He stood small against the large wood frame of the lectern, clenching the microphone between two fingers, oval eyeglasses overwhelming his heart-shaped face. But his voice pierced the audience with waves of intensity and soft melody.
"Poetry, unless it moves you to do something, is meaningless," Amiri Baraka said.
An award-winning African-American writer, musician, political activist and professor, Baraka, 66, began writing as a child.
He spoke last week at a senior awards program sponsored by River Hill High School Black Student Achievement Program Parent Advisory Council. The council arranged to have Baraka speak.
Lecture, poetry reading
His appearance included an hour lecture and a half-hour poetry reading, followed by a book signing and question-and-answer session.
Baraka - whose name means "blessed prince" in Swahili - has written numerous books, plays, novels and essays. He started writing poetry in the late 1950s under the name LeRoi Jones and was a political activist in the 1960s.
"I'm glad at the turnout," said Kristina Boxley, a guidance counselor and co-sponsor of the student program. "We were lucky to have such a speaker come to River Hill."
The evening with Baraka began as he advised the audience in the school auditorium: "I hope the first thing you understand is that you have a commitment to be more than this country is now."
Reason for writing
When asked why he became a writer, he said: "Because I was always full of things I thought I needed to say ... the urge to tell people the benefit of your experience.
"If you think you're gonna write about the birds and the bees, don't - it's already been done."
Leirdre Galloway, a social studies teacher and also a program co-sponsor, said, "I love the way he gets down to the grid of it. It was so real. Hopefully, students will take some of it home to share."
Baraka urged students to be proud and assertive.
The example of King
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested many times for seeking freedom, Baraka said.
"You don't think black people need self-defense ... ?" he said. "Ask the black people who are killed every other day for the crime of being black.
"To be black in the United States, you have a commitment to struggle for your own development. ... You are black, you are American. You are going to have opinions that people will not like."
Encouraging students to make positive changes within society, Baraka said, "What are you going to do to change something? You must go to school, because your people send you to college so that you can go back and help them. ... We want you to come back with something in your head and something in your heart."
When asked if he considers himself a mentor to students, he said, "Maybe a paradigm of a lot of things you should do and a lot of things you shouldn't."
Rustin Brown, a senior at River Hill and a member of the achievement program, said: "I thought he gave a good message about being American, whether black or white. He said a lot of truth. He makes you think about things most people try to hide."