'Don't punk out,' poet tells students 300 hear Amiri Baraka at Wilde Lake High

September 29, 1998|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

Amiri Baraka -- revolutionary poet, outspoken teacher, controversial orator, award-winning dramatist, black cultural nationalist and legendary loose cannon -- brought his entire arsenal of language to Wilde Lake High School yesterday.

The 63-year-old firebrand took to the darkened stage before the polite audience of 300 suburban teen-agers to read his work, answer questions and do the job expected of every good poet -- disturb the peace.

"All you young people, don't just throw your life away," Baraka said slowly into the hidden microphone as the audience bristled with nervous laughter. "This thing seems easy to you now.

People are paying your bills, you're in the suburbs, everything's fine. Find something that you want to do, and don't punk out."

That set the tone for what followed in the next hour, with Baraka reading poems, singing and scatting jazz melodies while looking for another passage to read.

Dressed in khaki pants and a sports jacket and looking every inch the learned professor he once was -- at the Department of Africana Studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook -- Baraka looked out into the audience, pulled a ream of loosely bound papers out of his leather satchel and let it rip.

Looking out into the faces of the multicultural audience, it was clear that most of the students, from schools around the county, came not knowing what to expect. By the end, a few maintained an air of being unimpressed, but many were responsive and left the auditorium excited and inspired.

"I thought he was very powerful in his words," said Linquir Wilson, 17, a senior at Howard High School and a poet who will have some of her work published next year. "He was very eloquent and his message was very relevant."

When Baraka launched into a poem called "Afternoon Television," the students seemed appreciative.

By the time he read through a series of haiku that he calls "loku, the African-American form of haiku," the audience was clapping, cheering, laughing in all the right places.

'Why we are the blues'

"That's why we are the blues ourselves," Baraka read. "So dark and tragic. That's why we are the blues, black and alive."

David Barrett, chairman of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, which sponsored the event, called Baraka "an extremely important American poet, probably the most influential poet of the last 30 years. Having him come to speak to these young people is wonderful because he comes across as a parent and a teacher."

Make that a very cool parent and teacher.

Baraka -- whose name means "blessed prince" in Swahili -- 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.

A communist for more than 20 years, Baraka no longer describes himself as a black nationalist.

But Baraka's outlook on the world hasn't changed much since he started writing poetry in the late 1950s under the name LeRoi Jones: The oppressed should have the right to stand up for themselves. Those who feel the need to express themselves should be given a push in that direction.

A long, long way to go

And, oh yeah, things haven't changed all that much since the days of segregation, and black folks still have a long, long way to go.

"As long as that Tom-ass Clarence [Thomas] is in there on his knee telling the boss that everything's all right, we still have work to do," Baraka said of the Supreme Court justice.

Equality for black Americans "isn't guaranteed," Baraka warned the students. "You have to take an active role in changing this. A lot of you are passive because you live out here in the suburbs, and that's all right. You all have got your own struggle, though you may not know that now.

'Deprogram yourselves'

"Most of you all will have to deprogram yourselves," he said. "You learn about racism in your house, what you see on TV, what's in your racist textbooks."

Afterward, Wilde Lake senior Nicholas Goines, 18, shook Baraka's hand and told him that the speech had been "beautiful."

"I've never heard those issues talked about like that," he said.

Jerome Robinson, 17, also a Wilde Lake senior, said he liked the fact "that Baraka wasn't afraid to say things about what's still going on today. He stood up for what he's written and said, and he didn't back down."

Pub Date: 9/29/98

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