Amiri Baraka and Cultural Nationalism

LeRoi Jones, later to become Amiri Baraka, returned to Newark in 1965. Baraka had spent the previous decade as part of the literary and artistic world of New York City and beyond. One of the best-known and most influential writers of the Black Arts Movement, the cultural and artistic wing of the Black Power Movement, the Black Arts Movement sought to bring Black art to the public through theatrical and literary performances. Jones also took an interest in the emerging network of organizations and leaders theorizing ideas about black liberation through the lens of Black Power. Jones was particularly inspired by the politics and philosophy of the US Organization in Los Angeles, California, headed by Maulana Karenga, which sought to promote African American cultural unity through the politics of cultural nationalism. The creator of Kwanzaa, Karenga, believed that African Americans were a cultural nation in need of a cultural revolution, based on an African paradigm, with the East African trade language Swahilli as a preferred language, and West African customs,drumming, dancing and dress as key features. Karenga would be responsible for changing Jones’ name to Amiri Baraka and shaping his leadership style and values. Upon returning to Newark, Jones played a crucial role in developing the politics of Black cultural nationalism as he helped usher in a new era of Black politics in Newark. 

 

During the 1967 rebellion, Baraka was violently beaten by the police. Appearing bloodied with a large bandage on his head in national media coverage of the uprising, and handcuffed in a wheelchair, he represented the systemic violence and repression at the hands of the police that had sparked the uprising, and its impact on Black people. Already an internationally known writer, his political persona in Newark was heightened by the uprising.

 

Additionally, the uprising helped to galvanize support for the politics of Black cultural nationalism as mainstream institutions pushed the Black community to embrace more militant stances and to form a parallel set of community-based institutions to meet their own needs. Under Baraka’s leadership in Newark, he and his followers formed the Committee for a United NewArk (CFUN) and the African Free School, which was a community liberation school headed by his wife, Amina Baraka. 

 

Only a few days after the end of the rebellion in July 1967, Newark played host to a Black Power Conference, the first in a series of Black conventions in Newark and part of a broader national convention movement. For Baraka, the convention served as a means to build Black political consciousness and a stepping stone for his own concept of “nation-building.” While Newark was still reeling from the violence of the uprising, the attendants of the convention, which included Rev. Jesse Jackson, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Maulana Karenga, Robert F. Williams, Phil Hutchings, and H. Rap Brown, debated whether reform or revolution should mark the path ahead. 

 

Baraka’s cultural nationalism was not embraced by all of Newark’s Black leaders. While he was in New York and California, the city’s leadership had established a firm foundation and militant stand against the city’s entrenched white political establishment, through such confrontations as the Parker-Callaghan and Medical School fights. This made it more difficult as Baraka worked to form a united front of Black leaders and organizations to elect black politicians. However, Baraka was able to call together several of the prominent black leaders because of his national status, and new-found celebrity in having been attacked by the police, calling it the United Brothers. The United Brothers brought together Black leaders from across the city and aimed to use their collective power and resources to change electoral politics in Newark. The United Brothers later transformed into CFUN as the organization shifted under Baraka’s influence from focus on the election of Newark’s first Black mayor to embracing a more encompassing form of cultural nationalism. 




Baraka’s call for a “black united front” was informed by his brand of Black cultural nationalism, which emphasized the need for Black self-determination and political as well as cultural revolution. Believing Black culture marked the black community as a nation within a nation, Baraka saw electoral politics as a critical element of the politics of cultural nationalism. He believed it would enable Black self-determination, including the election of the first Black mayor of Newark, and city council as well. 

 

Seeking to create a slate of “community choice” candidates, the 1969 Black and Puerto Rican Political Convention, chaired by Robert Curvin, brought together an even broader set of leaders.  Nevertheless, through his national fundraising for what he called the NewArk Fund and the strong community presence through his organized group of vocal and disciplined followers, Baraka and his followers remained a prominent and not too  subtle feature of the convention. As expected, Kenneth Gibson emerged from the 1969 convention as the “community choice” candidate for mayor, along with candidates for all nine council seats.  Baraka put the force of his organizations and resources behind his campaign, although Gibson, a moderate, did not embrace the politics of cultural nationalism. Nevertheless, Baraka and CFUN played a key role in Gibson’s campaign. Drawing college students from across the tri-state area, Baraka put them to use knocking on doors and registering voters. Additionally, he used this celebrity to attract other notable African Americans to come to Newark to campaign for Gibson, including Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte, and Stevie Wonder.

 

The relationship between Baraka and Gibson began to deteriorate shortly after his election. While Baraka believed in the platform formulated during the convention, including the calls for a police review board, Gibson instead took a more conservative approach to governing the city-even, saying that he was the police review board. Additionally, Gibson did not give Baraka the jobs his followers needed. Baraka’s Kawaida Towers project further strained their relationship, a low-to-moderate housing project he hoped to build in Newark’s North Ward, a historically Italian-American community. In the fight, marked by racism and white backlash that ensued over the project, Gibson failed to put his full political support behind Baraka-a decision that marked the end of their tenuous alliance. 

 

As Gibson ran for reelection in 1974, Baraka and CFUN held another political convention and generated a complete slate of city council candidates. However, none of these candidates, including the incumbent councilman for the Central Ward, Dennis Westbrooks, won a seat on the council as part of the Community Choice slate. Thus in 1974, while Newark had both a Black mayor and a Black city council president, Earl Harris, whose political careers had been propelled by CFUN, Baraka’s vision of Newark serving as the first of a series of cities where cultural nationalism paved the way for Black political power and radical changes in the day-to-day lives of urban Black communities had failed. 

 

Gibson, like other black politicians, benefitted from the politics of black cultural nationalism, but their embrace of the ideology was uneven. A political moderate, Gibson saw the principles of Black cultural nationalism as a barrier to winning white votes and support, and he was generally more interested in minor reforms than revolutionary change as promoted by the cultural nationalism. Consequently, while proponents of Black cultural nationalism had helped to get him elected, Gibson would play a role in the downfall of CFUN by his refusal to support Amiri Baraka during the battle over Kawaida Towers. This perpetuated Baraka’s retreat from nationalism of any sort, and his reemergence as a cultural icon who celebrated his embrace of Marxism.

 

References:

Amiri Baraka, The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones 

Robert Curvin, Inside Newark: Decline, Rebellion, and the Search for Transformation

Junius Williams, Unfinished Agenda: Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power 

Komozi Woodard, A Nation Within A Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics

 

Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) explains the importance of art for promoting self-consciousness, empowerment, and liberation. –Credit: Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University Libraries

A spoken word performance by children from Amiri Baraka’s Spirit House Movers and Players in Bedford-Stuyvesant, 1968. –Credit: PBS Thirteen

Black Power Manifesto and Resolutions

Black Power Manifesto and Resolutions

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A report submitted by the Continutations Committee of the National Conference on Black Power titled “Black Power Manifesto and Resolutions.” The manifesto and resolutions were based on conversations and workshops at the conference held in Newark from July 20-23, 1967. –Credit: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Amiri Baraka describes cultural nationalism in Newark and the emergence of the Committee For Unified Newark (CFUN) and the Congress of Afrikan People (CAP). –Credit: Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University Libraries

Black NewArk (Jan-Feb 1974)

Black NewArk (Jan-Feb 1974)

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Volume 3, Number 1 of the CFUN newspaper, Black NewArk, published in January-February 1974. This edition of the paper includes coverage of the 1974 Citywide Political Convention. — Credit: NYU Tamiment Library

Congress of African People Booklet

Congress of African People Booklet

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Promotional booklet for the Congress of Afrikan People, Black nationalist group led by Amiri Baraka. –Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Amina Baraka and Estelle David describe how their relationship with Ken Gibson changed once he was elected. –Credit: Junius Williams Collection

Komozi Woodard describes the decline of CFUN following the the unsuccessful struggle to build Kawaida Towers. –Credit: Junius Williams Collection

Explore The Archives

  • Amiri Baraka Discusses the Formation of the Congress of Afrikan People

    Clip from a 2009 interview with Amiri Baraka, conducted by Newark scholar and civil rights veteran Robert Curvin, in which Baraka describes the formation of the Congress of Afrikan People (CAP). — Credit: The Estate of Robert Curvin
  • Amiri Baraka Interview (1972)

    A 1972 interview with Amiri Baraka by Tony Brown on the television program Black Journal. Baraka discusses the National Black Political Convention, which had been held in Gary, IN. –Credit: AfroMarxist
  • Estelle David Discusses the Role of Women in the Committee For Unified Newark (CFUN)

    Clip from a panel discussion during the “The 1967 Newark Rebellion: Power and Politics, Before and After,” a two-day conference held in the Paul Robeson Campus Center at Rutgers University-Newark on October 1, 2016. In this clip, Estelle David describes the roles that women played in the Committee For Unified Newark (CFUN) and the Congress of Afrikan People (CAP).
  • Baraka Explains the Rebellion

    Amiri Baraka explaining his experinces of the 1967 Newark Rebellion and what he sees as its role in easing racial segregation in Newark. –Credit: Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University Libraries
  • Amiri Baraka Discusses Black Power Conference

    Amiri Baraka discusses his experience of the 1967 Black Power Conference. –Credit: Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University Libraries
  • Larry Hamm Describes His First Encounter with Amiri Baraka

    Clip from an interview with community organizer Larry Hamm, conducted by Newark scholar and civil rights veteran Robert Curvin. In this clip, Hamm describes his first encounter with Amiri Baraka in Newark in 1971. — Credit: The Estate of Robert Curvin
  • Kwanzaa Celebration Inside the Hekalu, 3

    A view from inside the Hekalu, the headquarters of the Committee For Unified Newark, at 502 High Street. The CFUN headquarters was a hub for political and cultural expression and nationalism, regularly hosting concerts, performances, and film screenings grounded in the politics of liberation and nationalism. — Credit: Newark Public Library
  • Kwanzaa Celebration Inside the Hekalu, 4

    A view from inside the Hekalu, the headquarters of the Committee For Unified Newark, at 502 High Street. The CFUN headquarters was a hub for political and cultural expression and nationalism, regularly hosting concerts, performances, and film screenings grounded in the politics of liberation and nationalism. — Credit: Newark Public Library
  • Kwanzaa Celebration Inside the Hekalu, 5

    A view from inside the Hekalu, the headquarters of the Committee For Unified Newark, at 502 High Street. The CFUN headquarters was a hub for political and cultural expression and nationalism, regularly hosting concerts, performances, and film screenings grounded in the politics of liberation and nationalism. — Credit: Newark Public Library
  • Gathering at the Hekalu

    A view inside the headquarters of the Committee For Unified Newark (CFUN) at 502 High Street known as the “Hekalu.” — Credit: Amiri Baraka Papers; Rare Book and Manuscript Library; Columbia University
  • Amiri Baraka at Press Conference (1971)

    Amiri Baraka speaks at a press conference on June 16, 1971. –Credit: Dwight J. Johnson/The Star-Ledger
  • Amirir Baraka on Picket Line (1974)

    Amiri Baraka walks a picket line outside of the Miracle 21 store in Newark during a protest on August 29, 1974. –Credit: Vic Yepello/The Star-Ledger
  • Soul Session Flyer (1974)

    Flyer for a Soul Session, hosted by Amiri Baraka and the Committee For Unified Newark at the Hekalu Mwalimu (“Temple of the Teacher”), 13 Belmont Avenue. Baraka’s organization hosted Soul Sessions every Sunday, and incorporated music, poetry, and theatre with political discussion.
  • CAP Flyer for Black and Puerto Rican Poetry Event (1975)

    Flyer for a Black and Puerto Rican Poetry event sponsored by the Congress of Afrikan People (CAP) in New York City on May 24, 1975. The Congress of Afrikan People was founded in 1970 as a Pan-African, nationalist organization that promoted black political empowerment, with its headquarters in Newark, NJ.
  • CAP Flyer for Harry Haywood Event (1976)

    Flyer for an event hosted by the Congress of Afrikan People, featuring Black communist organizer Harry Haywood, on May 23, 1976. The Congress of Afrikan People was founded in 1970 as a Pan-African, nationalist organization that promoted black political empowerment, with its headquarters in Newark, NJ.
  • CAP Flyer for Pan Afrikan Reception in Harlem

    Flyer for a “Pan-Afrikan Reception,” featuring leaders in African liberation struggles and sponsored by the Congress of Afrikan People (CAP) in New York City. The Congress of Afrikan People was founded in 1970 as a Pan-African, nationalist organization that promoted black political empowerment, with its headquarters in Newark, NJ.
  • Flyer for Film Showing at Hekalu (1974)

    Flyer for a 1974 screening of the film “10 Days That Shook the World,” sponsored by the New Jersey Black Assembly at the Hekalu Mwalimu. The Hekalu Mwalimu was a cultural center owned by Amiri Baraka’s Congress of Afrikan People (CAP). — Credit: Newark Public Library
  • Flyer for Malcolm X Film Discussion at Hekalu (1976)

    Flyer for a 1976 screening of a film on Malcolm X titled “Struggle for Freedom,” sponsored by the Congress of Afrikan People. The Congress of Afrikan People was founded in 1970 as a Pan-African, nationalist organization that promoted black political empowerment, with its headquarters in Newark, NJ. — Credit: Newark Public Library
  • Flyer to Support Kawaida Bail Fund (1974)

    Flyer from 1974, urging support for the Kawaida Bail Fund, used to bail out members of the Committee For Unified Newark and Congress of Afrikan People. Amiri Baraka’s cultural nationalist organizations were the target of intense scrutiny and repression from the Newark Police Department, leading to several instances of police intimidation and violence. — Credit: Newark Public Library
  • Mwanamke Mwananchi (The Nationalist Woman) by Mumininas of CFUN

    Pamphlet distributed by the Mumininas of the Committee For Unified NewArk on the roles of women in a nationalist organization. — Credit: Komozi Woodard