Amiri Baraka, the activist and poet famous for his involvement in the Black Power and Black Arts movements, is dead at 79. Reportedly in failing health for some time, he passed away Thursday at a New Jersey hospital.
Born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, Baraka was a fearless and vocal crusader active in the poetry and civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Though it was short-lived, the Black Arts movement he founded in 1965 involved prominent poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni and Eldridge Cleaver; his movement focused on self-acceptance among blacks. Prior to founding this arts movement, Baraka spent time with Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, living in Greenwich Village and immersing himself in the avant-garde movement. In the late 1950s, he founded Totem Press; it was during this time that he met and married his co-editor, a white woman named Hettie Cohen, with whom he had two children. They divorced in 1965. A year later, he married Sylvia Robinson, with whom he had five children. His daughter with Robinson was murdered in 2003.
Amiri Baraka’s works were confrontational, meant to shock a reaction out of the audience about the oppression of the black person. His militancy, however, didn’t really emerge until the formation of the civil rights movement, a movement of which he was critical and which he deemed pacifistic. He became a black nationalist after leaving Cohen and their two children and moving to Harlem in the 1960s. It was in this period that he wrote his explosive play about tense racial relations.
Amiri Baraka’s famous play, Dutchman, written in 1964, focused on a heated exchange between a white man and a black woman on a New York subway. The play won an Obie Award in 1964. After the assassination of Malcolm X, Baraka penned his famous manifesto, Black Art, which said violence might be necessary to instigate a revolution of black people against the establishment:
“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.”
Unimpressed with the civil rights movement, he saw a deep need for Black America to assert themselves against white people, a crusade that would continue until his death at 79.
Baraka eventually left behind black nationalism and became a Marxist in the 1970s, focusing on the evils of imperialism. Whereas before he focused on oppression by white people, his focus as a Marxist was diverted to a different sort of cause but still focused on oppression.
Although Baraka was supportive of blacks, he was also critical of them, most notably Martin Luther King Jr., whom he called “a brainwashed Negro.” About director Spike Lee, he said he was “a petit bourgeois Negro.” Baraka later appeared to regret his comments about King when he began distancing himself from black nationalism. But his controversial actions wouldn’t end there.
After being named Poet Laureate of New Jersey in 2002, Baraka wrote a poem, “Somebody Blew Up America,” about the tragic day of 9/11. The poem incited outrage. In it, he recounted a variety of offenses committed by white people throughout history, some parts of which were deemed anti-Semitic. Baraka was asked to resign as Poet Laureate but he refused. When he could not be removed from the position, the position of Poet Laureate of New Jersey was abolished by the Governor in 2003, before Baraka could finish out his time as Poet Laureate.
Throughout his life, Baraka was accused of homophobia, sexism, racism and anti-Semitism, but the enduring power of his prolific works cannot be denied. Amiri Baraka, dead at 79, will be remembered for his forceful and mesmerizing poetry about Black America.
By Juana Poareo