Monday, January 13, 2014

Pinpointing recurring themes in coverage of Amiri Baraka's passing

By Kenton Rambsy

Several friends and colleagues of the late Amiri Baraka were troubled by comments in some of the initial coverage of his passing. Observers noted that some characterizations of the writer were off-base. At least text-mining will assist in pinpointing some of the recurring labels. Ishmael Reed took issue with some of the obituaries in his Wall Street Journal blog as he explained that  “the obituaries, some of them mean-spirited and ignorant, confine the playwright’s creative output to 1964, when he wrote Dutchman.”

Barka’s intellectual contributions to American life and literature paved the way for large numbers of poets, short story writers, playwrights, and certainly, like myself, emerging literary critics. The complex nature of Baraka and his life’s work has received a wide range of coverage online presenting his life from multiple vantage points. Some of these perspectives some feel are substantial representations of his life while other recollections of Baraka seem to offer skewed visions of his overall legacy.

I used Voyant to take a look at eight of the more popular postings on Baraka’s death – articles in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The LA Times, The Wall Street Jounral, Huffington Post, ABC News, CNN, and Gawker. The word “black” ranked highest, appearing 79 times across all of the articles. This word was often associated with “The Black Arts Movement” and to describe his commitment to “Black nationalism,” “Black poetry,” or “Black culture” in general. The word “white” was used 25 times across the 8 articles. Sometimes, the word “white” was used to describe the time Baraka spent in Greenwich Village. However, the word was most often used to describe the infamous temptress Lula in his play Dutchman. Quite fittingly, the word “Dutchman” appeared 18 times in the various articles.

Even though Baraka wrote in multiple genres, these articles mostly describe him as a poet, as the word appears “50” times across the corpus. Similarly, readers are often reminded of his last name “Jones” (appearing 40 times) and his connection with “movements” (appearing 23 times), most notably the Black Arts Movement.

Lastly, I honed in on the word count of the tributes. The longest appeared to be The New York Times’s article, “Amiri Baraka, Polarizing Poet and Playwright, Dies at 79” having 2,591 words and The New Yorker’s “Amiri Baraka’s First Family” having 1, 813 words. The shortest in the text-mining experiment were ABC News’ “Maya Angelou Mourns Death of Poet Amiri Baraka” (341 words) and CNN’s “Poet Amiri Baraka, political activist, dead at 79” (394 words).

The online descriptions of Baraka’s life and death certainly have consequences for those who admired him as well as for general readers browsing headlines online. Those words of the labels, alone, do not say as much. But in the context of popular reflections, the words reveal that popular online reflections on Amiri Baraka frequently emphasize his work in poetry, connections with Newark and New York as well as his play The Dutchman.

Coverage on Amiri Baraka's passing 

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