Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, and Patrice Lumumba

Amiri Baraka, Patrice Lumumba, and Maya Angelou

Twenty years ago, on April 6, 2002, Amiri Baraka gave a lecture as part of the Free Jazz Weekend at Penn State organized by Professors William J. Harris and Paul Youngquist. At one point during his lecture, Baraka mentioned the actions of a literary and cultural figure, long before she became famous. 

Baraka went, "I remember down at the U.N. [United Nations building] watching Maya Angelou, who I had just met, climbing up the side of the U.N—that was before we got sophisticated and got all those prizes—climbing up the side of the U.N as we entered the U.N to protest the murder of Patrice Lumumba."

Baraka went on to mention that he first met Angelou, Larry Neal, Askia Toure, and others at political demonstrations or protests prior to working with them as literary artists. After his lecture, Baraka read two poems, "The Golgotha Local" (which was included in The Best American Poetry 2002, edited by Robert Creeley) and "Jungle Jim Flunks His Screen Test." 

In the latter poem, Baraka has a line that goes, "You uglier than Papa Doc, Hitler and Mobutu." In that last one, Baraka is referring to Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, the notorious dictator. One reason Baraka and many others despise Mobuto is because he, along with his Belgium, American, and C.I.A. backers, were responsible for the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in January 1961. 

Maya Angelou talks about her involvement in the protest at the UN in February 1961, in her book The Heart of a Woman. "I said nothing. I knew no words which would match the emptiness of the moment," wrote Angelou when she first heard the news that Lumumba had been killed. "We had been abused, and so long abused, that the loss of one hero was a setback of such proportion it could dishearten us and weaken the struggle."

The killing of Lumumba inspired Baraka, Angelou, and many other black activists/artists to speak out about international injustices sometimes orchestrated or inspired by American politicians and agencies, most notably the C.I.A.  

I was thinking about Baraka and Lumumba recently because this summer -- 61 years after the  assassination of Lumumba -- Belgium returned the leader's tooth to the Congo. As the BBC reported, "It is the only part of his body that exists after his remains were dissolved in acid."

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