Amiri Baraka was a poet, playwright and civil rights activist who became a key figure in the Black Arts Movement, the artistic wing of the Black Power movement, following the assassination of Malcolm X. His FBI file of the time identified him as “the person who will probably emerge as the leader of the Pan-African movement in the United States.”
In retrospect, he did not become “the leader” but he did go on to change the lives of many through his writings and ideas. “We said the art we wanted to create should be identifiably, culturally Black – like Duke Ellington’s or Billie Holiday’s”, he later reflected. “We wanted it to be a mass art, not hidden away on university campuses... And we wanted an art that would help liberate Black people.”
He was born Everett Leroy Jones in Newark, New Jersey in 1934, one of two children of Ana Louis Jones, a social worker, and Coyt Leroy Jones, a postal worker. He attended Rutgers and Howard universities before joining the US Air Force. He received an “undesirable discharge” after three years when Marxist books were discovered among his belongings. He did not, however, become a communist until much later in life.
His time at university and in the armed forces left him disillusioned with a country which accepted white oppression of black Americans, catalysing his political consciousness and prompting him to write. In his writing he sought to bring about change through the power of words, urging action via words.
Baraka’s first contact with the poets of the Beat Generation came in 1957, when he wrote to Allen Ginsberg, who had just published his epic work “Howl”, the poem which had become the subject of an obscenity trial. “Wanting to be as weird to him as I thought he was to me,” Baraka recalled, “I wrote him a letter on toilet paper... asking if he was for real. He sent me back a letter, also written on toilet paper, but the coarser European grade that makes better writing paper. He told me he was sincere but tired of being Allen Ginsberg.” The pair met the following year when Ginsberg had returned to New York. Baraka edited a collection of Ginsberg’s early poems, Empty Mirror (1961), the beginning of a lifelong collaboration.
Baraka’s own poetry first appeared in March 1958 in Yugen, a hand-stapled journal which he printed and edited with his first wife, Hettie Cohen. “I didn’t see publications coming out that carried poetry or writing that I was interested in,” he said, “therefore I thought I should start one to try to gather that poetry that I thought was interesting.” Throughout the 1960s and early ’70s he edited and contributed to this, as well as to the mimeographed magazine Floating Bear and to Kulchur.
The title poem of his first volume of poetry, Preface to a twenty volume suicide note (1961), begins: “Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way / The ground opens up and envelopes me / Each time I go out to walk the dog. / Or the broad edged silly music the wind / Makes when I run for a bus...”
In March 1964 his play Dutchman opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, based on a chance meeting on the subway between a black man and a white woman. It won Village Voice’s Obie award that year.
Following Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965 Baraka left his wife and children in Greenwich Village to join the Black Revolution. Prompted by the priest, Hajj Heshaam Jaaber, he converted to Islam and changed his name to Ameer Barakat – “Blessed Prince” in Arabic – later adapted to Amiri Baraka. In the manifesto Black Art, he wrote: “We want ‘poems that kill’ / Assassin poems, Poems that shoot / Guns.”
Komozi Woodard, author of A Nation within a Nation (1999), explains that “Baraka attempted to follow the path outlined by Malcolm X; the most popular themes were those of self-determination, self-respect and self-defence ... For Baraka, Malcolm X embodied the black ethos and the new man produced by revolutionary black consciousness.” In this new role Baraka helped to organise the National Black Political Convention of 1972, a conference which galvanised African-Americans to run for political office. Throughout the 1980s he held a variety of academic roles and wrote a memoir, The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (1984).
In 2002 he published the controversial poem “Somebody blew up America”, a reaction to the 9/11 attacks, which contained the lines “Who knew why five Israelis were filming the explosion / And cracking their sides at the notion?” The poem sparked accusations of antisemitism, while Baraka insisted that he was condemning Zionism and all other forms of “authoritarian nationalism”. Such was the outrage that Governor Jim McGreevey sought to revoke his role as Poet Laureate of New Jersey. Realising that there was no legal provision for revocation, the state instead simply abolished the position.
He remained steadfast in his questioning of the 2001 attacks, their perpetrators and the motivation behind them. In 2012, in the magazine Beatdom, he said in an interview that “9/11 was, to me, just a door opening to exploit the Middle East.”
Everett LeRoy Jones (LeRoi Jones, Amiri Baraka), poet, playwright and civil rights activist: born Newark, New Jersey 7 October 1934; married 1958 Hettie Cohen (divorced 1965; two children), 1967 Sylvia Robinson (Amina Baraka) (five children); died New York 9 January 2014.