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

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