My encounter with Amiri Baraka

“Oh, yeah. I was optimistic. I mean, when I got in the Air Force I encountered the slings and fortunes of outrageous fools, but still — I mean, I was optimistic, you know, about it.”

That was Amiri Baraka’s answer to a question posed by Julian Bond, and it was one of the first of many sentences (somewhere in the hundred thousands, to be more precise) that I copy edited last summer as a research assistant working on Explorations in Black Leadership.

Baraka’s transcript was particularly challenging to edit. As evidenced by the sentence above, Baraka was full of quotes and allusions that he would modulate just so, a vast collection of literary material that he shuffled, juke box-like, and sprinkled into his statements. He was notorious in my mind as a master of what I think of as “fill words” – the “you knows” and “I means” that slow down the pace of thought delivery and make correcting commas a nightmare.

Baraka’s transcript wasn’t easy, which meant that I had to listen to each video segment over and over to try and get the words just right. His voice is ingrained in my mind. So when I got a New York Times text alert that Baraka had passed away, it felt like a punch in the stomach.

When I think of last summer, I remember the suspenseful moment when I would check all the video segments of a new interview for the first time to make sure the video files were working – a moment repeated 47 times for 47 separate interviews. It was then that I would hear the interviewee’s voice for the first time. I remember my dismay at Oliver Hill’s wispy, faint voice, so weak that it made my eyes water, and my surprise at Johnnetta Cole’s forceful syllables. The participant’s speaking style greatly impacted my efficiency; if they spoke quickly and concisely, like Barbara Lee, I could copy edit the entire hour-long tape in half a day. But if they spoke slowly like Julius Chambers, it might take me eight hours or more to work my way through the transcript. Sometimes, I found my heart beating just a little faster, as it did during Dorothy Height’s interview and Lucius Theus’ interview – these people were so uplifting, so full of vibrancy, that I felt inspired. To do what, I don’t know.

I worked alone for eight hours a day, four days per week, eleven weeks straight. Most days, I didn’t speak to a single person, aside from an occasional email or Facebook chat. My voice felt rusty, but my ears grew sharper with all the listening. I became a constant eavesdropper on these staged conversations, Julian Bond asking the questions and a black leader answering them. It was hard to imagine that most of the people being interviewed had spent time in jail or psychically brutalized by the brainwash media that attempted to define their character, yet they retained a love for humanity so great that they led the way toward reconciliation between whites and blacks. I’m white myself, but as I analyzed my own emotional reactions to the interviews, I found that I was proud to share humanhood with these black leaders, a pride that outpaced my shame at dominant white society’s profound failures in race relations.

I recently went on a walking tour of Berlin that assembled in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Before trudging off in search of the former Luftwaffe building and the site of Hitler’s bunker, our British tour guide pointed to a hotel behind us. “Do you recognize that balcony?” he asked. I stared at it, squinting in the gray morning light. It did look vaguely familiar.

“Remember when Michael Jackson dangled his kid off that balcony?” our guide asked, and an image played night after night on news stations slammed into place in my memory. It’s strange to think that the new, tiny humans joining this world won’t share the same planet as Michael Jackson or Amiri Baraka, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks. None of these people are interchangeable, and I certainly don’t mean to equate them, but they’ve all left undeniable marks on the world, and now they’re gone.

But when a Russian boy who bought me a drink in Prague asked, “So, you’re from America? Do you know any black people?” I was able to answer, “Of course.” And when he asked, “Are they…smart? Good?” I was able to feel my reaction – total surprise, since questioning black abilities has never occurred to me – as authentic proof of black leaders’ accomplishments in shifting public discourse. They may not be here in the flesh, but their words and thoughts and songs and dance moves and scandals and plays and quotes live on.

Art is whatever makes you proud to be human.

-Amiri Baraka

My (Edited) Year in Review

At the end of December, I read Dave Barry’s year in review, just like I always do. This year, I actually confirmed one of my 2013 resolutions – I had promised myself to be more informed on current events, and sure enough, this was the first year that I had followed the news consistently enough to remember all of Barry’s references from the headlines.

2013 was a difficult year for many people in my life, and to be honest, it wasn’t the easiest year for me, either. But at the same time, nothing was traumatic and I spent New Year’s Eve thinking about how much happier I was on December 31, 2013, compared to December 31, 2012. Meanwhile, NPR published a story that captured my imagination in a way that few stories do (and hey, the technique was thought up by a UVa professor). According to researchers, editing your own life stories can empower you to create happier endings.

This is the impulse that drives me to remember 2013 as a year of successes, potentially at the risk of ignoring half of my life’s events. I started to wonder, what if I wrote my 2013 year in review as failures, only to revise it to include my successes? What would that look like?

Well, I’m sure you guessed that I went ahead and figured that out. It would look like this:

January was a busy month, full of commitments to clubs and classes. Rush took over essentially the entire month; from Spirit Days to Bid Week, I began the semester already behind in several classes because my time was eaten up by the hours that I fulfilled responsibilities to my sorority.

February brought the first wave of papers, and by March my spring break was completely taken over by the reading that had piled up during course of the semester. There’s nothing more relaxing than sitting in bed with a pile of assigned reading…except that actually, there are a lot of things that are more relaxing than homework. I actually quit my retail job so that I’d have time to catch up on reading. I was buried alive.

In April, I learned that the local NPR job I had applied for not only did not hire anyone, but also determined that I was unqualified. Ouch! It was also the month that I had six papers due in the span of one week (among them some hefty page requirements). Despairing, I questioned whether I could handle taking on a dissertation.

In May, I moved into Hell House, where the previous tenants cut our power before they were supposed to and the window of my urine-smelling room was sealed with styrofoam. From May through June, I worked 7 days/week without any days off, averaging somewhere between 40 and 50 hours and gradually losing my mind. July wore on me, particularly as rent, utilities, and the down payment on a trip gouged into my earnings.

August was a hectic month of moving back to Leesburg from Charlottesville, only to turn around and move to Scotland a few weeks later. The Virgin Atlantic flight was cramped and complete with a screaming baby and a miscreant who kicked my chair for five hours straight.

In September, I was broken up with over text message.

October brought my parents to Scotland, but I had two papers due the weekend that they visited, so I spent half of the time frantically writing in my room instead of seeing them. In November, the New York Times billed me $35 that I didn’t intend to spend. December almost ended in calamity when the grant proposal I had spent months crafting was mistakenly sent to trash instead of the selection committee.

It’s a pretty crummy story, isn’t it? It’s full of inconveniences, stress, and disappointment. The sting of some of these incidents is still painful, and I leave them behind me with relief.

But there’s an entirely different, wonderful version of events that I’d prefer to remember:

After rush in January, I met my little at a frat party. If you know me personally, you’ll realize what a miracle that is because A) I generally never attend frat parties and B) even if I do, it’s almost impossible to talk to people. Alex and I spent some time chatting on the stairs, only to later realize how weird it was that we were hanging out away from the party as well as how perfectly our interests aligned.

In February I fulfilled a longtime dream of seeing Jeff Mangum in concert, and even better, we got there early enough to lean on the stage. In March, I carried out a successful Reading Series for the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society – essentially, I arranged three literary discussions with UVa professors for probationary members to attend. They all went more smoothly than I had expected, and I met some interesting professors through the process. April was an exciting month, as I learned that I was accepted to my second major (American Studies), my English concentration (Modern Literature and Culture), and my study abroad program at St. Andrews. In May, I planned my first trip abroad by booking a tour of the Scottish Highlands with my best friend.

June meant starting the job that had been created for me after the NPR debacle – it was a research assistant position that allowed me to listen to hours of fascinating interviews with black leaders every week. In July, I really hit my stride in my second job, a retail position with the best coworkers I’ve ever had. Throughout the summer, I grew closer to friends who were also in Charlottesville – most thrillingly when my friend Nora and I met Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National.

In August, I moved to Scotland for my semester abroad, and my perspective on the world changed forever. I explored the cold, rocky Outer Hebrides and swam in the peat-black, bone-chilling waters of Loch Ness. In September, I saw London for the first time, searching for Banksy murals and being sucked under the city in the Tube. My parents visited me for two wonderful weekends, and we visited Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, which remains my favorite audio tour of all time. I even convinced my folks to try haggis.

October brought new opportunities for travel. I visited Dublin for three fantastic days. My first story was published on Literally, Darling and received over 3,500 hits the first weekend it was posted, which led to another development in November, when LD’s editor-in-chief asked me to join the staff. I accepted.

In December, I turned 21 on a day when I woke up in Berlin, spent the morning in Dresden, and ended the day with pints of Pilsner in Prague, all in the company of my best friend. It was then that I realized that I’m occasionally the luckiest gal on Earth. Finally, I flew home and spent winter break among family and friends.

Although both versions are true, I like this second version much better. After writing the first, I felt anxious and defeated, burdened by the weight of my failures. After writing the second, I felt buoyed and capable of anything.

The real story of 2013 lies in their combination and how my failures dragged me down or drove me forward, as well as how my successes landed me where I am today, in the early moments of 2014. They work on my perspective together, inextricable from one another, no matter how capable I am of Eternal Sunshine-ing one half or the other out of my immediate memory.

What story of 2013 do you tell yourself?