Baraka Speaks About Art, Politics in Campus Visit

By Louise Connelly ’15

Renowned dramatist, novelist, poet, music critic, and respected civil rights activist Amiri Baraka spoke to an audience of students, faculty, and community members at McCosh Hall Oct. 15, discussing the relationship between art and politics and the role of the city of Newark, N.J., in incubating the Black Arts Movement. The lecture and conversation were followed by a reception at the Art Museum, where Baraka’s work currently is featured in the exhibit “New Jersey as Non-Site.”

“If it wasn’t for art, politics in this country would be very different,” said Baraka, whose son, Ras Baraka, is currently running for mayor of Newark. “Look at the TV, movies, music. Listen to lyrics that you have to listen to everyday. It’s tough when you start analyzing what you have to hear everyday. You ask, what are they telling me?”

Baraka, who is considered the founder of the Black Arts Movement, moved to Harlem in 1965, following the assassination of Malcolm X, and started the Harlem Black Arts Theater/School. “We were in the streets of Harlem seven days a week, with music, painting, drama, and poetry the entire year of 1965,” said Baraka. “The Spirit House in Newark was a continuation of that work. We took the black liberation movement to a new level.”

Baraka spoke of the “twists and turns, unities and struggles,” involved in the evolution of the Spirit House, a cultural center in Newark, but ultimately said they succeeded in elevating “equal rights to new heights,” and “creating a community for unifying Newark.” The Black Arts movement soon spread as people in cities across the country emulated the use of writing and performance in educating their communities.

“Plays raise black people’s consciousness,” Baraka said. “They teach them why they are where they are now, what’s their consciousness now, and what they need to do… . We use art because art is still an important aspect of peoples’ lives.”