Call Our Names
for Amiri Baraka
-jessica Care moore
It is difficult to explain ourselves, the black voice is eaten, but never deconstructed at the table.
Many years ago, I was sitting on the edge of the brown wood sitting area in his Newark living room. I was comfortably positioned in front of a row of windows, where pillows are books and books are pillows at the Baraka home on South 10th Street in Newark, when famed poet, Amiri Baraka asked me a question that never left my body. “Where is you from jessica?”
If i was thinking fast, and not in awe of this great scholar, who I had the privilege and honor of sharing many stages, dance floors and microphones with around the country for 18 years, I would’ve said something cool like, “I’m the metaphorical daughter of the Black Arts Movement.” Instead, I laughed a bit and answered, I’m Tom and Irene’s daughter. I’m a blue collar poet. I’m from Detroit.”
Amiri knew where I was from, of course, but his question touched me so deeply because my journey of becoming a poet was so non-traditional, so outside the box of literary circles, that I have often struggled quietly with having the enormous amount of respect from fans across the globe, but lack of respect from United States academia. That insular world that only seemed impressed by awards and writers that were recognized by mainstream publishing houses and Eurocentric Journals. I was my daddy’s child. The daughter of a construction worker and owner of a trucking company. Working for other people and working to gain acceptance from others outside of my culture, was just never a part of my DNA.
I became an institution builder with my publishing house, Moore Black Press in 1997 in Brooklyn, and began publishing poets. I was raised on The Shrine/Islam/BSU/NAACP/Black-Owned Newspapers/Museums/Bookstores, and Black Mayors. It’s what I’ve always known to be the “norm” growing up in Motown.
Baraka made my work valid, in the face of academic snobs. The same brown people who currently benefit from the struggle and fight for African Studies Departments and Black Literature in our education system. He did this by simply calling my name in a popular critique of The Anthology, Angels of Ascent, but more importantly, by simply reading my books and reading the works of so many young poets and writers from around the country. He would tell you if it was good or not. He would push you to be better. If I handed him a book, he would ask, “When did this one come out?” He was so kind toward me always, while encouraging me to continue to create a larger body of work, a rich legacy, while I was still a very young publisher and poet.
I was so happy he was able to hear me read the poem I wrote for him on his 70th Birthday. If I remember correctly, it was an event to support Ras Baraka’s run for city council in Newark. We (the poets i called peers in the nineties in New York City) were always equally nervous and excited when Sonia Sanchez or Amiri Baraka were in the room.
While I didn’t come up in a home of cultural revolutionaries, I was raised by working class folks on Detroit’s west side. So, I never understood the term “ art for arts sake.” We don’t have that luxury in Detroit and Baraka never had it in Newark. My mom worked for the phone company her entire life and finished grade 13 in Canada, where she was raised. Her life was committed to raising her children. Four yellow/black kids, which wld bring my total number of siblings to 8, and a possible:) Pappa was. My daddy, Tom Moore, whom my son King Thomas is named after, a self made, self employed construction worker that laid the cement of our driveway. A poet in his own right. He owned “Tom’s Trucking” and I never saw him work a day in his life for anyone else. He moved to the D from Madison, Alabama like many of our people down south, for work and opportunities. For years he would travel back and forth from Detroit to Alabama, bringing more young men up north to find jobs with every trip.
When I moved to NYC in 1995, I’d just lost my dad on January 3rd 1994. Abiodun, Umar, Haki, Babatunde, Amiri and others — became my collective fathers. That is God’s work. You know? Anything could’ve happened to me at 22 in NYC without the protection of my older brothers and daddy. But, there I was, in the spirit-care of elder poets. Men. All of them reminded me of my daddy in different ways. My daddy took no mess from anyone and was a fish full of fire — black fire. I inherited that from him and my native ancestors I never met but always felt.
The last few times I spent with Amiri, were in Atlanta and Detroit. He invited me to dinner with the group that organized his visit, that probably wouldn’t have extended otherwise. He was selling his chap book, “Who Blew Up America” and I saw the thick yellow-red Antholgoy, “Razor” under his feet. He gave it to me later as a gift. This is a metaphor for who he was and will always be to me. An extreme gift.
It is earth shattering when the people who understand the breath and depth of your work, and respect it enough to challenge editors and academics to consider your voice, are suddenly gone.
I think a part of my work as a poet and cultural activist will be forever answering Amiri’s question to me while i was sitting against that ledge in his peaceful living room in Newark. That beautiful moment when he looked up from his glasses and asked me “Where You From? jessica, where is you from….?”
I can only hope that my life work will day offer a clarity to that question future generations can pass down and teach as we continue to pass the torch, question everything and do this work in the name of poems and freedom.
Call Our Names.
Call Our Names.
Long Live Amiri Baraka.
Love & Poems,
jessica Care moore