Poet and playwright Amiri Baraka dies in Newark aged 79

The writer formerly known as LeRoi Jones died in hospital in New Jersey

Amiri Baraka, the tireless activist and writer, has died aged 79 in hospital in New Jersey.

Baraka was placed in intensive care at Newark Beth Israel Medical Centre last month, where he died on Thursday, his booking agent confirmed.

According to local media, it was not immediately clear what caused Baraka’s death, but he had long struggled with diabetes.

Formerly known as LeRoi Jones, Baraka was a key member of the Black Arts movement, a lecturer, and a prolific writer who penned poems, short stories, essays, plays, music critiques and jazz operas.

His best-known works include poetry collections The Dead Lecturer; the play Dutchman; and Blues People: Negro Music in White America, a highly regarded historical survey of music accompanied by social commentary.

Baraka’s immersion in spoken word traditions and raw street language anticipated rap, hip-hop and slam poetry.

Born Everett LeRoy Jones, in 1934, he grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood in Newark. Showing early talents for sports and music, he won a scholarship from Rutgers University but transferred to leading black college, Howard University.

Quitting to join the US Air Force, he was soon discharged for having too many books, among other transgressions.

By the late 1950s he had settled in bohemian Greenwich Village. There he adopted the named LeRoi Jones, and met fellow Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and writer Hettie Cohen, who became his wife. They had two children together.

He later married Sylvia Robinson, whose name became Bibi Amina Baraka. The couple had five children.

The Cuban revolution, the assassination in 1965 of Malcolm X and the Newark riots of 1967, when the poet was jailed and photographed looking dazed and bloodied, radicalized him. Still known as Jones, he divorced Cohen, and moved to Harlem where he renamed himself Imamu Ameer Baraka “spiritual leader blessed prince”.

Baraka is credited with organising the 1972 National Black Political Convention and founding community groups in Harlem and Newark, the hometown to which he eventually returned.

He later taught at Yale University and George Washington University and spent 20 years teaching at the State University of New York in Stonybrook. He received numerous grants and prizes, including a Guggenheim fellowship and a poetry award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Baraka was denounced by critics as buffoonish, homophobic, anti-Semitic and demagogic. But was called by others a genius, a prophet and the "Malcolm X of literature".

Poet and playwright Ishmael Reed credited him with encouraging artists of all backgrounds and enabling the rise of multiculturalism.

According to the NJ News, Newark City Council President Mildred Crump, a longtime friend of the Baraka family, said the world "lost one of its pre-eminent literary figures today".

"Not only has New Jersey, but the United States of America, lost a great human being. He was a legend in his own lifetime," Crump said. "It is such a loss, such a great loss."

Additional reporting by Associated Press

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk