The Africana studies department at Stony Brook University held a two-day symposium this week in honor of Amiri Baraka, a controversial poet, writer, activist and previous Stony Brook University professor, for its 50th anniversary celebration.
A poetry slam, film screening, panel of scholars and Baraka’s son, Newark, New Jersey Mayor Ras Baraka, remembered and discussed the legacy of a political artist who drew both criticism and praise with his poignant personality and work.
“I know there are people in the world who compartmentalize his development and his growth, and they relate to the part of it that either makes them feel comfortable or justifies their narrative of him,” Baraka said. “My father was an evolving person, always.”
Known for his poems about music, commentaries on society and activism during the black arts movements in the 60s and 70s, Baraka was also criticized and accused of being anti-Semitic over the poem “Somebody Blew Up America” that he wrote after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Africana studies department released a statement on its website saying, “We reject all forms of rhetoric and speech that would seek to target particular identity groups or individuals, or which might decrease the sense of safety, security, or belonging for any in our shared community.”
Africana Studies Chair Tracey Walters said she received several emails from fellow professors voicing their concerns, which she replied to with statements in addition to reaching out to the Jewish community on campus to let them know of the event’s intent.
“We don’t privilege one person’s suffering over another,” Walters said. “We’re not discounting the hurt and the pain that various communities are going through right now by having Baraka’s son here or by having a panel on Baraka’s works.”
She invited the attendees to start an open dialogue about the complexity of Baraka’s artwork and political beliefs.
“The best way to address our differences, the best way to address our pasts, our history, however complex in nature, is to have a public discourse about it,” she said.
During a panel discussion titled “An Urgent Voice for Liberation in Times of Trouble: Celebrating the Legacy of Amiri Baraka,” Dr. Komozi Woodard, a history professor at Sarah Lawrence College, said some of Baraka’s political work might be instructive even today.
“Baraka predicted Trump,” Woodard said. “Everybody thought what he was saying, move to the right that would produce white supremacy, could never happen here. Well, here we are.”
In 1972, Baraka helped organize and chair the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. With the theme “unity without uniformity,” the convention worked to unite blacks politically and to create a third political party.
“A lot of times, one of the issues that come up in the literature is this bashing of the Black Power movement as having killed the Civil Rights movement,” Assistant Professor of Africana Studies, Dr. Zebulon Miletsky, said. “Those people haven’t looked at the archives.”
“We owe the legacy of the founding of Africana studies, in so many ways, to this kind of work,” Miletsky said.
Amadi Agbomah, a junior Africana studies major and a poet, said she had studied Baraka’s work before but the event taught her new things about Baraka and gave her the chance to take a look at the original copies of his work in the university archives.
“What we have is a man fighting for causes that we all share as human being: human rights, freedom, independence, dignity and justice,” Assistant Professor of Africana Studies, Dr. Shimelis Gulema, said. “That’s something we should do in this world, at this time, in this particular moment, when ideas of freedom, ideas of social justice are under serious threat here and all over the world.”
“A luta continua,” Gulema said. “It means, ‘the struggle continues.’”