The following is Darnell Moore’s response to the passing of Amiri Baraka. Darnell L. Moore interviewed poets Amiri Baraka and Cheryl Clarke at Baraka’s home in 2010. He was inspired to engage the two luminaries in dialogue after reading Clarke’s slamming critique of Black Nationalism’s homoantagonistic impulses in her now classic essay, “The Failure to Transform: Homophobia in the Black Community” (1983). Moore eventually came across Clarke and Baraka at Newark City Hall in 2008 on the same day, and facilitated a dialogue between the two in Newark two decades after Clarke’s essay. A brief video segment of the conversation can be viewed here.
So much will be written about Amiri Baraka moving forward. We both called the New Arc home. I want to remember the courage Amiri possessed that allowed him to speak and write his truth. Honestly, I wasn’t ready for that truth sometimes. His was the kind of truth spoken compellingly and beautifully in a society that, as he said, praises ugliness and lies.
Amiri was an artist who was vulnerable and brave enough to allow others to watch him shift, bend and break over time. Some critics begrudged him for that. I can recount the number of times some White queer friends, for instance, would ask, “Well, is he still homophobic?” after I mentioned how blessed I felt to live in close proximity to him or when I expressed excitement about bumping into him at a rally or hearing at Newark City Hall.
I wanted to respond,”Well, are you still racist?”
I never responded with that question because I am not as courageous and honest as Amiri was, or his wife, Amina, is for that matter. Amiri knew the world, and knew the strength it takes to survive in a world that teaches most of us to despise ourselves.
I am fortunate for the memories I have of Amiri Baraka, our beloved, outspoken leader in my hometown of Newark, NJ. Whether he was boycotting folk in city hall for backing a plan to privatize the water or letting it be known his disapproval of the Mayor, the brother was unafraid.
The day we sat in Amiri Baraka’s living room while he testified and talked to us about the Black arts movement, Newark, politics, and revolution, it was clear that his was a life lived and tried. I thought about the questions I’d heard about homophobia until I realized that next to him was Cheryl Clarke, a black lesbian poet whom he deeply admired. I thought about the charges of sexism in his past and considered the many ways he spoke of Amina Baraka challenging him to be better.
I then looked across at the two sisters (Aimee and Fayemi) and young people who shared the room with us and the ways his words about anti-racism and anti-sexism moved them.
I thought about what it means to live a life–to believe and disbelieve and change belief many times. And I was reminded that we are all the same-with-a-difference in that room: black, though, differently so, within a system that would eat us all alive if we let it. That’s what Amiri wanted us to know.
Amiri Baraka was a carrier of history, protest and movement. He was truly a literary force. The only thing that makes him a “controversial” writer, as one many media outlets stated, is the fact that unlike writers who speak from, and see though their places of power and privilege, Amiri warned us that the “truths” told by such writers were lies. Not half-truths. Lies That type of truth-telling will always guarantee enemies. Yet, truth always wins in the end. That’s why he can now rest. Peace to his family, and all of those who loved him in New Arc.
Darnell Moore was appointed the inaugural chair of the city of Newark’s LGBTQ Advisory Concerns Commission by Mayor Cory A. Booker and served as co-chair of the Queer Newark Oral History initiative. He was awarded the Visionary of the Future Award from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the Humanitarian Award from the Essex County Chapter of American Conference on Diversity.