path, pressing towards the mark of a black utopia. The essay seemed to ooze messages of "Slow down...take your time...pace yourself" and most importantly "Don't burn out and burn others up along the way. It's not what you say, son, it's how you say it, no matter how angry you are."
True, our big brother was angry, as we all were, but we were also young and in love with our blackness, which we fought to recapture from being lost, stolen, and strayed. To the very core of or existence, we understood his anger.
In these surreal moments of contemplating the portrait of the artist as a young man, like him, love him or hate him, I have made peace with the fact that Baraka was at times not so kind, but was always one of a kind. Through his genius, many of us struggled to find the connectedness to our blackness, our creativity and our liberation, and he helped us beyond measure.
Rest in Peace A.B.
(Levi Frazier is an assistant professor of fine arts at Southwest Tennessee Community College and co-founder of the Bluff City Cultural Center.)