Poetry, Political Activism, and Community Organizing


The RBML’s collection is especially strong in materials dating from the 1960s when Leroi Jones entered New York City’s downtown poetry scene and gained notice for plays and essays including Dutchman and the Slave and Blues People. Collected here are poetry readings, television interviews, radio broadcasts, footage from political workshops, and audio recordings that bear witness to Jones’ artistic, political, and spiritual transformation into Amiri Baraka, militant Black Nationalist and community organizer. The 1970s saw Baraka move to Newark, New Jersey, where he became a public leader in the struggle to build political power for the African-American community. Baraka read poetry and delivered addresses at events in support of the Black Panthers, the Congress of African Peoples and the Committee for a Unified Newark (CFUN), appearing regularly on the local radio show, “Black Newark,” to discuss a range of topics from teachers’ strikes to the origins of Kwanzaa. Newly digitized materials illustrate Baraka's interest in the relationship between archives and politics. The collection includes recordings of workshops at Black radical conferences; film reels depicting political organizing around the Kawaida Towers project in Newark; documentation of speeches, performances, and readings at the Newark Afrikan Free School and other public demonstrations. Baraka used film and video recordings to build an archive of political pedagogy and activist struggle. An active auteur who wanted to know how the camera works, and how it focuses attention, Baraka explored political and artistic spaces through his ranging poetic eye.

Researchers in the Baraka collection will discover archives of poetic and documentary artifacts that enable new perspectives on a key figure of twentieth-century American poetry and black radicalism. Each research cluster provides short descriptions highlighting areas of interest in the collection and individual item numbers that correspond to the Butler’s digital archive. Date, location, medium, and file quality are noted where possible. These highlighted clusters represent only a fraction of all recordings in the digital archive. Some researchers will find these materials provocative, challenging, or upsetting, as Baraka could employ invective in his critiques of systematic white oppression. In reflecting the complicated trajectory of Baraka's political life, this collection not only highlights how his rhetoric and ideological positions transformed over time, but also invites researchers to complicate interpretations of Baraka based on singular moments in his activist and artistic career.

Selected Audio/Visual recordings from the Columbia RBML Amiri Baraka papers

I. Poetry in Public: Readings and Addresses

II. In the Spotlight: Television and Radio

III. “Nation time”: Black Power and Black Arts

IV. Black Music

V. Black Newark: Urban Activism and the Politics of Revolution

I. Poetry in Public: Readings and Addresses

  1. Reading (audio, 1959-60) Reads “A Poem Some People Will Have to Understand.”

  2. Leroi Jones, Milwaukee (audio, c. late 1960s) Short speech on black nationalism; poetry reading.

  3. Leroi Jones, at Albion College (audio, 1966) Speech pitched to college audience; about white and black experiences of education; racial integration versus separatism; black versus white religion; white writers’ claims to universalism; art and social commentary. Reads poem, “Three movements and a coda”; “Good tidings for the upright”; “For a lady I know.”

  4. Baraka Day, University of Colorado (audio, 1969) File 1 is Baraka’s speech: Critique of white discourses of “revolution,” empty “universalism” ie. SDS; popular culture, hippies, counterculture at the end of the ‘60s. Call for black national liberation, commitment to political nation-building independent from “white nation”; defines “African socialism.” Files 2-8 are audio files between 1 and 2 hours long: panel discussions; participants not identified; seem to be mostly writers, academics; uneven audio quality.

  5. Leroi Jones, at Dunbar High School, Chicago (audio, 1968) Mixed program of spoken word and poetry; set to music; multiple, unnamed speakers and performers; thematically centered on Black Power; remarkably antagonistic to “bourgeois” black culture, if this program was indeed presented to a high school audience.

  6. Leroi Jones, at Idaho State (audio, 1969) Speech on black nationalism; similar to other college campus events given by Baraka/Jones, beginning with a political speech and ending with a reading.

  7. Leroi Jones, at Loyola University (audio, 1969) “On Cultural Nationalism.”

  8. Fundraiser for Committee for a Unified Newark (audio, 1970) Benefit event supporting Kenneth Gibson’s mayoral campaign and slate of candidates in Newark elections representing African-American and Puerto Rican communities. Reading by Baraka and James Baldwin. Lengthy opening remarks about Newark, 1970 municipal elections; audio cut short; 40 mins of Baraka reading poems. Baraka introduces James Baldwin, who gives a speech about contemporary American culture, politics, race, Porgy and Bess – a remarkable document of Baldwin’s shift from Civil Rights era to his works of the 1970s more skeptical of white liberals.

  9. Imamu reading “Larry Rivers” poem (audio, 1970s) Set to music, a performance of a poem concerning the role of American painter Larry Rivers in the Black Arts Movement, apparently unpublished.

  10. Reading (audio, c. late 1960s, early 1970s) Speech on nationalism; poetry reading

  11. Reading, Northern Illinois University (audio, 1971) Baraka addresses campus audience on topics of black power, civil rights, mass movements, higher education, with especial focus on the experience of black college students. Closes with 20 minute poetry reading

  12. Reading, Denver (audio, Denver, 1979) A recording of Marxist-Leninist-phase Baraka reading several political poems, self-described “communist” poems dating from the 1970s.

  13. Reading, St. Bonaventure University (video, 1988) Featuring later poems locating questions of American life during Reagan presidency; extended q and a touching on the entertainment industry, publishing and the economy.

  14. Africana Studies, University of Pennsylvania (video, 1998) Artist-in-residence Baraka delivers lecture on “blackness” in arts, culture, politics since 1960s Discusses the “mistakes” of cultural nationalism; the credo of Black Arts, revolutionary art was to speak for and from its own institutions; need for alternative “superstructure” to capitalism. Reads “low ku” poems (play on haiku)/ Other poets read, including Amina Baraka and Askia Toure.

  15. Reading “Miles, Dizzy” (audio, 2000s)

II. In the Spotlight: Television and Radio

16. Interview, “Dialogue” (audio, 1964?; See also 32. “Untitled C”) Discusses Dutchman and Blues People Focus on playwriting; role of political artist in society

  1. New Generation Interview (television, 1966) My views have changed since Dutchman; about American society: “Most civil rights leaders are mouthpieces for this beast, this dying thing.” Critique of James Baldwin’s reverence for western culture, “grace and light” On Dutchman: the “actual value”… more meaningful for world I live in… not “captured” by white culture; “bombarded with white man’s heroic image of himself, which we confuse with an image of ourselves.” No “mass media communications” owned by black community Credits roll with performance of “Love me, I’m a liberal” by Phil Ochs

  2. “Say Brother,” WGBH, Boston Public Radio (radio, 1968) Revolutionary black national culture; “evolutionary process” Say Brother is WGBH’s longest-running public affairs television program by, for and about African Americans, now known as Basic Black. In April 2000, the WGBH Media Library and Archives in Boston was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Archives and Special Collections Preservation and Access grant to arrange, describe, and reformat master Say Brother programs dating from 1968 to 1982 to keep the collection accessible. WGBH welcomes you to explore this invaluable programming, whether performance, political commentary, or conversations with distinct voices from the African American community.

  3. “Idea” Interview (audio, 1968) Interview with Barbadian-Canadian writer Austin Clarke Discussion of Christianity versus Islam; Martin Luther King, Jr.; of artist as “activist.”

III. “Nation time”: Black Power and Black Arts

  1. Black Panther Benefit (audio, 1967) Pt. 1 Multiple, unidentified speakers; uneven audio quality. Pt. 2 Stokely Carmichael, speaking soon after he stepped down as SNCC Chair, on violence in black community; police brutality; call for “force.”

  2. “Kikora Round Midnight” (audio, 1969-70) Recording of political rally in Newark; Eldridge Cleaver speaks

  3. Leroi Jones, NYC (audio, 1970) Militant black nationalist speech discussing Newark, police, housing; analogy drawn with Vietnam; call for transformation in black culture and consciousness

  4. Tribute (audio, 2000) Introduction by actor Ossie Davis (d. 2005). Speech by playwright Aishah Rahman (d. 2014)

IV. Black Music

  1. Interview with John Coltrane (audio, 1966) Conducted less than a year before Coltrane’s death; discussion of jazz, race politics, music business, Coltrane’s music.

  2. “Black Newark,” Amiri Baraka on Black Music (audio, 1971) Features Baraka, giving a prose-poem qua lecture on commercial music industry’s censorship of “the new black music.”

  3. “Red Hot + Rhapsody” (video, 1998) Interview; discussion of George Gershwin; appropriation of black musical tradition. “Popular” versus “commercial” culture; entertainment industry; hip-hop. AIDS crisis; states view that HIV was “germ warfare,” part of broader US-led imperialism.

  4. Vision Festival, NYC (audio, 1998) Baraka appears at third annual Vision Festival (Arts for Art) of free jazz and improvisational arts

V. Black Newark: Urban Activism and the Politics of Revolution

  1. Chairman Baraka, press conference (audio, 1975) Chair of People’s Committee Against Budget Cuts; discusses funding cuts to public schools in Newark. Zoning battle over the proposed Kawaida Towers housing development. See Baraka’s 1976 NYTimes article.

  2. Press conference, Congress of Afrikan Peoples (audio, 1976) Chairman Baraka discusses teachers strike in Newark; expresses support but criticizes the lack of alliances between teachers and other school staff, parents, students, community. Discusses budget cuts in Newark in terms of local politics but also Third-World critique of imperial capitalism, contracting American economy. Call for the creation of a “revolutionary vanguard party” of the working class; reflects Marxist-Leninist, ‘international’ turn in Baraka’s politics.

  3. “Black Newark,” Newark Public Radio (audio, c. 1970-2) “Black Newark program” affiliated with Committee for Unified Newark (CFUN) and Congress of Afrikan Peoples. Baraka hosts “Issue of the Week” segment; focus on Newark public schools, city budget.

  4. “Black Newark” (audio, 1970) Baraka “Issue of the Week”; on Kwanzaa.

  5. “Black Newark,” Congress of African Peoples (audio, 1970-71?) Baraka, criticizing women’s lib, speaks on national liberation struggle Reads poems to the music of Sun Ra

  6. “Black Newark,” Teachers Union Strike (audio, c. 1970-2) Baraka speaks on the racial politics of labor in Newark public school system

156-7. “Black Newark” radio program appearances (audio, Dec. 28 1970; Jan. 11 1971)

  1. “Black Newark” (audio, c. 1970) Reads “New – ark: reality and change,” New York Times editorial; interview and poetry reading

  2. “Black Newark” (audio, 1970s) Need for more daycare centers; discusses NYC Urban League.

  3. Soul Rally (audio, c. 1970) Committee for a Unified Newark; Multiple speakers

  4. “Souls of Black Folk” (audio, 1975) Radio broadcast: over 8 hours of readings, music, interviews and statements; multiple unidentified speakers; most of the content seems to come out of Committee for Unified Newark; audio uneven.

  5. Congress of Afrikan Peoples, Atlanta (audio, 1970; see also, 168. Jesse Jackson’s speech) Speech at inaugural Congress; Baraka introduced as “Imamu” of Newark. “There is no such thing as instant revolution.”; Not cultural revolution, ie hippies; “Only the people can achieve national liberation.” Call for building political power through “world African party” and black nationalist community organization. In 1967 Ron Karenga and the US organization arrived at Baraka’s Newark-based Spirit House and drove a shift in Newark-based organizing, formation of Committee for Unified Newark, its sights set on the 1970 municipal elections (Kenneth Gibson became mayor in 1970). By then, however, CFUN had split with US. Baraka sat on CFUN committee for establishing a continuous organization (CAP) instead annual Black Power conferences.

  6. Congress of African Peoples (audio, 1970) Baraka’s opening remarks; Speakers from international delegations.

  7. Congress of Afrikan Peoples (audio, 1970) Pt. 3, reading by Poet David Nelson, of the Last Poets.

  8. Interview (audio, 1974) Baraka speaks about 6th Congress of Afrikan Peoples: Shift in Pan-Afrikanist program’s focus to neo-colonialism in the US, not simply colonialism abroad. Discusses national liberation movements in African countries. Endorses Maoist-Leninist theory of Third World liberation Bemoans the conflict between Black Panthers and US; plans for National Black Assembly organization; “We lack a black revolutionary political party”: goal is “to convince the masses that this system is corrupt and will never benefit them.” Arts need to “harness revolutionary theory”; Call for refocus from spiritual to material conditions in Black community.

  9. Address at Miami University, Ohio (May 6 1974) Speech on “revolutionary ideology” reflects Baraka’s turn to Marxist-Third World Liberation.

  10. Talk on “The Need for Community organizing” (audio, 1974) Baraka delivers address to unidentified audience in Eerie, PA; black history, black power movement must be built out of “indigenous ideology.”

*Author note: Lukas Moe is a scholar of twentieth-century poetry and teaches at San Jose State University. His essays can be found in jml and MLQ.