Amiri Baraka, a seminal poet, playwright, novelist, Jazz critic and essayist in addition to a long history as a radical black political activist, died January 9, 2014 in his hometown of Newark N.J. after six decades as a complex, controversial and protean American literary figure. He was 79 years old.
His funeral will be held at Newark Symphony Hall on Saturday, January 18 at 10:00 am. A viewing at Metropolitan Baptist Church in Newark will be held Friday, January 17 from 4:00pm to 9pm.
“He wrote plays, short stories, poetry, essays, and liner notes. The range of his gifts were formidable. The scope of his works is daunting. And he’ll forever be known as one of the greatest American writers, ever,” said Baraka’s son-in-law, University of Pennsylvania professor Guthrie Ramsey, author of The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop. (Ramsey is the husband of Kellie Jones, a professor of art history and archaeology at Columbia University, and she is one of two daughters born to Baraka and his first wife, Hettie [Cohen] Jones).
Born Everett Leroy Jones in Newark, N.J. in 1934 to middle class parents, Jones attended Rutgers and Howard University, where he changed the spelling of his name to LeRoi, and he later studied comparative literature at Columbia University. After his discharge from the Air Force, he settled in New York’s Greenwich Village, where he joined the literary circles of Beat poet, Alan Ginsburg and Charles Olson of the Black Mountain Poets.
Baraka’s early poetry and criticism appeared in numerous literary and jazz periodicals including Naked Ear, Evergreen Review, The Record Changer and Big Table. He met Jewish poet/writer Hattie Cohen, whom he married in 1958. They co-published a literary journal, Yugen, and he founded a publishing company, Totem Press. Baraka’s first book of poetry, Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, published in 1961, showed the influence of the Beats, and the genre’s critique of pretence, convention and materialism. But his trip to Castro’s Cuba in 1960 (recounted in the essay Cuba Libre in Home: Social Essays, a collection of essays), and his displeasure of the gradualism of the Civil Rights Movement, along with the assimilationist impulse of middle-class blacks, caused Baraka to move away from the Beats and focus more on race and African-American culture.
Blues People: Negro Music in White America, Baraka’s first major non-fiction work, published in 1963; a “theoretical endeavor,” that traced the evolution and aesthetics of black music from, “the neo-African slave chants through the primitive and classical blues to the scat-singing of the beboppers.” The book was inspired by Howard University English professor Sterling Brown’s lectures on the importance of jazz and the blues.
Baraka’s advocacy of jazz imbued his poetry with a fluid, rhythmic style that evoked the rhythmic and improvisational feel of an impassioned jazz solo, married to a fiery and unapologetically demand for social justice and self-determination.
"We want poems that kill,” Baraka wrote in his influential 1965 poem Black Art. "Assassin poems. Poems that shoot guns/Poems that wrestle cops into alleys/ and take their weapons leaving them dead/ with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland."
His shift from the Beat poets and Greenich Village bohemianism to Black Nationalism is evident in his 1964 plays, The Toilet, The Slave, both of which also featured naturalist and absurdist themes. His most prominent stage production, Dutchman, is a one-act play where a white woman seduces an assimilated black man to his doom on a subway train. The play was awarded an Obie award for the Best American Play of the Year in 1964 and was later made into a film.
In 1965 Baraka moved from Greenwich Village to Harlem, where he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater and School, wrote Home: Social Essays, a compendium of writings dealing with a number of subjects including Harlem, black literature and a critique of non-violence. He also co-edited Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing with Larry Neal. The book, a collection of works by such noted African American writers and activists as Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure), Harold Cruse, A.B. Spellman, and Ed Bullins, marked Baraka as the father of The Black Arts Movement.
Inspired by Kawaida, a philosophical synthesis of Islam and traditional African beliefs developed by Maulana Karenga – the creator of Kwanzaa – LeRoi Jones changed his name, first to the Swahili Muslim Ameer Baraka (“blessed prince”), added “Imamu” a title which means “leader,” and finally settled on Amiri Baraka. After divorcing his first wife, Baraka married Sylvia Robinson (who later changed her name to Amina Baraka). He later moved back to his hometown, Newark N.J., and participated in many black political movements, including being arrested and jailed during the 1967 Newark riots, the Pan African Congress of African Peoples in Atlanta (1972) and the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. Baraka later became a radical Marxist issuing a number of works that reflected his new political caste.
In 2001, Baraka’s poem, Who Blew Up America?, written in the aftermath of 9/11, contained language that was deemed anti-Semitic. He refused to apologize or resign over the incident and he was subsequently stripped of his title of Poet Laureate of New Jersey. Nonetheless, Amiri Baraka’s activism and artistry influenced generations of writers including Sonia Sanchez, Haki R. Madhubuti and Nikki Giovanni.
Among Baraka’s many published works are Black Music (1968), The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues (1987), Transbluesency: The Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961-1995)(1995), and Razor: Revolutionary Art for Cultural Revolution (2011). Several of Baraka’s recent works have been published and reprinted by Akashic Books, including new editions of Home: Social Essays (2009) and Black Music (2010) and Tales of the Out and The Gone (2009), a collection of short stories.
His introduction to Home: Social Essays offers an appropriate epitaph:
“I have been a lot of places in my time, and done a lot of things. And there is the sense of the Prodigal about my life that begs to be resolved. But one truth anyone reading these pieces ought to get is the sense of movement – the struggle, in myself, to understand where and who I am, and to move with that understanding.”