Answers in Progress: Amiri Baraka’s Lyrical Manifesto for Life
By Maria Popova
The question of what it takes to have a good life is the animating inquiry of human existence, and although it is each of our life’s work to arrive at the answer for ourselves, we can be, and have been, greatly aided by those who have made the question their vocation — the philosophers, like Bertrand Russell and his theorem of love and knowledge, the psychologists, like the Harvard team who conducted a revelatory 75-year study of human happiness, and, perhaps most of all, the poets, those captain-spirits of humanity, who craft and steer vessels of language to hold what our hearts and minds struggle to contain.
One uncommonly beautiful hint at an answer comes from the poet, playwright, short story writer, and essayist LeRoi Jones, better known as Amiri Baraka (October 7, 1934–January 9, 2014).
1967 was a momentous year for Jones. Upon returning from Los Angeles, where he had become 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 summer, the police brutality surrounding his unlawful arrest incited sixteen of the country’s most prominent white poets to perform a remarkable act of solidarity and moral courage, rising in Baraka’s defense and in defense of artists’ broader right to speak truth to power. That year also marked the release of Baraka’s debut short story collection, Tales — a sandbox for experimenting with and refining his singular voice as a writer, in which he punctuates his prose with fragments of poetry infused with his formative Beat sensibility.
One piece, titled “Answers in Progress” and later included in the indispensable Selected Plays and Prose of Amiri Baraka / LeRoi Jones (public library), contains a bewitching poem-song that pours in from the boulevard as the protagonists walk through town after an alien invasion. Reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life from the preface of Leaves of Grass, the piece stands as a lyrical manifesto for largehearted living. Baraka writes:
Walk through life
Beautiful more than anything
Stand in the sunlight
Walk through life
Love all the things
That make you strong,
be lovers, be anything
For all the people of
You have brothers
You love each other, change up
And look at the world
Our’s, take it slow
We’ve got a long time, a long way
Each other, and the
Don’t be sorry
Walk on out through sunlight life
We’re on the go
Tasting the sunshine
In 1969, the poem was reprinted as a standalone poster, bearing the title of the story in which it originally appeared:
Complement with the late Amy Krouse Rosenthal on how to live with fantastic aliveness, Mary Oliver on the measure of a life well lived, and Diane Ackerman’s poetic invitation to living with absolute presence, then revisit the striking story of Baraka’s arrest and the conquest of justice.
Published August 24, 2017