It was a letter that sparked the beginnings of a 45-year-long friendship between Michael Simanga and the artist he so admired, Amiri Baraka.
Simanga was a 17-year-old artist very much influenced by the Black Arts movement Baraka pioneered, looking for inspiration and guidance.
Baraka was an established literary and cultural artist and critic living in Newark, N.J.
“I asked him if I could come to Newark and meet him to begin to work with him,” Simanga said. “He sent me a note back saying, ‘Yes, come on. If you can get here then you can be here.’”
So Simanga went.
Now, over a year since Baraka’s death, Simanga is helping to bring Baraka’s works and legacy to life through an exhibition and symposium at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History, where he is currently serving as the artist in residence.
Clarissa Goodlett, program and public communications officer at the Stone Center, said Baraka was selected as the subject of the semesterlong exhibition because of how his work seems to mirror what’s happening in the country today, especially with movements like Black Lives Matter and issues like police brutality.
She said the movements Baraka took part in, like the Black Arts movement in the mid-1960s, seem to have influenced those involved in similar movements currently dominating national news.
“The timing was right considering all that’s going on here in the country,” Goodlett said. “It’s really an opportunity to reflect back on somebody who shaped thought around these movements today.”
Joseph Jordan, director of the Stone Center, called it an opportune moment for the exhibition and symposium.
He said Baraka's recent death presents a different approach to understanding his life and works.
“One of the things I think that we will be able to do is we will be able to examine him kind of in total,” Jordan said. “This is one of those exercises in trying to sum up his life and career and put it into context.”
Jordan said he is excited about the possibility of bringing so many of Baraka’s contemporaries and critics into the same space at the symposium on Thursday.
“This is one of those opportunities where the scholars who are here who are actually writing the books that we read will be willing and open to engage in conversation, debate and discussion around issues that are very, very important on this campus today,” he said.
Simanga said he is most excited about the reaction the audience has to Baraka’s work, which can be very provocative.
“Even people who are oftentimes shaken up by his work have to concede that it still affected them. And I think as an artist, that is probably the most important thing to do,” he said.
Simanga said Jordan’s willingness to bring this exhibition on Baraka to the Stone Center proves his determination in bringing important works to the University, whether they are controversial or not.
“That’s the role of the University, to examine and discuss and debate ideas,” he said. “It has to be a place where it’s safe to bring provocative work and artists who may or may not be palatable to everyone. I think that’s what we’ve done in this particular program.”
Simanga said he hopes people recognize Baraka as an important American artist — not just as an important African-American artist.
But he said he also hopes people look at Baraka not just as an icon but as a human being.
“He was friends to a lot of people. I mean, probably thousands of people felt like they knew him personally,” he said. “He really was shared by the world.”
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