By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
My introduction to Leroi Jones was reading “The End of Man is His Beauty” and “A Poem for Democrats” in 1963 in Rosey E. Pool’s anthology Beyond the Blues (Hand and Flower Press, 1962). In the headnote, Jones asserted that writing “beautiful poems full of mystical sociology and abstract politics” was among his ambitions.
Five years later at Fort Knox, I read the anthology Black Fire, a confirmation that focused anger has purpose. When I began teaching at Tougaloo College in the fall of 1970, Home: Social Essays by LeRoi Jones was one of the textbooks in my freshman composition course. My students had to debate why Negro literature was a myth and what Black writing should be.
Reading Jones before and after he became Amiri Baraka and using the terrible beauty of his mind as a touchstone for engaged cultural work was simply normal for me. Keeping up with his prodigious output was mission impossible; deciding how to deal with his ideological shifts and transformations of identity was hard work.
But he was teaching me constantly that nothing worth having in our tradition of perpetual struggle comes easily. I can’t mark the year in the 1980s when I finally meet Baraka, but I was relieved to discover this intellectual giant was not a man to be feared but a man with whom I could have civil discourses, with whom I could laugh and joke, with whom I could celebrate the complexities of being human. It sufficed that he would lend me his ear as I struggled with the immense range of his creativity. He was the master craftsman and teacher who taught me invaluable lessons about tradition and commitment. Baraka far exceeded his early ambitions and gave America a matchless body of engaged writing.
I learned much about our literary and cultural traditions from Alvin Aubert, as well, and our shared Saint James Parish, Louisiana heritage, such mutual friends as Ahmos Zu-Bolton, Pinkie Gordon Lane, Arthenia Bates Millican, Lorenzo Thomas and Tom Dent, and our devotion to teaching and writing made it easy to have a felicitous relationship. I met Aubert in 1972 during one of the annual poetry festivals at Southern University in Baton Rouge.
When Aubert founded OBSIDIAN, he invited me to serve on the editorial board. He took the risk of publishing my short story “David” and gave me generous advice about improving my jazzy poetry. We did a joint reading for E. Ethelbert Miller’s “Ascension Series” and maintained humorous correspondence for at least two decades. He arranged for me to be a visiting professor at Wayne State for a few weeks in 1987-88.
Although we had a happy reunion at the 2004 Furious Flower Conference, our perspectives on literature had drifted apart and our relationship chilled. We retreated into silence. Nevertheless, I still have deep respect for Aubert’s excellence as a poet and gratitude for his generous support of emerging writers and of my struggles to find my creative voice and critical voices.
I am saddened that Alvin Aubert (March 12, 1930 – January 7, 2014) and Amiri Baraka ( October 7, 1934 – January 9, 2014), poets and thinkers who had great influence on my work have died within days of one another. This is a great loss for the United States of America, for world literature, and for me. I am resigned, however, to honor their lives and works by continuing the traditions which they were devoted to enhancing. I listen carefully to their imperatives.