His uncompromising stance set an example of bold and daring work, which continues to resound
The African-American poet, academic and activist, Amiri Baraka, who died yesterday at the age of 79, was an intellectual troublemaker, to be sure; and that's a compliment. Vociferously black nationalist, he was still kicking ass in 2002 with his radical post 9/11 poem, Somebody Blew Up America, with its roll call of international evils perpetrated by, essentially, white men. His 2009 performance of this poem demonstrates the visceral power, iconoclasm, poetic clarity and underlying rage that was his trademark as a writer. This "protest poem" was accused of being anti-semitic, although he argued it was actually anti-Zionist. Accusations of misogyny and homophobia trailed his professional life, although The Norton Anthology of African American Literature quotes him as saying that as a teenager he walked around in women's clothes. A biography is due, I think.
I first came across him as a young writer and was shocked by the outspokenness of his writing. My poetry education at school had been overwhelmingly white, British, subtle, pastoral and internalised. Baraka and other writers of the ground-breaking 1960s Black Arts Movement like Jayne Cortez and Sonia Sanchez, and their literary descendants, were the opposite. Through them I discovered the importance and urgency of uncompromising political poetry that drew on black perspectives and experiences and used black vernacular and jazz syncopations. I never wrote like them, but they validated black life in literature when I had few other role models.
Raised by middle-class parents in New Jersey, Baraka was bright but not interested in school. He flunked out of Howard University and joined the air force for three years before becoming part of the beatnik set that included Allen Ginsberg. Politicised by the civil rights movement, his big breakthrough came with the production of his anti-racist play Dutchman, which won him an Off-Broadway Obie in 1964, although, true to form, some of his detractors accused him of anti-white racism.
In spite of some of his attitudes, I admired Baraka for his uncompromising stance on race as an artist – not just the obvious injustices of our eras such as apartheid or race murders, but the more insidious nature of institutional racism in education, industry, the media and society, which is harder to tackle. Also, his audience extended beyond the literary elite and out to the masses. Whatever he had to say could be understood by everyone. There is value in poetry like this. Baraka spoke up on behalf of black people, especially men, and the marginalised, disenfranchised and victimised. In 1964 he published an essay called Revolutionary Theatre that summed up his project at that time. "The liberal white man's objection to the theatre of revolution (if he is 'hip' enough) will be on aesthetic grounds. Most white western artists do not need to be 'political', since usually, whether they know it or not, they are in complete sympathy with the most repressive social forces in the world today."
Now there's food for thought, even today.
• Bernardine Evaristo's latest novel, Mr Loverman, is published by Penguin