Louis Reyes Rivera. No, this is not a household name, but in many urban centers, particularly in Brooklyn, Philadelphia and the Harlems of the world, it rings with all the conviction and integrity of a highly respected griot.
Rivera, who must have been in his middle sixties, died last
Friday evening in Brooklyn after a brief illness, it has been
reported. The idea that this progressive poet, this “little giant,”
of words had joined the ancestors set off a barrage of phone calls and emails.
Among the first to get the word on the airwaves was WHCR-FM, the radio station at City College of New York, where noted commentator and host Daa’iya Sanusi devoted portions of her programming to celebrating Rivera’s life and legacy.
And that was propitious since it was at City College that Rivera gained notoriety for his radical politics and visionary leadership at the helm of hundreds of students protesting the college’s reluctance to deal with minority rights and curriculum.
Rivera was a budding journalist during those turbulent times and soon established himself as a writer of considerable talent and a feel for the world’s oppressed people, especially in the Black and Latino communities.
Representatives from those diverse and various communities began commiserating with one another almost immediately upon hearing of Rivera’s unexpected departure. Poet Ted Wilson of New Jersey was stunned for a moment to silence, still unable to accept that his longstanding comrade was no longer available to exchange salvos of salvation through their poems.
Renowned artist Danny Simmons alerted his colleagues and friends that a memorial service for Rivera was planned for March 8 in Brooklyn. Bookstore owner Monroe Brown said that Rivera was conducting a lecture series at his True South Bookstore in Brooklyn two weeks ago. “He was on the march, teaching his class about the missing pages of world history,” Brown related.
At the National Writers Union, a steering committee in which Rivera was a key component called an emergency meeting and set in motion a number of ways to remember their tireless member. “He was intricately involved in so many activities that it will probably take a team of us to fulfill just half of what he was doing and what was on his agenda,” said Loretta Campbell.
“Always, there is need for song,” Rivera wrote in one of his most memorable essays, Inside the River of Poetry. “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. But with the contradictions of privilege and caste, of class and gender distinctions regulating access, of those ever present distortions in textbooks with their one-sided measure of human worth, and with the culture of white man still serving as ultimate yardstick 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.”
That risk was never an obstacle for Rivera and the only thing missing from the quotation above is the sound of his voice reciting them, the melodious and edgy cadence that typified his delivery, the unblinking gaze from eyes shielded in part by ageless fedora, the colorful dashiki and the cane that came with the onslaught of ailments—this image gave his words added realness and urgency. “Later,” Rivera would tell his fellow workers at the NWU at the close of a day and at the close of these words, “Later, mi amigo!”