A Death In Newark: Amiri Baraka's Funeral As Told By Dwayne Rodgers
photos by Nicole Benvigeno for the New York Times
This past Saturday the funeral of writer and revolutionary icon Amiri Baraka shut down a section of one of downtown Newark’s main streets, dignitary style. Barricades. Mounted cops in formation. Hanging above the street, an American flag so large that it was held by a crane on either side, four stories tall perhaps. Police sirens on silent, pulsing their blue/red, blue/red, blue/red into the wet, gray slab of a cold January morning–snow falling gently upon the living and the Dead. African drummers flanked the entry to Newark Symphony Hall, greeting each attendee with ancestral rhythms and setting the tone for what would be a Homegoing service filled with music, poetry, remembrance and fire; the fire you light when a world-changing, shape-shifting native son has left the building–never to return. At least not in this incarnation, so greatly loved and admired.
Inside, every seat was taken. Thousands, come from around the corner and around the world to pay their respects to Amiri Baraka AKA Imamu Amear Baraka AKA LeRoi Jones AKA Everett LeRoi Jones. He reserved the right to choose–and change–his name as he found one better suited to express who he was or was becoming. Beat poet, Black Nationalist, Marxist, Griot, Shaman, Lighter of Fires; those are just a few along the path for a man whose intellectual and spiritual breadth were reflected in his perpetual search for his truest place in the world.
So here was the coffin of Amiri Baraka being carried down the center aisle of this majestic building, while New Orleans jazz was played by the band on stage and hands clapped and here and there women’s voices would pierce the shroud of celebratory solemnity with stark ululations. During the service, poet Saul Williams intoned “This is a stick up. Amiri get out of the coffin”–and then he spoke of Lazarus. This was as much a funeral as it was a call for resurrection, everyone in the room knowing that people with the passion and level of social engagement that Amiri Baraka had are becoming increasingly rare. And we need them.
I was there because I couldn’t imagine not being there. And I imagine for the same reason Woody King Jr. was there. And Danny Glover was there. And Asha Bandele was there. And Michael Eric Dyson was there. And Jessica Care Moore was there. And Tony Medina was there. And Sonia Sanchez was there. And Sister Souljah was there. And Haki R. Madhubuti was there. And Cornel West was there. And Oliver Lake was there. And Glynn Turman was there. And Ras Baraka was there; the son. The chosen son, rhapsodizing, channeling the spirit of his father, Amiri announcing from the grave the power of a father to shape his son into a reflection of himself and into his own man. And Savion Glover was there. Savion. The sound and image of Savion tap dancing next to the coffin of Amiri Baraka, The Poet, The Master Teacher is forever seared on my cerebellum and soloing in my nervous system. It was evidence of our collective genius. The People were there…because they could not imagine not being there.
Dwayne Rodgers is an artist and writer who has previously contributed words & images on the Million Hoodie March in honor of Trayvon Martin and his own Black Vernacular photo project for Okayplayer.