Samori Marksman: A Recollection and Appreciation

by William Loren Katz on January 21, 2006

It is so hard to believe that my friend Samori with his rich storehouse of rare knowledge, wry sense of humor, and warm tone, is gone. So enthusiastically alive, so dedicated to getting out the truth, so needed today—how could he have left us as the Amadou Diallo protests escalated into the largest civil rights initiative in decades? Didn’t he want to stay to unleash his wit on a foolishly posturing, knavish mayor and police commissioner? How could Samori, with his depth and staying power, have left us when his New York City had become so exciting, and when his political analysis and direction were so needed?

Samori managed the kind of broad-based, information-laden radio that a Paul Robeson would have run if he had chosen radio. Any time you tuned in on Samori you heard wide ranging, largely unknown and highly useful data. Unlike those who dominate the commercial media, he was knowledgeable about people of color in Africa and the Diaspora, particularly his beloved Caribbean, but also about world history, eastern Europe, Russia, China, India. He drew interconnecting economic and political links with the past that made sense of current events and leaders in each region. His telephone book had to be a who’s who of the best investigators and most fertile minds in every clime, a feast for his listeners.

In the eight years I worked with him Samori exercised a kind of magic over me. He often called me for interviews, to help pitch for on-air WBAI fund-raisers, and to speak at its book parties or public forums in union halls, churches and schools. At times his brilliant mind raced so far ahead of his plans that he skidded on details. His sudden calls offered little advance notice and often disrupted set schedules. But when Samori asked, the next thing I heard was my own “Yes, I’d be honored.” Each time I to turned to my wife and said, “I can’t say no to him.” His warm sincerity, quiet majesty and selfless dedication to humanity melted any resistance.

If he said I should be at WBAI, I was convinced. In the last two years each December he gave me a Saturday program. And despite the chaos or urgency of the moment, Samori’s first questions were about my arthritic knees or latest bout with laryngitis. I found his demands to be many, varied, taxing—and carefully thought out. His sought to help build the cross-cultural coalition that could turn the tide, as it had in the 1960s.

An accurate history, he wisely believed, could provide aid and comfort to those fighting “the good fight” in the United States. Time and again he urged me to tell audiences about the alliances forged by African Americans and Indians throughout the Americas. He had me demonstrate how in the past people had leaped the flaming lines of race to win crucial battles. Africans, Indians and whites, he emphasized, deserved to learn how they had often united to battle slavery and oppression.

Samori also asked me to reach into my research and present white women and men who at great personal risk to life and limb dared to join in crusades for racial justice. He knew that my books on Black History also included this unifying material, and wanted it broadcast to a wide audience. His point was that throughout U.S. history some whites had stuck their necks out, and that in today’s struggles white people needed to hear of these role models, and people of color needed to know they were not alone, not now nor in the past.

Samori’s goals, as broad as the globe, were devised with our future in mind. Unfortunately, his breed—the Paul Robesons, Martin Luther Kings and Nelson Mandelas—arise too seldom, leave and are forgotten too soon. But while here they tell us what time of day it is, help bring us together and urge us to climb mountains.

I loved Robeson, King and Mandela but never got to meet them. I was lucky with Samori Marksman. His wisdom was delivered in gentle, warm, refreshing ways, and his only charge was that we spread the word. He fervently believed that an accurate rendering of the past can provide the vision and building blocks for a democratic, peaceful future. He did not push himself to the foreground, on the contrary, his humility was endearing, and he searched the world for those who could bring messages of hope. To me he was a beloved, unforgettable teacher of great depth. I rested easily each night knowing he was in command. Millions of us who heard his voice and felt his influence should dedicate ourselves to the causes and the grand alliance for which he gave his life.

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