NEW YORK, N.Y. – Maya Angelou is mourning her friend Amiri Baraka, remembering him as a vital poet whose private persona differed greatly from his fiery public image.
“He was very kind. He was very intelligent and very funny,” Angelou said Friday during a telephone interview.
Baraka, whom Angelou had known for more than 40 years, died Thursday in Newark, New Jersey, at age 79. Angelou said she was still “reeling” from his death.
“How do we go on when the poets die?” she said.
Angelou was one of many artists influenced by the work and the political and cultural activism of Baraka, whose legacy ranged from poetry and drama to his leadership in the 1960s and ’70s of the Black Arts Movement. They followed different paths — Angelou read at the first inaugural of President Bill Clinton, an invitation no White House executive would have presented to Baraka.
And Angelou said that she didn’t always agree with Baraka, criticized at times for his writings about Jews, gays and whites.
But she admired him — not only for speaking his mind but also for admitting mistakes and changing. She called it a quality that Baraka, who evolved from bohemianism to black nationalism to Marxism, shared with one of his heroes, Malcolm X.
“He had enough courage to say, ‘You remember what I said before? Well, I thought it was true at the time, but I don’t believe that anymore,'” Angelou said.
One of her favourite memories of Baraka was from a tribute to the late poet Langston Hughes. She and Baraka were photographed clasping hands and dancing in Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in an atrium above where Hughes’ ashes were buried. A caption read that she and Baraka were “highlighting the ancient African rite of ancestral return.”
“I called Amiri Baraka and asked him if he was performing an African rite,” Angelou recalled. “He said, ‘No, I was doing the jitterbug.’ And I said that I was doing the Texas hop.'”