Amiri Baraka is an African-American poet, activist and scholar. He was an influential black nationalist and later became a Marxist.
Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones on October 7, 1934, in Newark, New Jersey. After developing an interest in poetry and jazz in high school, Baraka attended Howard University, where he changed his name to LeRoi James.
He earned his degree in English in 1954, and then joined the United States Air Force. After three years of service, Baraka received a dishonorable discharge for owning inappropriate texts.
Baraka then moved to Manhattan, where, in addition to attending Columbia University and The New School, he became a prominent artist in the Greenwich Village scene and befriended Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. He published their and other poets’ work in the newly founded Totem Press.
In 1961, Baraka published his first major collection of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. His 1964 play, The Dutchman, which addressed racial tensions and American blacks’ repressed hostility toward whites, gained him fame and acclaim.
After a trip to Cuba, Baraka disassociated with the apolitical Beat movement in favor of addressing racial politics. The assassination of Malcolm X was a turning point in his life.
Afterward, he disavowed his old life—including his marriage to Hettie Cohen–and changed his name to Amiri Baraka. He became a black nationalist, moved to Harlem and founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. The company dissolved after a few months, however, and Bakara moved back to Newark and founded the Spirit House Players. Baraka fully immersed himself in Newark, becoming a leader of the city's African-American community.
In 1968, Baraka became a Muslim and added the prefix Imamu, meaning “spiritual leader,” to his name. In 1974, however, he dropped the prefix, identifying as a Marxist.
Later Life & Death
Baraka is known for his aggressive, incendiary style. His writing is controversial and has often polarized readers. His poem “Somebody Blew up America,” a response to the attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, was criticized for being anti-Semitic. His position as New Jersey's poet laureate was stripped as a result of public outcry against the poem.
A prolific writer, Baraka has penned more than 50 books, including fiction, music criticism, essays, short stories, poetry and plays. In 1984, he published The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. He's taught at many universities, including the New School for Social Research, San Francisco State University and Yale University.
Before retirement, he served as professor emeritus of Africana Studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook for 20 years.
Baraka died on January 9, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey at the age of 79. He is survived by his wife, Amina Baraka, two daughters from his first marriage and four children from his second.
October 7, 1934
January 9, 2014
- While Baraka’s work is known for its Black nationalist tonality, he actually started his literary career in the Beats poetry movement in Greenwich Village but switched gears in 1965 and declared himself a Black cultural nationalist.
- In 1951, Baraka enlisted into the U.S. Air Force and was promoted to sergeant, but was given a dishonorable discharge for violation of his oath of duty, reportedly for reading communist writings.
- Scholar Molefi Kete Asante included Amiri Baraka on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
- He began teaching at the State University of New York-Stony Brook in 1980, retiring from its African Studies department in 1994. Baraka also taught at Rutgers University, George Washington University, Yale University, San Francisco State University, Columbia and the New School for Social Research.
- In the 1970s, he lead an effort to to build Kawaida Towers, a planned 100-acre housing project that was meant to embody the Black Power movement. The project never came to fruition.