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We didn’t know the late Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), who died this week at the age of seventy-nine, as a famous poet who initiated the powerful Black Arts Movement in 1965, or as the man whose groundbreaking plays, ranging from 1964’s “Dutchman,” to 1969’s “Four Black Revolutionary Plays,” changed what was possible on the American stage; we just knew him as Kellie and Lisa’s father, and Hettie’s former husband. I remember the thrill of climbing the steps to their apartment in the East Village with my friend Kathy. It was a warren of rooms tidily kept and filled with books and papers and welcoming love—just the kind of haven burgeoning artists such as Kathy and my teen-aged self were learning to seek out in a universe, which, we could already feel, had few safe harbors for people like us.
But Hettie’s place was always a harbor; and what was better than listening to the women of the house laughing at what one said or was about to say? Actually, they didn’t laugh so much as trill, like three birds sitting on a branch in sunshine. And what was better than sitting near Hettie’s rooftop garden drinking lemonade (with honey!)—there wasn’t a grain of refined sugar in the place—and listening to Hettie talk about where food could be gotten at a fair price or good clothes marked down, and the business of art? She knew everything there was to know about style, and survival. After all, by the time we met, in the nineteen-seventies, she had been supporting her children for years by writing books. Hettie’s books were as tall in subject matter as she was small in stature, but you couldn’t tell anyone who loved her that she wasn’t the tallest woman in the room. She wrote books for children and teen-agers, studies of race and social life, like “Big Star Fallin’ Mama,” a series of short portraits of titanic, genre-changing singers such as Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. In those and other works, Hettie set a path so sensationally followed by artists like Jacqueline Woodson today: children needed to learn about diversity because we lived in a diverse world.
If you wanted to be an artist, Hettie treated you like an adult, no matter what your age. She wanted to prepare you and protect you from the hard work that was to come. Rejection had not dimmed her enthusiasm for anything—especially young people. And one of the chief pleasures of hanging out with the Jones girls was seeing how deeply they had each other’s backs; and, if they loved you, they had yours, too.
During those visits, certain names came up—names I’d have to run to the library to learn something about. The jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp was their neighbor, and he had a little boy named Accra. They were friends with Kali, the child prodigy poet. But none of these people were talked about in the hushed tones surrounding a “famous” person; they were just the people the Joneses knew, and that included the poet Diane di Prima and her daughter, Dominique—“our sister”—and any number of music critics and poets and novelists to be.
After a while we all called Hettie “Mom,” and why not? She was our mother in every sense but the biological one; she fed us good brown bread and said: “Guys! I’m working!” when the games and laughter got too loud in the children’s room. Working! Art was working, and that was real. Living could be hard, too, but sometimes, and for a long time, it could be play. There we learned from Hettie’s example: being an artist did not preclude being human. But Baraka wasn’t a ghost in the Jones household; Hettie’s daughters spent time with his other children, in Newark, on summer holidays and so on, and I often wonder what that was like for them, as their father and mother knit together those various worlds that had been disrupted by politics or, more specifically, Baraka’s ardent belief that your body—your soul—had to reflect your radicalism, no matter the personal cost.
Many people learned about Hettie’s life from her 1990 memoir, “How I Became Hettie Jones.” It’s a terrific book, because it is descriptive of social history—the Beats, the Five Spot jazz scene, etc.—without using those events to sneak in a little bitterness. The book is a love story without rancor. In it, Hettie describes the central romantic event of her young life: meeting, at a music magazine where they both worked, a young black poet named LeRoi Jones. Hettie Jones began her life as Hettie Cohen, a middle-class Jewish girl from Brooklyn who loved the lives she got to know in downtown Manhattan. In the mid nineteen-fifties, when she was barely in her twenties, she met Roi, as he was called. He was small, dark-skinned, large-eyed, and ambitious, and he wanted to be a significant presence on that scene. Hettie was drawn to his energy—and the tender love poems he wrote about her. Their attraction to one another was profound, and the Jewish girl and the black man became a couple. They didn’t think of their relationship as a political statement: for them, being together meant exercising their bigger and better selves.
Together Hettie and Leroi started a literary magazine, and cultivated friendships with artists ranging from the painter Bob Thompson to the writer Frank O’Hara. In the meantime, they had two children: Kellie, in 1959, and, two years later, Lisa. (Kellie has gone on to have a distinguished career as an art historian, and Lisa is an author and scriptwriter.) As their children grew, so did Jones’ reputation as a poet.
More or less supported by Hettie, the young writer managed to produce a very personal, this-is-me-looking-at-that book of poems, “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,” and another, titled “The Dead Lecturer”; the still valuable nonfiction study, “Blues People” about the experience of making a culture in an alien world; and, in 1964, a masterpiece for the stage. Titled “Dutchman,” the Obie-award winning play was written in one night, as though in a fevered dream. Set in the New York City subway—a modern circle of hell—the play centers on two characters: Clay, a middle-class, black intellectual, and Lula, a somewhat loose, blond white woman who eventually does away with Clay and his pretensions and his rage towards his white seductress by violently killing him.
Writing in his 1984 “Autobiography,” Jones said that “Dutchman” was prompted by his desire to make his poetry feel more active; he wanted his plays to move. It was a brilliant decision. Between 1964 and 1967, Baraka wrote three plays of astonishing originality—and pain. Equal parts Living Theatre, spoken-word art, and raw, natural theatrical talent, the plays ricocheted between realism and surrealism, plain-spoken metaphor and dense, concrete riffs about various kinds of love: gay love, a fascination with power, blood lust.
Baraka’s work for the stage garnered a great deal of attention—he turned down a lot of Hollywood hack work—but after his first three plays were performed downtown and Malcolm X was assassinated, he turned his back on the “white” world that had fostered the first part of his career, moved uptown, to Harlem, and spearheaded the Black Arts Movement, the cultural equivalent of the black radicalism put forth by the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X’s early ideas about black separatism. He changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka—Yoruba for spiritual leader, blessed prince. I don’t remember Kellie and Lisa discussing their father specifically, but when his name did come up in the press, or if one happened to be carrying one of his many works, their pride was palpable, real, and true. Indeed, Kellie’s pride in her entire family is manifest in her outstanding 2011 book, “EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art.” As the poet Elizabeth Alexander points out, the book is a powerful act of family. In it, we not only have contributions from Lisa and Hettie about the role aesthetics has always played in their lives, but a beautiful one from Baraka, also about what art meant while he was making his first family. In his reminiscences, Baraka calls his eldest daughter Ms. Kellie.
The love and security one felt visiting the Jones girls was hard won: the dissolution of their family certainly mirrored what Kathy and I had experienced, too, but our own experiences had not taken place on the world stage. One was protective of them because they would not be left alone with their grief, and I want to leave them alone with it now. But the world does not work that way.
Over the years, Baraka became more and more of a public figure, a black-nationalist Marxist whose poetry—the best of it—was intoned at public events where he spoke like no one else. After he moved from Harlem back to the economically and racially devastated Newark of his youth, controversy continued to follow Baraka because, as a poet, his job wasn’t so much about espousing theories as articulating the subconscious, even when it and he were wrong, or misguided. The queasy remarks he’s made about homosexuality over the years, for instance, bothered me less than they should have, but I knew he was speaking from a certain vantage point that was not unfamiliar to me: many black men of his generation didn’t like who I was, certainly on that score, but that wouldn’t stop me from being myself.
Who could forget him at James Baldwin’s memorial service at St. John the Divine, where he said Baldwin was “God’s black revolutionary mouth,” and who could forget him in Warren Beatty’s underrated 1998 film, “Bulworth,” as an oracle who sees the truth through his own black revolutionary mouth? One got the sense though, over the years, that Baraka’s ego was at odds with his writing; that the early success of his poetry and plays irked him because he wanted the audience to see him, to connect with what he had to say on a more visceral level than mere paper and pencil could convey. I only met the grand elder statesman once, or almost met him. It was at Lincoln Center, at an event honoring James Baldwin. I had reviewed his “Autobiography,” none too favorably, some time before. But it was a young man’s review—a settling of old scores I wasn’t aware I had to settle. And there he was: small, intense, an athlete unsure of where to put all his energy, but it had to go somewhere. That night it went into defending Baldwin’s legacy, and as I listened I couldn’t help but remember his first family, the women who had made his life and ours completely different.