OBITUARY JANUARY 21, 2014
The lines of mourners, some draped in somber funereal garb, others in colorful African prints, snaked for nearly a block down Broad Street in Newark on Saturday. Just beyond Newark Symphony Hall, a massive American flag was suspended between two raised fire truck ladders and swayed forlornly in the wind. Inside the hall, a red, black, and green black liberation flag, smaller but no less intently hung, was draped from the balcony. For three-plus hours, speakers sought to explain the life and significance of the poet, activist, and Newark native Amiri Baraka; but the most succinct metaphor was found in the fact that his coffin, like his life, was located somewhere between those two flags.
Baraka’s death occasioned a great deal of commentary, some of it lukewarm literary praise, dutifully observant of the controversial nature of his work and his political opinions. Others focused upon the centrality of his influence as a cultural figure in black life. The Black Arts Movement, which he helped found, equaled the Harlem Renaissance in the breadth of its influence upon African American literary development. His centrality to the political history of Newark and black America at-large was noted to a far lesser degree—even though it, as much as anything he ever wrote, was why an unbroken stream of local residents filed past his coffin for three-and-a-half hours during his wake, why some three thousand of them crowded into Symphony hall for his homegoing services, why one observer said to me somewhat cryptically that the funeral raised for black Newark the kind of questions white people pondered at the death of the last Civil War veteran.
To the extent that Newark occupies our thoughts, it tends to be as a reference point for the ascent of Senator Cory Booker. In July 2008, Scott Raab wrote an Esquire magazine profile of the then-Newark mayor and cast him as a noble hero battling urban zombies amid the charred ruins of a once-great American city. (Despite the hyperbolic praise, even Booker was moved to denounce Raab’s characterization of the city.) The reality series “Brick City” chronicled Booker’s mayoralty in more serious terms, but the image of the mayor as a kind of Moses figure was never far from the surface. In 2007, three college students who were home on break were shot execution-style in a park and the triple homicide seemed to confirm the view of the city as a damned municipality. (When the assailants were arrested, Booker personally helped cuff one of the gunmen.) Yet there were residents—many of them veterans of the political battles Baraka fought, won or instigated—for whom Booker’s tenure was the political equivalent of Teach for America, a depot where an idealistic youth could log hours of community service before migrating on to bigger opportunities.
Dial back to the Newark that preceded Booker, the ward-heeling empire of his predecessor Sharpe James and the 1967 riots and there’s an older city—the one whose image is preserved in the pages of Philip Roth’s work—that forged particular kind of working class identity and an aspirational, if tenuously positioned, ethnic middle class. The tribal loyalties of that city were delineated between the Italian, Jewish and Negro extractions populating its five municipal wards. It was nearly impossible for Baraka’s eulogists to relay the story of his life without implicitly commenting upon the history Newark and the social migrations of at least one of those tribes.
The history of Newark tracks more closely to the history of black America in the past half century as much as or more than any other locale. In 1913, Noble Drew Ali, an enigmatic wanderer, established the Moorish Science Temple, an eclectic fusion of Islam, Christianity and a kind of black nationalism mysticism that became a national (if tangential) religious movement among African Americans. Early on the Nation of Islam established a mosque in the city and to this day the city retains a sizable Muslim population, much of it African American. Two world wars fueled black migration into Newark, where African Americans took up residence amid the brew of ethnicities struggling for a foothold in the city. An old joke among black residents held that the fugitives from Jim Crow, many of them abandoning rural towns and single-stoplight outposts in the Carolinas, boarded northbound trains and upon hearing conductors shout NewARK got off—never realizing they were 17 miles south of their intended destination. Baraka, born LeRoi Jones, was the son of an entrepreneur who later became a civil servant and part of the city’s fledgling black middle class. His Newark tracked Roth’s at least enough for both their early work to be defined by literary rebellion against the conventions of their assimilationist upbringings.
Jones’ tenure as a disaffected Beat poet in the 1950s gave way to an acerbic nationalism in ways that neatly tracked the social climate of the era. The month before he was killed, Malcolm X met Jones in the Theresa Hotel and their hours-long conversation was a formative event in the young poet’s radicalization. The assassination in February 1965 marked a turning point in Jones’ life. That the plot to kill Malcolm X was organized in Newark and the gunmen members of the city’s NOI mosque was not likely lost on him. (The city’s fratricidal conflicts among Muslims culminated in the murder of the mosque’s leader and the decapitated heads of men suspected of the killing being found in a local park in 1973.) In the wake of Malcolm X’s death Baraka became an aesthetic activist first in Harlem and shortly thereafter in the city of his birth—changing his name to Amiri Baraka to mark his new identity.
To an extent forgotten by observers, Newark was a laboratory for the Black Power experiments that culminated in the modern era of black politics. In 1967, Baraka’s embryonic political activism became intertwined with the single event that cleaved the history, and for many even the name of the city into two distinct divisions. In the wake of the 1967 riots, the old Newark gave way to something the ascendant black power advocates called the New Ark. The clearest indicator of Baraka’s role as architect of that transition was found in the fact that the name was derived from a line in one of his poems about turning a slave ship into a new ark. The arrest and beating of a Newark cab driver inspired an impromptu demonstration that transitioned quickly into an anarchic uprising. In his memoir Baraka wrote:
All that was pent up and tied is wild and loose ... Boxes of stuff were speeding by, cases of stuff, liquor, wine, beer, thte best brands. Shoes, appliances, clothes, jewelry, food. Foodtown had turned into Open City, some dudes jumped the half story out the window to the ground. There were shifts of folks at work. The window breakers would come first. Whash! Glass all over everywhere. Then the getters would get through and get to gettin’. Some serious people would park near the corner and load up their trucks and make as many tirps as the traffic would bear. Some people would run through the streets with shit, what they could carry or roll or drag or pull. Families worked together, carrying sofas and TVs collectively down the street. All the shit they saw on television that they had been hypnotized into wanting they finally had a chance to cop. The word was Cop & Blow! And don’t be slow.
Baraka’s poem “Black People!” became a kind of ode to the chaotic redistribution of wealth the uprisings occasioned. Such was his standing as a voice articulating the specific strand of urban frustration animating the riots—Detroit exploded just days after Newark—that Baraka opened his door one day to find Martin Luther King standing there, unannounced but hoping to talk strategy about the movement. It was March 27, 1968—one week before he was shot dead in Memphis and another round of chaos detonated in the streets. Baraka was consumed by the fact that he’d spoken with both King and Malcolm X in their final days; decades later he was still attempting to fashion a logical extension of both men’s thinking, poring over his exchanges with them and trying to craft what came next. Newark’s political history was deeply intertwined with that effort.
The fires of ‘67 hastened white flight from Newark into the surrounding suburbs. Baraka’s poetry from the era skewered whites, particularly Newark's Jews—“Black People!” for instance, points rioters in the direction of the “joosh” establishments in the city’s commercial districts. The work reflected a deeper fissure that was also reflected in the writing of his contemporaries James Baldwin and Harold Cruse, who increasingly viewed Jews not as kindred outsiders in the American social order but as white people—albeit with an asterisk—who profited from black exploitation. Baldwin’s explanatory essay from the period points out that “Negroes are anti-Semitic because they’re anti-white.”
Two years before the riots Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, inaugurating a new era in black politics. Just five days afterward, Watts exploded into the worst urban rioting the nation had ever known. The conventional wisdom at the time held that the reforms of the civil rights movement and the promise of political inclusion had come too incrementally to stave off the fury and despair that had been incubating in American cities for decades. The post World War II period witnessed the emergence of a new, suburban, home-owning and overwhelmingly white American middle class. But 1950 and 1970 roughly 130,000 African Americans migrated into Newark. The fiery demonstrations that punctuated the demise of the civil rights movement were a statement of demands to, as Jesse Jackson later phrased it, “cut us in or cut it out.”
Baraka was, for a moment, a primary interlocutor of those demands. He was beaten badly by police during the ’67 riots, arrested and then “lost” by the official bureaucracy once he’d been booked. His official whereabouts remained unknown until Jean Paul Sarte got word of the situation and called from Paris demanding the police “find” him and allow him to be bailed out. The riots accelerated the white flight that had originally been facilitated by the expanding opportunities of the postwar period. In that way, the uprisings didn’t contradict the emerging political emphasis of the civil rights movement; they catalyzed it. At the same time they ensured that the emerging black majority in cities like Newark would confront infrastructure concerns, tax-base depletion, and the literal challenge of rebuilding cities.
In 1967, just weeks after the riots, Baraka organized the first Black Power conference in the city. Three years afterward, at the helm of a political organization called the Committee for a United Newark, he took Kenneth Gibson, an engineer for the Newark Housing Authority to Chicago to strategize with other black power advocates about how to elect Newark’s first black mayor. At Baraka’s wake, with Gibson sitting in the audience, Jesse Jackson recalled that trip and their mutual demand that the close-cropped candidate grow an afro and shed his slacks for bell-bottoms so he could “at least look like someone from Newark.” In aligning themselves with Gibson, Baraka and the Committee for Unified Newark were also placing themselves in the crosshairs of the corrupt political establishment overseen by Mayor Hugh Addonizio and enforced by councilman and ward boss Anthony Imperiale—a figure who belonged in equal measure to the history of American political machines and a throwback episode of “The Sopranos.” As historian Komozi Woodard writes in Making the New Ark, a history of black power era in the city:
[Imperiale] was not only the chief of the North Ward vigilantes, arming them and leading white attacks on blacks and Puerto Ricans as his cars patrolled and enforced the ghetto borders, but he was also making national links with such racists as former governor George Wallace of Alabama. In New Jersey Imperiale headed the presidential campaign for Wallace’s racist American Independent Party.
Elected in 1970, Gibson, along with Carl Stokes of Cleveland and Richard Hatcher of Gary, Indiana (both of whom had been elected three years earlier), were understood as a triumvirate heralding the Chocolate City era of urban politics. Two years after Gibson, Baraka presided over the cornerstone National Black Political Convention in Gary, in which delegates from across the country gathered to plot out a black agenda. When Jackson strode to the podium at the wake he immediately began shouting “What time is it?” and the mourners thundered back “NATION TIME”—a reference to the Baraka poem, which had been the unofficial theme of the Gary, Convention. Amid the broad array of interests gathered there, all of them black but divided by geography, industry, labor organization and ideological orientation, Baraka was, in Jackson’s words, the only individual capable of holding the assemblage together. The era of black mayoralties of the 1970s and the expansion of black political representation is in no small measure indebted to the template Gary and the regional black power conferences created.
By 2002, when Cory Booker, a Rhodes scholar and product of a well-off black family in the North Jersey suburbs ran for mayor, the documentary Street Fight depicted it as a political brawl between an inspiring upstart and the embodiment of municipal failures and graft that had defined the previous decades in majority black cities. For his part, Booker occupied a complex niche in both the history of those black power struggles and their unintended consequences. To the extent that figures like James represented not a revolution but simply a more richly pigmented version of the old order, Booker was an heir to the same hopes that animated the 1967 conference. As a light-skinned black pol unconnected to any black institution outside his own family and more culturally fluent in the corridors of Wall Street than Broad Street, he represented the exact antithesis. That people like Raab and Mark Zuckerberg, who pledged $100 million to the city’s schools, saw Booker as a savior was at least partially a liability among those whose entire relationship to the city was defined by the struggle to save itself.
Booker’s popularity outside the city, which often exceeded his approval ratings inside it, paired with his tendency toward social media-friendly heroics was read as a violation of the city’s fiercely held creed of black self-determination. Baraka, never inclined to mince words, looked at Booker’s Internet constituency and frequent absences from Newark and declared him the “virtual mayor of the city.” As David Sirota observed in Salon, Booker’s affinity for politically questionable ties was not necessarily any better than the small-time of graft of the James era, it was simply more acceptable. By the end of his tenure Booker was being criticized not only Amiri Baraka but also Baraka’s son Ras, who was elected as a councilman in the city’s South Ward. It’s worth noting that Gibson and James, both of whom Baraka had acerbically ridiculed, were present for Baraka’s services; Booker was not.
Ras Baraka eulogized his father in a grenade of a speech that both celebrated the poet’s legacy and concussively assailed his critics. At multiple points during the funeral service, speakers pointed to the one remaining thing mourners could do in Baraka’s memory: support his son Ras’s bid to become the next mayor of Newark. The younger Baraka campaigns in an airbrushed red, white, and blue school bus featuring his image and the slogan: “When I become mayor, we become mayor.” In the view of Newark’s history it’s both a sentimental idea and an expression of a contemporary urgency. Those words could just as easily have applied to Kenneth Gibson’s campaign in 1970—and based upon the epidermal allegiances of the time “we” have been mayor for the past 44 years. Implicitly, the slogan speaks to the fortunes of those black Newarkers, descendants of those on whose behalf his father spoke as they emptied establishments of their wares in 1967. In the wake of the municipal stagnation overseen by Gibson and James and the slick corporate-friendly governance of the Booker years the slogan is slightly imprecise: We should be in italics. Four decades ago, a Baraka made a Booker mayoralty a real possibility. The unspoken, ironic hope among the choked-up citizens streaming out of Newark Symphony Hall was that Booker might, in the most inadvertent way possible, return the favor.