We lost Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) last week, at least in body. Writer, poet, dramatist, and civil rights activist, Baraka was slight in stature but grand in presence, words, and ability to generate controversy. He inhabited multiple spaces—in the form of books such as Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963) which he wrote when he still called himself LeRoi Jones, never out of print; in politics as he protested unequal treatment of African Americans; in poetry in his association with Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Olson; and in collaboration with modern musicians such as The Roots. And then some.
One of his many works that I have had the opportunity to read is his short story Suppose Sorrow Was a Time Machine (1958), from The Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka (2000). From the first two paragraphs:
Here is Dothan, Alabama, U.S.A. 1898. This is of value. What is to be said about the place Dothan, and the time, 1898. It is of value, but it doesn’t mater what becomes of the telling, once it is told.
Say that you are Tom Russ. It is Dothan, Alabama, U.S.A. 1898. You are a Negro who has felt the ground vibrate, and you are trying to interpret the vibration. You are trying to interpret the vibration, and what it means in 1898 Dothan. I know you Tom. You are my grandfather. I am not born yet but I have felt the ground vibrate too. And I too would like to know exactly what it means, here in Alabama 1898, 34 years before I am born. Fifty years before I realize you knew about the vibration, 50 years before I knew that I possessed the knowledge of your knowing. But now is what we are concerned with.
The impact of the story is in the witnessing, the looking back, the looking forward, the emptiness of loss, and the fullness of knowing. Baraka was a witness. It is through witnessing that we provide history with value.