Monday, July 6, 2020
Is It Baraka Time now?
I attended a jazz and poetry concert on April 5, 2002 featuring Archie Shepp and Amiri Baraka. The jazz group -- Shepp on saxophone and piano, Roswell Rudd on trombone, Reggie Workman on bass, and Andrew Cyrille on drums -- would play some tunes, and Baraka would come out and read poems. At one point when preparing to bring Baraka to the stage, Rudd got on the mic and said, "you know what time it is? It's Baraka time!"
I thought of that idea -- Baraka time -- recently as poetry and arts organizations began to acknowledge the value of social justice in the aftermath of high profile police killings. I mean, consider that the Mellon Foundation, "America’s Biggest Funder of Culture Is Shifting Its Focus to Social Justice." That's significant given the long-term efforts to suppress politics and social justice in the arts. From the 1980s onward, there were quiet and not-so-quiet indications that literary artists should not make social justice central to their works.
"In the mid-1990s, when I was a student of creative writing," Tracy K. Smith recalled, "there prevailed a quiet but firm admonition to avoid composing political poems." But now, apparently, things are changing.
In their "Black Lives Matter" statement, Poets.org notes that "In the weeks ahead we will scrutinize all of our current programs and policies to ensure that every aspect of our organization reflects our values of anti-racism, collaboration, equity, and inclusion and to join in our community’s efforts toward dismantling all vestiges of discrimination that persist."
The Poetry Foundation presented an "Open Letter of Commitment to Our Community" and, among other things, pledged $750,000 to "organizations fighting for social justice, and working to advance racial equity in poetry and affiliated art."
These and other organizations have expressed an interest in publishing black poets. There has not yet been a lot said about the kind of black poetry and poets that they will support though. So we'll see. But if groups decide to support black art and artists whose works are routed to social justice, protest, and radial possibility, then we already have a blueprint. It's Baraka time.
• A Notebook on the work of Amiri Baraka