Poet, critic Baraka to speak Jan. 28 Event, planned for today, delayed by snow forecast

January 07, 1996|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,SUN STAFF

Imamu Amiri Baraka, who gained national attention as the black nationalist and poet LeRoi Jones in the 1960s, will speak at a Jan. 28 breakfast in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity's Columbia chapter, Kappa Phi Lambda, invited the 61-year-old leftist poet, playwright, essayist and jazz critic to be keynote speaker at its 21st annual King scholarship breakfast, originally set for today but postponed because of the weekend's predicted snow.

The fraternity expects more than 900 people to attend the event, which will include the awarding of $6,000 to $7,000 in scholarships to about a dozen Howard County students.

"He's been one of the key people over the last 30, 40 years as both a poet and activist," said Kenneth Jennings, who serves on the group's King breakfast and education committees. "He's a unique resource."

Members of the fraternity believe Mr. Baraka can bring the perspective of a black nationalist from the 1960s to a commemoration of the slain civil rights leader, who would have been 67 Jan. 15.

People tend to misinterpret Dr. King, Mr. Jennings said, and many focus on the inspirational aspects of his famous speech outside the Lincoln Memorial rather than on his call for fundamental change in a society infected by racism.

"The 'I Have a Dream' speech, as great as it was, people seem to not want to deal with what he said after [it]," Mr. Jennings said, adding that Dr. King grew very critical of American society. "It makes people too uncomfortable and forces them to look into their souls. Baraka will help us see that."

In a telephone interview Thursday from his native Newark, N.J., the award-wining writer -- whose works include the plays "The Dutchman and the Slave" and "The Toilet" -- said he plans to discuss "what America has been like -- the Sisyphus syndrome, a W.E.B. Du Bois terminology for that recurrent cycle of oppression."

Though blacks struggle for civil rights, he said, "white America always finds its own greed as a reason to circumvent that lTC struggle and roll a rock down the hill again -- to create great turmoil."

A week before the country's most prominent civil rights leader was killed in 1968, Mr. Baraka said, he and Dr. King met and talked about the need for a united front, bringing together varied perspectives from the black community.

"I guess that's why they killed him," Mr. Baraka said, implying that Dr. King was slain because of his efforts to forge such a coalition.

Though Dr. King is gone, the concept of a united front hasn't died, Mr. Baraka said, citing the historic Million Man March in October.

"I'm absolutely in favor of a united front that includes Jesse Jackson, Minister [Louis] Farrakhan and Communists like myself and nationalists like [Maulana] Karenga," he said. Dr. Karenga is a professor and chairman of black studies at California State University in Long Beach. He also started Kwanzaa, the annual African-American cultural holiday celebrated Dec. 26 to Jan. 1.

A Communist for 20 years, Mr. Baraka no longer describes himself as a black nationalist. "America is a big, white nationalist country. To me, black nationalism duplicates that on the other side with less chance of success," he said.

Mr. Baraka said that since he became a Communist, he has received less attention from the national media. "Once you move to the left, the powers that be become less interested," he said. "The truth is, people don't want to understand what those changes are."

Like his ideology, his writing also has evolved. "Whatever you're writing reflects you," he said.

Fascinated by language as a youngster, Mr. Baraka has written numerous books, plays, novels and essays. As a political activist in the 1960s, he helped establish several grass-roots organizations, such as the Congress of Afrikan Peoples.

Ralph Reckley Sr., an English professor at Morgan State University, remembers Mr. Baraka as "the dean of the revolutionary party of the '60s."

In his writing, Mr. Baraka didn't hold back, the professor said. For example, in "The Dutchman" he wrote about an encounter on the subway between a seductive white woman, Lula, and an intellectual black man, Clay. Believing he is acting white, Lula teases Clay and later fatally stabs him.

"He was radical. Totally radical," Mr. Reckley said of Mr. Baraka. "But one who believed in the African-American experience, one who believed in the strength of African-Americans."

Mr. Reckley compared Mr. Baraka to poet Sonia Sanchez and to writer Toni Cade Bambara, who died of cancer last month. "I think he was important in making blacks aware of what it means to be black and stopped us from imitating white folks," Mr. Reckley said. "He brought about that consciousness."

Mr. Baraka's favorite writer is Du Bois. "He was able to write not only beautiful prose or poetry, but also to tell you things to inform you," he said.

When not writing, Mr. Baraka teaches in the Africana studies department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Amiri Baraka, whose name means "blessed prince" in Swahili, has not lost sight of the poet's role. "It's what it's always been -- to make the world better," he said.

Ticket information: Ed Young, (410) 730-1481.

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