Love of Revolution: Tom Porter & Jared Ball Remember Amiri Baraka
Mr. Tom Porter returns for part 2 of his discussion of Political Struggle, Family, Friends and radicalism in the civil and human rights struggles of the United States.
JARED BALL, HOST, I MIX WHAT I LIKE: Welcome back to I Mix What I Like here on The Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball.
We are continuing our conversation with Mr. Tom Porter. Porter is a longtime activist, educator, and philosopher. Be sure to see our previous segment with Mr. Porter for more on him and his life.
Mr. Porter, welcome back to I Mix What I Like and The Real News.
TOM PORTER, ACTIVIST AND RADIO HOST: Thank you once again.
BALL: You know, you were a longtime friend of the recently passed Amiri Baraka.
PORTER: Amiri Baraka. Yes.
BALL: And I think that he represents so much of the kind of work that has inspired you and that I think needs to continue to inspire the rest of us. Could you talk a little bit about his importance, both in terms of his political analysis, but also the way he deployed that analysis artistically, politically, etc.? Could you tell us a little bit about that?
PORTER: Sure. You know, one thing I’d like to say is that all of the work and struggle that we were involved in, we were also family people. You know, a lot of times when you think about people who are radical, you think about them as somehow not being like normal people. You know, I’m the father of five daughters, seven grandchildren. You know, serious about being big family.
And my first meeting with Baraka is that I rode up from Wilmington, Delaware, with my homegirl Nikki Giovanni, late one night to Newark to visit the Barakas. And at that time, he and his family were living upstairs over Spirit House. And I can remember that night just as it was today. And Obalaji, who was his oldest son, was really sick. And I said, well, Amiri, we need to–he was LeRoi then–I said, Roi, we need to go get this baby something. So we went out and found in all-night drugstore, and I got some temper drops, which was what you did in those days if children had a bad cold. And so it was my first–I mean, he was a family man and very serious about being a family person. You know. His son Ras is now the mayor of Newark. But that started early on. And so I knew Amiri Baraka.
It’s interesting, because when he passed, I was in Newark when he was sick, and I was in the room with him when he passed, and they kept saying, well, this is Amiri Baraka’s best friend. But, yet, nobody actually knew the connection. But we had been friends since that time. And we would see each other on the field of struggle at different meetings and what have you, and we always talked. But I was never his agent. I was never his manager. We were just friends. And he was a–Amiri Baraka was, first of all, such funny guy. Somebody sent me something last week where he said at some rally that you can call on God all day and he won’t come, but you can call 911 and the devil will be here in a minute.
BALL: That’s right. That’s right. That’s right.
But he also represented for what–and experienced directly all of the dominant radical thematic analytic approaches that African people, black people kind of deal with.
PORTER: Well, he was a central–he was–. Yeah.
BALL: Socialism, communism, cultural nationalism. Right, right, all of these things.
PORTER: He was a central figure in our movement from his early days as a poet in the village, to moving up to Harlem and then back to Newark, and his helping to start the Congress of African people, the black arts movement. He was always central. But the thing that set him apart is not only was he a great literary man in my thinking that he represented perhaps the greatest literary figure in the last half of the 20th century. He was more than just a poet. I mean, if you read his essays, he broke so much ground. One of his first books, Blues People, set the stage for all writing that was to follow about black music. His setting up of Spirit House, which was not just a place where poets came, but where meetings took place and where musicians came to play. And up until shortly before he passed, he had concerts in the basement of his house on South 10th Street in New York with some of the greatest musicians around New York. But he also was a confidant of Malcolm X, of John Coltrane. And a couple days before he passed, Martin Luther King stop by his house.
So he was a phenomenal human being. But he never wore it like that. I mean, if a group of students wanted to talk about writing of poetry, he would stop. If he saw somebody on the street asking for money, he would give them some. And he stayed focused.
And he moved, as we all move, from black nationalism, that the white man was the devil, to understanding that the issue that we had was the system and how do we tackle that. We begin to look at other ideas. And you look around the world and you see, well, all the people who I kind of look up to–Ho Chi Minh, Lenin, Amílcar Cabral, Nkrumah, W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson–all these people were on the same team. They were all talking about something called socialism. So let’s check it out. And we began to check that out. Some people checked out Mao Zedong. Some people check out Lenin. But we begin to check that out and begin to discuss the things. But Baraka was able to take wherever he was atn a given point in history, whatever his thoughts were, and to bring the people forward with that. That was his genius.
BALL: So, as you reflect on not only him, but all of those ideas with which he grappled, and you think about that today and you think about who you are and the way you particularly blend, in your analysis, this race and class. And, I mean, I almost feel like–that so much of those arguments are even lost today, that the arguments over Pan-Africanism or how that’s to be defined or socialism or communism or various nationalisms for black people are not even in vogue or not nearly enough in vogue as people grapple with what’s happening right now and what to do about it. As we sort of have to turn to close our conversation here, how would you suggest that these ideas be considered today? And what would you say to people who would say, well, we don’t need those ideas anymore, that somehow those–that coterie of radical analyses are no longer necessary?
PORTER: Well, first of all, I think that the young people who are rebelling–and they’re not writing; there’s a difference between a riot–. A riot is what the white boys do when they lose a football game. A rebellion is a strike against oppression. I think the young people will find and begin to ask questions in the same way that we ask questions. You know, you don’t decide that you’re radical any more than you decide that you’re hip. It just happens to happen that way going through life.
And so I think that young people will begin to discuss those ideas just as we did, and I think they will discover–the one thing that happened was the separation between our generation and younger generations. And that was done on purpose. I mean, urban renewal–what we should call Negro removal–didn’t just separate communities, but it separated older thought from new thought. But I think that what’s happening now, I think people will begin to discover some of the people who influenced us.
BALL: So if we were to–you mentioned some already, but if we were to recommend any readings or scholars or thinkers in general–I mean, you mentioned some, quite a number already, but are there any others in particular that you think–.
And then I’m also kind of–I mean, I’m also–want to–you know, I’m a little concerned at how that transmission will occur. And maybe I’m more of a pessimist than I need to be at this moment, but I feel like there are more barriers to these ideas than conduits.
PORTER: But you can’t keep ideas away from people. I remember late one night in D.C. I was in a little Chinese carryout, and there was a young woman, maybe 15 years old, and she was talking about capitalism and all of this. And I was listening to her, listening to her, and I said, well, how do you know all of this? I won’t say what she said, but she said, /ɛs/, I read. And so there are people–it is not normal and natural to want to be dumb. And so people are always asking questions.
I mean, my reading list, I would suggest that people read Jack O’Dell’s articles in Freedom Ways, certainly Amiri Baraka. Jack O’Dell is the man who J. Edgar Hoover called the most dangerous man in America. Jack’s shorter than I am, but I would encourage them to read Jack O’Dell. I would encourage them to read Du Bois. But the most important thing is to read people who were actually involved in struggle. So I’ve read Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Kwame Nkrumah, Amílcar Cabral, you know, and listened to music. I mean, yesterday morning I got up and I put on John Coltrane’s First Meditations (for quartet) and my favorite Bob Marley CD, and there was no difference between what Trane was saying and what Bob Marley was saying. You know? So you’ve got to listen to our music, ’cause that’s the one thing we had when we get off the boat that they couldn’t take away from us. And the message is always the music.
BALL: You know, want to at least squeeze this in very quickly, because you mentioned music. You were also, as you were saying off-air, not a record collector, per se, but you do have–you have amassed one of the most incredible record collections I’ve ever seen, and your music knowledge is really unparalleled as far as I can tell. Could you just say another word or two about the importance of music or how you approach music?
PORTER: Well, again, I don’t know when I started to like music, but I always liked music. Mean, I can do an imitation of country and western singer. I always liked music. I always liked all music. But I particularly like black music. My father played a harmonica, so I was always around the music of John Lee Hooker and those people.
But a friend of mine, late friend of mine, “Skunder”, the Ethiopian painter, I interviewed him one night, and he said the music was the most important thing, because it had already started, that it had started before the literature, before the painting. And he was a painter himself. He said it was this big force that was moving before us, and it modulates until we understand it.
So I think the music, the music of African people, not just the music of black people in this country, but the music of African people, wherever it comes from, influences not just us but the entire world. There are two things you that you can go all over the world and always find: Chinese food and jazz music. I don’t care where you go, you’ll find those everywhere you go.
BALL: And jazz you’ve also called African-American classical music.
PORTER: African-American classical music.
BALL: That’s right. That’s right.
Well, Mr. Porter, thank you very much for joining us. It’s always a pleasure. I greatly appreciate you taking the time. And I could not have considered doing a segment like this without having you on as one of our first guests. So I thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.
PORTER: Well, thank you very much.
PORTER: Thank you very much.
And thank you for watching this. For the entire I Mix Whit I Like crew and Real News staff, I’m Jared Ball. Thanks for watching. As Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. Please go back to The Real News and check out our previous segments with Mr. Porter and the many other great, fine programming that you can get there as well. Thank you for watching.
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