Amiri Baraka, a controversial American poet turned Marxist, died Jan. 9 at Newark’s Beth Israel Medical Center. He had been hospitalized on Dec. 23. His health was failing prior to admission, but at that time, he was expected to make a full recovery.
Due to many of his literary works being controversial, he was periodically accused of being homophobic, racist, communist, and anti-Semitic.
Everett LeRoi Jones was born in Newark, New Jersey, on October 7, 1934. His father, Colt Leroy Jones, was a postal supervisor and his mother, Anna Lois Jones, was a social worker. Jones graduated from Howard University in 1954 with a B.A. in English. He served in the Air Force from 1954 to 1957. He moved into Manhattan, in lower Greenwich where he joined up with other writers, musicians, and artists. He founded Totem Press in 1958 which published works of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, both whom pioneered the Beat generation.
Jones changed his birth name to Amiri Baraka in 1968, when he became Muslim. He initially had chosen Imamu Amiri Baraka, since Imamu means spiritual leader. He no longer used Imamu when he became a Marxist-Leninist in the early 1970s, due to its spiritual implications.
Baraka was considered to be the trail blazer for the Black Arts Movement. His writings influenced a generation during the African-American civil rights movement. His life’s work was born of his efforts to make a more unified political stance for African-Americans.
Baraka was a man whose confrontational writing challenged society to examine the system of politics, oppression, police brutality and racism. His beliefs were woven throughout his drama, fiction, essays, and poetry. In 1964, he gained notoriety with his play Dutchman, which went off-Broadway.
Baraka received adverse public attention for his often referenced and controversial poem which was published 10 months after the September 11 attacks. The work, Somebody Blew Up America, contained four lines that were considered anti-Semitic. Their meaning was construed to be an affront to the Jewish population by suggesting that someone gave advance notice to 4,000 Jewish workers of the 9/11 terror attacks. The public reaction caused such an uproar that his position as New Jersey’s poet laureate was recanted and the position was eliminated entirely. Baraka was vocal in his refusal to resign; he tried to sue the state of New Jersey but was unsuccessful.
In October 2002, Baraka was interviewed by Connie Chung for CNN. She questioned him as to his motive behind writing the four controversial lines that led people to feel he was anti-Semitic. He responded that the Israelis, the President of the U.S., and the whole imperialist world knew that the 9/11 attacks were going to happen. He felt his responsibility was to truth and beauty as a poet laureate, although he felt censored because of his title. He further went on to explain that he was not anti-Semitic, but anti-Israeli, and for the Palestinians.
Chung referenced the poem in question; she took note that he had written about the persecution of the Jews, concluding this would bode well, proving he was not against the Jewish people per se. He commented that the poem was not the enemy, but that people were looking for answers. He asked the question about who could fly over the U.S. without being shot down. A self proclaimed Marxist, he went on record that he wished the U.S. was a communist country.
Baraka’s life was one of change; from changing his own name, to being the voice of the beatnik, to becoming a black nationalist who later turned Marxist. His voice as an orator or a writer was one of powerful rhetoric. His views brought change, and will live on as his legacy for all those who question the status quo of life.
By Marianne Hernandez
New York Times