Noted poet and activist Louis Reyes Rivera dead at 66

March 14, 2012


March 8 – 14, 2012

Few writers combine a relentless passion for poetry and liberation like Louis Reyes Rivera.  The present tense is deliberate here though the esteemed griot and freedom fighter joined the ancestors last Friday, March 2. There remains a sense of his ubiquity, his cadence and resonance of voice that continues to echo in those precincts where his heart dwells, especially among the world’s oppressed and downtrodden.  Rivera, 66, died in Brooklyn Hospital after a brief illness, according to his daughter, Abiba Rivera Deceus.  We don’t know what took him from us, but we do know what sustained this word warrior over the years, and that was art and politics, and, as in the life of Paul Robeson, there was no separation between his political activism and his artistic endeavors.

If there is a tipping point, a moment of epiphany in his productive life, it may have been his year at City College, where he commanded the ramparts in the fight for “open admissions” and Black and Latino studies. When he wasn’t on the ramparts, he was behind a typewriter, composing searing manifestos, poignant essays and insightful poetry in the student-run the Paper, which he helped to found and edit.  “Without his assistance, the exhibit we mounted to commemorate the turmoil at the college in 1969, where he was a major leader, never could have happened,” said professor William Gibbons, who curated the recent exhibit in the college’s library. “He was as indispensable to me as he was to the movement back then.” Immensely quotable, one is hard-pressed to find a signature line or paragraph exemplary of Rivera’s style and commitment, but this excerpt may go a long way in capturing some of his majesty:

“Always there is need for song. And every human has a poem to write, a compulsion to contemplate out loud, an urge to dig out that ore of confusion locked up inside,” he wrote in the essay “Inside the River of Poetry.”

“But with the contradictions of privilege and caste, of class and gender distinction regulating access, of those ever present distortions in textbooks with their one-sided measure of human worth and with the culture of white men still serving as ultimate yard stick to what is acceptable as matter, not everyone is permitted to learn to read, much less to study poetry or hone the art and take the risk of putting one’s self on paper.”

Born in 1945 on May 19, Rivera often expressed how blessed he was to share a birthday with Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz). He spent his youth in Brooklyn and was a graduate of Boys High. Rivera arrived at City College during a turbulent era that was just right for his temperament of struggle. There is a picture in Gibbons’ exhibit with him right in the vortex of upheaval, truly ready for revolution. That same righteous indignation characterizes his days in the classroom as he inculcated his students with a similar resolve during his tenure at such institutions as the State University of New York – Stony Brook, Hunter College, College of New Rochelle, LaGuardia College, Pratt Institute and Boricua College among others, where he taught African-American and Puerto Rican history and culture with an unforgettable fervor.  “His last lecture for a course he taught at my store was on February 13,” said Monroe Brown, the owner of True South Bookstore in Brooklyn. “He was always an inexhaustible reservoir of information, and the students adored him.” Brown’s store is but a stone’s throw from Sistas’ Place, where Rivera also taught and often recited his poetry accompanied by a jazz ensemble. To list his literary credits, the books he edited and inspired would require a compendium.  Even so, we must note his four books:

“Who Pays the cost” (1978), “This One for You” (1983), “In Control of English”

(1988 and 1992) and “Scattered Scripture” (1996), for which he received the 1997 Poetry Award from the Latin American Writers Institute. He had just completed his epic poem, “Jazz in Jail,” and was in the process of preparing it for publication. Bruce George, the co-founder of “Def Poetry Jam,” where Rivera once appeared and rocked the show with his recitation in tribute to Malcolm X, worked with Rivera on several projects. “To me, Louis was not just the recipient of over 20 awards in recognition of his scholarship and impact on contemporary literature… he was my friend, mentor and business partner,” George recalled.” every conversation that Louis had with me was laden with tidbits of wisdom that a loving father hands down to his first-born son. Each business project that Louis and I partnered on – ‘Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam,’ ‘The Bandana Republic A Literary Anthology by Gang Members and their Affiliates,’ ‘Street Smarts: An Anthology of Urban Survival Strategies’ [pending] – I was given sound advice on how to decipher the social condition of people in struggle.” Wherever he ventured, Rivera seemed to accumulate a family, and none was more endearing to him than the one at the National Writer Union (NWU), where since 2004 he served as chair of the New York chapter. In this capacity, he was a tireless advocate, and he left behind a full agenda of activities as part of his impressive legacy.

“Louis Reyes Rivera was one of those people I’ve known since the first day we met,” recounted C.C. Reilly, his colleague at the NWU. “That same day we read together a Spanish-English poem I wrote describing the most casual meeting of two comrades from different places who, never having met, each in their own struggle, still recognized each other as such without a word. Who read which language I don’t remember. It never mattered. We were always on the same page.” Rivera, no matter the appellation – griot, literary giant or janitor of history” – was also on the same page with Patrice Lumumba, Che Guevara, Elombe Brath, Samori Marksman, the Young Lords and John Oliver Killens, the great writer and his father-in-Iaw of whom he often spoke with unfaltering reverence.  But of all the families he embraced, the most important are those of flesh and blood, and he leaves to cherish his memory: his wife, Barbara Killens Rivera; daughters Abiba Deceu and Kutisha Booker; son, Barra Wyn; grandchildren James Booker, Akaila Bo ker, Quamey Venable and Jean-Oliver Deceus.  Funeral arrangements are currently being made.

Originally Published in the New York Amsterdam News