Fighting With Amiri


My friend invited me to a reception for Black Renaissance, the journal of NYU's Institute of Africana Studies. At the reception, Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed and Angela Jackson read from selected works to an audience of activists, academics, and public intellectuals, among them Africana Studies chair Manthia Diawara.

I walked in and almost turned right back around because the scene reminded me of AAAS lectures at Stanford (referring to the Department of African and African-American Studies, the first of its kind in history). Bunch of brown people holed up in some room with no windows, pale walls, and those fluorescent lights that make everything look ugly, talking about slavery, revolution, and WEB Du Bois. I, for one, had had my fill by graduation.

But I sat down, nevertheless, and began listening to the poetry.

It was quite good, though the problem with great poets is that people stop critiquing them and just let the words run over them like a wash.

That seemed to be happening during the Q&A, when folk were asking the most benign questions I have ever heard about the state of Black writing, street and chick lit, etc. So I stood up and said that I personally know a great deal of black writers doing interesting and dynamic work right now, and feel that I'm part of an imminent Brooklyn Renaissance of black art. I said it was all well and good for us to reference Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin and the like, but we need to craft a new discourse for addressing the issues of today.

Amiri responded by saying I needed to know my history. He proceeded to recount various details of slavery, Civil Rights, and the Black Arts movement, but I stopped listening when I realized he thought I didn't know who or what I was talking about and just wanted to make up some new shit that was really tight.

Then it was on.

I have never argued with a literary great, but his presumptuousness was enough to get me going. I responded that I had been in school almost my entire life. That I had read all these peoples works, studied them, referenced them, trying to find my way in the literary world. But that I'm dealing with having to create a new way of languaging our people to make it relevant to folks living now.

That it's all well and good and necessary for these Harlem Renaissance greats to have contributed what they did, but I can't emulate them and create a book that exists in some historical time capsule. "But it's not about a time capsule!" he countered. Went off on some other stuff about how we need to self-publish, never really answered my question or even really listened to what I was trying to say.

I don't know if you feel me, but we're living in an era of globalization, HIV/AIDS, the Jena 6, genocide, and Katrina. The reality is that Zora Neale Hurston died a penniless maid, and I can go the way of Zora, along with black people as a whole, if I think of writing as an exercise in historical reverence. I'm trying to figure out how to language these issues so they become relevant to folks my age and also mobilize the powers that be to action.

I can read Du Bois, but he can't teach me how to do that. In fact, he moved to Ghana to escape the West and, yes, I have visited his grave. I don't want to believe that the best black writing happened sixty years ago -- I want to believe that it lies somewhere in the future when we can tell our own stories, make them relevant, remove them from the margins, and place them squarely at the center of humanity.

Maybe I'm not being clear. Yes, we need Nkrumah, Fanon, Okri, all these and more, but they will not bring us any closer than we already are to answering these age-old questions. We need a new book, a new language.

Maybe that's why Barack looks so sexy to young folks...

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  1. This is the clearest you possibly can be. It's not that literary greats have not taken their places of authority in the world, but they did so to give rise to powerful new generations whose voices should not be silenced.

    I also listened to the J.K Rowling commencement speech where she spoke about 'imagination' as the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we've never shared. That quote can be used in this case as well: we have the power of imagination, and it is not for the humans of the past, but for those in the world we currently live in. They can't tell our stories, we're the only ones who can.


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