The Power of Solidarity in the Conquest of Justice: How Sixteen White Poets Banded Against Police Brutality and Stood Up for Amiri Baraka in 1968
By Maria Popova
On a recent visit to the archive of the Academy of American Poets, which dates back to the 1930s and includes a wealth of ephemera by and about nearly every major poet of the past century, I chanced upon something that stopped my breath with its potency and timeliness — a 1968 open letter by an impressive roster starring some of the most prominent writers in the country, concerning the beating, arrest, and sentencing of Amiri Baraka (October 7, 1934–January 9, 2014). The morning of my visit, almost half a century after the letter was written, news had broken of another heartbreaking case of police brutality with racial dimensions.
Some necessary context first: A prolific poet, essayist, playwright, music critic, novelist, and short story writer, Baraka, born LeRoi Jones, was a literary polymath with a strong political bend. His politics were radical and revolutionary, yes, but his writing was responsive rather than reactive. One of the most important and influential black voices in literary history, alongside titans like James Baldwin, he modeled the art of choosing poetic response over reflexive reaction amid a culture whose propensity for the latter and paucity of the former have only intensified in the half-century since.
Baraka urged black artists to cease measuring themselves against the standards of the white middle class, which are bound to always end in a repression of their authentic voice and a sense of personal failure. He influenced beloved writers like Nikki Giovanni and Adrienne Rich, who wrote at the end of her long life:
I would urge any serious student of the human scene, certainly any poet, who has not recently, or ever, read [Baraka’s 1964 poetry collection] The Dead Lecturer: borrow a copy from the public library, from a friend’s bookshelf, or get hold of it secondhand.
But Baraka became an exponentially contentious figure as he marched along the axis of his life. Having started out in the kinship circle of the Beats, with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac as his peers, he traveled to Cuba in 1960 in Langston Hughes’s stead on a delegation of black writers invited to celebrate the first anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. A gifted twenty-something hungry for the spirit of rebellion, Baraka had his first taste of radical politics and was instantly intoxicated. “My mind and my life were changed forever,” he would later reflect on the trip.
Upon returning to New York, Baraka became increasingly awake to racial injustice. The assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 unsettled him into a new phase of life. He left his wife and two daughters, moved from the Village to Harlem, founded The Black Arts Repertory/Theater School, and was instrumental in advancing the Black Arts Movement. His writing became increasingly incendiary, animated by a restless sense of injustice, which in turn rendered him increasingly controversial. To be uncontroversial in one’s devotion to political change, of course, is to be ineffectual, for it is impossible to upend the status quo without the status quo shrieking “Fiddlesticks!” at the upender. But in his crusade against racial bigotry, Baraka danced dangerously close with other kinds of prejudicial propaganda.
I should note here that while I am among the many troubled by the misogynistic, anti-Semitic, and homophobic remarks in some of Baraka’s writings, as well as by his pro-violence stance in explosive opposition to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s ethic of love and nonviolence, I am of the firm belief that if we are unable to make space for simultaneous contradictory truths, we are floundering at a basic task of being human. And what remains true is that, despite these questionable statements, Baraka has made an enormous and lasting contribution to the social, political, and poetic discourse in this country.
More than that, any human being who is fully alive and awake to the world has a duty to be continually changing her or his opinions, always evolving, like the universe itself, toward greater complexity. To judge who a person “Is” on the basis of their views at a particular point in time is to deny them the dignity of continual being, for at any given moment we are only ever seeing a static slice of the person’s dynamic becoming, which stretches across the evolving context of an entire lifetime.
Baraka is a supreme example: Late in life, in an introduction to a new edition of his 1965 collection Home: Social Essays (public library) — most of which he had written in his twenties — he reflects:
One heavy and aggravating problem with these early writings is that I’ve long since changed my views on some topics… For instance, the homophobic language in several of the essays … using the word “fag” homeboy style to refer to the right-leaning liberalism of too many Americans, males as well as females, is wrongheaded and unscientific… Now I must openly regret and apologize for the use of that metaphorically abusive term that was then part of my vocabulary.
In 1966, a year after the essay collection was originally published, 32-year-old Baraka — still LeRoi Jones at the time — moved back home to Newark. He recounts:
It was on my return to Newark in 1966 that what I knew superficially was thrust forcefully upon me to fully understand: that there were classes and class struggle among black people, just like all peoples. Coming home and seeing these struggles around real social and political issues transformed me from cultural nationalist to communist.
The following year, after traveling to Los Angeles and becoming enchanted by Kawaida — an activist philosophy celebrating indigenous African names — he changed his name to Imamu (honorific Swahili for “spiritual leader,” from the Arabic imam) Amear (derived from the Arabic for “prince”) Baraka (“divine blessing” in the Islamic tradition), which he eventually condensed into Amiri Baraka.
That July, riots broke out in Newark over the systemic police brutality to which the city’s black residents had been subjected. In The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (public library), Baraka recounts what happened late the first night of the upheaval:
The streets were quiet, eerie quiet, and it was pitch black and maybe one in the morning. We were moving slowly down South 7th Street … when we saw the lights. Red lights like vicious eyes blinking. A riot of red lights blinking. Like Devils or pieces of hell. We were slowing down, and the lights seemed to get frantic, batting and winking, little silent splinters of scream. Then we could see under the streetlights piles of police cars, maybe five or six. For one instant we started to stop and back up or try to U-turn or even speed up on the sidewalk and go past. But the fantasy had stopped. All of us could sense that if we did anything we would die. We could see the shotguns and helmets. They had the street blocked and as we slowed pulling up to them we looked at each other and got ourselves ready.
A mob of police surrounded the van, two of them pulling open the front and back doors. They had their shotguns and handguns trained on us as they dragged us out the doors. Shorty, Barney, and I. I heard one guy say, “These are the bastards who’ve been shooting at us!”
Another shouted, “Where are the guns?”
Then another cop stepped forward, I think he was saying the same thing. What was really out is that this cop I recognized, we had gone to high school together! His name was Salvatore Mellillo. The classic Italian American face. “Hey, I know you,” I said, just as the barrel of his .38 smashed into my forehead, dropping me into half-consciousness and covering every part of me with blood. Now blows rained down on my head. One dude was beating me with the long nightstick. I was held and staggering. The blood felt hot in my face. I couldn’t see, I could only feel the wet hot blood covering my entire head and face and hands and clothes. They were beating me to death. I could feel the blows and the crazy pain but I was already removed from conscious life. I was being murdered and I knew it.
Eventually, onlookers from nearby buildings attempted to intervene by shouting and throwing household objects at the police. To avoid a public scene, and possibly to escape the legal ramifications of eyewitness testimony, the cops shoved the three bleeding young men into a police car and took them to the station. Baraka was thrown in jail. Meanwhile, 23 of his fellow citizens were killed in the streets — 21 black and two white, a policeman and a fireman. That was the official count — but Baraka believed that many more blacks were killed, their bodies and records hidden away. The city incurred material damaged estimated at $10 million, mostly to the black community.
The police cited gun possession as the reason for Baraka’s arrest, but the poet insisted that he never had any weapons. He was tried by a racist judge, who read Baraka’s poem “Black People” during the trial and who was later removed from office for misconduct. The poet was released on a $25,000 bail — around $180,000 in today’s money, adjusted for inflation, and a record at the time — which his mother and her friends had scrapped together by putting up their homes as collateral. The trial, which Baraka later called “a comic opera,” only escalated the civil unrest. Eventually, the National Guard was sent into Newark and stationed in a vacant lot across from the jail.
On November 6, Baraka and his two friends were convicted on charges of illegal possession of two revolvers. Until his death nearly half a century later, the poet maintained that the evidence had been manufactured.
And so this brings us to what I found in the archive of the Academy — a hope-giving beacon of searing solidarity amid an episode of harrowing darkness both in the poet’s particular life and in the common life of our larger civil society.
Written in January of 1968, this open letter to the country’s creative community is co-signed by sixteen of the most important poets alive at the time, including Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, and Allen Ginsberg, all of them white. In a clever play on both the police and the Congress of Afrikan People (CAP) which Baraka had founded, they called themselves the “Committee on Poetry” — COP.
Committee on Poetry
We believe LeRoi Jones, not the Newark Police, that the poet carried no revolvers in his car, no revolvers in the car at all; that the police beat Jones up and then had to find a reason, thus found phony guns; that after the double-whammy of his beating and rabbit-in-hat guns, his trial before an all-white jury was triple-whammy. Lo & behold, fourth execrable whammy! — the Judge recited LeRoi’s visionary poem to the court (a butchered version) … and gave him a long 2½-3 year sentence because of it.
Mr. Jones’ whitekind is that self-same demon we call tyranny, injustice, dictatorship. As poet he champions the black imagination; as revolutionary poet his revolution is fought with words. He scribes that the police carried the guns. Lyres tell the Truth!
We herald to literary persons: get on the ball for LeRoi Jones, or else get off the poetic pot. LeRoi Jones is not only a black man, a Newark man, a revolutionary, he is a conspicuous American artist imprisoned for his poetry during a crisis of Authoritarianism in these States.
Diane di Prima
Baraka didn’t serve the sentence, and perhaps these sentences served his case — over the months that followed, public awareness of and outrage over his fate continued to gain momentum; a different judge overturned the verdict for lack of evidence in 1969.
And so today, when half a century of temporal progression has yielded shamefully insufficient cultural progress in the plight of civil rights, when we wonder what we can do about the anguishing injustice of it all, may we never forget the power of solidarity with our brothers and sisters of different stripes, those repressed and oppressed for any dimension of their identity. May we never forget the power of standing on the side of justice and speaking up, publicly and unflinchingly. May we never forget the power of the poetic as a vehicle for political change.
The Academy of American Poets, while enormous in scope, legacy, and cultural significance, is a modest organization powered by a tiny, passionate team. Join me in supporting their tremendous work of poetic advocacy with a donation, which will help, among other things, digitize and make widely accessible their extraordinary analog archive.
Published July 11, 2016