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    Posted January 13, 2014 by
    Washington, District of Columbia

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    The Amiri Baraka I knew


    CNN PRODUCER NOTE     Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones), who described himself as a confrontational poet and a political activist, died last week at 79. He was considered a founder of the 1960s Black Arts movement. He came under fire in 2002 and lost his post as New Jersey's poet laureate because of a controversial poem about the 9/11 terror attacks. Read more here on CNN.

    omekongo told me, 'Most stories I see about Baraka start by calling him controversial. I wanted to go beyond that and personalize this man. As great as his historical accolades are, I think the biggest part of his legacy is what he did to pass on the spirit of revolution and cultural pride to a new generation. This aspect of his life must also be acknowledged.'
    - hhanks, CNN iReport producer

    I first met Amiri Baraka in 2002 in Boston, Massachusetts. I remember because I was just back in America from a two-month trip to Congo where I was working in refugee camps. I had written a poem entitled “Welcome to the Congo” that detailed the horrors I witnessed and was eager to share it. When I learned that Baraka was coming to town, I was excited to see this legend in person, and hopeful that I would have the honor of performing in front of him. My wish had indeed come true, but I received a whole lot more than I could have ever wished for.

    Over the next seven years or so, Baraka would serve as a mentor to me indirectly than directly. Most of my contacts with him came through email correspondence but there were two more incredible opportunities I would have to spend time with him and even share the stage with him. I saw him the weekend of September 24th, 2004 at James Madison University where the “Furious Flower” conference was taking place. Some of America’s greatest poets were in attendance including Nikki Giovanni, Rita Dove, Sonia Sanchez, E. Ethelbert Miller, and the late Lucille Clifton. I was in a young poet’s heaven at this event and the memory of the weekend was solidified in my heart when I walked by Mr. Baraka. He was in a conversation about African poetry, saw me and said: “Now this is an African poet!” I don’t even know if he remembered my name but he remembered my work and that was special enough for me to call my wife with excitement but that was just the beginning.

    Towards the end of the conference, it turned out that there was a logistical error in his transportation back to DC. I happened to be listening (I wasn’t spying I swear) and instantly volunteered to drive them to Union Station in DC since I was on my home to DC. He agreed. Not only did I drive him, but his lovely wife Amina and son were also with him. To be honest, I was too nervous on this 3-hour drive to remember everything that was said, but I do remember that Mr. and Mrs. Baraka were so warm and responsive to all of my questions about their experiences. It’s a time I’ll never forget.

    Though I saw Mr. Baraka on other occasions during the time I knew him, the most memorable was a birthday party thrown for him in New Jersey. At the end of the night, we all broke into a jam session and there I was on stage with Amiri Baraka and 2 other poets just freestyling. It was such an incredible moment and that is what made Mr. Baraka so special.

    Mr. Baraka could have just signed my copy of his books or took a picture with me and sent me on my way. This has actually happened with me with other poets and celebrities of his stature. Baraka was different. He was truly invested in the next generation and took his time to pass on important lessons to us. Many people are writing memories of his importance to the Black Arts Movement and the movement for social justice and this is important. I choose to use this space to focus on the person behind the history. Seeing the outpouring of support and condolences since his transition proves to me that his relationship with me was not an anomaly. In so many ways, he set a high bar of what my role should be when I become an elder. I am so happy to have known him, but happier to know he can finally rest in peace.
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